Intrepid Reporter Pursues the Hidden California

by on April 10, 2018

I have lived my entire life in California and been through much of the state. But after reading Sam McManis’ rollicking new book, Crossing California, showed me just how many places I have missed.

McManis is the longtime travel writer for the Sacramento Bee. I met him in 2015 when he interviewed me about the opening of the Tenderloin Museum. A longer version of that interview is in the book, as well as other Tenderloin stories. McManis also writes about the Mission, North Beach and Haight-Ashbury in a unique style that uncovers  insights about these neighborhoods that even longtime residents may not know.

McManis took on an assignment that I would not wish on anyone: to drive up and down this traffic-heavy state in search of stories for a new section in the Bee called “California Traveler.” He writes in the introduction that he suspected that the travel editor had an ulterior motive—“to get me as far away from the Sacramento Bee office as the travel budget allowed.”

He spent five years on the road. This book includes some of his best stories.

Familiar v. Unfamiliar

The book’s stories can be divided between accounts of places you have never been to and maybe not even heard of and cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles where McManis’ keen eye offers perspectives you likely have missed. So if you’ve always felt bad about not driving through Imperial, Riverside, San Bernadino, Kern and other non-urban counties, this book helps  fill you in.

I was more interested in reading McManis’ takes on places where I have been. And boy does he capture my home city of Los Angeles well.

McManis’ take on the new downtown LA (now DTLA) is alone worth picking up the book. His story on the renovated Clifton’s Cafeteria may have been my favorite, as he skillfully captures customers explaining their reaction to the reopening of a now somewhat upscale downtown institution that gave food away for free during the Depression. Should we criticize the “gentrification” of Cliftons? Or appreciate its return in any form, considering that it does still serve jello.

McManis takes a lot of the tours you may have heard about, including one of Scientology’s Hollywood headquarters. And some you probably haven’t heard about, like Hollywood’s “Dearly Departed: The Tragical History Tour.”

I loved his take on Disneyland. He allows readers to harken back to their own experiences at the park, a purported Fantasyland filled with the realities of crying children, long lines, and unhealthy food. But McManis is no curmudgeon; he concludes his visit with his “skepticism drying up like the vast Mojave.”

The man can write.

The one mystery is how McManis missed writing about Berkeley and Santa Cruz. These cities seem made for his archly comic approach.  He may have felt too much has already written about Berkeley but the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and its beaches provide lots of fodder for travel writers. I missed McManis sharing his experience riding the Giant Dipper, the iconic red & white wooden roller coaster built in 1924 that overlooks the beach and wharf. Or writing about the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum.

Yes, California is a huge state and choices had to be made. And McManis likely provides a greater diversity of California locales than in comparable books.

So if you want to have fun reading about the less publicized side of California, I strongly recommend Crossing California. The great travel writers are able to bring a unique perception to what we all observe—-and Sam McManis exhibits this skill in every story.

Randy Shaw is editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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