YAKIMA, Wash. -- Yakima and Palm Springs, Calif., both offer public displays that prompt second glances and lively conversations. Yakima has its “Palm Springs of California” billboard, and Palm Springs has Kenny Irwin Jr.’s pink carousel made from toilets.
A goal for Yakima? Perhaps not. But if you’d like to check it out the next time you’re in Southern California, Yakima author Sam McManis can tell you how.
His new book, “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness,” takes readers on the Golden State’s roads less traveled. Or, as in Irwin’s case, to its less-traditional art collections.
“Irwin, 41, has commandeered nearly every inch of the vast backyard of his father, Ken Irwin Sr. — save the swimming pool and a patch of grass on the west flank — for the ongoing work he calls Robo Lights, which draws upward of 30,000 visitors during the Christmas season, a good number around Easter and spring break and a trickle of curious types year-round,” McManis wrote.
The collection of travel essays is McManis’ first book. Until May 2016, he was a lifestyle columnist and feature writer for the Sacramento Bee, covering the entire state of California through columns and stories. McManis previously served as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and has had stories published in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
“These are all essays adapted from columns I wrote for the Sacramento Bee,” McManis said.
You’ll find a lot of roadside attractions in his book, which debuted this month. McManis profiles outsider artists, desert dwellers and Grandma Tressa Prisbrey, whose Simi Valley house is made entirely of bottles.
“I’m very curious about people’s motivations,” McManis said.
He had fun with it. Inspired by authors Susan Orlean and David Foster Wallace, McManis adopts a self-deprecating voice in his musings about his Russian sauna experience, meeting Madame Chinchilla at the Tattoo Museum and embedding himself with “Star Wars” fanatics at a shrine to the space odyssey near creator George Lucas’ house.
“I wanted to educate and entertain, maybe more emphasis on the entertaining,” McManis said. “I spent more time in the desert than I should have.”
He also spent three days at a silent retreat in the Sierra foothills.
“I did not speak for three days,” said McManis, who clearly likes to talk. “I even stayed silent when I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake.”
McManis devoted an entire chapter to San Francisco attractions, because — San Francisco. He plumbed the depths of Los Angeles’ noir heart and forced himself to laugh over and over in the far too many hours it took to tape an episode of “Two Broke Girls.”
McManis teaches part time at Central Washington University, where he is completing a master’s degree in English literature. He led a brown bag craft talk on Feb. 6 about his first book.
“Sam’s book is a collection of many of the wonderful travel pieces he wrote over a five-year period for the Sacramento Bee newspaper,” said Lisa Norris, a Central professor of English who coordinated the event. “It’s been described by one reviewer as a ‘quirky trip through California.’”
His second book is a nonfiction project about Yakima’s Eisenhower High School cross-country team and longtime coach Phil English. Under English, the boy’s squad has won 19 district titles in the past 21 years.