Santa Cruz Mystery Spot
Santa Cruz, California
Just minutes from Pacific beaches, along a drive curving into the Santa Cruz Mountains, billboard signs warn of imminent discombobulation at the "Mystery Spot." The narrow entrance road is darkly canopied by coast redwoods, an eerie fairy tale forest.
Of all the gravitational vortices we've visited, the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot provides the most atmospheric beginning to a journey of suspended disbelief.
A mystery spot is a type of tourist attraction where the forces of nature are claimed to be scrambled -- a gravitational vortex causes water to run uphill, compasses to misbehave, and objects and people to change size. Skeptics snort derisively that it's all muddled magical thinking and illusion. But as we've pointed out before, who really enjoys a road trip with a skeptic?
The spot's "discoverer," George Prather, sensed more than just unexplained forces at work in 1940, on the three acres he bought from Leighton Newcomb. Earlier, he'd visited the Oregon Vortex -- coincidence perhaps, or catalyst for the attraction he opened in his own hometown in 1941. Prather claimed to have detected magnetic anomalies during his property survey -- a perturbed 150 ft. wide circular area on a steep hillside. The Mystery Spot.
Today, that's where visitors see a slanted shack (a structure endemic to locales where gravity has gone haywire). The wood two-room cabin is twisted, its beams and floor tilted. Tour guides explain the havoc to its architecture as caused by powerful vortex forces.
If not for its expert guides, the Mystery Spot would be nothing but an annoyingly steep trail and a cockeyed cabin. The tour is where the magic happens. At the appointed time, a group assembles at the base of the hill -- perhaps after perusing the gift shop -- and a guide launches into well-worn vortex factoids and joke patter.
We noticed that the seasoned senior citizen guides from years ago had vanished -- we always suspected that mysterious forces wore out their knee joints prematurely. Or are these actually the same guides, long beneficiaries of the mystery spot's secret aging reversal field? Hmmm.
Anyway, the current tour leaders are younger. Go Banana Slugs.
Our guide, Ben, briefly recounts the Spot's history, and rattles off a list of effects to expect. Including: "This hill is two to three times harder to walk up than other hills of the same grade in this general area. You guys will experience that shortly." Ben lays out the topography we will cover, pointing out that we are still "standing in the normal world," but as soon as we cross a line in a few seconds we will be in the Spot's embrace.
A series of demonstrations at stations along the trail show increasingly peculiar shifts in the status quo, such as the relative height between group volunteers depending on where they stand. Ben waves around a carpenter's level at strategic moments, as if the mere presence of a tool makes all of this A-OK science. The three-times-harder trudge up the steep hill to the shack adds to the disorientation.
Suddenly you're standing in the fenced off courtyard behind the cabin, and Ben is dropping an 8-ball onto a slotted board. The ball appears to roll uphill if you trust the skewed orientation around you.
More phenomena await in the cabin, a place of murky lighting and unexpected carpentry. You should steady grandma by the elbow, and send the kid with the inner ear problem back down to the car. Our tour group roughly divides into three clumps -- photo-takers, well-balanced posers, and bewildered wallflowers. Just be warned -- your photos will be hopelessly slanted and fail to capture any of the spot's strangeness.
There's one other Mystery Spot constant, perhaps not easily explained by mainstream science. But marketing scientists have successfully reproduced it in their labs: everyone goes home with a free Mystery Spot bumper sticker.