Posts Tagged 'Port Costa'

I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Port Costa and the Past

In the hallway

It wasn’t the squeaking of the bats that kept me up all night. It wasn’t the way my shoulders dug in to the thin mattress that kept me rolling over, not the low-voiced howl of the passing freight trains that rattled me out of my half-dreams.

It was that I had to pee. And I was too scared of ghosts get up.

Not that I’m 7, and not that I actually saw or heard any ghosts. Just that, you know, I’m a wuss. The bathroom was only a couple doors down the hall. But I’d heard stories, of ghostly laughs and the clicking of century-old high heels, and I figured—why risk it? I waited until the gray light of dawn sank its fingers through the curtains, brushed the walls and illuminated the shadows. I relieved myself with incident.

The whole overnight to Port Costa, actually, went without incident, the kind that had been hyped and fore-warned: red necks, ghosts, bed bugs, cocaine-fueled partiers—I didn’t see any. What I did see: peeling velvet wallpaper, a spooky porcelain doll, fishermen tromping over gravel and train tracks, a stuffed polar bear, a dude playing a banjo and a whole lot of motorcycles.

We arrived after dark, weaving our way through the shadowed coastal hills of a regional park. The pavement gave way to gravel as we delved into a little valley, dim houses and an old chapel lining the one road of Port Costa. The road dead-ended into a wide parking lot, gravel, train tracks, the misty water of the Carquinez Strait. On one side of us was a three-story, dirt-colored old warehouse, on the other, the bay windows of the Burlington Hotel. That was it.

Inside The Warehouse

We turned the locked knob to the hotel’s door a couple times, until the banjo-playing dude on the corner told us we had to go across the street to the bar to check in. We entered The Warehouse, the main occupant of the 19th-century grain storage-house.  We stared stupidly for a couple moments, taking in the mish-mash of burlesque lampshades, checkered plastic tablecloths, mounted animal heads and vintage signs. We must have stood out—a man in the corner waved at us.

Turned out he was Howie, accompanied by Barbie, proprietors of the Burlington Hotel. They greeted us in what we’d discover was a typical Port Costa way: genuinely friendly and down-to-earth. It wasn’t the affected over-sweetness of a typical tourist town, nor the you-ain’t-from-round-here skepticism of an isolated small town. The vibe was unpretentious and warm, but not overly warm. It was the Goldilocks of small towns—just right.

Everything was just right about Port Costa: just enough overnighters that I didn’t feel too out of place, just enough decrepitude to make the hotel really really cool, just enough vestiges of history to make the town special—not undiscovered, but not blown up or theme-parky.

On the mantel in front of our room.

We wandered around the Burlington Hotel with our jaws dropped—it was the antique/vintage/ creaky dollhouse of cool we’d hoped for. But it wasn’t the stinky filth-pot Yelp reviewers and the Chronicle had made it out to be. Sure, it was faded and had the musty smell of an attic, but I had to wonder—had the people who’d called it dirty ever stayed in a cheap third-world hotel? Or a flea-bag American one, for that matter? It was no Courtyard Inn, but definitely one of the nicer hotels I’ve stayed in the US (not saying much, granted).

Maybe they’ve already started to spiffy up and straighten out, as the Chronicle article claimed. Aside from the lack of bed bugs and grime, there wasn’t a lot of raucous activity either. The other guests definitely looked like they were there for a good time, but the most debauchery we experienced at the Burlington Hotel was some middle-aged folks having a Hank Williams sing-along (I wanted in), followed by some late-night bed creaking (I did not want in). Pretty mild, really.

Ate all that!

As part of the Valentine’s Special, a $99 dinner-room combo, we headed back to The Warehouse for some good ole American eating. I’m usually a free-range, organic kinda girl, but I figured, meh, when in Port Costa. We grubbed on a whole lobster, one pound of prime rib, and unlimited salad/chili/chowder bar, washed down with soda served in a glass jar. My pants felt quite a bit snugger. A post-dinner stroll was definitely in order.

We tip-toed across the puddle-ridden parking lot, through an opening in the chain-link fence, and across the dark of gravel and train tracks. The nighttime mist made everything feel dream-like and removed, like we were somewhere much further away, like those weren’t the lights of a suburb blinking and sighing across the water. The way the Amtrack and freight trains’ horns would wail, the way their lights gleamed like animal eyes, how the heaved and rattled past—it made it feel like we were in some little pocket of the world, not quite forgotten by time, but where time just kind of rumbled past, without really stopping, leaving only a puff of exhaust and the echo of its cry.

Sitting on the rocks, I looked out across the water, and had a strange, back-of-the-head tingle. The lights of a far-off refinery winked in the billows of steam pouring out its towers, glittering like some kind of industrial Oz. Jagged fragments of memory came cutting back. “Fuck,” I said. “I’ve been here.”

High school. Malt liquor and weed and pills. We’d piled into B’s truck, drove around El Sob and Crockett looking for drugs and trouble, finding none of one and only a little of the other. We’d pulled into a parking lot, staggered across gravel. Refineries twinkling. Feet numb, and sides closing in, black. Cigarette smoke in my hair. Wanting to sleep.

My little kaleidoscope of fucked-up broken memories came out of some forgotten fold of my brain, stinging and still alcohol-damp. So I’d partied in Port Costa after all. Who knew.

The next morning, the town was mist-shrouded and dewey-eyed. I was dazed; all night I’d listened to the trains, thinking of all the other people who’d laid in that room before me, in the gray and shadows, listening to that same rumble and sigh. We drank teeth-burning from styrofoam cups and took another tromp around town, then further down the train tracks. Lots of killer photos ensued (currently, only the digital ones are ready; pro film shots will take plenty longer). Coolest find: on some rusty old rails, someone with a similar nerdy affinity for trains and travel left their mark:

The mild afternoon melted past, time a far away thing. The trains continued to pass, rumbling and horn blowing at a couple of kids poking around the rocks and rails of a once-great railway hub, filled with miners and shipyard workers and whores and ferry horns—and now, just the ghostly groan of the trains, passing, passing, but never stopping, no, not anymore.

Photos by Theo Konrad Auer. More on the way…

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Where Do Dirtbags Go for Valentine’s?

One of Aly's photos from the Burlington Hotel

It happened like this:

Making the rounds last Friday at the Art Murmur, I came across the photos of a friend of mine, Aly Su Borst. They were pretty bad-ass: a series of self-portraits set in some run-down opulence that got my spooky/awesome sensors spiked. I took some photos on my phone. At home the next day, I showed my roommate, “Hey, Luke, check out Aly’s photos.”

“Oh, rad, Port Costa.”

“Where’s that?”

That’s how I found out about the overnight destination all the local dirtbags have apparently been partying it up in for decades. And like most things, I’ve found out just in the nick of time: the reputedly haunted, ramshackle old bordello/hotel that serves as the heart of the 250-person town of Port Costa (that despite being 30 miles from my house, I’d never heard of) has plans to spiffy itself up, and recently received coverage by the San Francisco Chronicle. I knew no time could be wasted—I booked a room for this Saturday night. It’ll be a Valentine’s weekend overnight the way I like it: full of bats, bedbugs, dive bar denizens and rock n roll.

The Chronicle‘s article made the Burlington Hotel sound like the very definition of “hidden gem”—not in the Tuscan villa sense of the word, but in the gritty, visceral sense—which is to say, the sense I dig the most. Whether it was in fact an old whorehouse, and whether it is indeed haunted by the ghosts of prostitutes and shipyard workers, one thing seems for sure: the Burlington Hotel is a relic of the Old West California, the one Jack Black captured in the book You Can’t Win—the one that’s all but gone amid the Botox and SUVs of Southern California, and the Blue Priuses and Tibetan prayer flags of Northern California. Which is why I want in.

It won’t be a relaxing, rejuvenating or romantic getaway. Its Yelp reviews reveal as much: “dirty,” “bad-ass,” “like a horror movie,” “whore-tel.” One person laments that it’s no longer the all-night rager spot it had been in previous years (frequented by the likes of none other than the East Bay Rats—nuff said). A raucous bar next door constitutes much of the clientele, including “bikers, transients, nazi crack addicts, and drifters. maybe tourists are in there somewhere, too.” (Really, there’s some effing gems on the Yelp page, read through that shit.)

Already pretty convinced, I came home from work the next night and found Liz and Melissa on the couch. “You guys ever heard of the Burlington Hotel?” They turned their heads slowly towards me. “Oh. Dude.”

They swapped debaucherous stories from their hard-partying youth—Liz being haunted in Room K, Melissa’s heshen friends getting permanently 86-ed (which apparently is saying a whole lot). “Make sure,” Liz advised, “that you bring your own sheets. Bedbug city, yo.”

I called to make a reservation, which wasn’t quite as difficult as the Chronicle article made it out to be. After a long succession of rings, someone picked up; muffled and scratchy, he told me they weren’t quite open yet, but to call back in a half-hour, and they’d be ready to “rock n roll.” I did, and they were. Butt rock blared in the background. All the rooms I’d been advised were the best were, of course, full, but I did get in on the “special” (Valentine’s Day special? probably not): the room and 2 surf-and-turf dinners for $99 total. Now that’s my kind of overnight.

Ridiculous photo from the Smokey's Tangle V-Day Photo Booth, February's Art Murmur

So sadly, since the Chronicle recently did a piece on the hotel, I’m gonna have to dig a little deeper to a) out-do their article, and b) find the right publication for it. The good news is that my partner in crime is bringing along his fancy camera, so the photos, well, they’re going to kill. Hopefully not literally.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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