Day 1: The Wagon is Packed

Annette on the Road

A very Sacramento photo from 2018: Me in a typical Sacramento strip mall on a sunny (yet unusually cool) day with two old history professors of mine from Sacramento State University, Dr. Dick Kornweibel (RIP) on the left, and Dr. Joe Pitti on the right.

Okay, so I'm interrupting my attempted normal schedule of newsletters to you. You know, the schedule that lives in my mind as a dream of my posts arriving in your inbox like clockwork, as if I'm a slick corporation instead of a slightly shambolic person… Oh, yes, and things being conformist and uniform has a history, too. People are so puzzled to find out that people in the past hadn't yet had their brains eaten by bureaucrats….

Where was I? Oh, yes. So I'm headed West starting today, like the wagon migrants of yore, headed for the California gold fields. Not that there's much gold left, you understand, so I'll be looking for historical gold, and maybe I'll post some related pictures from my extensive pre-pandemic collection.

If you saw the movie Lady Bird , you know it has nothing to do with President Lyndon Johnson's wife. It's the story of a girl in her last year in high school, but please don't let that put you off. The real star is Sacramento, California, where, as it happens, I spent a year in high school twenty years before the movie was set. Yup, former exchange student here, still trying to fulfill her AFS Exchange Program mission of bringing world peace through international understanding, one person at a time, and you gotta admit, AFS got its money's worth out of this eager Brit!

Okay, where was I? Lady Bird, the movie, NOT Mrs. LBJ.

As the main character in Lady Bird says, Sacramento is the Midwest of California. It turns out that there are good historical reasons why she's not wrong: Plenty of people set out from Wisconsin for the Gold Rush, you know. Heavens, at least thirty people living in Sacramento in 1849 were from Kenosha, WI alone.

So when people were helping create whatever the heck Sacramento culture is, Midwesterners were there, people who knew how to entertain themselves. Lady Bird shows a very familiar portrait of our town (never quite a city, really) to all of us who love the place, who don't include my doctor in Madison. “I nearly did my residency there,” he said with the air of a man who had dodged an encounter with doom. “I lasted a week. People kept talking about how we were only 90 minutes from the mountains, and 90 minutes from San Francisco, and I kept thinking, if I'm doing a residency, I won't have time to drive all over, but they never talked about what there was to do in Sacramento.”

“There's because there's nothing to do in Sacramento,” I explained cheerfully. “The attraction is the people.”

Knowing that so many early migrants to Sacramento were from Wisconsin could help explain Sacramento's amazing ice cream culture, the dairy connection.

You don't know ice cream until you know Sacramento ice cream. Made on the premises, slathered in house-made hot fudge or caramel sauce, generous portions. Okay, so Leatherby's is a little extreme (this is their small size, I kid you not) but you get the idea. Photo: Annette Laing, 2017.

Okay, so drawing a direct line between multiple Wisconsinites in Gold Rush Sacramento and ice cream in Sacramento in 2021 is leaping to conclusions, but it's not impossible, is it?

Sigh. I have to confess that academic historians are very reluctant to draw conclusions like this on evidence like that. And they're right.

But a girl can dream, can't she?

So. Like the song goes, California, here I come, back to where I started from. And I'm bringing you with me, to Sacramento, from there to LA and San Diego, back to Sacramento, and then the trek home. I'll be in touch when I can, from where I can, as I cross (swelling patriotic music, think of that Disney 360 degree Circlevision movie) this great land we call America.

While you're on the beach sipping frosty drinks, you can read about me driving thousands of miles to visit a city whose great claim to fame is that it's a long drive from there to two more interesting places. That's a very Sacramento thing of me to do.

P.S. Any Sacramento folks tempted to upbraid me by pointing to all the new attractions, the new motto of “farm to fork capital”, etc? Please. I spent several years working in a PR office in Sacramento. I know what you're up to. Own the boring, I say. It's your greatest claim on our hearts.