There’s really nothing quite like standing on the side of the Interstate just outside of San Jose, California, on your birthday, next to your unfortunately gold Ford Taurus that just sacrificed it’s transmission to the asphalt gods, 1500 kilometres from home and near penniless, to make you wonder if maybe curses do indeed exist.
The Winchester Mystery House was supposed to be my destination twice, on two separate road trips to California. If you haven’t heard of the Winchester Mystery House, buckle the fuck up. This is one of the most bizarre stories in the history of Planet Earth. Sarah Winchester was the heiress to the Winchester gun fortune, and she was convinced that she was being haunted by the spirits of all the Native Americans her family’s guns had killed. She was so convinced of this, that in order to please these spirits, she held seances constantly and did whatever the spirits told her, which was to continue building on to her sprawling estate in San Jose, California, constantly. Work crews would build round the clock, every day of the week, for 48 years adding rooms and features onto the house that the spirits demanded. They built stairways to nowhere, doors that open to a drop, windows in the middle of rooms, and so on and so forth.
It’s supposed to be one of those things you have to see before you die, and I was so fucking gung ho to add it to my bucket list the first time I ever heard about it. I figured this would be one bucket list bullet I could cross off easily, being just up a thousand mile stretch of Interstate from San Jose, and usually making the trip to California once every few years.
Yeah. I was wrong.
The first time, my boyfriend and I took a week off to drive down to Carlsbad, near San Diego, camping along the way. It was a gorgeous trip and we made the mandatory stop in Big Sur so I could squeeze Kerouacian relevance out of about a hundred photos (another bucket list item accomplished). We found some strange campsite in the middle of a bunch of farmland, that had the facade of a town – just the front wall of half a dozen “stores” with Looney Toons characters eerily peering out of the dirty windows. We ate olives in Corning, and had pea soup in Anderson and went to Legoland in San Diego. We did everything but LA, because… well… it’s LA.
On our way home, I had every intention of stopping at the Winchester Mystery House. I’d even marked a giant star on the map. It’s necessary here, to note that my boyfriend couldn’t drive. I had done all the driving up until this point because he’d never bothered to get his driver’s license. It didn’t bother me so much, because I suck at being a passenger, but the least he could have done is brush up on his navigation skills. Before I knew we’d missed the turn off for the WMH, we’d driven an extra 100 kilometers or so. There was no turning back, we had to be back for work the next day. I was annoyed, but got over it and enjoyed the rest of our trip home.
My first pic of a rainbow flag in the Castro
The second time I planned to hit up the Mystery House, is when that same boyfriend (let’s call him Don), my best friend (we’ll call her Mary) and myself planned to drive to San Francisco. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, as Mary had just come out of the closet and wanted to see the Castro and the Mission all with her very own, newly proud eyes. The trip we planned spanned about a week, and included my birthday. Through total coincidence, our route had us minutes from the WMH on that day, so I made it clear, “I’m gonna see that goddamned house for my birthday!”.
GM Note: It’s important to understand that none of us had any money. We had maybe a few hundred dollars between us and driving 1500 kilometres round trip cost a lot in gas. I had just started my home business and picked up a client in San Francisco that happened to have a Bed and Breakfast, so I asked if we could stay there, in exchange for some free work. They agreed. We planned to camp the rest of the time, because it was cheaper. We had everything planned down to the last penny. If we stuck to budget we would be fine…
The first day, we made it to Southern Oregon. We’d stopped briefly at the Oregon Vortex which is a small area in the middle of the forest that is said to have paranormal properties that throw off your perception and make objects and animals behave strangely. It is said that birds won’t fly over it, deer won’t wander into it and before us whitey ever got to North America, the Natives would steer clear. It was a fairly strange experience, watching things roll up hill, and appearing to be taller than people who are taller than me everywhere else. In my opinion, it was all optical illusion, but weird nonetheless.
We camped that night, on a dusty plain that seemed endless, watching the lightning strike the horizon through our tent flap.
The following day, we made it to Redding and stopped along the way at the Olive Pit in Corning, California. We bought more pickled garlic than could feed the rest of Canada for a week, because the pickled garlic at the Olive Pit in Corning, California, is about the most heavenly thing there is on earth. As a result, for the rest of the trip, we were known as the stinky Canadians.
This was the day before my birthday and all three of us were giddy with the joy only a road trip can bring, so we splurged on a few beers. Mary insisted on drinking them poolside with our little stereo blasting country tunes, while she cowboy stomped around the pool drinking Coors Light. I still have footage of this, which I intend to keep as blackmail material, should I ever need it.
At some point in the night, in the California heat, and the drowsiness of American beer, we found ourselves passing out, ready to sleep until morning and get going again. This time, we would be heading to the Winchester Mystery House. I really don’t know if it was that, or the trip to the Vortex that gave me the dreams, but I dreamt of talking animals, floating tents and campfires that started themselves. I woke up completely unsettled, but I quickly shook it off. It was my birthday, and finally the day I would see the strange house I’d been wanting to see for so long. We packed up and set off.
Mary, Don and I barreled down the Interstate in my Golden Ford Taurus, the vehicle of retirees and divorced sausage makers from Russia, the car which we had nicknamed, “The Golden Lunch Buffet”. Listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Blind Melon and Nirvana, we joked and laughed and tried to remember all the funny things Mary had done poolside the night before.
As we neared the turn-off to head to the Winchester Mystery House, I turned down to music and started to explain the history of it to Mary, who didn’t know anything about it. During my schpiel, I felt my car jiggle a little. I really thought nothing of it and continued. About a minute later, we all heard a thud, and the car seemed to feel… loose. I tried to shift gears, as flashbacks of a family road trip to Palm Desert flooded my mind. Outside Pasadena, in the baby blue family Ford Taurus, our transmission had dropped out. It had been Sunday, and we had to wander through a highly Catholic area looking for one transmission place that wasn’t closed for the Sabbath.
I couldn’t shift.
“Goddamnit, motherfucker!” I belted out, smacking my steering wheel.
“What?” Mary and Don asked in unison.
I pulled to the side of the highway and told them that it appeared my transmission was shot. Mary got in the driver’s seat, not fully believing me. After a few clicks and fiddles, she gave her professional opinion: Yep, we’re fucked.
This is where I had a minor meltdown. You see, I had argued with my Mom about buying this car. My Uncle had fixed it up himself, and my Mom pushed it on me to buy because it was only $3k. It was the absolute last car I wanted to buy, after my family’s experience with the automatic transmission Taurus in Pasadena. My Mom eventually made a good case, and I bought it. On this day, my birthday, in San Jose, I regretted that decision. I’d gotten what I deserved for buying a Ford Taurus.
I trudged beside my two friends, tears streaming down my face, along the Interstate to a phone box. We made the call and waited for the tow truck. It was lucky that I had roadside assistance for just such an occasion, but of course, unless fixing my transmission was going to cost a loonie and a cup of coffee, I wasn’t going to be able to repair my car.
We were driven to Freemont, California where there was a transmission specialist who was open. We sat in the air conditioned office that smelled so deeply of motor oil, I felt like I was breathing it. We were there for hours. Eventually, I was told that repairing my car would cost over $3k – more than I had paid for the whole damned thing.
I didn’t know what to do and I panicked. What could we do? We were literally stuck in Freemont, California, 1500 kilometres from home, with a dead car that we somehow had to get back to Canada. I asked the repair shop if they wanted to buy it off me, on the off chance they’d give me a hundred bucks or something for parts, but they said no.
So, I decided to abandon it. I literally had no choice. The car was now parked on the side of the road outside of the shop, so we grabbed everything we had in it, and called a cab. We told him to take us to the nearest motel.
A few minutes later, we pulled up to a motel that was seedy as any place I’ve ever seen before. There were 3 cop cars in the parking lot and one of them had what appeared to be a prostitute leaning up against it. We had no choice though. It was either this motel for $30/night or the Best Western on the other side of town for literally all the money we had left. We checked in.
After we got to our room, and unloaded all our crap, I called my parents and told them what happened. Don and Mary disappeared to give me some privacy and I chatted with my Mom and Dad. My Mom brought me back from panicland after a long chat, assuring me that one day, this would be a story I’d be telling my friends through bursts of laughter. She was right. I told them I loved them and hung up.
“To the Winchester curse, who has claimed another victim”, He said. I tapped my can to his and thought about that for a second. Maybe there is a fucking curse.
I was unable to entertain that thought for long, because I suddenly heard singing.
“Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!”
I turned and saw Mary and Don carrying over a birthday cake and a case of beer. This is Mary for you. She takes a pile of shit and turns it into one of the happiest surprises of my life. This was why I loved her. This is why I still love her.
We sat up drinking with the drywaller all night, and though he kept making passes at me, it had been pleasant. When we finally decided to head to bed, he had the nerve to ask if I would join him in his room for one last beer and I said no, you know, being as I was there with my boyfriend. We had a good laugh about it before going to bed, thinking nothing of it.
When we woke up, we set about packing up all our shit. We still had no idea what to do, and how to get to San Francisco, but we knew we couldn’t stay here another night. We went through our crap, coming to the realization that we couldn’t take it all. Most of it was loose camping gear, for which we had no bags or suitcases. Sadly, we decided to leave brand new camping gear we had just bought, there in the hotel room. A new tent, a Coleman stove, folding lawn chairs and more. We had no time to see if we could sell it, so we just left it.
When we were finally packed, we went to open our hotel door and realized it was already ajar. Luckily, we had put the bar lock on, so the door could only be opened a crack because when we peeked outside, we saw a pile of cigarette butts and 3 empty Budweiser cans, which was the beer the drywaller had been drinking. It became very quickly apparent, that not only did we have to get the fuck out of there, but we had to do it immediately.
We went to the front desk and asked them to call us a cab. As he rolled up, we came up with a game plan: we barter with the cabbie to take us to San Francisco. We had almost nothing left, but we needed to get there.
From the back of the cab, we struck a deal with the abundantly pleasant Afghani driver. He agreed to take us to San Francisco for a staggeringly low $30. We’d finally caught a break, and we made it to my client’s Bed and Breakfast in good time, where a fresh, home cooked meal awaited us.
The Golden Gate Bridge
For the following week, we walked around hilly San Francisco because we didn’t want to spend any money on transportation. I ended up with shin splints, as we all came from an unendingly flat town and hills were just not something any of us had to deal with often. Our hosts were understanding about the loss of our car and the money situation, inviting us for rooftop wines and homemade dinners all week. Breakfasts were included in our accommodation, so we really only had to spend on lunch and a few drinks while we bar hopped in the Castro and the Mission. We had an amazing time, and Mary fell in love with the city I’d been in love with for years. We were careful to save just enough to pay for the 3 of us to go home on the Greyhound.
The day we were leaving finally rolled around, and we threw all our junk in garbage bags and headed to the Greyhound station. We were elated that we had made it. That we’d faced a crisis head on, stayed on top of our money well enough to deal with it, and that we were going to make it back home without anyone asking their parents for help. Sure, we’d lost the Golden Lunch Buffet, but shit could certainly be a lot worse.
Our rounds of patting ourselves on the back came to an abrupt end when the Greyhound staff told us that our stuff could not go on the bus in garbage bags. We were being forced to purchase cardboard boxes just to get our clothes and everything that had been in my car, home. We counted out our last coins. We couldn’t do it, we were a few dollars short.
So, we panhandled. We rushed around the station desperately asking for a quarter here, and a dime there. In just enough time to make our bus, we did it. We made enough to buy the boxes and get on the bus.
Elated, we burst aboard the old, run down bus. We weren’t going to eat for a day, but who the fuck cared? We fucking did it. We were going home.
I decided, after that trip, that I was going to cross the Winchester Mystery House off my bucket list, because even Godless Mom felt like something just didn’t want me to go. Even me, the militant atheist, the anti-theist, the bullshit sniffer-outer extraordinaire, thinks that maybe, just maybe, there could be a tiny little curse.
Have you been there? What was it like? Let me live vicariously through your experience!