SUNDAY DRIVE: Getting Lost in Time Along the California Delta

October 7, 2011
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Suzanne Burns, owner, Jesse's Cottage in Lodi, Calif.

Suzanne Burns, owner, Jesse's Grove Winery in Lodi, Calif.

I’ve always love cities with rivers, and our state capital has two of the best in the American (east-west) and Sacramento (north-south). While I’ve floated down or walked or driven over the American many times, I had not paid the same affections to the Sacramento River until this week.

Upon leaving our state capital, I elected to take Interstate 5 south out of town to explore the Sacramento River and the Sacramento River Delta. Traveling for no more than about 10 minutes, I exited at the Pocket Road/Freeport turnoff (exit 512), turned left and continued for about a half mile until I connected to CA-160 and turned right. About another two miles down the road, I crossed the Sacramento River at Freeport Bridge and drove south on South River Rd.

I couldn’t believe how quickly I had transported myself to a pastoral wonderland. After dealing with the push and pull of city life, I welcomed the remoteness of the lightly populated inner Delta. Many of the historic river towns along the river are little changed from the Gold Rush era when paddlewheel steamboats carried mail and passengers from San Francisco.

The California Delta is a fresh-water system comprising fertile agricultural islands that sit below sea level but are protected by a stout system of levees. (Should the Big One come, however, I doubt the levees (or dikes) would prevent everyone from drowning or floating out to the San Francisco Bay. I tried not to think of such a scenario on such a splendid October day when I had the road practically to myself.) Primary tributaries feeding the Delta are the Sacramento and American Rivers along with the San Joaquin, Mokelumne and Calaveras Rivers.

Before I saw any people or my first town, Clarksburg, I saw wild turkeys, curious goats and several sleepy estates tucked away just off the road, prompting me to exhale a single, solitary question every few seconds, “Who lives there?” Many of the homes look out on great expanses of grapevines, so I had an idea that these denizens were among life’s fortunate few – those lucky enough to live near the amenities of the big city while tending to their vast acreages of grapes.

In the tiny riverside community of Clarksburg, there are several art galleries and Husic’s, a great deli and gift shop located in a former hardware store. The region is also home to many wineries, including the Old Sugar Mill, an old-world brick and rustic wood building that houses seven tasting rooms and more than 70 wines.

Raindrops fall on the American River.

Raindrops fall on the American River.

At Twin Cities Rd, I passed over another draw bridge and turned south toward the towns of Locke and Walnut Grove. Locke is the only Chinese village built by Chinese immigrants for Chinese immigrants. Established in 1915, Locke housed about 1,000 people at its zenith. Today, that number has dwindled to about 80 current residents.

Locke has two streets just off the River Road. One-block long Main Street is a rickety row of time-ravaged commercial businesses. Locke may still be a living, breathing community, but on the day I was there I felt I had the entire town to myself. In a gentle, misty rain, I walked past the Boarding House Visitors Center, the Locke Chinese School and the Dai Loy (“Big Welcome) Museum, a gambling hall that was the social center of town until the 1950s. The only place that seemed to be open was Al’s Place, a bar and restaurant that was once a brothel. Maybe Locke is Chinese for locked up or ghost town.

While the town was still in a deep slumber at 11 a.m., I poked around and imagined the smell of incense, the bawdy music of the piano and the breeze of the Delta washing over me. I peered into the Locke Chinese Medicine shop with its array of acupuncture, herbs and other medicinal aids and envisioned a Confucian wise man taking my arm and taking me to a back room and treating me like a human pin cushion to relieve my pain.

The biggest little town along the river in the north Delta is Walnut Grove. In its heyday, it served as an agricultural hub and riverboat stop. But that was a long time ago. Today, it’s one more Delta town that has unplugged itself from the grid of civilization. Like the lazy river, I was in no rush to do anything or go anywhere. I lingered without worry that some constable was going to cite me for loitering.

Finally from Walnut Grove, I cut east to Lodi and the Lodi wine trail. The Zin town has spared no expense on signage. Nearly every major intersection points to a handful of wineries in every direction. Although I was told that A&W Root Beer sank its roots in Lodi, I was more interested in tracking down a few wineries during my limited stay. I visited four: Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi (Robert Mondavi went to Lodi High School I was told), Cycles Gladiator, Jessie’s Grove and Michael David. Owner Barbara Burns at Jessie’s Grove was a gracious and loquacious hostess, answering questions and pouring wine liberally as she took a group of visitors and me through a handful of flights. There was no tasting charge for this privilege, as she made clear, “I’m the owner.” She dazzled me with a zinfandel called, “Earth, Zin and Fire.”

Michael David on Hwy. 12 was a good place to end my tour. It’s just off the I-5 and boasts a village market. In addition to purchasing a bottle of zinfandel (“The 7 Deadly Zins”), I bought some delicious table grapes and a square of Fiscalini Scotch Ale Cheddar to accompany me on the ride home while I listened to The Teaching Company’s “Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition” on my rented Kia’s CD player.

I probably should have spent more time in the State Capitol visiting my legislator and urging him to get on with the people’s business. But politics simply can’t compete against the laid back charms of the Delta. Its rivers, vineyards, oak trees and abundant nature can do more in one morning to restore your soul than a year of even the best and purest of political intentions.


5950 E. Woodbridge Rd, Acampo

(209) 365-8136

Tasting Daily: 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Tours: Daily 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Michael David Winery

4580 W. Highway 12, Lodi

(209) 368-7384

Tasting: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Jessie’s Grove Winery

1973 W. Turner Road, Lodi

(209) 368-0880

Tasting: Daily noon – 5 p.m.

Cycles Gladiator Winery

3750 E. Woodbridge Rd., Acampo

(209) 263-3131

Tasting: Daily 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

While in Sacramento I stayed the Larksburg Landing Hotel on Howe. My suite included a separate bedroom, two flat screen TVs, a fully functional kitchen and eating area. Studios cost $100 a night, a full suite about $120 to $150 a night. Nearby on Fair Oaks, Bandera restaurant, part of the Hillstone restaurant group, which includes Houston’s, was excellent. Its Thai noodle and steak salad was the best I ever had, and the banana cream pie was equally excellent.

One Response to “SUNDAY DRIVE: Getting Lost in Time Along the California Delta”

  1. What a great story. I call the Delta home. It’s such an overlooked part of California, though some of us like it just that way for reasons you conjure.

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