A Return to "Normal"

I've been gone from this blog for two weeks now. I flew back home to see my grandmother for her 90th birthday and to babysit my beautiful little niece for a few days. It was a nice little break and I was so, so excited to see both my grandmother and the baby.

In the 3rd grade, I was combing through my Weekly Reader (who remembers these? A small publication on newsprint that was distributed in classrooms) when I saw a story about the Winchester Mystery House. The story was mostly about the kooky Mrs. Winchester who, believing she was haunted by the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles, had built a house in San Jose, CA to both hide from and appease the ghosts. There were descriptions of staircases that led to the ceiling, doors that opened onto nothing, a mysterious seance room, and endless construction that only ended when Mrs. Winchester died. I was absolutely enthralled. I remember, very clearly, the black-and-white photo that accompanied the story: a group of gawping tourists attempting to ascend the staircase to nowhere. I knew I had to see that place. I didn’t know where San Jose was but I didn’t care.

For many years, I would occasionally hear stories about the Winchester Mystery House. I believe I once read a long-ish piece in my mother’s People magazine about it. Always, the story was the same: Mrs. Winchester, mourning the loss of her baby daughter and young husband, had snapped after a medium advised that the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles (and, let’s face it, that’s a lot of people post-Civil War). Her response to all this sorrow was to build a house that would trick ghosts, allow her to hide from them, attempt to appease them, communicate with them, etc. The reason for her constant construction varied depending on the publication. My interest in the house only grew, though.

So, finally, nearly 30 years since I first laid eyes on that Weekly Reader article, I planted

my feet at the front door of the Winchester Mystery House. It was, by far, the oldest item on my list of places to visit. The house itself is certainly surprising and impressive. It is a rambling Victorian structure that can’t really be seen completely from any one angle. The way that tours work (and I was kind of blown away to find that tours have been occurring there since five months after Mrs. Winchester’s death in 1923) is that you enter through a gift shop, purchase your tickets, and then move into the back courtyard where you enter the house through the former carriage house.

I saw the famous staircase to the ceiling, the door that opens onto the front lawn several feet below, the endless windows and iterations of the number 13 (purported to be Sarah’s favorite since it appears so often). What I also saw was a home built by an incredibly innovative, forward-thinking person. In the conservatory, the wood floors were hinged to allow them to clear away to a metal floor below that allowed Winchester to water all her plants (she was a keen gardener) without damaging the wood floors. In the kitchens, all countertops next to the sinks doubled as draining boards. In the laundry room, Sarah designed sinks with built in washboards. All over the house, there are signs of her inventive spirit and practicality.

After my final stop in San Jose, I made my way to Napa Valley. On a beautiful, sunny day I took the Wine Tour Trolley from Napa up through Yountville and St. Helena. I was camping in Calistoga so I really got a chance to see all of the valley. The trolley stopped at four different wineries and I learned a great deal about growing grapes, making wine, and the particular elements of Napa Valley that make it perfect for growing grapes for wine. I also met some wonderful people on the tour. It was kind of dreamy to be driven from place to place while sipping delicious wines and chatting with lovely people. I even met a lady who had attended my own alma mater when she was in college in the 1960s.

One lady I met on the tour was traveling with her sister and her mother and commented that she thought it was brave of me to go on the tour alone. I had to admit that it really isn't so brave for me...I travel alone nearly all the time. And, really, I would have dreaded the situation this time last year. Now, though, I find myself looking forward to situations where I'll get to meet new people. I bought myself one bottle of lovely white wine and enjoyed the company. It was a good day.

When I left Napa, I made the long-ish drive to the Sierra Sky Ranch. I'd picked this hotel because it is just miles from the south entrance of Yosemite National Park. I've been looking forward to seeing Yosemite for a long time. Most of the park is still closed for the season (snow keeps the main road across the park closed until May), but I knew I would enjoy seeing the famous Yosemite Valley. The drive was a twisting, exciting trek and I spotted deep piles of snow on the roadside, passed through a spooky part of the forest that had been damaged by a fire, and eventually into the park.

Yosemite is the kind of grand, majestic space that I imagine men like Teddy Roosevelt

knew had to be preserved. The falls were churning and glittering in the sun. It was a magical sort of day and I found myself wondering about the people who live inside the park. I am fascinated by communities that exist within those kinds of spaces (see my entry about Alcatraz).

It's been about a month and a half since I first crossed into California and I feel like I've seen some pretty incredible things. So many things I've been dying to see for so long. I'm ready now, though, to cross into Oregon.

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