Walking the map
SN&R’s writer hikes Sacramento, from bottom to top, in a single day
The early morning in winter feels like a thousand tiny hands smacking you all at once—and right when I get into Elk Grove it begins to rain; a thousand tiny, wet hands smacking you all at once. But I tell myself, “No matter how tired, how cold I get, I’m still walking.” Walking from the bottom of a Sacramento map to the top is one of those things I feel compelled to do—like writing poems, exercising, standing in a bookstore for hours on end just looking at titles, or stalking old girlfriends on MySpace. But when I do those things, I never actually understand why I’m doing them until they’re done. Hopefully that will be the case here.
6:27 a.m. In my backpack I have a bottle of water, a voice recorder, a pad of paper, a pen, my iPod and a translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, which my mom gave me a couple Christmases ago. The book, full of philosophy and wisdom, seems to suit a long, grueling walk that I estimate will take about 10 hours.
Just before I begin walking from Elk Grove to Rio Linda, I grab the Tao from my bag and open to page 13: “If you know when to stop, you’ll suffer no harm,” it reads. The passage doesn’t quite encourage the lengthy journey at hand, but I get out of the car and start walking anyway. After all, it’s a book of philosophical poetry, not a Magic 8 Ball.
The night before my walk, I bought a map of Sacramento and planned the route: a fairly simple pink highlighter line that stretched from Elk Grove’s Franklin Boulevard and continued on until the road ends at Broadway. From there I would walk through Midtown, find the American River and then make my way to Del Paso Boulevard. Continuing, I’d walk up through north Sacramento until I got to Rio Linda, a town that I had never been to but had many preconceived notions about. If my prejudices were correct, right upon setting foot within the city limits I’d promptly be accosted, then beaten by locals named Rhonda and their excessively American boyfriends.
6:33 a.m. I park my car on a signless street in a subdivision of Elk Grove—or Xanaxamento, as I used to lovingly refer to it. I always thought the houses were so immaculately similar that I imagined they were crafted by the cold hands of a Christian housewife in one night. But really I blamed city planners for the graceless aesthetic of a sprawling town plopped down clumsily on top of a dirt field. Yet as we know, every city was a dirt field at some point: San Francisco, New York, Detroit—all mounds of rock and dirt until the architects and planners showed up. It’s not right to make fun of things because they lack soul. After all, it’s up to people to give inanimate objects individuality; a saxophone is just a shiny brass thing until human breath brings out its potential.
7:01 a.m. Walking in Elk Grove on Franklin Boulevard isn’t exactly pleasing to the eye. The sky is slate gray and a foggy rain keeps everything damp. To the left of the boulevard is a field and to my right is a stone wall with a neighborhood behind it. Every now and then I get a glimpse of a house, and if I’m lucky a person will get into their car and speed off, creating a moment of action and a mirage of excitement in the dull suburban sprawl.
Sometimes, when I was a kid, I’d pick out a person and try to figure out what it was like to be them. Nobody’s really out at this hour, except for a woman on her driveway, hoisting a grocery bag out of the back seat of her car. She holds the bag on one knee while she slams the door shut with her elbow. A slip of paper is clenched between her lips. I imagine her as a housewife. She went to the Safeway earlier and will spend the rest of the day making phone calls to doctors, to her son’s school and to her husband’s mother, who is sick. When you watch one person engaging in their life, even for a second, you get a certain sense of that person, in their respective world, which does not include you. And the woman, with her bag of groceries, goes inside. And just like that, her world is gone. That kind of thought has always made the world seem so lonely, yet to this day I can’t help but think about people in their respective worlds. It’s like being a child, alone, and watching a scary movie just before you go to bed.
8:30 a.m. I’m still on Franklin Boulevard, and to be honest, I’m sick of seeing this street. It’s like being stuck in Pablo Picasso’s blue period, except—instead of drab, suicidal families—it’s endless sidewalks and tract homes. After two hours of walking, the cold begins to harden my face and my nose starts to run. “Great eloquence seems to stammer; / Great surplus seems to be lacking. / Activity overcomes cold; / Tranquility overcomes heat. / If you’re quiet and tranquil you can become the ruler of the / world.” That’s basically the Tao telling me to shut the hell up.
10 a.m. So I keep my feelings of boredom, cold and tiredness under wraps for the rest of the Elk Grove walk. A complainer isn’t flattering to anyone, even to the complainer. But if you’ll oblige just one more complaint: Whenever I think that there couldn’t possibly be any Elk Grove left, I seem to see a school bus that says Elk Grove Unified. How long can one city last? (It’s 15.2 square miles, according to Wikipedia.) As I see the third Elk Grove school bus, I want to call a cab and end my day early. But I don’t. And by the time I make it to south Sacramento, like a gentle message from Lao Tzu himself, it has stopped raining.
The aesthetic leap from Elk Grove to south Sacramento is drastic: Gated communities and lush fields are replaced by dilapidated strip malls and billboards advertising teen-pregnancy hotlines. Elk Grove’s Valley-Hi Country Club offers the wealthy elderly a distraction while south Sac’s Prince of Peace Church with chipped paint and conventional, uninspired architecture offers a chance at salvation.
10:16 a.m. A man wearing a red sweatshirt, red beanie and a pair of black-and-red Nikes with a huge gold chain dangling against his chest waits at the street corner on a mountain bike. He doesn’t exactly look friendly, but since I’ll be hard-pressed to find people out in such shitty weather, I decide to talk with him. “If you’re brave in being daring, you’ll be killed / If you’re brave in not being daring, you’ll live,” says my guide, Lao Tzu.
“Hello,” I say.
“’Sup,” he says, not looking at me.
“So I’m writing a story, and I wanted to see if you’d help me.”
“Oh, I just—kind of wanted to know about this neighborhood I’m walking through. Do you live here?”
“Meadowview. Born and raised.”
“That’s a nice gold chain, where’d you get—”
“It’s not gold,” he says, and flashes an embarrassed smile before pedaling off into the distance.
“ … they desire not to dazzle and glitter like jade, / But to remain firm and strong like stone,” says the Tao.
11:03 a.m. Downtown’s Broadway is no uglier than Elk Grove or south Sacramento. In gloom, everything looks the same. Fortunately, it stopped raining, but the gray blanket over the sky is suffocating. I have a headache, my leg muscles throb and my face feels rubbery with cold. “Were I to have the least bit of knowledge in walking on a Great / Road, it’s only going astray that I would fear,” says Lao Tzu. His words rattle in my skull like the last penny in a piggy bank. He continues: “Torrential rains don’t last the whole day.” I realize that reading the Tao Te Ching from cover to cover is like having to read an entire bag of fortune cookies. I break my prescribed route so I can go to The Book Collector on 24th Street to get a different book of poems for the rest of my journey.
On the way, my friend Lyn calls and I tell her about my walk. “Why?” she asks. “What’s next, crawling to Roseville?”
Why. It’s a good question. A story? A poem? A random literary experience? All I know is that it wouldn’t feel right to stop, even though my apartment is dangerously close.
11:40 a.m. At the bookstore I look for something that’s the opposite of Lao Tzu. It’s not that I don’t enjoy his sturdy philosophy, but I want something lighter, less bossy. I come upon a curious book of poetry by actor Michael Madsen (the ear-slicing sociopath in Reservoir Dogs). Apparently he came out with a book—an awful book—of poetry while nobody was looking and called it Beer, Blood and Ashes. Someone published it. Out of curiosity, I bought it and made my way toward the American River, a little unsettled at my choice of Mr. Blonde as my new spiritual guide.
12:42 p.m. I’m lost. Not Survivorman lost, but I’m just not sure which way to go. I know I have to get over the American River, and now I’m standing at the end of 28th Street next to the garbage dump, but I just can’t figure out how to get over the river. I can see Highway 160, but it’s blocked by a bunch of construction equipment and a homeless encampment. The Tao didn’t really say anything about navigating through homeless colonies, so I go east, where I figure there’s probably another bridge to take me across the water. The change in route will tack on a few extra miles, but it’s the only thing to do. I can’t help but to think of my old friend Lao Tzu, who says that water is the weakest thing on Earth, yet it can defeat the unyielding. The weak can defeat the strong. Brilliant, but I left him at the bookstore for a reason, and now I have only Michael Madsen to guide me the rest of the way: “It was a nice welcome home. The / rain I mean. / The weathermen / grumbled like grout-headed / goat snappers so I turned / the TV off.”
I should have bought Walt Whitman.
1:10 p.m. It’s one thing to be a teenager walking with friends across train tracks suspended over a river, but it’s entirely different to be in your 30s, alone, tiptoeing across the creaky wooden Amtrak planks, knowing that thousands of tons of unstoppable steel might knock you into an untimely death. The company’s track record with, you know, killing people, isn’t exactly gleaming. As fast as I go, the bridge doesn’t seem to end. I stop for a second and put my ear to the tracks, listening for a distant train. I realize quickly that the trick only works in movies (and that I’m an idiot). I run for what seems like 10 minutes and get to the end of the bridge. At the end, it occurs to me that the tracks might not even be active.
My shins and hips are killing me, but the crunch sound of the gravel is different than the thump of the sidewalk, and it’s soothing. A minute later I’m startled by a train’s horn blasting behind me.
1:25 p.m. When I get to Del Paso I’m hungry, so I go to Little Joe’s for a meal. The waitress is grumpy, the eggs greasy, the bacon hard, but it’s somehow perfect. Just as I get my food, two men walk in.
The man in the front is a lumbering Mexican with a beard. He’s wearing a dirty jacket and spotted sweatpants and has that look in his eye like he enjoys a good fistfight. Following closely behind him is an elderly guy with glasses that magnify his eyes to comical proportions, and for lack of a better description, he’s a spitting image of Gary the Retard from The Howard Stern Show. The two walk toward a booth behind me. When they’re seated, the Mexican says out loud, “Little Hos” instead of “Little Joe’s.” He laughs at the pun.
An elderly man at a different table spots his friend walking through the door and greets him with a “Hello, General!” His friend sees him and salutes back, “Hello, Colonel!”
The Mexican yells from his table, “Well, then don’t forget about me. I’m the goddamn Captain!” All of us eat our meals separately in fidgety silence—everyone seeming nervous about one thing or another.
2:08 p.m. Del Paso Heights has no shortage of bombed-out buildings with boarded-up windows. At this point, the street names barely matter. All I know is I’m headed north. As I walk up Rio Linda Boulevard, men in baggy jeans and sports jerseys get into cars that pull up and speed off down the street. My large, padded earphones are keeping my ears warm and, so far, I haven’t felt like listening to music for fear that a soundtrack would dictate too much of my journey. Music often gives character to even the most characterless things. Under the spell of Nina Simone, even the city bus could start weeping. And listening to music threatens my sense of observation. I’d be likely to miss certain things, like the two teenage girls walking toward me with two of the largest asses I have ever seen. And yes, I can see their asses from the front. Ahead, a group of people blocks the sidewalk.
Lao Tzu would calm my nerves, but I’m stuck with the less poignant M.M. I pull out his book, flip through and stop at the poem “Truth”: “Spoken words looking / for a hiding place / in a no-man’s land / that swims a river of no return.”
I adjust my headphones on my ears, attempting to look busy as I make my way through a sea of scowling teens in ill-fitting pants.
2:45 p.m. I’m at the Sunset Lawn cemetery, where I walk on a desolate Marysville Boulevard without a sidewalk. My shoes are muddy from trudging down the road’s tiny shoulder. Cars swerve dramatically when they see me, as if to make a point. Not only are the cars frightening, but the dogs behind fences seem to get more aggressive the closer I get to my destination. I realize: Families that buy muscular dogs as pets are sick, sick people.
Next to the cemetery, I see a shiny object in the grass. It’s a barely used methamphetamine pipe. I imagine a car getting pulled over, the passenger freaking out and hurling the pipe out of the window as the car slows, then wiping the sweat from his brow as he tries to “look normal.”
3:10 p.m. When I get to Robla Elementary School, I realize I’ve been walking for more than eight hours in a pair of Nike Dunks, which aren’t exactly walking shoes. I think, in fact, they were designed for teenage boys to woo superficial girls. There are fields wherever I look and no suitable road to walk on. In fact, if I wasn’t so tired, hungry and cold, the landscape would be something to cherish; grayish-green grass and yellow trees lean forward under the wind’s spell.
There’s a woman who looks like a parent waiting for her kid. She’s at a picnic table, smoking a cigarette, flicking the ashes into a coffee canister labeled “Butt Can.”
“Hi,” I say.
She takes a drag and looks at me.
“Where am I?”
“Not from around here?”
“Nah, I just walked here from Elk Grove.”
“Car break down?”
“No. I’m just kind of an idiot.”
“OK,” she says, and throws the rest of her smoke into the container. “Good luck.”
I sit at the table for a few minutes weighing my options. I could either trudge the rest of the way on a sidewalkless road in the mud while pit bulls bark and their owners try to run me down, or I can end my journey at this small, slightly depressing elementary school, where the parents seem alarmingly indifferent. I’m cold, hungry, tired as all hell, so I give up.
I walk to the school to see if they’ll let me use their office to warm up while I call for a ride. But out of the corner of my eye I see a bike path, which seems to point in the direction of the town of Rio Linda.
3:42 p.m. I’m still walking down the path. Large trees shed orange leaves and the surrounding grass is a deep, majestic green. I’m in the wilderness, so I piss on a tree. There’s not a person in sight. There are barns with horses, jack rabbits, streams, and for a second I feel like I walked from Elk Grove to Ireland.
4:14 p.m. I made it. Downtown Rio Linda consists of a street, a post office, some houses and a few retail establishments. Some nine-and-a-half hours after my journey began, I’m done. I walk into Tummy’s Sub Shop on M Street, where there isn’t a welcome wagon, but instead smiling employees Taylor (a girl) and Malissa (with an “a”).
“I just walked from Elk Grove to here,” I say, rubbing my neck, wiping the snot from my nose, sparing them the details.
“Did people think you were homeless?” asks Taylor, with a teenage giggle. I order the roast-beef sandwich with everything on it.
When I factor in getting lost by the river and then walking around Del Paso Heights trying not to be attacked and killed by gang members, I ended up walking about 27 miles; it took almost 10 hours, all of which seemed very pointless.
4:20 p.m. Sitting in the Rio Linda sandwich shop, I call my girlfriend and wait for her to pick me up and take me back to my car. My limbs, dull and mostly useless, feel strange now that they’re not in motion. Actually, they feel as if they’re still in motion but not going anywhere. I start thinking about the actual point of this long, somewhat miserable walk.
Since I was a kid, I’ve hated the cold. Clouds prompt me to retreat indoors. Walking has always been a simple and cumbersome task of getting from one place to another. And it took me 26 years to read a poem all the way through without experiencing pangs of boredom. The act of writing for me, I believe, is most likely harder than it is for someone who doesn’t write. While a person might scratch out a few sentences without a lot of thought, I pine over the right words until 20 minutes have passed, an hour, 10 days …
The actual act of writing is grueling and not very fun. But it’s something that can bring joy if it’s done right—actually, no—if it’s done at all. When something is finished, no matter how unreadable, it is a reward; the quality or the praise it receives is nothing of real consequence.
4:40 p.m. When my girlfriend arrives, I’m finishing a large Diet Coke. My legs cramp up when I bend them, and I sit in the car so my body forms a straight line. To passersby it probably looks like she’s hauling a corpse.
7:30 p.m. In the evening, instead of going home, I end my night at the Sacramento Poetry Center on 25th and R Street in Midtown to catch a reading by James Lee Jobe and Sacramento native Monica Storss. I can barely keep my eyes open as I sit in the metal foldout chair in the unheated room of the SPC warehouse. Storss, a mesmerizing woman—all frizzed hair, cheetah skin and metal studs—reads a poem about a lady who accidentally cuts off her left breast and leaves it in the kitchen sink “areola up.” I can barely keep my eyes open. I don’t understand the poem, but that’s not the point. I don’t feel like I need to.
11:58 p.m. Lying in bed, thinking about the legend of Lao Tzu, I start to doze off.
Once upon a time, a woman gazed upon a falling star and became pregnant. The baby stayed in the woman’s womb 62 years and was finally birthed after she leaned against a plum tree. The baby, Lao Tzu, entered the world—after that miraculous conception and painfully long incubation—not as a baby, but as an old man, with a coarse gray beard and long earlobes. Both symbols for wisdom and far-reaching, boundless life.