Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.
This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!
Day 7 – California
And with a whoop we crossed the state border into California! We knew how the Settlers must have felt – yet the Great Plains had not finished yet. We still had Death Valley to traverse. Here we marvelled at the petroforms – lines formed in the volcanic debris, stretching for miles snaking across the eerie emptiness. No one quite knows what they are for – although there are plenty of theories. They seem akin to the Nazca lines of Peru. ‘Landing strips for UFOs, clearly,’ was J’s unhelpful suggestion. The Sequoia national park offered natural wonders – some of the oldest living things on the planet. The trees here were just on a different scale entirely to what I’ve been used to and I walked among them truly dwarfed. Our road-trip had begun with tacky artificial ‘World’s Largest’ attractions and ended with the real thing. We both spent some time communing with these silent giants. We lunched at the park, then carried on. After a week on the road we were keen to reach our destination but we had one essential detour to make – to the Winchester Mystery House! It took us quite a while to get to San José – we didn’t have to stop and ask for directions though, although we couldn’t help singing the corny song, our spirits lifting as we neared our destination. We’d made it to the West Coast – yippee! And so – like Scooby Doo and his gang (my Thelma to J’s Daphne) we took our mystery mobile to the Winchester Mystery House. Sprawling over six acres, this seven storey structure contains an incredible 160 rooms (apparently the owner never slept in the same bedroom twice to confuse the spirits of the slain which haunted her conscience), 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. It belonged to the widow of William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and manufacturer of the famous Winchester repeating rifle. Sarah Winchester, nee Lockwood Pardee, was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1840. Known as the ‘Belle of New Haven’ Sarah received all the privileges her parent’s wealthy lifestyle could afford. She spoke four languages and played the piano well. She married William in 1862 and they became the toast of New England society. But then in 1866 tragedy struck when their beloved daughter, Annie, died tragically of the mysterious illness known as Marasmus. Sarah was grief-stricken and inconsolable, falling into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. Fifteen years later this was compounded by the death of her husband by tuberculosis. This seemed to have been the last straw. After, the widow Winchester sought the advice of a medium – the Boston Medium – who told her the deaths of her loved ones were the result of the blood staining the Winchester family, from all the victims of the repeat-action rifle which had made their fortune – Native Americans, Civil War soldiers, et cetera, et cetera. Legions of the dead. The only way to appease these spirits was to move west and build a house – and ensure that the building work never stopped. The perpetual banging would mirror the sound of the rifle, and the confusing labyrinth that would result would ‘baffle’ the angry ghosts. Such a house would ensure a place for her in eternity. And so Sarah followed the advice of the Boston Medium and headed west, secured some land near San Jose – an unfinished farm house – and ordered for the work to begin. This continued to her death (heart failure in the middle of the night) on 5th September 1922. Then the workmen downed tools – leaving nails half-hammered into the walls. Mrs Winchester, the heiress of the Winchester fortune, had been a philanthropic recluse – using her vast wealth to not only fund the perpetual building work but also the founding of a medical center (sic) for the treatment of TB. Although children from the neigbourhood were welcome – treated to ice-cream and allowed to play on her piano – Mrs Winchester was fastidious in her privacy, apparently wearing a veil and sacking any workman who saw her face (though she paid her workers twice the going rate). She was said to have retired to the Blue Room every night, wearing one of thirteen coloured robes, and there with the use of a planchette board, consult the spirits for construction advice – in this case, the term ‘cowboy builders’ seems to have been apt. The house still stands as a creepy testimony to a life cursed with tragedy – and to the fact that having great wealth is not a guarantee of happiness. It was with some relief we left this chilly place, back out into the glorious Californian sun – and made our way north to San Francisco. We whooped at the sign that announced we had arrived at our destination city. I was looking forward to exploring all the landmarks – Union Square, Chinatown, the City Lights bookshop – but for now, we ran the gauntlet of the freeways to the bay and pulled up in a layby to enjoy the view … of the Golden Gate bridge. We popped open a bottle of chilled white Californian wine to celebrate. We’d made it!
Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.