City Portrait: Sacramento Shining

Text: Christian Neuhauser • Photography: Christian Neuhauser

When explorer Gabriel Moraga "discovered" what the Maidu Indians already knew about in 1808, a lush, incredibly fruitful valley at the confluence of two great rivers, he named it after the Holy Sacrament. Forty years later, as news of another discovery even more appealing spread, a virtual river of men converged on the spot. And then...

...the Neuhausers, waiting for all the excitement to die down, arrived in Sacramento, the capital of California, on four Ducatis in 2003. Our expectations were mixed. Some people who never laid eyes on the place wondered why we wanted to tour a "cow town" and, given the current state of California politics, we weren't sure what the environment would be like with over 100 fruit loops running for governor.

Early in the morning, 6 AM, the streets are still cold. Christa, Manuel, and Florian sleep off the effects of yesterday's three hours in the saddle from San José. I sit on a bench gathering impressions near the Pony Express monument in Old Sacramento (once the western terminus of that postal enterprise) and wonder what those riders felt like at the end of a "shift" in the saddle.

Like imagery filling a stanza, people enter the scene. Preparing the stage for the visual poetry of the day, the street sweepers arrive. A few groggy shopkeepers come next. Barflies straggle home. Mr. Lee opens his store across the road: soft drinks, fruit, and candy. Briefcase bobbing into view, a smartly attired, early bird businesswoman clicks the sidewalk squares, coffee steam piping from her covered cup. Traffic picks up. No signs of "real" horses, cowboys, or cattle anywhere.

Much different back in 1839. A Swiss clock merchant's clerk named Johann Augustus Sutter arrived with a 48,000-acre land grant in hand from the Mexican government. His party of settlers erected Sutter's Fort where the American River flows into the Sacramento River. Future growth of the community depended on harvesting large trees for more homes; so Sutter wandered up the American River an hour east and began to build a sawmill for the tall evergreens he found by a fast-flowing stream in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Sutter's Mill was completed in 1847. A year later, January 24th to be exact, while conducting an inspection of the millrace, James Marshall saw something glittering in the water.

Old Sacramento boomed. In a heartbeat the settlement grew to house 10,000 inhabitants. Naturally, with all the humanity flowing through to the gold fields, Sacramento became a major transportation hub, contributing mightily to the westward expansion of the US. People, horses, cattle, oxen, and dreams came from everywhere. Along with the Pony Express, Wells Fargo set up its California base there, and the city served as the headquarters of the transcontinental railroad, the Central Pacific. You should know the rest.

California quickly became a state: "The Golden State." Sacramento became its capital. Nearby, the recently renovated capitol stands, with the gleaming golden cupola symbolizing the avaricious provenance of the past. It also represents a crowning irony today. Legislators "working" beneath all that glorious gilt saddled "The Golden State" with a $ 38 billion deficit in 2003.

Oh, but the sky is a brilliant blue, and I hear that singular Ducati sound in triplicate before they turn the corner. The muses take flight. Riding down West Capitol Avenue we swallow line after painted line. Red and yellow, the bikes brush off the morning commute. It's nothing to them because lane splitting is allowed in California, proving that legislators are sometimes good for something. What a great law!

And then we come upon the breathtaking view of the State Capitol, truly one of the most beautiful buildings of its kind, situated in the middle of an outstanding park filled with subtropical vegetation. Later on the corner of L and 27th Streets we pass another picturesque building. The whitewashed adobe reconstruction of Fort Sutter on its original site now contains relics from pioneer days and the Gold Rush era.

We curve through a nice neighborhood along the American River. My sons Manuel, guiding the Monster, and Florian, steering the SS1000, are doing a great job in city traffic. But they're not quite up to snuff for one impatient Harley guy who skillfully weaves his heavyweight between our bikes and the cars.

We peel off on a little loop to escape the rush. By the way, Sacramento is a great place from which to launch a series of wonderful tours in the surrounding area. Reno, Lake Tahoe, wine country, San Francisco, and the Pacific Coast are all within a two-hour ride. This particular loop of ours brings us out on Hwy 49 between Placerville and Auburn and I can tell I'm on the right bike. I open the throttle on my 749 and the boys, and Christa (on the Multistrada) follow easily. For a few miles, loosening the reins so to speak, we give our motorcycles time and room to show us their thoroughbred temperaments.

Almost twilight when we turn on Second Street. Old Town Sacramento - with 53 buildings National Landmarks and the area designated a State Historic Park, with its cobblestone streets, shops, fine restaurants, boardwalk, festivals, and museums - attracts more than five-million visitors a year. And rarely a horse or cow among them.

The street lamps glow and it's about time for us to settle in front of a Mexican feast. We find a nice spot for gorging in a second-floor restaurant, La Terraza. We take our seats on the balcony and watch the sun sink behind the Tower Bridge. Poetry returns amid the crowded boardwalks: a mountain man saws his fiddle, kitsch sells briskly in the souvenir shops, night filters imperceptibly, lights switch on, a different glow enthralls...

Tomorrow we have to leave. But as a most illustrious countryman and but one in the horde vying for residence in Sacramento's governor's mansion so often says, "I'll be back."