He spent five years on the road. Here are the weirdest things he saw in California

The Museum of Death on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles was one of the offbeat places visited by Sam McManis during his time as The Bee’s “California Traveler.”
The Museum of Death on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles was one of the offbeat places visited by Sam McManis during his time as The Bee’s “California Traveler.” The Sacramento Bee

For five years, journalist Sam McManis tried to find the real California. Not the glossy Hollywood version or the stereotypical haven of left coast craziness; instead, McManis searched for offbeat places and people that embodied the unique spirit of his home state.

What he found often surprised and dumbfounded readers, but always proved truth is way stranger than fiction.

“There was no doubt that something about California inspires – and maybe infuriates,” McManis wrote. “My mission was to find out what that something was.”

As The Sacramento Bee’s “California Traveler,” McManis became a tour guide bent on finding attractions and curiosities overlooked by other experts. The results of his journeys fill a new book, “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness” (Craven Street Books, 280 pages, $14.95).

McManis, who now teaches English literature at Central Washington University, returns to Sacramento to appear at The Bee Book Club on March 21. He’ll also do readings that same week at some local bookstores and libraries. A major portion of proceeds from the book will go toward scholarships for young California journalists.

A compilation of his favorite Bee columns, the paperback meanders from broiling desert to shining sea, from traffic-clogged metropolis to wind-swept Sierra. In a (semi-)trusty white Hyundai hybrid, McManis traversed the entire 796.4 miles from Oregon to Mexico with many, many side trips in between.

Crossing California Cover
“Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness” (Craven Street Books) includes about 70 essays by former Sacramento Bee travel columnist Sam McManis. Craven Street Books

“I never flew, always drove,” McManis said in a phone interview. “That way, I could cram more into every trip. I can’t tell you how many times I drove down (Interstate) 5 or (Highway) 99.”

Imagine Huell Howser minus the golly and with a far more sophisticated sense of humor, seeking out the oddball destinations less visited. McManis, who began his travels for The Bee in 2011, said he felt skeptical of his assignment from from the outset.

“I had never been a travel writer before,” said McManis, who had covered a wide range of topics from sports to media for several major California newspapers. “I said to (my editors), ‘I’ll do it, but I don’t want it to be a traditional travel beat. ... I wanted to write about interesting people in interesting places.’ My biggest surprise? They said OK.”

During his adventures, McManis wrote more than 200 columns (plus many more travel features). About 70 essays appear in the book, broken down into common themes: Life in the desert, Los Angeles, San Francisco, new age adventures, roadside attractions and outsider art.

“I still have places I intended to go to, but never got to,” he said. “California is a big state with tiny places you would never expect.”

Editing his book gave him a chance to reflect on what a long strange trip it had been. Among his favorite destinations: A meditation retreat in Nevada City where he had to maintain silence for 48 hours. (“I can’t stay silent three minutes,” he wrote.)

“I was able to expand on some essays and add stuff that wasn’t in the original story,” he noted. “Like the visit to the fetish porn museum in San Francisco that used to be a munitions armory. I could put in the book things that didn’t make it into print the first time in a family newspaper. I could talk about vats of Vaseline.”

Sam McManis Randall Benton

McManis, who grew up in Orange County, also expanded his essay on that iconic California destination: Disneyland. “Small World, Big Pain: Confessions of a Disney Agnostic” recounts his grown-up visit to a magic kingdom not made for a single adult male.

“Disneyland overlords, all about branding and stealth marketing, apparently have an in-house name for the likes of me: ‘Non-family Guest,’” he wrote. “Hey, I’ve been called worse.

“It’s nothing derisive – derision and mockery, after all, is verboten at ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ – but I cannot help but feel the term connotes something vaguely sad and pathetic, a sense of displacement, as if you’re that odd-man-out guest at a Thanksgiving dinner, welcome but not quite accepted, superfluous even, the answer to the old children’s book game of what’s-wrong-with-this-picture. But that’s just me, long a sufferer of intense, sometimes crippling, self-consciousness.”

McManis had to get over that inner urge to flee, again and again, as he blended into a TV sit-com audience (“laughter on command”), tagged along on a L.A. tour de noir (“only a sap would be out on a day like this”) or hang out (“virginally inkless”) with Madame Chinchilla at the tattoo museum.

“When I met people, I wanted to know what made them tick,” he said, “like the guy who was building a world history museum out of granite. Why? I used to get lots of letters from readers (that started), ‘I’d never go there, but that was fun to read.’”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Sacramento Bee Book Club welcomes Sam McManis

Author and former Sacramento Bee travel columnist Sam McManis will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. March 21 in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.

Tickets are $10. Buy tickets at Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free. Copies of McManis’ new book, “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness,” will be available for purchase. McManis also will personally autograph copies.

Proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education program, serving more than 20,000 students in the region.

In addition to his Bee Book Club appearance, McManis will discuss his new book at the following free events:

▪ March 17, 6 p.m., Napa Bookmine, 964 Pearl St., Napa

▪ March 18, 4 p.m., Avid Reader, 617 2nd St., Davis

▪ March 20, 6:30 p.m., Sacramento Public Library, Galt Branch, 1000 Caroline Ave., Galt

▪ March 22, 6:30 p.m., McKinley Library, Clunie Clubhouse, 601 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento