I think we all have that certain stretch of road that calls to us in the quiet time of night, when the rest of the world is fast asleep and our minds drift back to find the peaceful memory that gives us comfort. For me, it’s a winding little levee road that courses through the Delta region of NorCal, where over 1,000 miles of waterways contained within the banks of the Sacramento River can lead a rider off into a place that time forgot.
There was a time when I knew every pothole, turn and twist of the section of road between Sacramento and the once-bustling city called Rio Vista, where paddleboats would come to port from San Francisco before chugging upriver to deliver cargo and politicians to the state capital. There was lots of skullduggery along the banks in the 1800s as gambling halls and wild women waited to relieve a man of his wit and wages. A wrong turn in the tule fog could land a wayfarer a victim as pirates lurked in the tide to lighten his load. These days it’s still easy to get lost in the sloughs if you’re on the water, and the roads that wind through the rich farmlands can be daunting, so the hint of danger adds another dimension to the adventure if you’re a wanderer.
For nature lovers, the Delta is a wonderland of wildlife. Photography’s a favored pastime any time of year, particularly in the fall after the crops are harvested. Corn stalks are cut down and migratory waterfowl move in to harvest the bounty that combines and farm equipment leave behind. Cornfields transform into shallow lakes as the rain sets in and geese, ducks and trumpeter swans take to the temporary waterways with zest. Birdwatchers delight in capturing flocks of snowy egrets as they fish, huge owls on the wing at dusk or majestic raptors that hunt the open fields. Sunsets are mesmerizing along the Delta and there’s never a lack of subject matter for those who preserve the magic on film.
There are little shantytowns consisting of nothing more than a bait shop as well as some historic old burgs that welcome a biker to belly up and tell a tale or two. River people are happy to share their stories as well as hear those from abroad when I make it back to the area I last called home. They’re good with tourists and love bikers, but when it comes to welcoming outsiders, they tend to be a bit wary so it takes a while to make friends among the backwater people. Once you do, you’re family, so I always enjoy the trips back to laugh, relax and catch up with the local gossip.
Al the Wop’s is one of the more interesting watering holes of the region. Originally owned by an Italian during the 1930s in a town built by and for Chinese immigrants, the worn old building is the heart of a block-long town. Visitors ignore the slant of the bar of the building that leans against its neighbor for support while it slowly sinks into the mire. There are tourists’ dollar bills stuck to the ceiling and every February restaurant employees gather the bucks and open the restaurant to locals for an annual free lunch of calves’ liver and beef heart. The line of hungry diners winds down the middle of the street as folks stand drinking and chatting while awaiting their turn for the gastronomic oddities.
Just down river is another watering hole, Tony’s, where the Kennedy family holds court. In true American fusion fashion, the Irish clan still dishes up traditional Portuguese recipes that were served by the original owners decades ago, even though the cook today is Mexican. Mike and his wife own the place but son Cary tends bar and lives upstairs with his military wife, who was deployed last time I came through.
At this bar, locals know the gritty story behind the couch that welcomes unwitting guests to lounge in front of the fireplace. Owners have owned the unassuming piece of furniture since their days as newlyweds, dragging it around as they moved from apartments and houses before landing as a fixture at the bar in Walnut Grove. The old couch has seen it all. The Kennedys are certain Cary was conceived there, along with several friends’ children. Many a drunken customer has lost their lunch, or worse, on the upholstery, and during times of emergency it’s served as comfort for customers who’ve played too hard on the river. Consequently, those of us in the know avoid the frat house Petri dish, though I did ask if they ever cleaned the thing. Laughingly, Mike says they did once but are now afraid it might disintegrate, so they don’t do that anymore.
You’re closer to Mother Nature’s whims as the river ebbs and flows. Delta life has its own nuisances and everyone knows that during the summer you avoid anything along the river with water, ordering your drinks neat because as temperatures get high, wells get low and the water turns into an unpleasant brew that residents call “frog water.”
River people refuse to be rushed and life is lived on “Delta Time,” a pace that isn’t controlled by a clock or a schedule. If you’re a stickler for punctuality, you’d best keep moving because life slows down in the backwaters. It’s one of the things I miss most about being a river rat. The frog water, not so much.