On the road to Sacramento
What started as a quick trip to Illinois soon caught an SN&R writer up in a cross-country adventure in search of other Sacramentos. Hint: We’re not alone.
It is apparent, looking at this waist-high bank of snow in my path, that I have come poorly prepared. After the mountain tour I took to get here—climbing elevation, breathing deep the scent of pines, passing few other motorists—I turned off the two-lane highway, just as my printed directions instructed.
Over a creek and two miles down the road, into a thick of trees, the pavement ended. I rumbled farther, rocks clinging and clanking off the sides of my rented Ford Focus, for another 3.3 miles. Turn left, the directions said. Drive another .8 miles and end at your destination.
I’m embarrassingly white-knuckled at this point, gripping the steering wheel and trying to maneuver around the muddy places on the dirt path. Snow fell earlier in the week. The sides of the road are still white with the cold stuff. I suspect this economy-size sedan doesn’t have the auto industry’s greatest ground-grabbing capabilities—and my one previous attempt to drive in snow went terribly sideways—so I stare at the odometer and ache for those .8 miles to tick digitally by. When I’ve driven .7 miles, there is the white wall.
Clearly a snowplow has been through here. But, also clearly, this is where the plowing stopped. A tenth of a mile from my destination.
Past the bank of snow, pines crowd in.
So, this is it, I guess. Sacramento, Colorado.
This whole thing started as a three-day visit to my sister in small-town Illinois.
I’ve lived in blue-city bubbles on both the East Coast and West Coast, and now live in the Sacramento area, but I have never really seen this country’s big red middle. So, I thought I might extend the trip a bit and drive from Sacramento to Illinois and back.
Enter MapQuest. I typed into the Web site both cities’ names, looking to find the distance between the two. But I neglected to type “CA” following “Sacramento.”
The Web site told me, “MapQuest found multiple cities for ‘Sacramento.’ Please select one.”
Then popped up the list. Places called Sacramento in seven different states. California. Kentucky. New Mexico. Colorado. Illinois. Nebraska. Pennsylvania.
I knew right then that I must visit them all.
I mean, some city names are generic. Springfield comes to mind. Seems there could be one in each of the 50 states. But Sacramento? Even though I’ve never been to Pennsylvania, I have a hard time imagining an Amish family there 200 years ago settling a town and choosing for it the Spanish word for “sacrament.”
I wondered what the other Sactos were like. Did their residents know anything about my Sacramento? Did they affectionately refer to their towns as Sackatomatoes? Did they eat Merlino’s freezes? Track the Kings’ losing basketball season? I wondered if learning about the other Sacramentos would tell me anything about my own. Or about myself.
MapQuest asked me again: “Please select one.”
Now, keep in mind that this next thing was the sum total of my preparation for this cross-country whirlwind road trip: I printed each of the maps.
Then I got on a plane, in search of something.
I’m not even out of the Baltimore airport yet, and already I’m late, lost and yelling out the window of my rented Chevrolet Classic at a couple of deer I spot in a wooded area.
I’ve flown into Baltimore, Maryland, on a red-eye. Time is tight. I have just a week, minus the time I plan to spend with my sister, to try to connect the dots between Sacramentos. But I can’t sleep on planes. So, at about 9:30 a.m. eastern time, as I begin to drive, I’ve already been awake for nearly 24 hours.
And somehow, I’ve ended up on a short dead-end road inside the airport complex. The two deer, about 30 yards away, stare at me as I make clk clk clk noises with my tongue against my teeth, like I do when I’m trying to get my cats to come toward me.
It never works with the cats either.
Already I feel like a tourist.
About an hour north-northeast of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital city, I’m driving alongside a creek. The gloomy sky already grows darker, and it’s much later than I had hoped, when finally, barreling down a straightaway, I see a sign jutting up from an empty field: “Village of Sacramento.”
Sacramento, Pennsylvania, is a blip of about a half-mile along Highway 25. It begins roughly at the town’s only restaurant, Traci’s (open only for breakfast and lunch), and ends where the potato-processing facility and the graveyard are on opposite sides of the road. In between, there are a small grocery store, a post office, a Chevrolet dealership, a fire station and not much else.
I head to the post office, where I fumble through an explanation of what I’m doing here. When it comes out of my mouth, it feels like a gimmick—like I’m on this road trip because it will be a good one-line story to tell at cocktail parties. Inside, Postmaster Jody Rebuck hands James Stehr his mail, which quite obviously includes two issues of Playboy magazine. Rebuck is a petite woman with feathered brown hair whose eyes sometimes close when she starts a sentence. I ask the two, pointing to the stack of mail, if this is the kind of place where people know each other’s business.
Stehr estimates that 1,000 people live in the township. There are only about 165 addresses for Sacramento, Rebuck says. So, yes, she says, everybody kind of knows everybody.
It catches my ear, the way Stehr says Sacramento. Stehr, who comes by every day to pick up his mail, is a big man with relaxed posture and a friendly face. He’s wearing large-lensed glasses and a T-shirt tucked into a pair of jeans.
He says it Sock-ruh-men-dough, with emphases on the “sock” and the “men.” SOCK-ruh-MEN-dough. He was born here 51 years ago, he tells me, and points to a house across Highway 25. His family used to run a grocery out of that building, he says. Used to be four groceries in town. Now there’s just one.
Rebuck retreats to a cabinet at the back of the one-room post office and returns with a three-page typewritten document titled “History of Sacramento, Pennsylvania.” It contains very little history of Sacramento, except this one line: “George F. Weist who, on May 10, 1854, established the first Post Office in Hubley Township and gave it the name Sacramento after the discovery of gold in California.” Rebuck doesn’t know where the document came from.
The city’s largest employer is Masser Potato Farms. It’s one of the largest potato-processing facilities on the East Coast, employing 140 employees during harvest (many of them Hispanics who drive from out of town for the jobs; this is periodically a topic of town talk) and processing as many as 4 million pounds of potatoes a week. Machines there wash potatoes, sort them by size and then dump them into 1- or 5- or 10-pound bags. They are then shipped off to Wal-Marts, Costcos, grocery stores and food-service companies across the eastern seaboard.
“It’s quite an operation—puts Sacramento on the map,” says Carl Klinger, when I meet him and his son at the town’s other longtime business, Klinger Chevrolet.
Tim Klinger recently bought the 51-year-old dealership from his dad.
“If Sacramento doesn’t have it, I don’t need it,” the younger Klinger says, unconvincingly. He grew up in the house across the street from the dealership, he says, pointing, and has never left.
Back at the post office, I ask Rebuck what, if anything, she knows about Sacramento, California.
“It’s big,” she says, laughing.
“Ever been there?”
“I don’t have any desire to go to California,” she says. “Mostly because of the earthquakes.”
“Earthquakes? There’s maybe one a year. I usually sleep through them.”
“I have no need to go to California, to drive in—how many highway lanes do you have out there?”
“Some freeways have 12 or 16 lanes across,” I say, thinking of Southern California and realizing there’s some sort of pride in my voice. Sixteen lanes!
Then, Rebuck asks: “What did you think when you came into town here?”
“Honestly,” I tell her, “I’ve always lived in big cities …”
Sacramento, Pennsylvania, does not have a single traffic signal. But that’s not what bothers me about it. What bothers me is that it’s near to nothing. There are no movie theaters, music or book stores, restaurant choices. What if I need a hospital emergency room? What if I want a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos? Where am I going to sleep tonight?
My goal for this evening: Get drunk in Sacramento.
I pulled down a couple of hours of sleep somewhere in the middle of West Virginia but more or less drove through the night. Again, I’m behind schedule and find myself twisting and turning along a rural highway in the dark.
My alcoholic ambitions seem appropriate. The portions of Kentucky that aren’t devoted to horses appear to be shrines to whiskey. The Maker’s Mark Distillery, between Lexington and Frankfort, for example, is a National Historic Landmark.
I thought I’d hate Kentucky. But the Southern state feels awkwardly comfortable.
I’ve already driven nearly 900 miles in the span of about 33 hours. I’ve driven almost clear through Kentucky, from its northeastern border with West Virginia and Ohio, on through Lexington and Frankfort, past Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, and find myself clear over on the west side of the state, where the distance from Indiana to the north and Tennessee to the south is only about a 90-minute drive.
I turn off the Western Kentucky Parkway and begin steering carefully through farmland. The road is narrow, with a steep ditch off to the right.
Fifteen miles in, I pull into Sacramento. Population 563.
There are about two blocks that appear to be something of a downtown area, with a bank, restaurant and City Hall. At the north end of town stands a school, and then there’s a gathering of churches. There are six churches in this city: four Baptist, one Methodist and one Presbyterian. Cars occupy the parking lots of the three I pass.
I make a U-turn and drive back through town, pulling into Miller Service Station, where two boys are playing improvised baseball, ice cubes as balls and the cone-shaped top to a cigarette-butt disposal can as a bat.
I park the Classic and tell them who I am and why I’m here.
“So, what’s here?” I ask.
They laugh. “This is about it,” one of them says.
For the next few minutes, the two try to tell me something about the town where they live. Skylar Vanover is 18, and his friend Jaron Park is 16. The two are offensive-lineman big. They have short haircuts and lazy demeanors.
“It’s not where I plan on dyin’,” Jaron says.
By then, another car has driven up, and the two get up to fill its tank and squeegee its windshield.
Out behind the service station, a large field of shin-high grass tells what really puts this city on the proverbial map. There, each May, Civil War enthusiasts crowd into town and re-create the Battle of Sacramento. On December 28, 1861, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a commander for the South, fought his first battle here. Skylar and Jaron talk somewhat derogatorily about the “re-enactors.”
According to City Hall, the town used to be called Cross Roads. But a man named John Vickers, one of many from the area who went west to strike it rich in the gold rush but came back empty-handed, suggested that Cross Roads rename itself Sacramento. The residents agreed.
A steady trickle of drivers pull in to gas up and buy cigarettes. Most make small talk and seem to know the boys. Skylar keeps gesturing to me. “This guy’s from Sacramento, California,” he says. “He’s going to all the Sacramentos.”
“So, what are you guys gonna do tonight?” I ask.
“Titty club,” says Skylar.
“Oh yeah?” I say. “Where’s that?”
“It’s 18 and over?”
“Yeah, since I turned 18, me an’ Twink been there like at least once a week. Twink goes like three times a week. You should see when he walks in. All the girls hug on him.”
Twink is a friend of Skylar’s, since the two were boys, nicknamed because he resembles a Hostess cake. “He’s bigger ’an me,” Skylar says, laughing.
“My plan was to find a bar and get a drink tonight,” I tell him.
“There’s a bar at the titty club,” he says.
“But how about in Sacramento?”
“This is a dry county,” Skylar tells me.
“What? A dry county?”
This seems to make sense to Skylar. But it’s almost unfathomable to me. He tells me you can’t even buy beer in a grocery store in McLean County, where Sacramento, Kentucky, is located. All I can think is that county officials must want to encourage drunken driving on its serpentine, ditch-lined county roads.
Turns out nearly half of Kentucky is dry, and more counties still have limited alcohol sales.
Again with my bad planning.
Looks like I’m going to a titty club.
When Twink shows up, he calls over to the club to see who’s working. Answering machine. The place is closed for remodeling.
Except there is no Plan B. And now we’ve started the cycle that is, I suspect, the norm in this town—the “I dunno, whadda you wanna do?” cycle.
At this point, a couple of others have shown up, hanging around as Skylar shuts down the service station. Skylar’s cousin with his lowered, loud and lit-up Chevy S10 and a girl named Leslie, who plays basketball for the high school and likes to play-fight with boys.
I’m afraid they are trying to drum up something to do for my benefit. They’re talking about maybe going cow-tipping. Or spotlightin’ or possum-kickin’.
(That last activity is exactly what it sounds like. Possum. Kicking.)
“You don’t really go cow-tipping, do you?” I ask.
“Yeah, all the time, don’t we?” Skylar looks to the others for validation.
Sitting in his car, Jaron plugs a cord into a cigarette lighter and shines a several-million-candlepower portable spotlight in my direction. OK. So, maybe they do go spotlightin’, which, really, amounts to finding some deer and shining a light in their faces. I guess sometimes it also includes a BB gun.
Maybe a mocking tone is slipping into my voice—maybe I’m starting to talk like them, dropping the Gs from the ends of my words—that says I’m making fun of the spotlightin’ and cow-tippin’ and possum-kickin’, because Leslie seems in disbelief that I don’t know what they’re talking about.
“What words do y’all say that we don’t?” Leslie asks.
“I don’t know,” I tell her. And I really can’t think of anything. I’m trying. Are there words or phrases local to my Sacramento, or to Northern California?
I ask her what she knows about California, and it’s not much. Jaron says he’s a big Kings fan and has even been to a game at Arco Arena, and I kind of just ignore him, baffled that it took him three hours to think to tell me this.
Everyone splits up and drives away. It’s after 10 o’clock.
I drive around between towns and end up at the far edge of the 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot in Madisonville, where I try to sleep for a couple of hours.
Hella. I guess kids in Northern California say “hella.” Do they say that elsewhere?
People who talk slowly scare me. Especially when they are big and Midwest-corn-fed and standing too close to me on a street without a name and without cell-phone reception and when I don’t know exactly where I am.
It’s only a two-and-a-half-hour drive between Sacramentos, if you cross briefly through Indiana and then into Illinois. It’s sunny, and the sky is blue, and the corn is pale yellow.
Just north of Norris City, a small town of mostly vacant storefronts at the nexus of two railroad lines, I get to a spot on my MapQuest printout labeled as Sacramento. There’s nothing on the map to indicate a town here. There’s even less when I step out of the Classic and look around. Dried corn kernels litter the ground.
I’m on Highway 45, looking at a state historical marker that says Illinois’ very first protestant church is just a few hundred feet from here. But there’s no sign announcing that this stretch of corn-row-framed road is called Sacramento.
What’s here are two homes—one set off away from the road with shade trees and a mother-in-law toward the back, and another across the street decorated with nautical paraphernalia. And there’s a large piece of farming machinery that I can only assume is used to harvest corn. I’m having vague, flashing thoughts of B-grade horror-movie plots.
I choose the home with the shade trees, and as I walk onto the property, I hear dogs stirring from inside the mother-in-law. I knock on its screen door. An old woman appears.
“Is this area called Sacramento?” I ask through the screen.
The woman says no.
“What do you call this area?”
“This is Enfield.”
I drive back toward Norris City and after a few miles see a man doing woodwork in his driveway, his dogs lying in the shade nearby. I pull into the gravel drive.
“Do you know where a town called Sacramento is?” I ask.
The man stands up from his work bench and adjusts his mesh trucker’s hat high up on his head. “Yeah … but … I don’t think it’s actually a town. I think it’s just a road.”
He gestures back up north where I just came from and to the west.
“There’s an older man who drives by here almost every day. You wanna look for him,” the woodworker tells me. “Can’t tell you his name. He drives a green truck, green like the color of the house here. Can’t tell you what make the truck is. But it’s older.”
I thank the man and pull back out onto the 45, without any hope of actually finding the older man in the green truck or Sacramento. I weave through farmland, on streets that aren’t named, struggling to keep some sense of direction. I knock on a couple of doors. No one answers.
I give up and head back toward the highway but pass a man working out behind a manufactured home. I’ll ask once more, I think, and park on the side of the road across from the man’s property.
“Sorry to bother you,” I say, stepping out of the rental car. “Do you know a road back here called Sacramento?”
The man squints in my direction. He’s rinsing a garment of some sort in an outdoor sink.
“What’s that?” he asks. I repeat my question.
He rests the garment in the sink, turns off the faucet and begins walking toward me. I can see that he is wearing hearing aids. I’ve stepped up to his property but not onto it.
“Now … who’re you lookin’ for?” he says, slowly.
He gets closer, and I can see that the squinting man is something of a giant, standing almost a foot taller than me, with a barrel-wide chest and tree-root arms. When I ask again about Sacramento, he is standing within a ruler’s distance. I’m thinking that one swat from his clubbed fist could knock me cold. And I’m thinking that no one would ever come looking for me in this cornfield.
“Try down the road there,” the man says, pointing to a small house. “They’ve lived here a long time, a lot longer than me.”
I thank the man and back away. I’m thinking of that scene from Deliverance. You know the one.
Then I head off in the direction he’s suggested. Pulling up to the house, I notice an old greenish truck in the driveway. Green like the woodworker said.
A knock brings Paula Healy to the door. She talks slowly but tells me that, yes, she knows Sacramento and that I should talk to her husband. He’ll be home any minute now for lunch. She opens her screen door and walks out onto the porch. Then she guides me over to a rocking bench, where we sit, mostly in silence, until a semi-truck comes rumbling down the dirt farm road.
Dan Healy’s family has been farming this land since 1840. At 62, he’s the fifth generation. His son works the farm, too. They grow corn, soy, milo and some soft winter wheat.
Dan Healy knows about Sacramento. He points back toward the highway and says he can remember when buildings used to stand over there. An old hotel. A place where cattle was bought and sold. His relatives told him of a time when trains used to run through there, and there used to be quite a community of hobos and gypsies in Sacramento because of it.
“Joel Rice, a distant relative of mine, named it Sacramento,” he told me, adding that he’s seen the letter to prove it. Rice, it turns out, was another of those who went west for the gold rush but came back without much except fond memories.
The only thing now standing where Sacramento once was is the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, Dan says.
I drive back to the highway and find the church and then stand on the side of the road, looking at the small white building. A man in a truck drives by and waves to me. It’s silent except for some sort of insect sound coming from within the rows of corn.
My sister lives only about two hours from here, so I decide to try to make it to her in time for dinner.
I’ve got to pee. This cold mountain air isn’t making it easier on me.
I woke up early this morning, got on a plane from St. Louis, Missouri, to Denver, rented another American car—a Ford Focus this time—and was on the road by noon. I have a flight out, back home, in less than 24 hours.
Emerging out of the dense valley that cradles Denver, I drive into mountainous Colorado. The first snow I notice—in the shaded spots alongside the interstate—comes at barely 7,000 feet. To get to Sacramento, I have to cross a pass at about 10,000 feet. I tell myself that if the pass is as far as I can get, so be it.
But I easily make it to south Park County, Colorado. South Park. To tell the truth, I feel I can blend in better here than in any other locale I’ve passed through on this trip. So, I purchase postcards at a gas-station convenience store. About two miles outside of Fairplay, an outpost two hours southwest of Denver, I turn off the highway and onto a road that parallels Sacramento Creek, a short waterway that merges with a number of other creeks and ditches and then eventually pours into a mountain reservoir.
At this point, I assume that any Sacramento east of California was named by a gold rusher on his way back home. So, I try to picture an expedition making its way through this forest, along this creek, in the 1850s. It’s pretty easy, since there are no buildings or cars to ruin the image.
When I’m deep into the forest, nearing the spot on the map labeled as Sacramento, I see only one unoccupied house and one trailer parked on another property. When I get to that wall of snow, I hear a barking dog from somewhere not too far away.
I really do have to pee. So, I get out of the Focus, leaving the door open, walk over to a felled tree and urinate in the snow, to the sound of a dog barking.
This is really the only Sacramento, Colorado, experience I have to tell you about. It doesn’t even occur to me to walk into the forest. I’ve come close enough. It’s almost as if I were hoping there would be nothing here, or that for some reason I wouldn’t be able to make it the entire distance.
My plan was to stay in South Park overnight. Maybe check out a tavern in Fairplay. Maybe poke my head in at the county historical society before heading back to Denver for my flight home.
But the place is a bust. And the local paper says it’ll drop into the 20s tonight. So I flee.
Midway back to Denver, it occurs to me that if I keep driving, I can toe-touch Sacramento, Nebraska, and still make it back in time to catch my flight.
It’s nearly 2 a.m. under a Nebraska-black sky. Despite the dark, I can still tell that I’m surrounded by flatness in every direction.
I’m shuffling through my iPod, trying to play music that appropriately fits my romanticized view of this state. I’ve always wanted to visit here. I don’t know why. Mostly, I’m listening to older songs by Bright Eyes, the tortured, sappy, scream-along folk music of Conor Oberst, who is from Omaha. For some reason, I find it easy to believe that people wear a lot of jean jackets in Omaha.
Really, it turns out there’s no city called Sacramento in Nebraska. There’s a wildlife refuge. They call it “Sac”—the Sacramento-Wilcox Wildlife Management Area, maintained by the state’s division on game and parks. It’s more than 2,300 acres of land between the towns of Wilcox and Holdrege. The Sacramento Creek runs through it. (Not the same Sacramento Creek I crossed in Colorado.)
The wildlife area is open to hunters. Ducks, geese, pheasants, white-tailed deer and bass. Now, I’ve never been hunting, and I don’t know if hunting occurs in the middle of the night. I don’t imagine it does. And if it does, I’m confident my headlights will differentiate me from any four-legged or winged or finned thing.
The paved road extends only a short way into the wildlife area. I drive to the end, briefly catch two deer in my headlights while making a U-turn and then drive off. Toe touch.
Now I can say I’ve been to Sacramento, Nebraska, but really not much else.
That’s probably true about the other Sacramentos as well. I’m not sure if I learned anything cohesive about the other cities, or anything about our Sacramento either. Or even if I was supposed to. If I’d spent more time in each of the places, maybe. Or, maybe if I spent more time in my own Sacramento, I’d better understand it and have something to tell others when they ask about where I live. My guess is that if someone asked me on a street corner what Sacramento, California, is like, I’d react just like Skylar and Jaron at that Kentucky gas station.
“This is about it,” I’d probably say, referring to my job, my apartment, my friends.
No, I did not make it to Sacramento, New Mexico, a tiny outpost in a densely forested mountainous region in the southern part of that state. It would have been a 600-mile drive from Colorado. And really, by the time I got to that bank of snow, this seven-Sacramentos hook wasn’t catchy anymore.
I think I latched on to that unexpected MapQuest list because I saw it as a chance to get out of the office and to explore a few places I’d never been. So, in that case, maybe it is mission accomplished.
I wonder if there are any cities named Barker.