California Road Trip: San Francisco, Winchester Mystery House, Bigfoot Discovery Museum

Jump to Day: One, Two, Four

Day Three, Sunday:

Hitchhiker

Drive time: 1 hr

I woke up at 5:30AM at the Rusty Shovel Ranch to pack up my tent and set out for the day’s adventure with only two items on the docket and no idea where I’d sleep that night (just how I like it). As I carefully descended the rocky ridgetop, I gazed out towards yesterday’s view looking for hints of the same majesty, but nothing was visible yet. The sun wouldn’t rise for another hour, and though I briefly considered staying for it, the promise of a peaceful early morning drive with noone else on the road beckoned me on. 

My first stop was coffee and fuel at a local gas station in Laytonville, and the next 30 minutes were pleasingly uneventful. The wide mountain-side roads and farmland from the prior morning returned, the sun opened up through the haze, a parachuter floated back to earth.

Then I noticed a hitchhiker holding a “Ukiah” sign. He was an older man dressed smartly, almost like a park ranger, in a beige button-up with a tie and a wide-brimmed hat. I had the whole morning at my disposal and Ukiah was only 10 or 15 minutes away in the same direction I was headed. When I pulled over he jumped in the front seat and and introduced himself as Sandy. He was headed to a community farming collective, so I asked him if they take volunteers - they do. People exchange work for a place to live and eat, some passing through and others staying long term, kind of like WWOOFing, while others contribute for creativity’s sake. But he lives nearby with his wife, who is a master gardener and teaches some kind of natural biology or botany classes at the local UC extension school. Sandy is a gardener too, and he’s been hitchhiking since he was 13 years old. He still does it from time to time for fun and because it’s so simple in this part of the state (he can’t understand why his daughter, a veterinarian, decided to move to Los Angeles). I learned that there are a lot of communities like this nearby, and he recommended I check out the Solar Living Center in Hopland if it’s open to visitors by the time I arrive there (no luck - I swung through around 8:00AM. Unfortunately missed the local strawberry stand, too). Our time together was brief, but as I watched him fade into the background of a Ukiah street corner, I recognized that such a simple interaction between two strangers already improved my day tenfold. 

San Francisco

Drive time: 2 hrs

I’d bemoaned passing so quickly through the Bay Area yesterday, and since I didn’t have to be in San Jose for my Winchester Mystery House tour until 2:00PM, the thought struck me that I could spend the afternoon exploring my favorite literary movement in the very city it was born in: The Beat Generation in San Francisco. City Lights Booksellers - the original home of Ginsberg and Kerouac, founded by poet and patron of great literature Lawrence Ferlinghetti and once the center of a counter-cultural movement (today a historic landmark) - was only two hours away. Not a moment after I’d decided this, a great friend from growing up in Texas texted me that he’d seen my instagram story and asked if I’d be coming back through town - he lives in San Jose now! If I stopped in San Francisco for an hour and a half I could be in San Jose by lunchtime and still make my 2:00PM tour. It’s on. 

When the mist enveloped my truck I knew I was arriving in San Francisco, but I wasn’t aware I was about to cross the Golden Gate Bridge until I was practically on it. I had no time to prepare myself, so as it emerged into view I audibly gasped. I immediately understood why it’s lauded for it’s beauty and gave thanks to the 40 mph speed limit for allowing me to soak in the drive as long as possible. 

Great song for arriving in a new city. All Aboard!

On the other side, the city quickly overtook me. I panned between James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, feeling the funk, I guess, as the sun signaled the cosmopolitan residents to dance into the streets. I parked in a garage in Chinatown just around the corner from City Lights. It was about 30 minutes before opening time, so I wandered the area taking in the sights and smells, imagining, as I often do, what it would be like to live there: I would check out all these bakeries and speakeasies, I would try all of these Chinatown specialties, I’d walk everywhere because it’s so cool and breezy outside. Does it get too cold for comfort here in the winter? Could I really do it without a car, and if not, is it difficult to drive and park in the city? Is it all as expensive as they say? Questions that don’t matter for now; I was going down the rabbit hole again, like in all my favorite places. 

City Lights turned out to be three stories of interesting and atypical book choices, not all from Beat authors. I was overwhelmed by the world that was opening up to me, but I resolved to stick with some Beat classics I hadn’t gotten to read yet. After all, if you only go once, how can you leave without acquiring something written by an author specifically associated with the shop? I picked two books, The Back Country and Earth House Hold, by Gary Snyder, who I’ve always wanted to read based on the fact that he’s the inspiration for the character Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. I also grabbed one by Ferlinghetti himself, Poetry As Insurgent Art

Leaving so soon pulled at my heartstrings, but so did my excitement to see my friend - it’d been five years since he visited me in Boston!

Winchester Mystery House

Drive time: 1 hr 15 min

It was brilliant to see him again. We had almost two full hours to catch up over coffee and lunch, but it was still too brief. This pattern of “I wish I could stay” prompted reminders of why I prefer slow travel to whirlwind trips - Day Three proved full of missed opportunities for more fun and enlightenment, if only time would allow me to be swept away by the unplanned detours. 

But the Winchester House was on my bucket list, and only 15 minutes from our lunch spot. Do you remember all those “haunted” shows for kids that were on TV in the late 90s and early 00s (the one Michelle Trachtenberg hosted called “Truth or Scare” comes to mind)? I learned about a lot of my bucket list items from those kinds of programs…which is either endearing or pathetic, you decide. I have a vague memory of being introduced to the Winchester House this way. For those unaware, a brief history: Sarah Winchester, widow of Winchester Rifles’ William Wirt Winchester, began building her house in the mid-1880s and continued construction ceaselessly until her death in 1922. It’s a maze of rooms and hallways with odd features like stairs leading to nowhere, doors opening to walls or multi-story drops instead of to rooms, indoor windows, and design inspiration based on the number 13. The story goes that a psychic told Sarah she must construct the house, and continue construction on the house, in order to confuse the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles who meant her harm. She took it very seriously. 

I appreciated taking a tour, as opposed to having the ability to wander the rooms myself, because I can see how one could easily get lost or accidentally trip and fall through a trap door. This also meant disappointment, though, that the tour only shows a small percentage of the grounds. With every statistic they impressed us with about how many rooms, acres, and wings made up the residence, I became increasingly aware of how little of it we were seeing. Though I suppose it would take all day to explore the full property. They do have an “Explore More” tour you can buy on top, but at that point the price really adds up. It was rewarding to finally see the place in person, and I enjoyed the historical context of the antique furniture and interior design, but it’s not something I need to do again. So many tourists piled into a house that was specifically made to keep people out (Sarah never invited guests over, even the living). I wonder if Sarah is rolling over in her grave? Or is this exactly as she intended, another income stream to bolster the family fortune for today’s heirs?

Bigfoot Discovery Museum

Drive Time: 45 min

On to the next. Readers of Day Two will recall my obsession with Bigfoot stories (it also extends to the Loch Ness Monster, Chupacabra, and all folk legends, but in central and northern California, Bigfoot is the most relevant. Never thought I’d write the words “Bigfoot is the most relevant”). Clearly the Bigfoot Discovery Museum was on my list from the moment I conceived of the road trip, and with it’s close proximity to The Mystery Spot and other locations I’d been visiting, I laid in wait for the right opportunity to investigate. My time had come.

The journey there differed from the drive north a few days earlier; this time I’d pass through Los Gatos, Scotts Valley, and my final destination of Felton, the site of the museum (I was also intrigued by Felton because I’m familiar with a music venue there that used to be called Don Quixote’s - now Flynn’s, apparently. Looks like Folkyeah still does shows there sometimes despite the change). Felton fulfilled it’s promise of charm, woodsiness, and a lot of character, but people having Labor Day festivities flooded in and around the parks. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find a place to stay here for the night, especially in the camping areas. 

The Bigfoot Discovery Museum is small but packs a punch. The assortment is appropriately weird - skulls of different mammals related to the ape family, casts of unexplainably massive footprints, timelines and famous video footage of sightings, and history about the museum itself. Also on display are examples of Bigfoot in popular culture, particularly comics and books. I felt bad for Bigfoot in the issue of Superboy where he’s getting sucker-punched in the face :(

It was hard for me to grasp the main narrative regarding what exactly the museum wanted me to believe. I ended up rushing through because a woman was regaling the man at the counter with her own crackpot theories about psychics and auras, and I could feel the conversationalists eyeing me. The longer I lingered the more I risked being drawn into the fray. In retrospect I should have let it happen; it would have been interesting, at least. Instead, I skimmed the explanations of each artifact and left still trying to formulate a takeaway; do we think Bigfoot is a descendant of some line of monkey? A hybrid of monkey and neanderthal? Which of these skulls was the most relevant? Some of the pictures of footprints and sightings included captions confirming them to be hoaxes, so I don’t think the museum aims solely to convince it’s audience. Instead it seeks to lay out all the history and purported evidence, disproven or otherwise, to draw a picture of how the legend has evolved. With that, we can make our own conclusions or simply let our imaginations run wild. They do continue to carry out research, which you can donate to support. 

Santa Vida RV Park

Drive Time: 15 min

Back in my car, I was suddenly aimless. I would need a place to either park legally overnight so I could sleep in the truck, or a place to set up my tent. I knew the State Park campsites were out of the picture, so I ambled down the road keeping an eye out for RV parks. I thought I lucked out when I came upon the Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort, but of course they were full for the night. The woman on duty suggested I try Cotillion, the Ranch, or Santa Vida. I tried Cotillion first - full. Then the Ranch - full. On my last try, Santa Vida came through for me with a site where I could park the truck and set up my tent, and it was only 15 minutes away. Sold! 

Why

On the drive I realized I was back at The Mystery Spot again (maybe there is something to that gravitational pull after all); in fact the RV Park is basically next door. It’s nothing fancy but has everything you need and gives off a cozy, welcoming vibe. The woman on duty was especially friendly and helpful; I think she’d given me their last site, or maybe even created one for me, and she discounted it since I was wedged between three other parties. We were out in the woods with no cell service, so she gave me a local map and directions to a bakery called The Buttery (delicious) so I could explore the closest town and grab a bite before turning in. I didn’t fully realize that all of this was still part of Santa Cruz until the next day (I should have remembered I was only 15 minutes from the hostel I stayed at on the first night). This didn’t look anything like the Boardwalk area, though, and Santa Cruz will always have me highly confused. Is it beachland, forest, or city? That’s the real Mystery.

Hopped up on baked goods (and ghost pepper chips I was dumb enough to pick up from the local market…we can talk about my poor travel eating choices another time), I returned to the RV park, tucked myself into the backseat (I elected not to camp in my tent outside where I could hear the screams of neighboring children), and dug into The Back Country. As I drifted off, content to be alone and yet not alone, Snyder summarized my state of mind:

DISTANCE: 250 MILES
DRIVING TIME (NOT COUNTING STOPS): ~ 5 1/2 HOURS
UP NEXT:
DAY 4 - ELEPHANT SEALS, HEARST CASTLE, AND NEVERLAND RANCH.


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