Ghosts of the GunPosted: Aug 7, 2005 10:10:27 PM
This weekend we set off for the area south of San Francisco, to see some sights I'd had my sights set on seeing for some time. *breath*. In the south bay area there are two in particular that I wanted to see: the Winchester Mystery House and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The Winchester Mystery House is crazy. I'll say that right up: architecturally speaking, it is absurd. First, some history. The truncated version. The Winchester gun company made lots of guns, and the Winchesters made lots of money. The unhappy family that were the heirs to this vast fortune had some tragedy: their daughter died in childhood, the father from tuberculosis, leaving Mrs Sarah Winchester to wonder why she was so cursed. Unfortunately, she chose to ask a psychic, who told her that she was being haunted by the ghosts of the victims of Winchester rifles, and that the only way to appease them would be to move to California, start building a house, and never stop.
So she did.
Hence, the Winchester Mystery House. For the next thirty eight years construction never ceased, day and night, and the house grew outwards like a monstrous Gothic octopus. Mrs Winchester wandered throughout the enormous edifice, apparently to avoid the thousands of ghosts she believed were trapped in there with her, from the day that construction started in 1884 until the day she died in 1922.
The house itself, as you can well imagine, is crazy. It is full of architectural idiosyncracies like staircases that rise up to the ceiling, doors that open onto brick walls (or into open air on the upper floors), windows in the floor looking down on the rooms below, and staircases that split into three different directions. Folklore has it that they were supposed to befuddle the trapped spirits, but it's more likely that because rooms were often redone several times over some connections were bound to be missed.
The place is also huge: a hundred and sixty rooms, ten thousand windows, two thousand doors... it's the kind of place that I'd love to play hide-and-seek in. It just goes on and on and on, rooms upon rooms upon crazy rooms. Turn a corner, and you might see a priceless Tiffany stained glass window, or an attempt at internal plumbing (the first in the area), or a towering pipe-organ, or the half-finished wreck of a wall. Obscure quotations decorate the walls: "Wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts" proclaim the windows in the ballroom. The quote is Shakespearean, although the reason why it was put there remains unknown.
In fact, there is quite a lot that is unknown about this house: mapping it must be impossible, and even the tour guide doesn't know who actually owns the house (although Google can give you some clues - there is a certain amount of this mysterious hamming-it-up in the attraction). The house was fantastic, however: it is the closest feeling I've had to walking the halls of Gormenghast.
The next sight was much more orthodox: the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the world's most famous, and seeing as I am a big fan of aquaria (having already visited ones in Monaco, Osaka, and Auckland) I just had to go for a visit.
Monterey Bay Aquarium has some very impressive parts, and some that were ... less than impressive. Neither Siobhan nor I were particularly impressed with the hordes of kamikaze children that ran through the dimly lit interior colliding with everything in their way, but primarily our legs. Grrrrr. Some of the attractions, such as the sea otters, were so crowded that getting a good view was impossible, but we found some less populated corners to enjoy nevertheless.
Jellyfish. What can I say? I'm a huge fan. And here there are thousands of them, eerily lit from below in unusual colours (in their natural light they are basically invisible). The jellyfish exhibit here is the best I've ever seen, and I've seen some damn good ones.
The kelp forest is hypnotic: it ebbs up and down, and with it ebbs every fish suspended in the surrounding sea. There's something sincerely disconcerting about seeing a big fish bounce around in the water like the bobbing horizon of a drunk driver.
People always discount tuna - how could anything that fits in those tiny cans be intimidating or impressive? But in the open ocean, tuna are huge and vicious. And very hard to grow in captivity, which is why seeing them alive is so impressive. They can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds (that's 680 kg, about half the weight of a car), and they also have wicked spikes running along the base of their spines. Cool.
Finally, Monterey Bay Aquarium is a petting zoo. Petting zoo! Starfish, okay, everyone has touched them, but who would have thought that manta rays and sea cucumbers feel the same? I have felt both, and I can now say definitively that they feel: gross. Heh. Spongy and squishy. How very cool.
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