Bucolic charm, swimming pigs, and a passenger’s poeticization of rivers in the California Delta

Disco music pumps from the speakers, shaking the floors of the riverside restaurant-bar. Dressed in jean shorts, a maroon tank top, and black flip-flops, the bar-tender dances along to it. A tattoo of a fish (or is it a dolphin?) on her right bicep glitters and shimmies as she stirs mojitos and hands change to the customers.

 Twelve women wearing black baseball caps guzzle bottles of Heineken in front of the bar, which is shaped like the bow of a wooden ship. Their aqua shirts display the words “Delta Darlings” spelled out in black cursive writing across the chest.

From my seat at the bar, where I sip from an iced coffee and stand out from the fishers and regulars with my yoga pants and bougie request for iced coffee, I look out at the blue-grey water behind them. An occasional jet ski or motor boat cuts through, leaving foamy ripples in its trail. Tall green grass swayed back and forth by a light breeze sprouts up from the water, reminding me of the shaggy do of a mythical marsh creature. 

Far off in the distance, tiny cars whiz by on the small slits of road that cut through the cornfields. 

Fishers and boaters make up the bulk of the clientele (many of whom are regulars) here at Moore’s Riverboat in the California delta. Located between Sacramento and Stockton, the delta is a place that Sacramento News and Review reporter Evan Duran describes as home to “acres upon acres of farmland plays home to pear orchards, olive groves, grape vineyards, and everything else in between.”

Other delta towns include Ryde, where a delivery service once ran through a tunnel under the river into the speakeasy of the town’s historic hotel (during the times of Prohibition).

You can rent kayaks, paddle to the delta’s small islands, and pick blackberries from your boat.

One reviewer on Yelp referred to Locke as a “half-abandoned, chipped paint-shingled time capsule,” as well as a “Chinese-inflected Old West ghost town.”  

In Isleton, the delta splits the town in two. Downtown is sleepy, with nearly all the businesses shuttered (though intact and fully furnished), save for one or two bars.

In Terminous, people ride bumper boats through a small roped-off section of the delta, next to a big statue of Yogi bear and bamboo umbrellas shading the wooden deck next to it.

Duran, who writes about how “the small, quaint riverside communities that spring up along the labyrinthine river roads harken back to the steamboat and paddleboat days with their dilapidated charm,” is spot-on in capturing the delta’s essence. Earlier in the day as I drove down the narrow road leading to the lighthouse bar—a thin stretch of smooth black pavement, framed by bucolic looming grass stalks to its right, and the delta water speckled with little islands and marshes to its left— I felt as if I was driving into a quiet painting (when, though, is a painting ever loud? Perhaps a Van Gogh or Picasso?) that was worlds away from the congested, bustling metropolitan area I had started out in. 

I think of Pig Beach in the Bahamas, where snouted pink creatures paddle through turquoise waters.

Other draws of the delta include the Lighthouse Bar and Grill down the road from Moore’s,  which Duran described as “a veritable toy-box of good times for big kids” and “a rollicking, boat-up booze stop in the summer.”

It’s here that I cross paths with a girl carrying a pig, whose small size and docile demeanor lead me to initially mistake him for a puppy. I think of Pig Beach in the Bahamas, where snouted pink creatures paddle through turquoise waters, and wonder if this pig has gone for a swim in the delta— today or ever—or if he’s only ever looked on admiringly at its tranquil beauty from the shore.

Here kids bounce on a water trampoline and thwock a tether ball while their friends slide down a slightly curved waterslide. Bar-goers jump off the orange-red roof of the restaurant-bar and into the marshy water. You can rent kayaks, paddle to the delta’s small islands, and pick blackberries from your boat.

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Trouble in Paradise: the delta water fix project

Peaceful as the surroundings are, I begin learning that not all is pristine and idyllic in the delta towns;  passengers explain they are facing a period of uncertainty as to the future of their towns. Aimed to channel water down to southern California, former governor Jerry Brown’s proposed water fix project threatens to significantly alter the tranquil and secluded life citizens have grown accustomed to living for years on end. 

The project would result in die-off of native wildlife including the Chinook salmon and geese who nest in the delta (which is part of the Pacific Flyway). Additionally, the increase in traffic would make it harder for farmers to move their crops out, while the influx of construction trucks would shift the peaceful vibe of delta towns into an industrial nightmare of raucous machines.

Many Delta town citizens are understandably distraught. What feels most bleak to them in all of it is the lack of say they have in the matter (the decision is not up for state vote and is being handled entirely by the legislature).

I navigate my time here under the shadow of this knowledge. Awareness of its fragile and ephemeral nature brings me greater appreciation of this unique and secluded space.

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Main Passenger Story: Small-town river boy talks connective power of rivers

“Growing up next to a river is different than living on a lake or ocean,” Raymond* says.  “Rivers are water flowing towards a destination. When you’re living on one you just get this one little segment of a larger whole. You see all these things pass by, and so there’s like this feeling of continuity, of being a small part of something bigger. Whereas with a lake, you can see the whole thing. It’s nice but it’s a different experience.” 

Raymond grew up in Walnut Grove, the California delta town with a population of 1,500 that I’m now taking him to. John Sharp founded it in 1850, seeking to take advantage of its abundant supply of walnut and oak trees while also capitalizing on its convenient location as a riverboat stop.

One hand reaches inside a small white bag that I soon learn contains an old-fashioned donut with butterscotch frosting.

When he gets in the first thing I notice is his olive-colored shirt, which falls loosely off his torso. Toned (but not bulgingly muscular) arms poke through the sleeves. His left hand reaches inside a small white bag that I soon learn contains an old-fashioned donut with butterscotch frosting.

As he describes rivers to me, I notice his algae-green eyes, in addition to his pure black, smooth like an eel hair. I can’t gauge whether the theme of our conversation has influenced these associations, or if I would have made them regardless—but I’m pretty sure it’s the former.

Raymond acknowledges that even though he was ready to leave Walnut Grove by the time he turned 18, there are definitely worse small towns to grow up in. 

“I mean, most don’t have a river running through them,” he points out extollingly. 

Tossing pebbles from the green drawbridge into the river was a common past-time of his. While doing this he’d think about the other small towns located along the delta, and the lives of the people living in them. He’d picture driving a boat up the river, picking up different people along the way and hearing their stories.

“Parts of my soul belong in the 1800s,” he jokes.

Fantasies of a bored, stifled kid, or a budding poet and a dreamer? Maybe both, I think.

When I glimpse Raymond in the rearview mirror taking a bite of his donut, he’s holding open the crinkled paper bag directly under his chin to catch the crumbs. The sight brings to mind a little kid playing the part of old man in a game of dress-up—the white paper a comically unconvincing attempt at a beard (with the sheen of its grease stains making it even more so).

Signs for fruit stands start to appear. Cows come into view, grazing determinedly as their tails blow in the wind. The road turns smooth, unobstructed by potholes, cracks, or deep fissures as we drive by a small water tower. To our right, riverboats leave foam and ripples in their tracks. Raymond looks out the window at them, his chin in his hand like a baseball in a mitt.

His phone sounds. The ring tone is The Decemberists, which seems an appropriate auditory accompaniment to the surrounding scenery.

After passing over a tiny green drawbridge (where the gravel under my wheels slows the car a bit), we drive by a taco truck and a cherry stand before I drop Raymond off.

Once our ride is over I wander the tree-lined streets, which have only black pavement and no sidewalks. Small businesses like Mel’s Mocha (a tiny ice cream shop painted lavender) and United States Postal Service dot the road that the river flows parallel to—the closest thing to a “town center” or downtown in Walnut Grove.

I pop my head inside Giusti’s, a bar where trucker hats line the ceiling. A commenter on Yelp writes that they are “allegedly, piled up over the years after being left behind by farmers who drank too many lunchtime beers.”

Ending by a little metal dock next to the river, which the delta current sways, but never moves farther than a few inches from where it’s tied to, I take in the peacefulness. I appreciate the way undiscovered gems retain their authenticity. How they’re quieter and more relaxing than the over-hyped spots. How you don’t go into them with all these expectations.

 I think about how, when writing about places, I’m sometimes tempted to glamorize them. Opulence isn’t the draw of these delta towns though. Rather, it’s their subtlety, down to earth-ness, and history that lend them a quiet charm. 

“That lack of glamor is what makes it special. Its absence keeps people out. It’s undeveloped. There’s room to think, breathe, know yourself. You’re not constantly distracted or scurrying around or trying to be better than someone. 

“I feel like I’m myself when I’m here. When I go to cities, it’s fun for a bit…but then I lose myself,” a passenger will say later.

 Out there on the dock, I envision a younger Raymond, legs dangling above the current that passes slowly beneath him, his toned arms skipping pebbles into the water. I picture him staring out into the distance, arms crossed against his chest, mind on possibilities he hasn’t seen materialize yet but knows to be real. For a brief moment I’m right there with him.

**Check back soon for more Lyft stories. In the meantime you can follow us IG @Lyft_tales

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Photo credits

Moore’s riverboat– https://riverboatmarina.com

California delta– https://www.watereducation.org/aquapedia/sacramento-san-joaquin-delta

Butterscotch donut–https://www.doughboysreno.com/menu/

Pig island– https://www.qantas.com/travelinsider/en/experiences/nature/places-where-animals-outnumber-humans.html

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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