“Hey, the new SMART train is finally starting,” Rich said. The endless delays, over everything from technical glitches to permit issues, had become a local joke. “We should try it out.”
I instantly thought of Petaluma, where we were scheduled to meet friends for lunch on Thursday. “How about an overnight stay at the old Hotel Petaluma? In fact,” I said, warming to the theme, “since we’re traveling by train, why not make it a sort of trip back in time? We can carry that vintage suitcase we bought last year, go to old-style restaurants, that sort of thing.”
“I’ve had my eye on an old dive bar there called The Hide-Away,” said Rich thoughtfully.
So Thursday morning we packed the old suitcase and set off on foot from our home in San Anselmo, took a short bus ride to the train station in San Rafael, and rode a half hour north and a hundred years back in time.
Tickets to travel the 22 miles were $7.50 per person each way. Fortunately there’s a half-price senior discount; unfortunately, we didn't realize you had to purchase senior passes elsewhere, so we paid full fare. The train was clean and modern, with a friendly young conductor and a bar car run by Becoming Independent, an organization whose support services for people with developmental disabilities will soon include on-board job training.
Stepping off the train we visited the old station, where I was shown the first of many photos I’d see around town depicting Petaluma’s glory days as the World’s Egg Basket. A hundred years ago, four million Petaluma hens were laying 450 million eggs a year; the eggs were sold as food and to provide albumin for the first commercially viable photographic prints. I’ve heard that up until the 1960s, the smell from those chicken farms was like a ghastly fog permeating the entire city. Today the few remaining chickens are housed on the outskirts, well beyond nose range. Every April, the city pays homage to its roots with Butter and Egg Days, which “celebrates all things Petaluma.”
We walked the short distance downtown to the Hotel Petaluma, built in 1923 and recently restored to its former splendor. Our room was tiny (to be fair, we opted for the cheapest on offer) but very comfortable, and it did come with the Teachings of Buddha as well as a Bible. We spent the day visiting the historical museum, lunching with our friends, and window shopping along the quaint main streets. Built on solid bedrock, Petaluma was one of the few cities in the region to survive the 1906 earthquake with most of its lovely old Victorian buildings intact. Filmmakers love the town, and first-time visitors often experience a dizzying sense of déjà vu as they stroll past buildings they’ve seen in American Graffiti, Cujo, Scream, Pleasantville, and so many other movies.
Around sunset, we headed over to The HIde-Away, hoping for the kind of down-and-dirty place that offers cheap drinks, plenty of atmosphere, and quirky local characters. You can imagine our bitter disappointment when it turned out to be large modern sports bar.
“Talk about bait and switch!” Rich grumbled.
But Rich’s sniffer is capable of catching the scent of a dive bar in any town, on any continent, and it didn’t fail us now. A few blocks further on, we discovered Gale’s Central Club Bar; a hand-written cardboard sign proclaimed the day’s special: $2 pints of PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer). The atmosphere was suitably dark, the walls jammed with bottles and bar-room kitsch. Presiding over one corner was a grizzly bear shot in 1967 by the bar’s original owner, Bob Gale; his son John took over in 2003 and gave us a friendly welcome. Over our PBRs, we chatted with John and the bartender, Julie, and before long we were explaining our retro-themed journey.
“Have dinner at Volpi's,” Julie advised. “Good Italian food, generous portions, and if you’re lucky, John Volpi will be playing his accordion in the back room, where the old speakeasy was.” Our luck was in; John was there, playing hits popularized by crooners in the thirties and forties, sitting in front of the door through which bootleggers passed in bottles back in the day. The walls sported funky art, hunting gear, and a whole herd of deer heads; I’d forgotten what a bloodthirsty lot country farmers could be. I tried not to think about Bambi’s mother as we ate our pasta and listened to “Blue Skies.”
We departed Petaluma early the next morning and were back in San Anselmo and the 21st century just over 24 hours after we’d left home.
A few days later I said to Rich, “I have to come up with a title for the Petaluma story. Ideas?”
He thought a minute. “These two chickens walk into a dive bar …?”
To justify the title, I spent some time on Google trying to find a joke that starts with anything like that line, but to no avail. All in all, the chicken jokes I found were lame in the extreme. One read: Q: What do you call a city of 20 million eggs? A. New Yolk City. Wrong! The correct answer is, of course, Petaluma.
It's been long, hot summer in the USA, and I'm heading back to Spain soon, where I'm hoping for some rest, some international perspective, and some time to work on a new book. I'll post more stories in a few weeks. Until then, happy travels, amigos!
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“And that," Mike told me, "was when I saw Bigfoot.” Wait, what? He'd actually had a close encounter with the legendary humanoid creature said to inhabit the local forests?
You can see why I’ve had a lifelong love affair with California’s roadside attractions. You expect the unexpected, and even so, they always surprise you.
Rich and I recently set off in our trusty red VW to explore some of my home state’s most mysterious locales. As we listened to various outlandish tales, we found most were obvious exaggerations or outright whoppers, but a few weren't so easy to explain in rational terms (something that's often said of California itself).
The Mystery Spot
Our first stop was The Mystery Spot, a roughly circular area 150 feet in diameter within which (allegedly) the laws of gravity and physics don’t apply. This “gravitational anomaly” was discovered (or invented) by George Prather in 1939; supposedly he was surveying the land for development when he noticed his compass jittering and his mind reeling. He bought three steeply sloping acres of redwood forest near Santa Cruz and constructed a house with radically skewed angles designed to disrupt your visual perceptions.
It was entertaining to see billiard balls (apparently) rolling uphill, to hear people (including Rich) insist they're standing upright while leaning at impossible angles, and to feel the predicted dizziness and nausea (although the latter may have been due to a dubious veggie burger I’d rashly consumed at the Mystery Spot Snack Shack). And then, as we walked back down the hill, there was one last stop. When two women of the same height stood at opposite ends of an apparently flat piece of concrete, one appeared eight inches taller. We weren't in the skewed house with its massive visual distortions. Hmmm... The guide invited me to try it, and I walked all over the slab; it sure seemed level. And yet…
What’s the logical explanation? (Cue spooky music.) I don’t have one.
Bigfoot Discovery Museum
Next we arrived at the tiny, cluttered Bigfoot Discovery Museum in nearby Felton and met the proprietor, Mike Rugg. He’s a friendly fellow, with a bushy white beard and twinkling eye, and with scarcely any prompting from me, he told us the story of his encounter with Bigfoot.
Camping in the woods with his family at the age of four, Mike wandered off early one morning and came face to face with a large, hairy, ape-like figure. Mike ran back to his parents, who insisted it must have been a tramp. The incident became a repressed memory that was revived decades later. “I’d always been interested in apes and large, man-like creatures,” Mike told me. “When the memory surfaced, I finally understood why.”
Mike opened the museum in 2004 to house his collection of maps, books, sighting reports, and videos. A vintage Apple computer runs a loop of the Patterson-Gimlin film, the most famous “proof” of Bigfoot’s existence. The sighting took place in 1967 in Humboldt County, which at the time (and I’m not saying there’s a connection) was establishing a flourishing marijuana industry. The film, which did not turn out to be as clear or convincing as Patterson hoped, has been endlessly analyzed. “The breasts,” Mike said, “clearly show she’s a female.”
The Milpitas Monster
Seeking lodgings that night, Rich and I checked the Wikipedia page for Milpitas, which sounded eye-glazingly dull until I came across the town’s cinematic claim to fame: a 1976 high-school film project that became a feature-length movie called The Milpitas Monster. A no-budget film of a 50-foot creature that consumes garbage cans – how bad could it be? I’ll let you be the judge.
Our stay in Milpitas wasn’t quite that thrilling, but we found a comfortable hotel, a great diner, and a garbage can that somehow escaped being ravaged by the monster.
The Winchester Mystery House
Strip away the hype and legends surrounding the Winchester Mystery House, and it’s still a very odd place. Doors open onto walls or sheer drops, stairs lead nowhere, secret passages run everywhere. The tour guides tell you this: owner Sarah Winchester was driven mad by guilt over the Native Americans slaughtered by the guns her husband’s family manufactured — the famous Winchester rifle that “won the West.” Widowed in 1881, Sarah was warned by a medium that the only way to appease the vengeful spirits was to leave Connecticut and move west to live in a home under constant construction. She settled in San Jose, had builders working around the clock for 38 years, and was constantly trying to elude ghosts.
“This house is a manifestation of Sarah Winchester,” says actress Helen Mirren, who plays Sarah in a movie due out in 2018. “And in that sense, it’s haunted. I don’t feel the remotest sense of spookiness in this house.” Me either. The creepiest phenomena in that house wasn't some specter on the warpath but a widow with a deeply troubled soul and the wealth to indulge her dark fantasies.
Whatever you choose to believe, there’s a certain delicious thrill about encountering the offbeat and inexplicable. Such moments are a powerful reminder that the universe is far more vast and interesting than we can possibly imagine. We’ll never fully grasp the big picture, let alone all the details, so we simply have to enjoy the enigmas. “Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved,” said … well, I went to look up the source and found that quote attributed to Nietzsche, Gandhi, Kierkegaard, guru Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, novelist Adriana Trigiani and others. Which just shows how gullible people can be; we all know the first one to say it was Bigfoot.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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