Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories of Sacramento, Tahoe, Reno, and Napa Valley

© 2005, 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In April of 2005, I took a trip to central California and northwestern Nevada.

[Diary] The Sacramento, California, airport (SMF) is a manageable-sized airport, with only two terminals. My luggage came after a short wait, and I caught the bus to the car rental depot. I settled into a nice new Ford Taurus, and headed down the freeway to a cheap motel I had booked on the Internet. Along the way I picked up some emergency rations and then settled in for a good night's sleep, wanting to take advantage of my 3-hour time gain coming west.

[Diary] I was up early, showered and packed. (Shaving was suspended recently, in preparation for my four weeks hiking in England, so I am now sporting a distinguished looking salt-and-pepper beard and moustache, with the occasional patch of red/brown.) I was on Interstate 80 (I80) going east by 8:30 am. By 9 am, I had located a Denny's 24-hour restaurant, where breakfast is available at all hours (none of this "we can't fry an egg after 10:30 am" nonsense). I settled in to a big trucker's breakfast of pancakes, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, and sundry other things, all for $5.50. Of course, I knew I couldn't eat it all, but they do provide "doggy bags" to go. While eating, I read the national newspaper. The sun was shining, the food was great, the waitress friendly, and I wasn't working. What more could I want?

It took an hour at 65 mph to reach the mountains, and pretty soon I was up at 7,000+ feet surrounded by snow-covered evergreens. I went through Donner Pass and down to Donner Lake for a look around. (The Donner Party of explorers of long ago was stranded there one harsh winter, and the story is that the survivors cannibalized those who didn't make it. Hey, what are friends for?) I started shooting video and stills once I crested the mountain.

At the town of Truckee I turned off toward Lake Tahoe, the well-known summer and winter resort area. The road followed the Truckee River, and I stopped quite often to look at it and shoot video. I passed through Squaw Valley, which has hosted at least one winter Olympics. I parked at the waterfront in Tahoe City and had a look around, stopping to talk to some women and kids playing in the sand. Then I drove northeast along the shore, settling in at King's Beach. I found a nice parking spot in the sun, had a nap, ate more of my breakfast, did some work, and listened to the radio. It was a relaxing four hours, and I even got paid for some of it. I drove back to Truckee on a different road, and rejoined I80 going east.

Pretty soon after, I crossed the California/Nevada state border and headed on into Reno, the second biggest city in Nevada. (While there are many casinos there, I am happy to say I didn't go in any. I also learned that Nevadans refer to Las Vegas as "Lost Wages".) At 6 pm, I pulled up at house of my first hosts. They were Donica and Scott, who taught geography and journalism, respectively, at the university, two of their three children, Alex and Kate, and Hakan, an exchange student from Turkey. The chocolate lab dog was named Mud, and the cat Mo (Moses). We got acquainted over dinner then Alex and I chatted into the night. (He spent a year in Argentina as a student, and the whole family lived in the Basque region of Spain for some months.)

[Diary] I was up at 7 am and joined the family for breakfast. Afterwards, I went shopping to get ingredients for my Chinese dinner. I took a nap on a lounge chair in the back yard. Then it was time to check my email and do a few hours of work. The parents had a university function to attend that evening, so it was just the three students and me for dinner. I really liked working in the large open kitchen. There were plenty of leftovers. Dessert was loquats with ice cream.

[Diary] After an early breakfast, I spent some time with Scott discussing a number of things, including their religion, Christian Science (not to be confused with Scientology). He also gave me some tips for my drive later that day. I was packed and heading south from Reno by 10:30.

First stop was Carson City, the capital of Nevada. It's a pleasant small town, named for Kit Carson. I toured the museum, which was formerly the mint in which Carson City Silver Dollars were made during the heyday of silver mining in the region. I also looked in on a small American Indian museum next door.

Down the street was the State Capitol, a nice building set in some pretty grounds. Security was minimal and I wandered around shooting video. I dropped in to the state Treasurer's office and asked his receptionist if she had any surplus cash. She said that, unfortunately, she didn't, and that like most other states, they had a shortage, but if I'd like, she could give me a tour of the Treasurer's office. I accepted. Then it was on to the Department of State where I enquired if they had any major crises happening that day. They did not, which, I suspect, is par for this part of the world. Finally, I poked my head into the Governor's office reception area to take a picture.

Next to the Capitol is a large park containing a life-size bronze statue of Kit Carson on horseback, some modern sculptures, and a memorial to fallen law-enforcement officers. I took a look at that, and a grounds man stopped his mower, came over to me, and gave me an impromptu history lesson about the memorial.

Then it was on to the state Legislature, a new building constructed 30 years ago. The senate is in one wing, and the assembly in the other. The front desk security officers were most helpful and friendly and told me to wander wherever I wanted. The legislature meets for 60–120 days every two years; however, they only get paid for the first 60 days, so they have some incentive to not mess around. (One local wag told me that it would be better if they only met for two days every 120 years!) They were currently in session, but break for the weekend at noon on Fridays. However, the assembly was running late, so I sat in their session watching them amend some bills. It was very interesting.

I had lunch across the road at a small restaurant, at a table right next to one at which some state senators were eating and discussing the current session.

I headed south on US50 and then west to Lake Tahoe. It was indeed a beautiful drive, and I stopped and shot video along the way. I crossed back into California and went up the west side of the lake in search of the Stream Profile host Scott had advised me to visit. Unfortunately, it had not yet opened after the winter, so I drove on to see Emerald Bay, a very picturesque spot. Then it was back to US50 heading west again. I stopped along the way looking at the mountains, rock formations, and streams, especially the American River along which the highway ran.

I drove down out of the mountains around 5 pm and took the first exit into Folsom. Soon after, I pulled up at the home of my colleague Joel's house, which he shares with his wife, Catherine, and their two babies (black cats, that is), Malcolm and Izzy.

[Diary] After a restful night we drove back up US50 in light drizzle for lunch at "Z Pot Pie, America's answer to Aussie meat pies", they claimed. Mine tasted mighty fine and was accompanied by coffee. Then we had a short hike in the mountains nearby, and visited a local orchard, where we bought fruit and vegetables picked fresh from that and nearby farms. On the way home, we bought supplies for our Chinese dinner the next day. We bought some new season's sweet corn for dinner, and it was very good considering the season has hardly started. Then we settled into watching Sideways, a new movie about two guys traveling the California wine areas for a week. We all enjoyed it.

[Diary] After a light breakfast, we stopped at a deli to get some rolls, and then set off on a 5–6-mile hike. Well, things got out of control and we finished up covering 12 miles, up and back along the American River (which goes west to join the Sacramento River in Sacramento). We walked, talked, and had our lunch over a 5–6-hour period. I also shot video.

We were all happy to be back home with our boots off, but it was enjoyable, and almost certainly good for me. (As the German philosopher Nietzsche once said: "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.") I then started preparing the Chinese food, advising my apprentice, Joel, on the proper technique for chopping and food presentation. He paid close attention and showed considerable promise. They had a nice big skillet and wok, so cooking was a breeze, and it was definitely one of my best efforts to date. There were two dishes: Kung Pao chicken with vegetable in a spicy sauce, and pork fried rice with other vegetables. The food was well received. We ate dessert while watching the movie "The Astronaut's Wife" starring Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron. Most enjoyable.

[Diary] I was up by 8, said goodbye to Catherine as she left for work, and was packed by 10 am. I left Joel working at home, and drove across town to the (in)famous Folsom State Prison, where Johnny Cash recorded an album many years ago. The original prison is now called "Old Folsom" while the new one next door is "New Folsom". Each has about 3,500 prisoners (all men), mostly for serious crimes and long sentences. The approach road was through rolling hills and forests, with wild turkeys crossing, like the entrance to an exclusive country club. Exclusive yes; however, I doubt the prisoners think of it in that way. I toured the prison museum, watched a video, and took pictures of and near one of the main gates in the very thick stone wall. At 11 am, my next host met me there. Helen was retired, but taught meditation classes at the prison each week, and was there on business that morning.

We drove back to her house near downtown Sacramento, the state capital of California. We had some of my left-over Chinese food for lunch in the back garden. I went off to do some grocery shopping for a dinner I was to make the next day, and then I rested in the shade and read the paper. Helen's husband, Terry, an arborist, came home about 6 pm, and he and I headed for the American River where we launched two kayaks. It was my first time in a kayak, but I soon got the hang of it. Soon after starting, we saw a beaver surface and splash its large tail. Then I saw two river otters just ahead. We also saw three different kinds of heron. There were some very minor rapids, just enough to give me a slight sensation. It was an evening of firsts, and was most enjoyable.

[Diary] I slept in a bit and had a casual and light breakfast before heading off on a walking tour. The streets were simply covered by large deciduous trees, and there were gardens and trees everywhere. First it was McKinley Park with its playing fields and rose garden. Then it was on to the Capitol Park Vietnam War memorial and the Firemen's memorial. The gardens around the Capitol are great, and even include orange trees.

I entered the Capitol building from the eastern side, passing all my camera gear through the metal detector. I stopped to look at a state police exhibit and got talking to a trooper (from CHiPs, the California Highway patrol). He told me how to get something special down the hall. About 20 yards in from that entrance was a large doorway guarded by another trooper and flanked by the US and Californian flags. This was the entrance to the governor's office suite. As directed, I went into the receptionist and asked for the Governor's business card. She smiled and gave me one. It said "Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor, State of California", along with his office address and phone number.

Arnold declined the salary for being Governor, and he himself pays for the top two floors of the hotel nearby: top one for him and the one below for his security people. He flies home to his wife and four kids in the LA area on weekends. This job is probably a lot more work (and certainly more frustrating) that being a movie star.

I went on a 45-minute guided tour, which included the senate and assembly chambers, which were empty at the time.

Then it was on to the Governors' Mansion, now run as a state park. Ronald Regan was the final governor to live there (in 1967), before it was vacated for good. It had been declared a fire trap in 1941, but they kept on using it. The guide on the tour told us that the reasons Ron and Nancy Reagan only stayed there three months were many. They included: the road alongside was a major interstate route with heavy traffic and noise, a gas station was across the street and every time a car drove in each tire rang the bell when it ran over the rubber hose, there was no safe place for their young son Ron to play, and, above all, the formal dining room seated only 10! Then to top it all off, on the third night they were in residence, the fire alarms went off. The governor's bedroom had an emergency exit out the window down a metal stairway, while the fire exit from the first lady's bedroom consisted of a rope down a trapdoor in the floor! Anyway, California is one of only six states that does not provide a residence for its governor. The house is restored to the time of its last fulltime family, Governor "Pat" Brown, his wife and their daughter, Kathleen, who later held a state office. Son Jerry, who became governor after Ronald Reagan, never lived there as he was already in college when his father took office. Another well-know governor was Earl Warren, California's only 3-term governor, who became associate and then Chief justice of the US Supreme Court.

Back home, after a rest from walking, I made my secret "Hungarian Goulash, ala Rex" and had it simmering on the stove for three hours. We ate it at 9:30 pm, and hit the hay soon after, which ended two nice days in Sacramento.

[Diary] The alarm went off at 5 am; don't you just hate it when that happens! It was a pleasant morning and I was on the road by 5:30, headed for the airport. There wasn't much traffic, and I had the car gassed-up and returned by 6 am. In the lounge, I got talking to a young Japanese man who was flying to Tokyo to get married having been away from his sweetheart all of a week. I quickly used up my basic Japanese. Then it was on to my national newspaper and then boarding.

A minimal breakfast was served, and I had a short nap before starting in on some work. The ride was uneventful, but smooth, and we touched down a bit late, having been routed around the countryside by air traffic control as we neared the airport.

As always, it was good to be back home again. But not for long, as in less than two weeks, I'll be hiking the English countryside for four weeks. (See my essay from July 2011: A Walk along the River.) No rest for the wicked. I don't work that hard for money!

Four years later, I was back in Sacramento, to visit friends and to have a short driving trip to the world-famous wine region, Napa Valley.

[Diary] After getting back from a vacation in Puerto Rico, my sleeping patterns had changed to short nights and long afternoon naps. So, after only five hours of sleep, I was wide awake. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!)

Outside, it had been raining lightly but steadily for 24 hours. Fortunately, the ice that had been forecast did not eventuate, although other parts of the DC metro area did get enough to cause accidents and other traffic problems.

During the morning, I worked for a few good hours (you know, quality over quantity!), stopping around 9:30 am for a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, fried tomatoes, and coffee. Then it was on to some household chores, packing my case, lunch and a 1-hour TV show.

At 3:30 pm, my taxi arrived to take me to Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD). The driver was from Uganda and was well educated, and, on the way, we had a good chat about African history and politics.

At IAD, check in went smoothly, but security was veeeeery slow. (Don't you just hate that!) I took the bus to the mid-field Terminal C. At United's Red-Carpet Club, I had two cups of French Vanilla coffee, some cheese and crackers, and carrot and celery sticks with ranch dressing while reading the Financial Times from London, and the Wall Street Journal. Between them, the news was pretty much all bad.

At 5:15 pm, I made my way to Gate C17, to find that the in-bound flight had only just arrived. As a result, boarding was delayed, but only for 10 minutes, while the cleaners did their thing. Meanwhile, I chatted with the gate agent, a woman from Peru.

I was first in line on the red carpet, so was first on board the Airbus A320 where my window exit-seat 11A had plenty of leg room. I had cashed in 25,000 of my airline miles in exchange for a free ticket, which cost only $5 for taxes. So, the price was right. (Don't you just love that!)

It was still raining, and runway traffic was delayed. Finally, flight UA291 took off to the west, in the dark, some 20 minutes late. Once we were airborne I put my seat back and slept for two and a half hours. (Don't you just love that when that happens!) When I awoke, I set my clock back three hours, to Pacific Standard Time (PST), GMT-8.

I summoned the flight attendant for a drink, which I had with the Scottish short bread cookies I had rescued from the Red-Carpet Club. Although the flight was nearly six hours, time passed quickly, and we landed at Sacramento (SMF) in light fog, right on time. My luggage arrived and I waited outside in the cold for 15 minutes until the rental car shuttle bus came.

[Diary] At 9:30 am, I loaded up my van, and headed for the highway with Duffy playing on the CD player. I headed west on state highway 50 towards Davis, the home of the University of California Davis campus. From there, it was north on 113 then west on E6 to Winters. The stands of huge eucalypts made me feel a little "at home". The land was flat with quite a bit of agriculture. The sun streamed down. I passed through some huge walnut groves and orchards of persimmons. Winters was founded in 1875, and I drove around the back streets to have a look at small town America.

From Winters, I went west on 128 and soon climbed into the green rolling foothills and then into some steep hills at the top of which was a reservoir and hydroelectric dam. It sure was windy up there with small waves being whipped up on the lake. By that time, I'd played Duffy's album twice, so I switched to a local smooth jazz radio station. I turned south into 121 and soon saw my first vineyards, both on steep hillsides and down in a valley to the east.

It was noon when I reached downtown Napa, and, eventually, I located the visitors' center where I got some maps and brochures. From there I headed north up the famous Napa Valley on Highway 29. However, as it was a freeway, I took the first exit and headed up along the foothills to the west through vineyard after vineyard, and, eventually, through ever narrower canyons. I passed through some small stands of magnificent redwoods. By the time I came back to 29, that was a 2-lane road.

At 1 pm, I reached St. Helena, where I stopped off at V. Sattui's winery, which had a big selection of wine, cheese and breads in its store, along with a picnic area under the trees. By then, it was quite warm, at least in the high 60s. I stopped at a convenience store to buy a copy of the national newspaper, USA Today. I also spied frozen rice puddings on a stick, so I bought one. Can you say "delicious"? By then, I was starting to fade, so I found a quiet side road where I parked in the sun, pulled out my pillow, laid back my seat, and had an hour's nap.

I woke reasonably recharged, and I headed north to Calistoga, which looked like an interesting town. On my third attempt, I located some accommodation at a price I was willing to pay. It was the Village Inn and Spa, an aging property on the eastern edge of town away from the main highway. The friendly clerk upgraded me to a king-bed room for the price of a queen. The room was so huge the TV looked pretty small way across the room from my bed! It came complete with refrigerator and microwave. The bathroom had a very large sunken tiled spa tub.

At 4:30 pm, I drove back into town and parked on the main street. Right then I needed a fix, and, fortunately, right there across the street was a bookstore. (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I unashamedly admit to being a bookaholic, who is making no effort whatsoever to recover!) Their 50%-off sale rack out front produced two purchases. I browsed awhile before walking up and down the main street look at candidates for supper. The bookstore clerk assured me that when the locals wanted a good cheap meal they went to Nicola's, and that's where I finished up. Having grazed all day with no specific lunch, I ordered supper at 5:15 pm. I chose one of the specials, meatloaf with mashed potato, carrots, and gravy. And after having been assured that it "was just like Grandma used to make", I paid and took a table at the window overlooking the main street. I read more of my paper until the food arrived. It certainly was good and filling.

Back at the hotel, I went to a conference room that had an internet connection, and received and sent some email. Apparently, the world was still functioning despite my having been disconnected for 10 whole hours. At 8 pm, I switched to the Fox network to catch the 2nd 2-hour half of the season opener for "24". It was most enjoyable. Lights out at 10:15 pm.

[Diary] The hotel was on a quiet street, and I woke at 8 am, feeling quite decent. I lay in bed for 45 minutes reading one of my new books while the sun streamed in my windows. All was right in my part of the world. Then, after a long shower, I dressed and packed, and worked on this diary. There was no hurry, so I decided to make use of the nice facilities at hand. I got my morning email fix and checked out around 10:15 am.

At 10:30 am, I was sitting at a window table at Nicola's waiting for my breakfast, a 3-egg omelet containing bacon, sausage, peppers, and mushrooms, with a good dose of cheese melted over the top. It was accompanied by four slices of toast and a boiling cup of Earl Grey tea; it was just the thing for a growing boy on vacation. Of course, it was way too much food for my first meal of the day, so I got a container "to go" and drank tea while doing some puzzles from the previous day's paper.

I eased back on Highway 29 at 11:30 am, and stopped to pick up the daily paper. Then it was four miles up into the hills on a side road to see the petrified forest. They claim to have the oldest known petrified trees in the world. Some three million years ago, there was a big volcanic eruption in the area, and the blast felled the redwood forest for miles around, including that area. Some of the trees knocked down at that time were more than 2,000 years old. Due to the deep cover of ash and the subsequent weathering and water action, quite a few redwoods were petrified. They also had some very interesting live trees there, including one estimated to be about 650 years young!

A little further north I dropped in at the famous Old Faithful geyser (not to be confused with the one by the same name in Yellowstone National Park). Although I saw it erupt three times in 30 minutes, it really wasn't at all impressive; it probably shot no more than 20 feet in the air, with a fairly thin stream, and lasted for several minutes each time. After Yellowstone and the monster geyser I'd seen in Iceland, I guess my expectations were somewhat unreasonable. I visited the adjacent petting zoo and fed the goats, sheep, and llamas.

I followed Highway 29 into the hills and along lots of winding road. Pretty much as soon as I got started my low-gas warning light came on and it seemed to take forever to find a gas station. I had visions of walking or waiting a good while if I ran out completely. After driving through Robert Louis Stevenson State Park (he honeymooned there in a cabin and wrote a book about the area), I coasted into Middletown at 1:45 pm with a few thimble-fulls of gas left.

Soon I was out of the hills, and from then on it was flat as I hit agricultural country. I was surprised to see many hundreds of acres of rice fields, all harvested and brown. Then came lots of fruit trees. At Williams, I met Interstate Highway 5 running south from Canada to the Mexican border, and followed that. And although the speed limit was 70 mph, I stayed at a leisurely 60. I passed miles and miles of fruit trees, more rice fields, and occasional vineyards and some flocks of sheep.

About 10 miles short of the Sacramento airport I came upon an exit in Woodland for a cheap hotel next to the freeway. They honored one of my discount cards, and gave me a very nice room with Queen bed, small lounge and work area, a refrigerator, and a microwave in the main office. It was a nice little "home away from home". At 4:15 pm, I was all settled in, sorting through my gear and working on this diary.

Around 5:30 pm, I took my left-over breakfast to the lobby where I heated it in the microwave oven. I also grabbed a cup of hot apple cider from the complementary refreshment counter. The breakfast was just as good the second time. I finished that day's newspaper while I ate.

[Diary] My wake-up call came right on time, at 5 am. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!) After a cold wash to wake myself up, I dressed and packed my last few things. I checked out and grabbed another cup of hot apple cider. Continental breakfast ingredients had been laid out, but I wasn't yet ready to eat. Right next to my on-ramp for the freeway there was a gas station, so I stopped to fill up. It was pretty cold out. Right next door was a Denny's restaurant, my favorite, but I showed great restraint and passed it by. From there it took 15 minutes to get to the airport, and as I got closer the fog got thicker, so much so that I missed one of the rental car return signs and had to go "around the block again". The shuttle bus took me to Terminal B where I checked in and went through security.


Sacramento and its surrounds are certainly worth a visit.