Where the Heart is: Sacramento is the Midwest of California

Lady Bird said it best: “I have to get out of Sacramento … Because it’s soul-killing. It’s the Midwest of California.”

I’ve wanted to get out of Sacramento for as long as I can remember.

When I was 14, I daydreamed of attending university in the Great Lakes region, over 3,200 kilometres away. For all of high school, I worked hard and maintained a near-perfect GPA just for a shot to leave. To get on an airplane east and never look back.

When the fall of 2019 came, I found myself at home attending the local community college. It felt like all the sleepless nights and tears over A-’s had not paid off. But I didn’t let my dream completely die. I would find a way to escape the hellscape that is Sacramento. I realized that all my dream colleges would never be feasible, so I turned north.

While UBC is only a 14-hour drive away from home, 1,600 kilometres between Sacramento and me would suffice.

My scheme only sort of worked out. As acceptances rolled out, the world shut down. Moving to Vancouver in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t really an option, as a new international transfer student. I was still stuck in Sacramento, despite a (digital) acceptance letter and impending tuition payments. It was frustrating being able to taste my great escape but it was still out of reach. But in my extra two years stuck at home, Sacramento would come to surprise me.

In November 2019, I got my first semi-permanent job at a dance store. At the time, I told my manager I would only be staying until next September.

I ended up staying almost two years, until June 2021.

The job itself was a pretty standard retail job — keeping things organized, operating the cash register and being nice to customers. It was tiring, but I didn’t mind it. I liked my co-workers and the customers introduced me to a whole new part of Sacramento.

I grew up on the southwest side of Elk Grove, Sacramento’s largest southern suburb. The west side of the suburb is basically an extension of the city, whereas the east is more rural. So living on the southern corner of the west side meant in a five-minute drive west or south you would begin to see the rolling hills of farmland.

The dance store was in East Sacramento, a 30-40 minute drive away, depending on which route you take. East Sacramento is the wealthy neighbourhood depicted in Lady Bird. Driving through the grandeur of the old houses of that neighbourhood every day, I realized that the city that I called home was much more than just the basic, less than 20-year-old, cookie-cutter houses of Elk Grove.

We were the only major dance store in Northern California outside of the Bay Area, so a wide range of customers would come through. Some had fascinating stories, like the woman in her mid-to-late 20s who came in looking for ballet slippers. As I was helping her find a pair of Sansha Pros, she told me she was from Columbus, Ohio and over the past ten years or so, she had been all over California but loved Sacramento because it had the most midwestern feel out of all the cities.

That stuck with me. I never really considered that people might actually choose to live in Sacramento and like it. My parents had only moved there because my dad’s job had relocated them. We never really talked about whether they liked Sacramento or not. It also stuck with me because she was the first person I had heard call Sacramento midwestern. Since then, I’ve told people that Sacramento is the Columbus of California.

Like everyone else during the quarantine at the start of the pandemic, I was bored. I began taking different routes to work and requesting library books to be sent to locations across town just to try and keep myself entertained.

I did a lot of driving. I drove around Carmichael, Fair Oaks and Ardem/Arcade — on the other side of the American river which flows east to west before merging with the north-to-south flowing Sacramento River.

On September 21, 2020, I drove the country roads behind my house along the Sacramento River for the first time. I ended up driving from a small town called Walnut Grove, through vineyards and farms, into downtown Sacramento and having my breath taken away by the views. Until this point, I had only driven the freeways and urban roads, always with a destination in mind. But as I drove simply to see where the road would lead me, I had the thought, “I could be happy here" — feeling I previously thought impossible.

Two hours from the mountains and two hours from the Pacific Ocean, with the state capital, a skyline dotted by an iconic bridge and a handful of skyscrapers and the state capital: Sacramento is much more interesting than I ever gave it credit for. With a population of almost 500,000 in the city alone and over a million in the metropolitan areas, it’s home to a diverse and vibrant cultural scene, you might expect in a large city, as well as a notoriously bad NBA team with an extremely loyal fan base (you’ve been warned). But it lacks the anonymity of a huge city, so the people there are some of the friendliest in the world — probably what gives it its midwestern feel.

In summer 2021, I got my Lady Bird happy ending. In June, I took in the view of the city coming down from the mountains for the last time. I worked my final shift at the dance store. My last drive with my beloved Prius was on I-5 south from Sacramento to Elk Grove on the night of June 29. On June 30, my parents helped me load my two suitcases and a couple of other bags into the trunk of my mom’s white Toyota Sienna, and we headed south to Los Angeles. I flew from LAX to YVR on Thursday, July 7, after a couple of hectic hours. I cried when I hugged my parents goodbye and I cried again when the plane flew over Sacramento.

I’m glad things went wrong and I had to stay. Staying didn’t kill my soul. Instead, I fell in love with the city that I had spent so long trying to escape.

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