Across the great valley

Descending from the foothills, Northern California's Highway 20 enters the valley

Descending from the foothills, Highway 20 enters the valley of many rivers: Yuba, Feather, Sacramento. These waterways are the reason this place is so fertile, why the area is full of leafy walnut and fruit orchards, rice fields, and rippling fields of hay.

Highway 20 lingers for about 75 miles in the Sacramento Valley, passing the twin cities of Marysville and Yuba City. To appreciate them, you need to get off the highway. Once away from this busy section of Highway 20 (where it merges briefly with State 70), you'll find that Marysville has a stately, old-fashioned downtown and gorgeously ornate civic buildings and houses.

The center of the action here is the Brick Coffeehouse Café. The heat has risen and the street is still, but inside, fans whir while fruit smoothies and iced lattes energize.

Lifelong area resident Don Blaser opened the cafe in May 2003 with his wife, Lavina. His goal was to enliven Marysville's downtown by giving it a center, and it seems to be working. "The cafe has grown faster than we thought," he says. "The response has been ― well, at times, it's been embarrassing, people have been so complimentary."