24 December 2011, from To the levee

It’s long since dark, and I’m driving straight south, as you do here in the Sacramento Valley. I’m racing down the 5, a rarity on this trip, but I figure a good idea, as I can only imagine the thick fog on the small country roads. Sure enough, my exit from the freeway leads me directly into the thick tule fog that is characteristic of the valley. I can see perhaps twenty feet ahead of me; the rest is a white explosion, made worse with the high-beams.

Writing this now, thinking about that night, I remember the towns of Walnut Grove, Ryde, the old Chinese village of Locke, maybe Courtland and Paintersville and Vorden, but cannot remember the road itself. The fog has remained, lodged here in my memory.

Finally I arrive in Isleton, the little town which I’d figured to be the approximate center of the Delta, and which contained the Hotel Del Rio, which had its birth in 1949, is now in a shadowy middle-age, but still open for business. I’d phoned the Del Rio once I’d reached the valley, and had been told that yes, there was a room still available, a kitchenette no less, and that the price was a flat $50 per night — cash only. And, on account of my late arrival, that I should check in with Dennis at the bar downstairs.

The fog carries me into town like a pure-white wool carpet, and deposits me in front of the Del Rio, where there is a gaggle of smokers congregating on its outside patio. I’m cooly acknowledged, in the nature of small towns everywhere, but I detect a strain of friendliness, less commonly found. At the bar, I introduce myself to Dennis, and he brings out the registration notebook. There’s a registration form, already filled out with the amount; Dennis says I don’t need to do anything but sign my unreadable signature. So I am anonymous here: I’ve shown up, I’ve paid my dollars, and that’s all that’s necessary.

At the bar sit about a half-dozen folks, clearly regulars from their jocularity. I find a seat at the counter, a seat or two over from the others, and order a beer. (Later, my mom made sure I’d not tried to order something fancy; I assured her whatever I ordered was clearly there on tap, right next to the Budweiser.)

Almost immediately, a woman in her fifties comes over and sits in the empty seat next to me. ‘So, you visiting here?’ she asks. ‘Yes, I’m a photographer, and come over for a couple of days to explore.’ Her eyes grow bright, and she immediately tells me about the birds she’s seen, down off Highway 12, on the way to Rio Vista, right after the bridge, on Bouldin Island. There are lots of ‘islands’ here, but most of them don’t appear to be so: by World War II, the area had been largely ‘reclaimed,’ the once-separate islands converted to points and inlets, or simple large swatches of marshland.

The lady at the bar — who now has told me she delivers the mail to the towns and surrounding areas — is my best friend. I ask her about the Delta, places where tourists don’t tend to go. She pauses, then says: ‘Collinsville. I’ve never been there.’ She describes approximately where it is, probably an easy twenty-mile drive from the bar where we sit. ‘I’ve heard there’s an old lady who runs a tavern there. She opens up only when she feels like it. Maybe you can find her.’

Later, as I settle into my compact room, I can hear the last music from the bar below. The jukebox plays vaguely familiar strains of classic rock. As I slide into sleep, Don MacLean’s ‘American Pie’ reverberates through the thin walls of the hotel: ‘Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.’ I fall to sleep wondering whether this is some sacred last-song ritual of every evening at the Del Rio.