Monday, June 6, 2011

Now You Can Say Wow

Alex Trebek narrated the bus ride to Hearst Castle. He wasn't there in person, of course; his pre-recorded voice played through the bus's PA system. And although it seemed fitting to hire the world's foremost expert on trivia to recite tedious factoids about the size of the hill we were climbing, about the number of years it took to build the road (a seven-mile stretch that is jokingly referred to as Hearst's driveway), about the menagerie on the side of the road that once housed polar bears, it also struck me as touch excessive. (I was the only one who laughed when Trebek reminded us to keep our arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.) Then again, the construction of Hearst Castle, the one-time residence of late newspaper czar William Randolph Hearst, was a 28-year labor of excess.

After passing through the iron gates at the top of the hill, Alex Trebek reminded us to dispose of our chewing gum in the receptacle at the front of the bus and wished us a happy tour. We were then greeted by our in-person guide, a very eager middle-aged woman named Ruth. She led us up the front steps to a large concrete porch that overlooked a beautiful expanse of the California central coast. On the other side of the porch was a palatial kind of structure that looked like it had been plucked straight from some ancient, wealthy city. I assumed, as everyone else did, that this was Hearst Castle. "By the way," Ruth said, "that's the guest house. The smallest one." She then told us the sqaure-footage of the the guest house, and compared it to the square footage of the main castle, which was greater by a factor about about 12. "Now you can say wow," she said. And some did. She used this phrase no less than a dozen times during the tour, as we approached the swimming pool, as we entered the dining hall, as she pointed out a fuzzy mountain peak in the far distance and explained that that was the end of Hearst's property. 

Saying wow is what one is supposed to do at Hearst Castle, if not for the structure itself, then for the details, such as the enormous woven tapestries or the hand-carved ceiling panels - all original, authentic pieces that were sold to Hearst at firesale prices from cash-desperate owners in postwar Europe.  (After factoring in the price of the some of these pieces, I'm not even sure someone as wealthy as Bill Gates or Warren Buffet could afford to build a replica with similar original artwork.)

In spite of Ruth's less-than-subtle cues, I felt largely unmoved throughout the tour. It reminded me of how I used to feel when I worked in the banks at the Mohegan Sun Casino, where I often counted and bound one-hundred dollar bills until I had a drawer full. I'd look down at the drawer, an ordinary drawer worth several million dollars, and I'd feel completely indifferent. It was just paper, and it belonged to somebody else. Everyone I knew who worked there was completely unimpressed by money or people who had it. Some celebrity would blow $200,000 in a single hour at blackjack and no one seemed to care. We became numb to these things. We found it boring, maybe even a little stupid.

On the return bus trip down the hill, Alex Trebek encouraged us to consider becoming official "Guardians of Hearst Castle," a prestigious title we could acquire for a modest donation.

I got back into my car and headed north a few miles up Highway 1, where there was a rookery for elephant seals. The seals come to the beach for a few months every year, to lay in the sun and shed their skin. From behind my windshield, it appeared as though thousands of fat, dead fish had washed ashore.

As I reached the boardwalk that overlooked the beach, I realized that these animals were much larger than I originally thought, and very much alive. Although most were sleeping, staying perfectly still, sometimes they did move over the sand, bodies expanding and contracting like giant bags of blubber. Occasionally one would flap its flipper in the air, lazily tossing sand over its silver hide. I spotted two way out in the water, playing. One let out the mightiest belch I have to this day heard.

Near the end of the boardwalk, my shoe scuffled against some sand, which alerted one of the seals, the biggest one I had seen, who was no more than 10 feet from me, and she turned her head to look me square in the eye. Her stare was strangely comforting, but also hit me with an intensity that literally forced me to stop mid-stride. Her face was encrusted in sand, which accentuated the deep, wet brown of her perfectly circular eyes. 

When she finally looked away I realized I had been holding my breath, and I immediately reached for my camera. I leaned against the rail and tried to get her attention, clicking my tongue and scraping my foot against the boardwalk, hoping she'd look back. But she never did.

I left feeling a little disappointed, a camera full of pictures of a supposedly beautiful place, but lacking an image of the one moment that really meant something to me. I was worried I wouldn't be able to keep the image in my head. But as I drove further up the coast, all I could think about was that seal's eyes. I thought about it that night when I checked into my hotel, and the next morning as I drove further up the coast, stopping to take more pictures. Now, weeks later, it is the one moment that I can still recall with great clarity. And I find it doesn't matter that I don't have the picture; if I did it would likely lose its meaning, like overplaying a song you love until it turns into background noise. I much prefer to think of it, shake my head, and think wow.

Bonus video of the elephant seals (sorry for the noise, windy day):

Elephant Seals in San Simeon, CA from Willy Nast on Vimeo.

Bonus pics of Pismo Beach/Hearst Castle/Elephant Seal Rookery/Ragged Point:

Pismo Beach from above.

Creeping on this random couple.

The guest house.

The pool.

Ruth called this "the front yard."

The main castle.

A huge book in the sitting room. I was told it was a book of Easter songs.

Dining hall.

Indoor pool.

Elephant seals sunning themselves all across this beach.

Sleepy seal.

Two seals playing in the water.

Ragged Point.

Ragged Point.

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