The challenge: Get from Lodi to the heart of San Francisco and back. Do it in 10 hours or less. Do it with $50.
And here's the twist: Do it on public transit and take a different route back.
I thought it would be a piece of cake. In some ways it was. I met some nice people, rode in spotless rail cars and even saw a baseball Hall of Famer.
As it turned out, it was a gritty challenge, too, scrambling through a sometimes-messy maze of public transit. At one point, I thought I was going to be slugged by a weird bus driver with a thinning mullet.
This is the story of my Lodi-to-San Francisco Public Transit Challenge.
7:20 a.m. It's cold. The sun is just coming up over Lodi, warming school children waiting on the corner for their yellow bus to arrive.
I leave my house near Mills Avenue and walk down the driveway, past my car and continue walking down the street.
I consider myself a savvy traveler, but I had never braved the steel and asphalt jungle that is the American public transit system. Like many other Northern Californians, I am fully addicted to my car.
Time to break the habit.
I agreed to the challenge, with a few other conditions. I had to take different forms of transport. I had to make it to AT&T park, and prove it.
Also, I had to start and finish the adventure from my house near General Mills.
7:34 a.m. I sit on the bus stop bench at Lockeford Street and Cross Street with a stack of time tables from mass transit systems across Northern California.
On paper, it seems relatively straight forward. But I am at the mercy of about 10 different systems, and a delay in any one could throw my plans completely off track.
The Lodi Grape Line No. 3 bus arrives right on time, and I pay my dollar and board the clean bus. There are only three passengers on board at this early hour, including Larry Davis, who rides the No. 3 each day from his house to the Lodi Adult School.
He asks where I'm going and I tell him my planned route. He seems to be a veteran of the public transit, so I ask him if he thinks I can pull off the journey.
"Public transportation takes some getting used to, but once you get to know the schedules, it's pretty easy," he says.
We pull into the Lodi Transit Station and he points me in the direction of my next bus.
This leg at a glance: Clean, on time bus. Friendly people.
Time left: 9 hours, 41 minutes.
Money left: $49.
7:53 a.m. The San Joaquin Regional Transit No. 23 bus is three minutes late. Just $1.25 gets me to downtown Stockton.
This bus is a little more lively with a gaggle of female San Joaquin Delta College students in their late 20's cracking jokes, a few scruffy looking men and a guy with a Mohawk named Forrest who claims to have an art gallery in Stockton but all of his drawings were "confiscated."
Chris Walth, who lives in Lodi and works at a printing company in Stockton, takes this bus every day.
"I don't even want to own a car," he says. "With gas prices up over $3 per gallon, the bus is cheap."
This leg at a glance: Lively, party-like atmosphere on board bus.
Time left: 8 hours, 4 minutes.
Money left: $47.75.
9:30 a.m. The spotless ACE train station in Stockton, four short blocks from the bus stop, is the eastern end of this commuter rail line, although it could come to Lodi in the next five years.
Compared to the bus, the ACE train is like riding in a limousine, clean with comfortable seats.
We glide through a gritty industrial neighborhood in Stockton, but soon we are snaking up over the green hills of the Altamont Pass.
Dale Chimerofsky, an accountant from Modesto, rides the ACE almost every day to visit clients in the Bay Area. His laptop is plugged in at one of the train's computer stations, and he is getting some work done on the commute. He keeps one car in the Central Valley and another at the ACE station in Santa Clara, where he works.
"You can make it a productive commute," he says. "You can eat a sandwich, work on your laptop, go to the bathroom â€" anything you want. It's your time. It's tax season and I need more than 24 hours in each day."
The only complaint I hear from ACE riders is that it is really just geared for commuters. There is little mid-day and no weekend service.
Sue Overturf of Livermore was visiting a friend in Stockton and had to leave by mid-morning to catch the train.
"I wish there were more trains throughout the day," she said. "This is our best kept secret. It's much better than BART, and it's even cleaner and more comfortable than my car."
This leg at a glance: Spotless, on time train. Beautiful scenery over Altamont Pass.
Time left: 6 hours, 49 minutes
Money left: $40
10:45 a.m. Like clockwork, the train is right on time arriving in Pleasanton and I am still on schedule to beat the challenge. Sherri Thornton, who lives in Stockton and teaches in San Ramon, takes the ACE to the BART every day, so I decide to follow her to catch the free 15-minute Wheels bus ride across town to the BART station.
This leg at a glance: Quick, free shuttle over to BART.
Time left: 6 hours, 18 minutes.
Money left: $40.
11:16 a.m. A machine sells me a $4.95 ticket to Embarcadero station in downtown San Francisco. For $2.40 more, I can ride the same train all the way to San Francisco International Airport next time I need to catch a flight.
The workhorse of Bay Area mass transit, BART carried its first passenger in 1972. I'm pretty sure the train I am on hasn't had a facelift since at least the Carter administration. The seats are weathered and newspapers litter the dirty, carpeted floor.
Unlike the ACE train, which is somewhat of a novelty, passengers seem to take BART for granted. People sleep, read books or zone out with their iPods and don't seem to be in the mood to chat with a reporter.
I finally find someone to engage in conversation. Reshma Mallya, a University of California, San Francisco student, takes the BART once a week to visit family in Pleasanton. She says she doesn't have a car in the city because parking is difficult and BART usually gets her where she needs to go.
"It's pretty on time, but it could be a little cleaner" she says.
The train passes through the Port of Oakland, descends into a tunnel and my ears begin to pop as we travel under the bay to San Francisco. I'm excited to be in the city ahead of schedule with plenty of money left.
This leg at a glance: Dirty train. Unfriendly people.
Time left: 5 hours, 17 minutes.
Money left: $35.05.
12:17 p.m. I ascend from the BART Embarcadero station into the heart of downtown San Francisco, and I am surrounded by skyscrapers. Although it is a cloudless day, the buildings blot out the sun and it feels like being in the middle of a redwood forest, save for the homeless people lying on the sidewalk.
I search the tangled cluster of bus stops, cable car stops, street car stops and trolley stops for the Muni N line street car. Finally, I ask a bus driver, who tells me that the street car line is actually under the street.
Back down the steps, $1.50 and three Muni stops later, I reach my goal, AT&T Park, at 12:23 p.m. I am pleased with myself for reaching my goal, but I realize it is still only halfway.
I snap a quick photo of myself with the day's News-Sentinel to prove to my editors that I made it and eat a sandwich in Willie Mays Plaza.
Before starting the long trip back to my house, I have a look around the mostly deserted ballpark. At the players' entrance, I see two autograph seekers with pens and baseballs peering through the fence. I ask them who they are looking at.
"It's Willie Mays!" exclaims one of the guys.
Sure enough, there is the Say Hey Kid in a Giants hat and jacket getting into the passenger seat of a white Mercedes Benz. I hustle over to the gate just as his car stops to turn right onto the busy street. Mays has his window rolled down, and he waves to me as I snap a couple of close ups of the Hall of Famer.
This leg at a glance: Novice travelers beware, confusing web of mass transit systems in San Francisco.
Time left: 4 hours, 19 minutes.
Money left: $34.55.
1:15 p.m. Back on the Muni heading toward downtown with a pack of giggling Japanese students, I meet seven-year-old Caralie McAlpine and her nanny Meredith Gaffer heading to the zoo.
Gaffer said she planned the whole trip out on http://www.511transit.org.
"You just enter your starting point and final destination and it tells you how to get there on public transport," she said.
This leg at a glance: Back on Muni with its hard, plastic seats.
Time left: 3 hours, 34 minutes.
Money left: $33.05.
2 p.m. The Ferry Building is just a short walk from the Embarcadero station, and I catch the East Bay ferry to Oakland.
At $5.50 it's a good deal to get across the bay, and on a sunny day like today, I am treated to great panoramas of the city skyline as we pass under the Bay Bridge. Dozens of children run around the outdoor deck and peer over the railing at the boat's foamy wake.
I feel less like a stressed commuter and more like a tourist snapping photos of the city shrinking from view as we near the Port of Oakland. Two other tourists are on the boat â€" Charles Hollands and JD Olsen from Eugene, Ore., who are in the Bay Area for a week of sightseeing. They are heading to Oakland to see what the East Bay has to offer, and I ask them why they chose to take the ferry when the BART tunnel would have been quicker.
"We kept wandering around the city and ended up at the water front," Hollands says. "I'd like to ride BART at some point. I'm kind of a mass transit junkie."
As the boat pulls into the port of Oakland, I am feeling a little rushed. The waiting for the ferry and the 30 minute trip has cost me a good deal of time.
An Amtrak train from Oakland to Sacramento is scheduled to leave exactly 20 minutes after the ferry arrives, and the train station is six blocks from the ferry terminal, so I hustle to arrive with just enough time to buy an $18 ticket and board the train.
This leg at a glance: Refreshing bay breeze, beautiful vistas of the city.
Time left: 2 hours, 44 minutes.
Money left: $27.55.
2:50 p.m. Amtrak's Capitol Corridor train is pure luxury. Clean bathrooms and even a dining car with sandwiches, pizzas and drinks.
Less than a dozen passengers board in Oakland and I stretch out at a booth with a large table and watch egrets playing with ducks as the Delta wetlands roll past the window.
Like he does almost every day, Phil Huntingdale took Amtrak from his Roseville home to work in Emeryville.
A train buff, Huntingdale said he loves taking the train.
"The train is almost always on time. You can pretty much set your watch by it," he said. "It's a good way to travel. You don't get speeding tickets on the train. Americans waste so much money on gas, it's kind of stupid."
We rumble alongside commuters stuck in traffic on Interstate 80. A common theme from riders: Gas guzzling cars are a waste of money, and spacious trains and buses are a great way to have a relaxing commute.
The train arrives 10 minutes early in Sacramento. As I walk the two blocks to the Sacramento Regional Transit bus, I check my watch. The two-hour train ride was relaxing, but has cut into my funds and really slowed me down.
I am falling behind.
This leg at a glance: Most comfortable seats. Spacious, clean restrooms. Great views of the Delta.
Time left: 39 minutes.
Money left: $9.55.
4:55 p.m. The 50E bus is five minutes late. When it arrives, the driver, a stocky man with a thinning mullet, pink face and orange beard, gets off the bus yelling at other passengers to get off. I ask him if this bus goes to Florin Mall.
"Theoretically," he snaps back. "It's not going anywhere until I take my bathroom break."
Lori Hayes, who rides the bus everyday, calls SRT to complain about the rude driver.
"He treats people like dirt," she says. "They need to quit talking to people like that."
The driver returns from his break, I pay the $2 fare and we head toward south Sacramento. My goal is to link up with the South County Transit bus at Florin Mall. If this bus is on time, I will barely make the last SCT bus to Lodi.
As we pass the Capitol building, I decide to take a photo out the window. As I raise the camera, the bus driver sees me in the mirror and bellows, "Put that camera down!"
Surprised, I do nothing.
He actually pulls the bus over, comes back and stands over me.
"I am not moving this bus until you put that camera in your bag!" he yells.
I calmly explain that it is not against the law to take photos on a public bus. He seems to think otherwise and we are at an impasse.
Even though I know I am right, I realize that the longer I argue, the more this bus is going to be delayed and I might miss the last bus to Lodi. Not liking the prospect of being stuck in Sacramento, I put the camera away and we continue.
I look over at Lori, who just rolls her eyes as if to say, "I told you so."
Later, when I call SRT to complain about the driver, the customer service representative tells me that there is in fact no law against taking photos on the bus. She won't tell me the driver's name, but she says, "Some of our drivers need a vacation."
Even if this bus would have been on time, I am still running late. I have already missed my 10 hour deadline and I only have a few dollars left in my pocket. Defeated, I just want to make it home.
This leg at a glance: Rude, disgruntled driver. Late bus.
Time left: -17 minutes.
Money left: $7.55.
5:51 p.m. Florin Mall is a big place. After running down one side of the mall searching for a bus stop, calling SCT to get directions and running back the other side, I find the barely visible bus stop sign just as the mini bus arrives.
I am the only passenger on this transport, which is the size of a little yellow school bus. The driver blasts country music as we fly past traffic in the carpool lane on Highway 99.
Two other passengers board the bus in Elk Grove. None of the modes of public transport I have taken today have been close to being full. On most legs of the journey, trains and buses were barely 10 percent full while highways were packed full of cars with only a driver.
One of my fellow passengers on this bus, Thomas Muat of Lodi, had his license suspended and relies on the bus to get to his construction job in Elk Grove. He says the bus is rarely full except on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings when Galt holds its flea market.
It cost me $6 for the 45-minute trip, leaving me just about broke.
This leg at a glance: Empty mini bus.
Time left: -1 hour 21 minutes.
Money left: $1.55.
6:55 p.m. Weary from a full day of traveling, I wait at the Lodi transit station, just two miles from home.
I have missed the last GrapeLine bus, but fortunately, there is still Dial-a-Ride, the city's on-call bus service. Working like a taxi, for $5 an eight-seat Dial-a-Ride mini bus will pick you up and drop you off anywhere in the city. With less than $2 left to meet the challenge, I have no choice but to dip into my own funds.
My driver, Tara Mehl, says most of the passengers are seniors who have no other way to get to grocery stores and doctor's offices.
As we head down Lockeford Street with the setting sun blazing through the windshield, I tell her I am a reporter.
"So what do you do, just ride around and ask questions?" she asks.
When I tell her where I've been that day, she seems pretty impressed.
"Gosh, you've been far," she says. "Did you learn anything along the way?"
As we pull up to my house at 7:03 p.m., I ponder her query.
I guess I did learn a thing or two. I learned that you don't have to be a slave to your car. I learned that there is a whole network of trains, buses and ferries out there that can take you from just about any point to just about any other point if you have enough time and patience.
This realization somehow makes the world seem a lot smaller. Even though I did not meet the challenge â€" I finished in 11 hours, 29 minutes and spent $54.45 â€" I still feel good about myself having navigated the web of Northern Californian trains, buses and ferries.
Walking up my driveway, I suddenly feel more connected to far off places beyond the limits of Lodi.
NOTE: The Muni N line train stopped running to AT&T Park on April 7. The new T Third Street line has taken over the stretch from Embarcadero station to the ballpark.
Roll your mouse over the buttons to see photos from Matt's trip.