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Anniversary Train Trip to Sacramento
August 7-10, 2017Dear Friends, Family, and Diary,
Written August 8 +
OK, I am back. This diary features a small amount of touristy-worthy travel; at least I hope so.
For our 25th wedding anniversary, Marianne and I decided to book a special dinner. The dinner would be at Ella's Restaurant and Bar in Sacramento. We chose Ella's because it is part of a "chain" of very nice Sacramento restaurants owned by our neighbor Vern's son Randall. We had been there before, and it would hold up to San Francisco competition.
We also decided to try a three-hour train ride in place of the three-hour drive up to the state capitol. We had not been on trains since the old days in Europe and we were curious. We started by going down to the little Fresno Amtrak station a day early to ask about the ins and outs of local train travel. A very friendly ticket agent explained things. Basically, there are no ins and outs, just show up with print-at-home tickets and settle into a seat. No security lines. Food and water bottles allowed. No reserved seats. No lines, just find an open door and go settle in.
Since our trip was meal-centered, we went across from the Fresno Station to the Shepard's Inn, a town landmark serving "Basque Meals", a San Joaquin Valley specialty. I suppose the tradition is at least a century old, dating from the 19th Century period when sheep grazing was a Valley focus. Nowadays, there are fewer sheep, and fewer Basque restaurants.
The key feature of Basque meals is an excess of food. Every main dish is accompanied by eight or ten side dishes, all of them traditional old world (= heavy). We had fried chicken, bread and butter, excellent bean soup, rice pilaf, chicken stew, green salad, potato salad, and French fries. I am sure we could not eat this way every day, or even every week or month, unless we signed up to tend a flock of our own. But it was a fun splurge.
On Tuesday morning we requested an Uber ride. This is also new for us, but it seems quite painless and ten minutes after pick-up we were back at the train station. Fresno Station, code name "FNO" (better than the airport code of FAT), was originally built in 1899 on the Santa Fe line that connected San Francisco and New Orleans. Nowadays, it connects not much more than Stockton and Bakersfield, with once-a-day service to Sacramento. From Stockton, there are other destinations, including west to the Bay Area, north to Seattle, and East to Chicago. Maybe someday.
Train #701, our Sacramento straight-through, was a clean, modern, double-decker. We settled in at a table in the upper part of the last car. The whole boarding was far easier than an airport process and the seats were better than being crunched into our standard coach class seats!
A few minutes after pulling out of FNO, we passed our neighborhood and managed one quick shot of Katinka and Rubin's house, fuzzy but it is hard to shoot from a moving train! This does show why barbecues in their backyard get disturbed by train, even by little #701.
The rest of the route north passed through the farmlands and small towns of the San Joaquin Valley. Normally, we would be seeing this from Highway 99 and I have to say the train view was better. The vast orchards and vineyards looked even better and the towns almost looked cute.
About three hours after leaving Fresno, we arrived at Sacramento station, a uniquely inconvenient place to get off the train. We got out at a modern stop, set in the middle of an abandoned old train yard. Reportedly, the city fathers have grand plans for this 240 acre, as soon as they clean up 150 years of industrial pollution from building and running trains over the years.
It is a three-block walk from the train stop over to the actual train station. We took advantage of the shuttle service. We don't need TOO much exercise, after all.
Sacramento station itself is a beautiful, 1926 Renaissance Revival building showing off its recent restoration. The waiting room was a reminder of the glory days of train travel. Too bad the overall convenience has suffered.
From the station, we took another Uber over to the Amber House B&B, one of the turn-of-the-century buildings in the Sacramento's Midtown. The main house is gray with amber trim (hence the name) and we were in their second vintage house, a bright yellow across the street. Inside and out, both buildings were charming and the service was special and as detail-oriented as we've seen anywhere.
After check in, we were ready for a "light" lunch, light only because we had already planned a nice evening meal in a few hours. Midtown has dozens of restaurants, bistros, bars, and dives and we managed to pass a few, before hunger overwhelmed us, or at least we thought it did.
For no particular reason, other than good sidewalk appeal, we chose The Waterboy and discovered a real treat. The place definitely had the feel of San Francisco tradition: real sour dough bread and excellent butter, for starters. It apparently has been around for over 20 years and we could see why it has remained popular. We had a pair of fancy salads (light, remember) and resolved to return for real food someday.
We really had no plans for our time between meals, but we do like history and Sutter's Fort Museum was an easy walk from the Midtown restaurant area. This turned out to be a amazing place and a real California landmark. For people familiar with the California gold rush, Sutter's name is linked to the first discovery, at his sawmill partnership up in the Sierra foothills. John Sutter, however, was a fixture in what eventually became Sacramento years before his workers discovered gold.
According to PBS, Sutter was "the absolute ruler of what amounted to a private kingdom along the Sacramento River" before the 1848 gold discovery. He was of German-Swiss stock and had bounced around Europe, before embarking on another wandering path in America. He ended up at the confluence of two large rivers, the Sacramento River that ran to the San Francisco Bay and a large tributary that he named The American River.
There, on a hill that had been settled for eons by local natives, he established his fort and proceeded to create a self-contained empire, with a farm, ranch, and workshops that produced everything from cloth, to wooden furniture, to iron works sophisticated enough to modernize rifles enough for an army - his army. He hired locals, both Spanish and Indians, outfitted them in German-looking uniforms, drilled them as he had been drilled back in the old country (complete with German marching tunes), and generally acted like the only authority in the area.
The Mexican government went along with his idea of empire and even granted him citizenship and a large land-grant because he was so successful at developing a full supply base and a relatively peaceful environment. His empire was destroyed when gold fever hit. Although he could make money from selling his goods to the newly-arrived miners, all his workers were the first to abandon their jobs in hopes of getting rich. Reportedly, John Sutter died a bitter man, lamenting how discovery of "his gold" made others immensely wealthy, but broke him.
Only the large central building at the museum dates from Sutter's time. The yard-thick walls managed to withstand the floods of the mid- to late- 1800s, floods that were high enough to wash away the lower adobe fences and outbuildings.
However, in the late 1800s, as part of California's first state park, the courtyard walls and buildings were reconstructed as they had existed in the prime of Sutter's Fort. Over one hundred years later, it is a pretty amazing collection of period artifacts, from canons to a working blacksmith. Sutter had managed to develop a wide range of household manufacturing, including weaving, stoneware, carpentry, and the only general store in the mid-California area. Reportedly, Sacramento at the time was just a handful of buildings down near the docks on the Sacramento River. San Francisco was even smaller.
I may have over done on pictures, but each of the two-dozen rooms lining the courtyard offered displays worth noting, if one is into that sort of thing, and I am.
When we lived in Germany, and traveled a fair amount, our standard town or city visit included a church, a tower, and a square. I figure Sutter's Fort qualified for a square and a (short) tower or two. Walking back to Midtown, we worked in St Francis of Assisi church. We have found that most churches in America are not open for visits, but this one was, apparently for celebration of the August 10 feast of St Clare of Assisi. The feel was completely reminiscent of visits in Southern Germany and Northern Italy. Nice memories.
Our real goal of this little walk was Der Biergarten, for more memories of the old days. We have searched for authentic German food - and beer - since returning to America three years ago and have not found a place that is truly authentic. This day's stop was close, but not quite. The beer was right. The beer hall tables were authentic. But our one dish (pretzel with obatzer spread) was, unfortunately, only close. Of course the hot weather was also not German-authentic, but it did make the beer taste even better. We will continue our search, but if ever back in Midtown, Der Biergarten might be good enough.
By now, we were tired and needed a rest before going out for more food. An hour nap at Amber House did the trick for me, and I was ready to go. Another Uber call and we were headed to Ella Dining Room and Bar, our "favorite" Sacramento dining establishment. I say favorite, mostly because we have been there one time before and thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere and food.
This dinner was in celebration of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and had been the excuse for the whole Sacramento trip. It lived up to all our expectations, with excellent food, pleasant and efficient service, and a lively crowd. Sacramento must be prosperous, for so many folks to be filling a pricey place like Ella's on a regular Tuesday evening. (Back story of the other reason we chose Ella's: It is part of the Selland chain of Sacramento restaurants, a veritable eating empire owned and actively operated by Randall Selland, the elder son of our neighbor Vern.)
Our ride back to the B&B may have been the least positive of our Uber experiences. There was difficulty in getting the driver to actually find the pick-up location, despite clear app guidance. And the driver was grumpy, a first so far. Still, it is easier than hailing a taxi or walking!
And that ended our first Sacramento day, a good day and great 25-year memories. Thanks, Marianne.
Day two started with a coffee tray brought over to our room at 6am. A wonderful Amber House custom, especially appreciated by those of us who just can't sleep in. A "gift" of aging, I'm afraid.
After in-room coffee, and proper preparation, we headed over to breakfast on the front porch and enjoyed nicely-prepared fruit and eggs and a pleasant conversation with another B&B's guest. I could get used to this way of travel!
Our plan-of-the-day was largely undefined; walk around, visit the capitol, drop by the Crocker Museum for an art fix, and eat a meal or two. That was pretty much what happened and most stops exceeded our expectations.
The "walk around" part started with our own Midtown neighborhood, including the Handle block, a sort of sub-neighborhood, complete with its own website. By all accounts, the area was a disaster a couple of decades ago, but has become THE place to live, dine, and party. Our own view was that it was wonderful that people other than us had taken on these never-quite-completely-fixed Victorians, so we could walk by and marvel. Thanks.
Past Midtown, we entered the Capitol grounds and gardens, a 200+acre oasis first planted in the 1870s, predating even the old Victorians we had walked past. We started at the World Peace Rose Gardens, a wonderful collection of world-class roses that enjoyed the milder-than-Fresno climate. Sacramento is actually cooled by an evening breeze that carries up the Sacramento River from San Francisco Bay. Fresno has only heat and dust carried from farm fields. The Peace Garden also featured 44 monuments with poems from local school children, wise beyond their ages.
Neighboring the Peace Garden was the Viet Nam War Memorial, a reminder of what the children were try to warn us against. The granite walls are engraved with the names of the 5,822 California dead and missing from that war. While there, we struck up a conversation with "Richard", a Viet Nam vet who devotes a few days a week to keeping the monument tidy. Three of his brothers were "on the wall", part of a multi-generational family tradition of serving the US in wars. His message of bravery and patriotism, delivered pleasantly and without bitterness, also bears remembering.
Around the corner from the Viet Nam memorial were other memorials, to a broader panoply of wars, to wounded as well as killed or missing. We had gotten used to visiting such memorials in the small towns of France and Germany, where it seemed every church had plaques with the names of village boys (and it was boys in those times) who had gone off to their own wars to end all wars. Either we listen to the kids of the Peace Garden or we will need more monuments.
The sober nature of the place made the colors of the roses and flowers even brighter. Good for a break as we passed from gardens into the capitol building itself.
Our friend Vern Selland had mentioned that we needed to visit the Capitol building when we were in town and we were glad he did. The building was first occupied in 1869, signifying the shift of California's wealth inland from the coastal locations of the three prior California capitols. Its grandeur was financed by the gold and silver fields in the mountains east and north of the city.
Today, the first floor is more museum than functional government spaces, great for us tourists. Our first museum room was a display of archive books from the state librarians. I have picked out just a few examples:
The balance of the first floor of The West Wing holds various government offices, restored to their condition in the early 20th Century. My favorites:
(As I prepared this diary, I ran across the official tourist guide material and learned that I had missed a number of other important rooms, such as the Senate and Assembly Chambers, where the work of government is hopefully accomplished. Next time.)
Our final tour stop of the day was the Crocker Art Museum. The huge museum complex spreads over four floors of three buildings, from the 1871 building built by Judge E.B. Crocker, a wealthy railroad and banking magnate, to show off his art collection to a modern, 2010, addition courtesy of the Teel Family.
Fortunately, we had visited the Crocker before, so we could just look at a few galleries that caught our attention, the first of which was a temporary "Full Spectrum" show by Raimond Staprans. Staprans was born in Latvia, but in 1944 he and his family escaped from the advancing Red Army to a displaced persons (DP) camp in Germany. There, he completed high school and went on to the Esslingen Art School, before the family immigrated to Oregon in 1947. I tell this back story, because it parallels the path our own in-house artist took as her family escaped the Red Army to a DP camp in Germany a year after Staprans left the Baltics.
Both Marianne and I were taken by Staprans color and shape and composition. The show called his colors "Californian" and I would agree, even though the blue picture below is titled "Trondheim Series 2". I think the blue is more California than Norway. In shape and composition, the details hidden in the simple shapes were most impressive.
Off in another part of the contemporary art area was this stack of dishcloths - made of clay. The artist Emma Luna creates such works, transforming clay into the textures of objects we encounter every day. Interesting.
This being a center of government, there was also an interesting political commentary called "Capitol Hill Billy" by Walter Robinson. One really needs to get up close to read the text, so you will need to visit yourself some day.
At this point, we were exhausted, and ready for another Uber ride back to Midtown. We stopped by the Amber House for light dinner recommendations and were directed to a neighborhood bistro called Kupros Craft House. How was it? Good enough. We split a little prosecco and glasses of pinot gregio. And some food, I'm sure. Two days later, I just can't remember what. (That's why we need to take food pictures.)
As seniors, we were back at the room early enough - and tired enough to really crash. It felt good.
Morning arrived early, complete with the door-side coffee tray. Nice. Now, all we needed was to do figure out what tourism we could handle before our 5:35 pm train back to Fresno.
Then, reality stepped up. Marianne got a call from Fresno saying her mom was headed to the emergency room to deal with a bleeding nose.
New plans: Cancel the train ride; Get a little, gray, Hertz car as soon as they open; Have a quick breakfast; Say goodbye to Sacramento; And drive home by noon. We worked in shopping at "Gabby's Fruit Stand", a real farmer's market that had in-season tomatoes, peaches, nectarines, and figs.
By the time we were back in Fresno, Mamo had been released from the hospital and Ruben had driven her home and picked up a breakfast for her. Thanks, Ruben. She was not fixed, exactly, but patched enough for the next few days. And that's where we are.
I may or may not try another diary before we head up to Oregon for the Big American Eclipse ten days from now. We'll see if anything is worth remembering!
John (mostly) and Marianne
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