West Coastin’: Castles and Misconceptions

RT3_hearstOutside 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.

RT3_montereyThe 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.

RT3_aquariumFor 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.”

“ ‘Lain?’”

“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.

RT3_squidBefore 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!

West Coastin’: Rest Stops

RT3_pchAnyone who visits California must travel along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, once in their life.  Frankly if you’re alive and own a car, the trip is required (the penalty is death if you refuse and own a convertible).  I associate it to a rite of passage, as sacred and necessary as receiving your first kiss, landing your first job, or watching your first Indiana Jones movie.

The road slips and glides around the western cliffs, hugging the steep rocky curves the way roads should and cars seldom can.  Signs advising 40mph wink knowingly as your car flies by, nearing twenty-more than safety dictates.  You look outside and gaze straight up or straight down.  Trees dapple the hills and mountains like an old man’s chin, while waves churn and crash on dark cliff walls, breaking stone with milky foam as dark clouds seem to flood the skies with sea.  As fog descends from unseen peaks, cloud and water merge.  The Pacific fades from view like the edge of an unfinished landscape.  At night fleeting wisps of light trace the folds in the peninsula, eventually swallowed by a valley or fold hidden in the darkness. We arrived in Monterey late, exhausted and hungry.

Several hours prior we had stopped for a tour of Hearst Castle, discovering the site during a sudden and expedient bathroom break.

“Damn it,” I cursed, nearly running down the streets of the small town.  “‘Bathrooms are for customers only.’  Do I have to pay admittance before I visit the privy or pay my toll afterwards?”

All of the various shops or cafes in town restricted bathroom use to customers only.  Signs posted in the windows clearly told me to ‘Go away!’ and ‘We don’t want your kind here.’ Or ‘Empty your bladder somewhere else and then come back and try our scones.  Delicious!’  All Dasad could manage was to giggle at my predicament, suggesting various walls and trees, which given five more minutes may have become enticing.   Moreover, he would not pay the ransom, citing something about terrorist demands and the outrageous prices on a worthless sea lion snow globe.

RT3_pch2Nearly jogging several blocks, Jay and I finally found the public bathroom, buried deep behind the local Texaco station: a concrete shack that at one time may have doubled for a bomb-shelter.  Still I wasn’t in the position to quibble.  Despite the notorious reputation of many gas-station bathrooms only a handful I have considered truly disgusting.  Most, though ill-suited for your Aunt Gertrude, are far more sanitary than most locker rooms.  However, in this forgotten town, nestled between two adjacent mountains off the Pacific Coast Highway, I encountered a chimera, something both unique and horrible.

Just imagine the worse possible scenario for each of your senses and you’ll grasp the general aura of this public facility.  Relieved but pale, I hastened outside, where Jay stood waiting.

“How is it?” he asked.

“Just don’t touch or look at anything.  I’d suggest breathing, but if the filth reaches your nose, you might collapse.  And I won’t be going in again to save you.”

I tracked down Dasad to the local candy store, ferreting for some home-made chocolate or sweets, yet most of their confections appeared boxed, mass-produced, or Hershey.  He left unimpressed and quite hungry; thus, we sat down at the local burger place for lunch.  After we had ordered, Jay returned from the bathroom, his face white and wet as if he had just fallen into the polar icecap.  Sitting down, he twisted his hands together, absently, I thought, until he pulled out an empty bottle of disinfectant and squirted it on his hands and face.

“It was full thirty minutes ago,” he said, massaging between his fingers.  When our burgers and fries arrived, he stared at his palms for a moment before picking them up, considering – I imagine – whether any impurities still lingered.

A nearby couple discussed their own vacation at the table nearby.  The conversation turned to their excellent visit to Hearst Castle, only a few miles up the road according to the road signs. Castles and ruins will capture the imagination of a twenty-nine year old as easily as a twelve-year-old, and without a word, we decided to take a gander.

Two hours later as we boarded the tour bus, Dasad and I came down with a serious case of laughing sickness, the kind that overwhelms your senses, making it nigh near impossible to stop.  It began just after the National Geographic film on the life of William Randolph Hearst and the construction of his home, the castle.

RT3_tapestryApart from the breathtaking scenes in European cathedrals and ruins, the whole presentation was essentially camp, recreating the publishing giant into some mythological figure rather than a human being: “There are many stories about William Randolph Hearst and his castle, but in order to understand the man and his genius, I’ll tell you my version.  It’s the one I enjoy the most.  It also happens to be the truth.”  The disembodied narrator, a supposedly sixty-some year-old pilot, could learn something about subtlety in his storytelling.  If they had concluded the film with Hearst curing cancer or turning lead into gold, it would not have surprised me.

So powerful was this performance that Dasad began channeling the man himself, squawking orders to our fellow tourists like a 1940s gangster.

“I’m William Randolph Hearst, see.  When I ring this bell, I want you Cary Grant to dress up like Little Orphen Annie, see.  And you Amelia Earheart shall dance for me.  Dance until I tell you to stop, see?  ‘Cause I’m the Hearst and while you’re at my castle, you’ll do as I say, see?  Or I’ll feed you to my cross-eyed polar bear, nyaeah . . .”

“Why are you talking like James Cagney?”

“ ‘Cause he’s old,” Dasad explained.  “Everyone back then talked like this . . . see?”

Something about that absurd logic and absurd movie that inspired it sent me rolling.  The two of us nearly crawled onto the bus, packed tight with tourists, who just stared quietly at the pair of giggling pot-addicts in the front seat.  When the bus started up the hillside, a train whistle erupted over the loudspeaker, followed shortly by the rest of the train: Chugga-chugga-chugga.  Whoot-whoot!  Chugga-Chugga. Welcome to the Hearst Castle Tour!  Whoot! Are you ready, pardners?

I looked at Dasad, red-faced and biting his fist.  After a few moments, it became difficult to breathe.

“If you guys don’t stop soon,” a lady beside me said with a smile, “I’m going to join you.  It’s contagious, you know.”

“S-sorry,” I giggled between my teeth, earnestly trying to master myself, until Dasad began muttering something.  All I heard was ‘. . . nyeah, see?’ and my willpower crumbled again.  We were no more good until the bus stopped just outside Hearst’s Roman pool.RT3_map