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Mystery Spot

Started: 2022-03-26 19:32:30

Submitted: 2022-03-26 20:38:53

Visibility: World-readable

Santa Cruz's iconic roadside attraction

From where we live on the north side of Santa Cruz, we are fairly close to the roadside tourist attraction Mystery Spot. I have some vague recollection of going there as a kid while living in the Bay Area an walking through the redwood forest and seeing a crooked house and strange things that defied explanation. It seemed like we needed to visit the site so Kiesa found us tickets for the last Saturday in February.

Entrance to Mystery Spot
Entrance to Mystery Spot

Mystery Spot is tucked into a valley filled with redwood trees next to Branciforte Creek, a short drive from our house, immediately across the ridge from a house we looked at to buy early last year when we were looking at real estate in Santa Cruz. The first thing we saw in the parking lot was a car covered in "Mystery Spot" stickers, clearly set up as a photo opportunity (with a sign admonishing us that the car already had enough stickers so we shouldn't add more stickers onto it).

Calvin, Julian, Kiesa, and Jaeger at Mystery Spot
Calvin, Julian, Kiesa, and Jaeger at Mystery Spot

We arrived early enough to look through the tiny gift shop, where Julian selected a t-shirt (to begin to replace his shirts which he had chewed the necks) but the line moved so slowly I abandoned it so we could reach the tour in time.

Guide demonstrates Mystery Spot
Guide demonstrates Mystery Spot

We queued for our tour at the designated time (14:48 according to our ticket, which seemed oddly precise), and our guide took us through the gate and began demonstrating the mysteries of Mystery Spot. (Or, at least, the illusions of Mystery Spot.) I watched the guide like I would watch a magician: looking for the illusion, trying to spot the trick; and still enjoying the experience even when I figured out what the trick was. Many of the illusions centered around the idea of the hillside being built to trick our sense of balance into thinking down was not quite in the same direction as gravity, and therefore we could be tricked into believing that people changed heights when they changed positions (the gimmick in the demonstration pictured above), and other weird effects.

Looking down from Mystery Spot
Looking down from Mystery Spot

Some of the effects relied on the guide priming us for what to believe, like the idea that the hillside was steeper than it appeared so we'd struggle to climb it. Half-way up the hillside the centerpiece of the tour was a shack that had been built following the contour of the hill, leaning at a precipitous angle inside.

Guide leans in at Mystery Spot
Guide leans in at Mystery Spot

The best illusion was just outside the leaning house, where the guide got water to flow up hill, by virtue of the house being built at an angle that made it look like the water was flowing up when in fact it was just doing what water always does and flows down. (There was also a trick with a bubble level that I didn't totally understand how it worked.)

Then we stepped inside the shack and tried to balance on the steeply-slanted floor, helpfully covered in a high-friction floor treatment to keep us from sliding down the hill. There were various steps placed on the wall where we could climb the walls where (viewed from the correct angle with the right frame of reference) it looked like we were floating in space.

Julian hangs out from the wall at Mystery Spot
Julian hangs out from the wall at Mystery Spot

It was hard to get a good picture of any of the features inside the house because of all of the people crowded inside it, and even harder to get the right frame of reference in the picture. I might have gotten the most extreme effect if I had rotated the pictures so they were aligned with the building, not with gravity, in which case the people standing at a weird angle would have looked like they were leaning precariously over open space; but I ended up holding the camera in line with my body as I was standing, resulting in an uncanny off-kilter effect that matched how I really felt at Mystery Spot.

Leaning building at Mystery Spot
Leaning building at Mystery Spot

There were a couple more illusions on the far side of the building, and then our guide wrapped up the tour and handed out the black-on-yellow Mystery Spot bumper stickers that cover cars all over Santa Cruz. (Calvin put his on his laptop. I haven't found a good place for mine yet.)

Guide explains Mystery Spot
Guide explains Mystery Spot

With the tour completed we headed back down the hill to the gift shop. Without the time constraint of the tour starting, the line moved quickly for my second attempt to buy Julian a t-shirt. We drove back home having experienced Santa Cruz's finest roadside attraction.

Calvin, Kiesa, and Julian at Mystery Spot
Calvin, Kiesa, and Julian at Mystery Spot
Whoa! Now we can always know exactly where we are at every
moment...and still have no clue what is going on.
- Willy, upon learning about Ted's GPS acquisition, 11 November 2003