It's one of those glorious late-winter days in California's Sacramento River Delta. Mare's tail clouds stretch across a windy blue sky, and rays of sun dance off the silvery river as we drive one of the Delta's best backroads, State 160.
While the entire route is a more pleasant (albeit slower) way to get from the San Francisco Bay Area to Sacramento, the best part of the drive is some 45 miles of winding, levee-top road roughly midway between the two urban areas. State 160 starts just east of Antioch, where it crosses the San Joaquin River and plops down onto Sherman Island. Traffic disappears as the road moves along the levees that edge the Sacramento River.
This time of year, the wide Sacramento is set against a pastoral backdrop of rolling hills, all greened up. Acres of mustard blaze across low, flat pastures. In orchards, walnut trees are beginning to push out new leaves alongside the occasional pink explosion of a flowering plum tree.
Matching our pace to that of the local farm equipment that sometimes shares the road, we drive slowly, pausing at Brannan Island State Recreation Area's Windy Cove to dig into a cache of snacks we've brought. On the river, anglers float by in wide, flat-bottomed boats, fishing for sturgeon or striped bass as the river rolls toward San Francisco Bay.
Small towns to explore
Back on State 160, the view opens up. We can see how these mounded dirt levees hold back the water. Built mostly by Chinese labor around 1870, the levees are memorials to California's Asian heritage. Today, roads link a lacework of small communities like Isleton, Locke, and Walnut Grove, all of which were home to thriving Chinese populations from the 1870s to around 1915.
Pulling off State 160, we wander through Isleton. Founded in 1874, the town celebrates its Asian heritage each year with a small but spirited Chinese New Year celebration: Two days of events include lion dancers, rickshaw races, and a parade.
On Main Street, we pass buildings and a small park before stopping at Summer Wind Stained Glass. Inside, artist Karen Franscioni puts down the stained-glass window she's working on to tell us about the town. "There's a sense of the past here that we really love," she notes.
Back on the winding, two-lane blacktop, we pause at the restored Ryde Hotel near Walnut Grove. Once a rousing speakeasy, it's now a small inn; touches of art deco design reflect the hotel's Roaring '20s heyday.
Heading east toward Walnut Grove, we pause near the turnoff that eventually leads to the Phil and Marilyn Isenberg Sandhill Crane Reserve. We can hear the cranes' bugling calls overhead―thousands overwinter in the Sacramento Valley―and we watch a flock fly past before continuing to Locke.
Chinese history and culture
Locke, which was founded in 1915, isn't as old as Isleton, but it is unique. It's the only town left in America built by and exclusively for Chinese. Here, they carved out an agricultural Eden, with pear orchards and produce gardens.
Locke gradually faded, its young people drawn to the cities. Today, its weathered buildings are picturesque and ramshackle. Main Street is narrow, with second-story balconies that lean like tipsy sailors. At the Locke Chinese School, circa 1926, Locke's children would get daily lessons―after public school classes―on Chinese language and culture. Now a museum, the school houses a small but poignant display about Locke's history; pick up a free walking-tour brochure.
Just down the street is an early Chinese casino, now the Dai Loy Museum. Dai Loy, which means big welcome, was built as a gambling hall in 1916 and operated until the 1950s. It has been splendidly preserved; the tiles on Fan Tan and Pai Gow tables look as if the players have just stepped away. Another local landmark is Al's Place, a popular hangout better known for its raucous bar than its pedestrian food―but it has plenty of atmosphere.
Although its place on the National Register of Historic Places is secure, Locke's future was once dicey, threatened by the town's crumbling infrastructure. Owned until recently by a private company, the town was ineligible to receive public funding. Now Locke is in the process of being purchased by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, and long-overdue improvements are promised.
Climbing back into our car and easing onto the highway again, we pass orchards, drawbridges, and small, neat farmhouses. Locke isn't the only Delta remnant of a slower, simpler time. It's just the most obvious.