Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Winchester House to Yosemite

San Jose was no random stop to break up a drive. No, there was a purpose to be here. A monument to all those interested in the paranormal, the strange, the weird – the mysterious.

San Jose is home to the Winchester Mystery House.

I did not know the name of this place before reaching California, but I had heard of the House many times over the years. It is the house that was never finished – could never be finished. And because of this strange things exist:

Doors lead to walls, closets lead to open rooms. Windows are in the floor. Staircases lead straight into the ceilings. There are strange things afoot at The Winchester, and even stranger reasons why.

Mrs. Winchester, wife of he who made the well known gun, was plagued with questions after her family died close together. She did what all rational people would do in this case – turn to a fortune teller. What could possibly go wrong?

The medium told Mrs. Winchester that the deaths were caused by spirits hurt by her husbands brand of rifles. There was only one thing she could do to appease the spirits – build a house, and keep building it. Never stop. Only then would the spirits leave her alone.

Of course, being a sane and rational woman she... listened to the advice. Yes, she bought up one hundred acres of property and got to work building a giant house that could never be finished. Ironically though her ghost, and the builders ghosts have been 'seen' here, those of the rifled dead, for whom the house was built, have gone unnoticed.

Some people will say that cameras do not work in the house because Mrs. Winchester never allowed photos within before her death. These people just don't understand how long shutter speeds on automatic settings blur images. But never mind that, as no photography is allowed inside the house.

I will tell yo something, when I pay thirty dollars for a tour of a mystery house, I am not leaving without pictures. And shots of the outside may be fine and well, but if some crazy person built a staircase into the ceiling, I want to record that.

Hanging around when the guide moves on, is a great way to make this happen. Same with the window in the floor. And the damage caused by the 1906 earthquake.

I'm all for respecting some photography rights – but when it's just to sell more books in the gift shop? Nope, I'll take my own, thank you very much. Keep guiding with your practiced voice, and your perfect timing for jokes which are, at best, hit and miss.

The easy riser stairs cover the house. In some areas seven turns and fifty steps need to be walked, instead of five normal ones. There are grand ball rooms, lesser ball rooms, and rooms, rooms, rooms. The fourth and fifth floor were knocked down in quake damage, but the three still exist. At the end of the tour I had walked a mile, and seen many interesting things. And a few types of early elevators.

Due to the house being built in stages with multiple foundations, it is one of the safest places to be in a quake. There is also a large well of fresh water under the property. If trouble brews, this is where to head.

Now in reality the mysterious isn't all that mysterious. The door to nowhere, on the second storey, could have been prep work for an unfinished alternate section, and the window in the floor is actually just a skylight allowing light from outside to light the lower floor as well. They'll not tell you this, but pay attention and you'll figure it out. The staircase into the ceiling? Alright – that's somewhat mad.

After the inside, we walked the outside. There is a lot of see here, and it wasn't until three or four hours had past (some time spent playing The Simpson's Arcade Game – my favourite arcade box – just outside the gift shop.) that we drove on.

About to leave San Jose, we noticed a coupon for two free t-shirts if we visited the Flea Market. The Flea claimed to be the largest open air market in America. I've heard that before. Still, free t-shirts. And I like markets. Heading out there, we grabbed our new shirts, a twenty dollar value (what a random coupon to give out) and checked the aisles. It was mostly the same less than wonderful stuff, until a row we saw just before leaving.

This is where people sell their own stuff. This led to piles of broken electronics, and video games. I saw a few copies of Pokemon Snap for N64. If I could be assured it worked, I would gladly have paid the ten dollars. I was not in a gambling mood. Instead, when I saw He-Man's mount, Battle Cat, I had to buy it. Five bucks? Fine, whatever, now He-man can ride his cat, instead of Skeletor's, on my shelf back home.

I may need to wash, and de-stick-ify it first.

Finally we were ready to push on out of San Jose and head cross-state to Yosemite National Park. Someone should have let us know how long this would take. When we got there the three camp sites in the valley were closed. But, there was a forth site down in the valley. Camp 4. This was a place for rock climbers, and poor people, to hang. Five bucks a person to throw down your tent, in a site of six random folks. Like hosteling, but on a plot of dirt.

Not wanting to drive an hour north of the valley, we took it. To be honest, this is what we were looking for. There was just one warning: be careful of the bears.

I'd heard this bear scare before, and was ready to set up camp and sleep for the night. With the tent up, we climbed inside, but just then the cries started:

Go away bear! Go away!

Rangers, and campers were clapping and shouting at the bear which would wander our site for the rest of the night. Did I ever see it? No – the tent provided me with safety. And sure, I may have regretted not seeing the big black bear, but it was also really cold, and I was really tired. Getting dressed and sticking my head out to see a monster? Not my idea of fun. With a millimeter of fabric between me and outside I was safe.

For hours these calls continued, and I wondered what the ranger must feel like. When she applied for the parks service did she know it would be as a bear chaser?

The closest the bear came was at two in the morning when the ranger ran into our tent, as she clapped and cried for the bear to, “go away [(bear)], go away.”

I wanted to see it. I did. But I also wanted to be alive to explore Yosemite tomorrow. Warm in my tent I stayed. That bear could eat the drunks outside instead.

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