Unfold your map of California, boot up your GPS, and hold on tight for a ride around some of our state's most intriguing mystery spots. California is such a big state with such diverse geography and history that we have as many natural oddities as we have ghosts and monsters and mystery lights and just about anything else from the world of the strange. A lot of it is just legend but there's also plenty that's real enough for a memorable weekend road trip. Today I'd like to share with you some of my favorite places in California that either tickle the skeptical funnybone, or are just too darn cool scientifically to pass up.
Some of these places are so unique and valuable that their exact locations are secret. For example, the oldest living thing, a 4700-year-old bristlecone pine named Methuselah, is in California's White Mountains, and its location has been kept a secret ever since an even older tree named Prometheus was cut down in 1964 in order to measure its age. Sort of a Schroedinger's Cat experiment taken to the extreme.
Several times I've visited the most impressive petroglyphs I've ever seen in Death Valley. They're in a secret slot canyon with a name that describes its sharply twisting shape. These huge petroglyphs are amazing and they're absolutely pristine. They're also difficult and dangerous to reach, and impossible when water is flowing through the canyon. Don't expect any help from the rangers either; they've "never heard of it" but they'll write you a fat ticket if they catch you there.
Also at an undisclosed location in Death Valley is a small puddle against the side of a rock, apparently. Look and you'll see a species of desert pupfish found nowhere else on Earth. Stick your arm in and you'll feel no bottom. Slide your whole body in and you'll find that it's the tiny opening to a vast underground water system from which at least three divers have never returned. Swim all the way through and you'll find that it connects to Montezuma Well, a spring in Arizona that's so far away it's ridiculous.
Explorers have also died inside the old Gunsight Mine, as they have in many such mines from California's gold rush and silver rush days, so publishing their exact locations is discouraged. In many cases the bodies are not safely recoverable, as a trip inside will make forbiddingly clear. Whether you learn the old legends about these lost mines or not, their exploration is a trip you'll never forget. If you're lucky you might even photograph orbs inside, like I did, which you can see on the Skeptoid web site in the transcript for episode #29.
Then there are the natural oddities in California that anyone can visit. The San Joaquin Valley, running down the length of the state, is now ploughed into farmlands but it used to be covered with strange rocky lumps called hogwallows. They can be up to 6 feet high and 20 feet across but are often much smaller, though they're always steep and densely packed. Here and there you'll still see an unused corner or a small valley covered with hog wallows. They're so dramatic that they look like they have to be man made, but just about every possible explanation for their existence has been ruled out.
Grimes Canyon in Ventura County is one of only a few places on Earth where rock has been melted by non-volcanic natural processes. It's called combustion metamorphism, and in this case the heat source was decaying organic matter underground. Temperatures reached 3000°F, enough to melt the rock and create a black obsidian-like glass. You can drive right up and a short hike will take you right to this rarest of geological oddities.
Now some of these places I've already been to, as you know if you've watched the videos on the Skeptoid.com web site. I love the unearthly weirdness of the Trona Pinnacles, a huge garden of rocky tufa spires up to 140 feet tall, which grew when mineral-rich groundwater surged from vents hundreds of centuries ago when the region was under water. It's like finding Bryce Canyon in the middle of a vast dry lake. Bring your energy crystals and you can join a healing ceremony there.
I love the Anza-Borrego desert, home to everything from ghost lights to marauding skeletons to lost Viking ships that sailed up the Gulf of California and somehow ended up buried in the desert canyon walls. My favorite place to go is the Mud Caves, a network of dry underground riverbeds that twist for miles beneath the dusty badlands, only of handful of which have been discovered. Said to be a hotbed of floating ghost lights, they make for unforgettable exploration regardless of whether you actually encounter a spook.
Death Valley's Racetrack Playa has always been near and dear to me. Skeptoid episode #21 was all about this vast mud flat, crisscrossed with the tracks of rocks that slide mysteriously across the surface all by themselves. How does it happen? Listen to the episode to find out, or do like I do and go see it for yourself.
Update: My hypothesis was finally confirmed in 2014 by a team who beat me to the punch. Read about it here!
California has an enormous wealth of destinations that, unfortunately, are more interesting to read about than to visit. For example, I visited the Whaley House in San Diego, an old building with a colorful history that's officially registered with the National Park Service as America's Most Haunted House. But when you go there, big surprise, you don't luck into an encounter with the ghost of Yankee Jim, or any of his cohorts. You come home with a disappointingly uninteresting videotape. The fact is that a lot of these cool places have attractions that you're not actually going to see. For many years I planned a Bigfoot hunting expedition. I even sourced a place to rent a thermographic video camera. I plotted out the location of a lake right in the center of the hotspot for many historical sightings. I shopped around for backpackable kayaks and planned to anchor in the center of the lake, and spy all night on a pile of freshly cut fruit on the shore. What stopped me from doing it? The simple fact that I wasn't actually going to see a Bigfoot, or a Loch Ness monster, or an alien. Sure it would have been fun, with the right company and the right flask of recreational beverage, but it's a lot of money and a lot of hassle for what would amount to no more than an extended Happy Hour.
But there may be another creature out there in the murky coastal redwoods of northern California: a giant salamander, the size of a man, lurking in the depths of rivers and streams. It's said to have been spotted many times in the past hundred years but nobody's ever managed to photograph or capture one. If it sounds hard to believe, consider there is a real such animal, at least there is across the pond. The Japanese giant salamander (Andrias japonicus) grows up to six feet long, and it's about the ugliest damn thing you've ever seen. If it can live there, why shouldn't it be able to live in the nearly identical climate and geography in the Pacific Northwest? The only reason I haven't gone on my own giant salamander hunt is that I know full well I would spend three days scrambling through dense poison oak, slipping on river rocks, and freezing to death at night, and never see salamander hide nor hair. The projected return on investment does not reach the tipping point.
There's another opportunity I've always managed to put off. I used to live right next to the famous Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, which boasts a haunted room. I called the reservation desk and asked to rent room 419, but was told you can't request a specific room until after you already show up and pay. They're often full and it's unlikely that a given room will ever be available on a random night. So that was a bust. But the fact is that even if you do get into the haunted room, nothing's going to happen. I was hoping to make a video about my stay there, similar to the other videos on the Skeptoid.com web site, but I wouldn't have ended up with anything to show for it other than maybe an interview with the bartender telling his version of what the laundry woman told him. Yippee.
Then there are the places I don't want to go because they're dumb. Everyone always tells me "Oh, you're in California, you have to go the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz." The Mystery Spot is an attraction where they've built a wooden cabin at a steep angle, so that balls appear to roll uphill and people can stand on the walls. They've invented a cute story about a gravitational anomaly that has "baffled researchers". If you're six years old it's probably pretty neat; if you have half a brain, "insulting" is a better word for it.
But one of the greatest and most famous haunted locations is always a blast to explore, ghosts or not. It's the Queen Mary, moored in Long Beach. They have an expensive night time ghost tour with a psychic, but if you know your way around, you'll find much of the ship unlocked, fully accessible, and unguarded. A friend of mine was unofficially toured around below decks by another friend who knows the whole ship inside and out. When they reached the haunted first class swimming pool deep within the bowels of the ship, they both felt the rush of a spirit burst past them and ran out terrified. That one's definitely on my list: Even if you don't have a strange experience, it's pretty damn cool to climb around the bowels of a deserted classic old cruise ship in the middle of the night.
Likewise with Hearst Castle in San Simeon and the gigantic Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. Both are renowned for their ghosts, but both are also fascinating in the light of day. Both offer nighttime ghost tours as well as normal daylight tours. Both have impressive histories that feel almost palpable when you're standing right there. The best way to see them is to get to know one of the tour guides who lives onsite, and solicit an invitation to come by after hours. Offer to bring margarita ingredients and you're in like Flint. [Apparently nobody appreciated this James Coburn reference... yes I know the original phrase referenced Errol Flynn - BD.]
If you're a pilot or know a friend with a small plane you can fly over the Blythe Intaglios, a collection a huge figures drawn on the desert floor that are identifiable only from the air, and are believed to be as much as 2000 years old. The Quechan Indians made them by turning over the rocks on the surface, hiding the side blackened by desert varnish and exposing the natural rock colored underside. Desert varnish takes so long to form on a surface that the Blythe Intaglios will be clear as day for thousands of years yet to come. Sadly they've been vandalized pretty badly, and proponents hope to eliminate all ground access to the area. If you want to consider their skeptical angle, you can ponder the claim that the largest figure is pointing directly toward Area 51.
But what a fascinating state we Californians live in. Of course I haven't even remotely scratched the surface, so maybe this is a subject that we'll revisit in a future episode. What I'd also love to do is talk about other places around the world. Do you know of a place that's fascinating to visit, and that lets the skeptic experience first hand some phenomena that led people to invent a paranormal explanation? Please tell us about it. Come to the Skeptoid.com web site and post about it on the online transcript for this episode, or in our forums hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation.