All nine days of West Coast adventure can be found here.

California, There We Went

Day One (April 18, 2014)

in which we fly to San Francisco and think about Warren Harding

The history of America is a history of people moving west. Colonists headed west from England to flee religious persecution, or to dodge taxes, or because they were in debtor's prison. Those who did not flourish in the New World headed west over the mountains, to try their luck amongst the bears and Indians. They were brave and hearty people, many of whom were welshing on gambling debts or avoiding criminal charges.

Society caught up with their children and grandchildren, who promptly headed west over a second set of mountains, in the spirit of adventure, or polygamy, or attempting to sell patent medicine to the uninformed. In the true spirit of Christian brotherhood, some of them also wanted free gold.

The Pacific Ocean, however, was an impassable barrier. So these people settled in California. They established mighty urban centers, to serve as beacons to the East. The rich and bountiful land offered a perpetual promise: "If you have no particularly useful skills and do not enjoy acquiring them, and also maybe you have children you'd rather not financially support, we will accept you." It soon became the largest state.

I had never visited California. I attended a conference in Sacramento once, but I have it on good authority that Sacramento doesn't count. It seems like a place you should tour at least once, to confirm your stereotypes and feel more secure in your elitist East Coast values. So in April 2014, my wife and I boarded a Friday afternoon flight from Washington to San Francisco.

On landing in the evening, we rented a Chrysler LX, which Allyson promptly named "Bendy," because the license plate was slightly bent, and because she enjoys naming things. We drove downtown without incident. At that point, our vacation truly began, for we checked into the Palace Hotel. My standards for vacation hotels are fairly modest. If the room I’m renting has walls, a ceiling and a locking door, I can live with it. My wife likes the finer things in life, like the luxury of knowing that a determined meth addict would need more than 12 seconds to force his or her way into the place where she is sleeping. After carefully weighing both options, we reached a happy compromise and found exactly the kind of hotel she wanted.

The Palace is a grand building, in the great tradition of the Gilded Age. When it was built in 1875, it was the most extravagant hotel in the American West. This clearly angered God, who promptly destroyed it with the earthquake and fire of 1906.

To their credit, Californians have never let God’s will stand in their way. A new Palace was built on the ruins of the old, and by 1909 travelers were once again wallowing in their own crapulence. There’s plenty to love about the Palace. The location is grand – it’s just inches from Market Street, public transportation and high-end shopping. The restaurants seem grand – the Garden Court looks like the kind of place where you should be wearing a coat with tails, or at the very least a monocle. The service is grand – at least five times a day, you will actively wonder if you should have tipped somebody. And in the grandest sign of luxury, you have to pay for Wi-Fi.

I cared about none of those things, but the Palace even had something for me.

Warren Harding wasn’t our greatest president: He was stupid, prone to nervous breakdowns, a bad judge of character and a relentless philanderer. Which is to say, people loved him. But the wheels were starting to come off in the summer of 1923, as Harding and his entourage were kicking off a West Coast tour. A few of Harding’s appointees and buddies were stealing from the government, and the news was just reaching the big boss. Feeling betrayed, he started to sink into a funk.

Harding was looking haggard when his group reached the Seattle area. After a trip to Alaska, he started complaining about cramps and indigestion. His doctors started freaking out as Harding deteriorated further. They canceled an appearance in Oregon and hustled Harding to the Palace Hotel, where he could recover in style.

It was a great plan, right up to the point when Harding died. Some people have speculated that he was poisoned, either by bad Alaskan crabs or his wife. More than likely, he had massive heart attacks thanks to years of overeating, stress, and thinking golf counted as exercise. All we really care about is that he died in the Palace Hotel. They don’t advertise this fact in promotional materials, and the concierge seemed reluctant to talk about it, probably because I didn’t tip him. But Harding died in room 888.

If you have the money you can stay there overnight. I don't have the money, but I do have a camera. I was more than thrilled to stand outside the last door that Warren Harding ever passed through, and take a few pictures. Allyson was asleep while I did this, because I still haven't taught her the true meaning of vacation. But we'll get there someday.

It should be noted that room 888 is known as the presidential suite, which tells us something. There’s no way any living president would stay there; it would be bad juju. We can therefore conclude only that Harding still inhabits the room. If you ever scrape together the cash for an overnight in 888, don’t take your special lady along. She will almost definitely be violated from beyond the grave by the ghost of the 29th president.

Of course, if you guys are into that sort of thing, go for it. You freaks.


Go on to Day Two



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2014, Chris White