Sacramento & Auburn - The Motherlode

"I love you, California"


One burning hot Summer’s day we melted our way out of San Francisco and slithered up and across to California’s capital city, Sacramento. To visit our longest standing, not to mention outstanding, California compadres - Patrick and Erin.

I'm pretty much a sucker for anything with 'old' in the name (maybe not if it precedes 'food') but pretty much anything else. We dropped anchor in Sacramento’s 'Old Town' and clicked our spurs along the wooden boardwalks, glancing in and out of dive bars, candy stores, t shirt shops, train tracks and museums.

"This town ain't big enough for the two of us"

There was a touch of chintz and cheese about it, but don’t let that fool ya, it’s not a construct of a Disney cowboy town, it’s the genuine article of where Wild met West. When the Gold Rush hit, Sacramento was a magnet for pioneers, speculators, cowboys, and railway giants. Now it’s where you go to buy a fridge magnet of pioneers, speculators, cowboys, and so on. Times change <shoulder shrug>.

I got a tingling feeling walking around thinking of the Gold Rushers arriving by the boatload decades ago, walking straight from their boats onto the Embarcadero, hungry for riches.

You just got schooled!

My favourite spot in ‘Old Town’ was the 'Old School House'. Little people’s hats and caps from centuries gone by hung silently at the back of the class. A wee dote of an elderly lady, dressed like a school mistress from Little House on the Prairie, ambled up and down between the desk aisles. I took a seat and she drifted over to give me a history lesson, I learned that students in 1850 used chalkboards during their classes (paper had to be imported from the east coast and could take weeks to arrive!). I decided a 19th century chalkboard would be the perfect entertainment for Róisín during long drives.

I walked out with my purchase of a student chalk board under my arm, carried in a hand sewn gingham bag, the pockets of the bag were stuffed with fingers of chalk and a cloth wipe. I could see Róisín staring at my purchase, her eyes lighting up in wonder, when would Mum turn on the screen... Sorry kid, this is what an ipad looked like in the 1850s.

"Hey Lady... I'm drivin here"

It would be a crime to visit Old Town and not nip into the California State Railroad Museum. I may have bypassed it but for Patrick’s assurance that it was worth a look. I thought it would be full of anoracked geeks toting binoculars, but instead it housed full sized blow-the-socks-of-ya locomotives from every era imaginable, from the antiquated Polar Express to the futuristic Bullet Trains.

One of America's biggest accomplishments (mainly thanks to Irish and Chinese labour) was the Transcontinental railroad. Men had predicted it would take a thousand years to settle the West, puh-leez, get the Irish and the Chinese on the case, bish-bash-bosh, knocked out the railroad in 6 years, the West was settled in 6 decades. However, unfortunately, when the almighty automobile was invented that became the new king of the road, rail tracks fell into disrepair and stations were abandoned. I have seen many examples of this on my travels criss-crossing the States and in truth it breaks my heart. Let’s ditch the cars and bring back the trains!

"I've been working on the railroad, all the live long day"

The main powers behind the Transcontinental railroad were known as "the Big Four" - Hopkins, Crocker, Stanford and Huntington. Hailed as empire builders, or damned as robber barons, they used their powers to maintain the construction. The 4 men were known as ‘nobs’ (disparaging slang for ‘nobility’, implying wealthy upper class elitists), the area where they built their mansions in San Francisco became known as ‘Nob Hill’. To this day there is a restaurant there called ‘The Big Four’ in honour of the men, there also stands salubrious hotels one bearing Hopkins name the other Huntington’s name, Stanford, we know, founded the prestigious university, Crocker...married Betty?? No, he stuck to railroading.

The old trains are a lot nicer to look at, in my opinion, but the future is fast and furious. If inventor Elon Musk and the like get on top of things it looks like we'll all be flung around the world in high speed trains averaging 220 mph. I don't think I'll be sticking my head out of that train window! I had the pleasure of booting across Japanese countryside on a bullet train, everyone should take a spin (read here for stories on Japan).

The museum culminates in a top floor devoted to Thomas the Tank engine. Let's just say, Roisin was not the only one I had to round up when it was time to go!

Budget made the cut

I always like to have a gander at the state capitol building when I happen to visit the capital of a state. They are generally made from the same cookie cutter 'mini white house' mould. This time was no different but as luck would have it a wedding was underway on the steps outside. Silver balloons spelling out 'LOVE' bounced in the wind. Cinematic genius. That and the 'Budget' moving truck parked outside the government building <snigger>.

We drove by the 'Leland Mansion', a house built by one of the ‘Big Four’, Leland Stanford. It went through many manifestations from Governor’s HQ to children’s home to museum. I jumped out to explore the gardens; apple trees, orange trees, pear trees, a fruitarians mecca!

Not far down the road we arrived at friends Patrick and Erin’s house complete with their two handsome sons Charlie and Leo. It was one of those reunions where everyone (children included) fall into sync and the craic flows, the bellies fill up on delicious tri tip and the world's woes are debated and solved. Great night had by all (even if Patrick's team Notre Dame lost in the background).

One for the PC police

The men declared a crack of dawn cycling grand tour, which changed to a mid morning jaunt. All assembled late morn for a visit to the nearby ‘Indian museum’.

There were stories of how the Native Americans emphasize dance, song and storytelling, which quite frankly should be everyone’s important life rules. The beadwork in their jewelry and earthen wares was magical. I did raise an eyebrow when pondering the section on child raising. It seems, back in the day, a Native American baby's diaper was fashioned out of rabbit fur and soft moss. How long before a celeb gets wind of this and launches their own range!

Californian immigrants arrive at Sutter Fort

A short walk brought us to Sutter's Fort, a state historic park, a long standing, gated fort right bang smack in the middle of Sacramento city. Sutter was a Swiss gent who came to the US seeking fame and fortune in the 1800s (join the queue buddy). Apparently he brought his hay mattress from Switzerland with him (clearly his Mother forgot to tell him they had shops in America too).

After arriving in Sac, mattress in hand, he built a fort, not the cushions and pillow variety ( It was a working fort with a bakery, a gunsmith, a mill, and a blanket factory (got to have something to throw on that mattress).

Sutter was given Mexican citizenship (California was part of Mexico at the time) in return for keeping the local Native Americans in check. He put them to work, alongside some Hawaiians (he had done a stint down Maui way it seems). The Mexican government gave him the power to issue Americans with passports (an eccentric power driven entrepreneur who lived within a wall and was in charge of immigration, hmm, ring any bells).

"Rock me Mama like a wagon wheel"

Sutter’s Fort grew as people were sucked in by the offer of free food and lodgings in turn for hard labour within the industrious fort. He set about building a sawmill on the American River (maybe he wanted a bed to go with that precious mattress of his!). It wasn't long before his builder found a nugget of gold, that was in Jan 1848, word spread like wildfire and by 1849 the Goldrush in California was well under way.

Sutter and his fort could not handle the number of miners that appeared in Sacramento. A series of bad deals drove him out of business and out of town. Swindler, visionary, friend or foe, Sutter left his mark. Looking back in history Sutter, his fort, and maybe that ole mattress of his, are considered a pivotal point in the development of a modern (American) California. Sutter’s Fort drew people to California in search of work, adventure, and gold, gold, gold.

Turtle time at Mr McGregors Garden

We had the pleasure of visiting Patrick and Erin again recently and they took us to Fairytale Town. It was built over 50 years ago, it is like a back-to-basics Disneyland, and it rocks. It’s within a beautiful park and all of the attractions are based on kids books. From Humpty Dumpty’s Bridge, to Jack and Beanstalk, through Sherwood Forest, across Mr McGregor’s Garden, over the Pirate Ship, along the Yellow Brick Road to Pooh Corner, it provides endless mountains of fun.

Sure play a mean pinball

The heat and hunger drove us out of the fairytale and on to brunch. We feasted in a great local spot that Patrick and Erin know well, Dad’s Kitchen, whose tag line is ‘It’s not your Mom’s cooking’. It has pinball machines, 'nuff said.

Driving back to San Francisco from Sacramento, I wanted to make one more stop along the Motherlode (the area in California where gold was found, and boomtowns boomed). We pulled into the town of Auburn. Apparently it is a famous place for endurance running, I’m more of an endurance stroller. There was a shop devoted to cowboy hats and saddles, the lady kindly let Róisín hop up on a saddle and bronco her heart out.

"Cut 'em out, ride 'em in, rawhide"

A huge stone statue of a man panning for gold fronts the town, a reminder of time gone by. It was created by a dentist called Ken Fox. His original work was not that popular in town so aside from the goldrush statue which the town sanctioned, some of his original sculptures are hidden away in places like the carpark of his old dentistry practice! It’s extremely unreal to come across a 40 foot statue of an Amazon Archer sitting in between a Subaru and a Prius!

A parking attendant, not to be messed with

America, the home of ingenuity… and the California King size mattress ;)

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  1. Sacramento sounds so beautiful, love that it’s kept it’s Wild West feel. Want to!


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