Driving and writing

That kind of became my obsessiondetailing other people's obsessions.'

Sam McManis

In 2012, Sam McManis’ editors at the Sacramento Bee approached him about writing a column for its California Traveler section, which was then a weekly offering. “They said, ‘We’d like you to just travel up and down the state and tell us what you find,’” he recalls. The column was to be called Discoveries—and McManis was somewhat ambivalent.

He was not interested in writing puff pieces about hotels and beaches (although he concedes that such work has merit). “I wanted it to be more experiential and more fun,” he says, “and have it be about people as much as places. Because people are inextricably linked to places, and vice versa. So I pitched it that way and they bought the idea. Which was mildly surprising to me!”

For the next four and a half years, McManis drove up and down Interstate 5 and Highway 99—he does not know how many miles he put on the company hybrid. He let his own interests drive his story selection. Although he pretty much always had a destination in mind, he says, he found some of his best stuff by serendipity. The project lived up to his column’s name.

“I became very fascinated with outsider artists and roadside attractions,” he says. “There are many in the desert—the desert seems perfectly suited for that type of expression. I wrote about a guy who turned his whole house into an object de art. And a guy in Palm Springs that turned his dad’s backyard into this, this entire … thing.” While he was definitely drawn to the “weird,” he was ultimately after something more. “I want to know what drives people, what are their motivations, and why do certain people cling to certain obsessions? And so that kind of became my obsession—detailing other people’s obsessions.”

McManis’ new book, Crossing California: A state of wonder and weirdness, contains dozens of columns and cover stories, most of which have been updated and expanded. It’s clear, reading it, that McManis achieved his objective. As promised, there is plenty of weirdness; there is also warmth and insight.

In Blythe, McManis encounters Alfredo Acosta Figueroa. This man is fighting to protect ancient geoglyphs—enormous earthworks that he believes to be 10,000 years old, and sacred. McManis reports that Figueroa, who is in his 80s, believes them to be part of the Aztec creation myth, and that they were created with the aid of extraterrestrials. The writer neither endorses nor mocks the subject.

“It’s like the William Faulkner line,” McManis says. “‘The past is not dead; it’s not even past.’ It’s still with this guy. He talks to his ancestors.”

The longtime journalist—he began his career as a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Times a quarter-century ago—laments the fact that the Bee has killed the California Travels section, “and pretty much the whole features department.” His book will make you long for the days, just now disappearing, when American dailies could afford to support more veteran journos with his brand of wisdom and heart.