Outside Hearst Castle is a true wonder. In truth, even if you care nothing for architecture, the view from the top is well-worth the tour fee and the yodeling bus soundtrack. At the top, mountain peaks spread out before you in beautiful green and earthen waves; the furthest of these – now pale blue in the setting sun – we were told marks the boundary to old man Hearst’s property, back when I suppose land was cheap and plentiful. Marble statues of the gods and goddesses stare from behind curling vines and purple gardens. Roman columns surround deep pools and fountains, adorned with faux Italian masterpieces of stone and tile. The assorted mixture of guesthouses and buildings, a hodge-podge of various European styles, both modern and ancient, were constructed (and thus named) with specific scenery in mind: Casa del Sol, Casa del Monte, Casa del Mar.
This warmth and liveliness disappears in the gloom of the mansion interior. Inside, the mansion feels dark and dangerous, the setting to some grisly tragedy or nightmare like a medieval dungeon. Marble busts become pale leering faces; ancient imported wood absorbs all light; giant tapestries of forgotten wars hang from the walls, fading into the stone like ghosts. On our way to the dining chamber, we passed through one of Hearst’s secret passages, carefully disguised as a panel in the wall. I could imagine the castle’s master staring at his guests from peepholes in paintings, then suddenly appearing from nowhere to summon them for dinner. Or a turn on the rack. Our tour guide assured us that the various movie stars, celebrities, athletes, and playwrights that visited enjoyed their time here, but in the dim yellowing light, the place felt more haunted than homely.
Returning to the visitor center, the voice over the bus’ loudspeaker told us to gaze at the herds grazing outside our windows. Hearst kept a zoo on his estate, but though most of the more exotic animals had been sold off to state zoos, many zebras and llamas still roamed about the mountains fields. Deer too. Our fellow tourists flattened themselves against the windows, nearly tipping the bus as they pointed and giggled at a herd of deer dining among the tall weeds. Dasad and I simply sighed.
The average Marylander encounters white-tailed deer at least once a week, typically in the car and occasionally across its hood. I imagine that – if anyone bothered to count – more deer scamper and frolic about here than trees . . . well, whatever trees do. The absence of natural predators has set hind against man, antlers and muscle versus semi-automatics and SUVs. Casualties have been inflicted on both sides, for against most automobiles, the animal’s muscular body bends as well as a brick wall.
And then we have the parasitic relationships between stags, deer ticks and sickness; the latter always stemming from the formers. I nearly cried out to our bus driver to try aiming for a few of the bucks if he didn’t care to discover the joys of lime disease. Movies like Bambi are clearly sending the wrong message out here.
More animal hijinxs ensued in Monterey along a tour through its famous aquarium. After a rather restless night in a soggy EconoLodge, our room just recently cleaned leaving the carpet slightly but uncomfortably soggy, we vacated immediately to shore front. Seeking out our morning coffees and iced teas from the local Starbucks, our path carried us to the aquarium. Unlike its brother here in Baltimore, the Monterey Aquarium had all the trappings of a tourist destination without the dumbed-down dolphin shows, offering packed presentations of the institution’s research such as the habits of sharks and jellies. The speaker explained how they tagged sharks and studied where they traveled and which oceanic territories they fed. It was both intelligent and interesting.
For the rest of the morning, we watched jellyfish bob like ghost lanterns against liquid blue walls. Sea horse couples waltz among the seaweed, to some silent composition instinct conducts beneath the waves. Rock-shaped crabs would come to life and snap at bits of shrimp during feeding time; Jay and I watched as their blender-like maws tossed and puree their meals in seconds. We witnessed vine-shaped snakes, draped over thick branches. The serpents hailed from Asia and looked as if . . .
“Hey Maw, look here at dem snakes,” a young boy shouts tapping the glass with two fingers.
“Well, I’ll be a rabid mule . . . they’re trying to escape,” the old woman said, watching as the snakes hover their heads before their plastic cell.
“Ar dey poisonous?”
“Says here dey from Asia. Must be. Everting’s poisonous dere.”
Dasad bristled at the woman’s comment as she walked away into the otter exhibit.
“I’ll bite you lady,” he muttered glaring at her floral muumuu, as it disappeared behind a corner. “Show you how poisonous we Asians really are.”
“A pathetic threat,” I sighed. “Your bark is ten-times worse than your bite. Particularly that post-burrito ‘bark’ the other day in the car. I would have lain down with a hundred snakes than suffer that again.”
“Doc Fitz. Senior year composition. He had us repeating grammar rules each day for an entire year. We’d be correcting each other while BS-ing in the locker rooms. Even now, I manually place commas and periods when texting.”
“Freak,” Dasad said, drifting off into the gift shop, which is just as well as I heard that Asians can kill with just a glance, like basilisks. Thus, while he’s getting me out of trouble, I try to keep him calm. It’s safer for everyone that way. Particularly the ignorant tourists.
Before leaving the aquarium, I bought a few shirts and a beautiful stuffed octopus, which I only mention as I’m currently wearing it on my head. When my sister walks into the room, I scream: “Bree, the alien has latched onto my brain! Help me before my mind turns to muusssssshhh . . .” Not exactly the use intended by the manufacturer (nor the cute cashier I bought it from, I’d wager) but seeing as we’re driving off towards wine country, I felt that a little madness in closing would be appropriate.
Next time: wine, women and Sonoma!