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Weekend on the run: South

I'll admit it. I am one of those Californians with a coastal bias. I like crashing waves and rolling fog and sleepy surfer towns along Highway 1.

But maybe that's because this is the landscape I know best. So when I was assigned to go south for a weekend without reservations, I was looking forward to exploring parts of California I know nothing about. I wanted to overcome my bias. I was going to give this Golden State a chance.

Jeff and I headed out Saturday with a full tank of gas and a small cooler full of snacks. We took Highway 160 out of town and down into the Sacramento River Delta.

Winding along the scenic levee road, we drove past vineyards and pear orchards on one side and jet-skiers and boaters on the other. When we got to Courtland, we were intrigued by a mysterious old building and a small, florescent, hand-written sign that said "Fiesta de Alex, aqui."

We followed the signs until we heard Tejano music drifting from a back yard where two men in cowboy hats were tending huge pots of food. Alex's fiesta clearly hadn't gotten started yet, and since we weren't invited anyway, we decided to check out the stately white building that had caught our attention from the road.

We climbed up its grand staircase and peeked through the windows. Visible above the regal columns of its exterior was the faint inscription: Bank of Courtland.

Elsewhere in town, folks were getting ready for the annual Pear Fair, setting out bails of hay and putting up a beer garden.

We got back on the road and next stopped in Locke. The funky old town was founded in 1915 when, after the Chinese quarter in Walnut Grove burned down, a group of displaced agriculture workers approached landowner George Locke and asked if they could build on his land.

Locke's rustic Main Street looks today as if it hasn't changed much since then. Rough sidewalks are covered by arcades, paint peels from the buildings, and signs on many of the shops are written in Chinese characters. Only 30 miles south of Sacramento, Locke feels almost a world away.

We stopped at the Dai Loy Museum on Main Street where, for a $1.25 admission fee, we learned about the history of both the town and the building where the museum now sits. It was once a gambling hall, docent Julie Rose told us. Displays show artifacts used in the games -- dealers tables, dice, mah-jongg tiles and chips -- as well as pieces from daily life -- medicine bottles, plum brandy jars, baskets and iron knuckles.

Farther down Main Street, we popped into the Joe Shoong Chinese School, which is no longer a school but a museum. An old-fashioned one-room schoolhouse, it opened in 1926 to serve the Chinese children of Locke. They needed their own school because laws for much of the 20th century forbade Americans of Chinese descent from owning real estate, marrying non-Chinese people, testifying in court against a white person and attending public schools.

The stop in Locke was a vivid history lesson. It wasn't quite dinnertime, so we skipped the Chinese restaurants in town and headed to Isleton. While roaming its charming Main Street, I spotted a bed-and-breakfast that looked like my kind of place -- the Delta Daze Inn. From the street I could see two comfy chairs and a ton of foliage hanging from a romantic balcony.

But it was still too early to call it a day, so we got back in the car and headed east. That was where things started to go a bit wrong.

Aimless in the Delta offers a lot of surprising treasures, but aimless in the Central Valley is a tough assignment. We stopped in Stockton, drove around the deserted downtown and pulled over to check out the ornate, but vacant, Fox Theater. Then we went back to the freeway.

I had read about a small town called Newman; we decided that would be our destination for the night. Pulling into town, we happened upon a church sale, where, after a bit of rummaging, we asked about where we could stay. There was just one motel in town, the man said, but it was where the "transients" lived.

Not quite what I had in mind.

So we would keep driving, but not before eating dinner on (yet another) Main Street. That was when things perked up. Downtown Newman was a thriving, convivial place on this Saturday night. Kids played ball, couples strolled to and from the restaurants and bars along the strip, and teenagers watched it all from sidewalk park benches.

Among the places to eat in town, we settled on El Campestre Dos because it boasted "authentic Mexican food" and a good-looking dining room. The food was delicious, and we enjoyed gazing at the two huge murals depicting rural life in the San Joaquin Valley.

Hoping to catch a performance, we stopped at the West Side Theater, beautifully restored and dating from the 1940s. But their season hadn't yet begun -- we missed out on seeing a community theater rendition of "The King and I."

By then it was dark and we needed to figure out where we were going to stay. Back to I-5. Exit Santa Nella. Discover the armpit of the Central Valley.

Santa Nella was a sprawling truck stop, where all I could see in the dim of the night was one neon sign after the next advertising fast food and mediocre accommodations. We landed at Motel 6. The evening was careening downhill.

At least there'd be HBO, I thought. I bought ice cream at a gas station and headed back to see what movie was on TV.

All I could find was boxing.

Could this get any worse?

I turned off the TV. Jeff fetched earplugs from the car to drown out the roar of passing trucks outside the window. I fell asleep astounded at my poor planning. Why hadn't we stayed at one of the cozy B&Bs on any of the main streets we had visited that day?

The good thing about staying at a Motel 6 in Santa Nella is that you have no reason to dawdle the next morning. We were up early, eager to move on. Driving west through golden hills, the smell of garlic hit me as soon as we entered Gilroy. I insisted on a quick stop at the factory outlet stores.

Then we continued west. With each mile, I felt more at home as the temperature cooled and the air moistened. The golden hills turned into green forests as we descended into Santa Cruz.

We drove straight to the Mystery Spot, a bizarre patch of hillside 150 feet wide where the laws of physics are said not to apply. A strange force that scientists have not been able to explain pulls gravity at an angle here. At the center of the spot, you'll find that everyone's leaning in one direction, that balls can roll up a slope and that water poured from a bottle falls diagonally to the ground. Romping around a crooked cabin on the hill, we played with the strange physics, and got a little loopy from the things the Mystery Spot does to your head.

We decided to head back along the coast and stopped for dinner in Half Moon Bay. I had tried to find beauty in the hot, interior flatlands, but in the end was still pulled to the horizon.


Travel wise: Meandering south to Santa Cruz

Locke: The historic Chinese town is about 30 miles south of Sacramento on Highway 160. The Dai Loy Museum is at 13951 Main St. Hours are 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission $1.25 general, 75 cents for students and children. With advance reservations, the museum also conducts walking tours of Locke for $2 per person. For more information: (916) 776-1661 or www.locketown.com

Newman: The town is about 100 miles south of Sacramento off Highway 33. El Campestre Dos restaurant is at 1452 Main St.; (209) 862-1681. The West Side Theater is also on Main Street; (209) 862-4061. "The King and I" shows through Aug. 25. Tickets are $12.

Motel 6, Santa Nella: The motel is just off the Interstate 5 in Santa Nella at 12733 South Highway 33. Rooms are $49.99 per night. For reservations: (209) 826-6644 or (800) 466-8356 or www.motel6.com.

Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz: This venerable amusement spot, dating to the 1930s, is at 1953 Branciforte Drive. Admission is $5 general, $3 ages 5-11, under 5 free. For more information: (831) 423-8897 or www.mystery-spot.com

Cetrella Restaurant: A great place for lunch, it's at 845 Main St. in Half Moon Bay; (650) 726-4090.

- Laurel Rosen

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