“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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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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