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Mystery Spots in the West

There are places in the West where unexplained phenomena baffle the experts. Here are seven you can visit.

sailing rock on Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, image
Photo caption
A sailing rock at the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley leaves a mysterious path.

Memo to agents Scully and Mulder: Here's an assignment. Scour your X-Files for something that explains this.

Spring of 1932. A reporter from the Los Angeles Times named Edward Lanser shows up in Northern California on the snow-covered slopes of Mount Shasta. He's come to get the scoop on the Lemurians.

Yes, Luh-MYUR-ee-ans. Headquarters should have briefed you on them—ancient race of higher humans whose civilization got submerged in some long-ago flood. Now they live in the mountain. In it—not on it. Or so some folks around Shasta say.

Stories abound: sightings of strange footprints; lost, lone hikers getting rescued by beings with huge foreheads. Scoff if you want, Scully. Lanser probably did, until that spring day when he stared up at Shasta and saw bright lights in the wilderness. Flashing, fading. Flashing, fading. He saw them the next night, and the next.

"Incredible," Lanser wrote, when he got back to Los Angeles, "that . . . Lemurians . . . have succeeded in secluding themselves in the midst of our teeming state."

Interesting, no? But you know our motto: Trust no one.

So a few weeks ago, I donned dark glasses, ducked inside a dark sedan, and headed out to investigate the situation for myself. Here's what's top secret: Shasta was only one of my stops. I was on the trail of mysteries, which are plentiful as prairie dogs in the West. Scully and Mulder, you'd love it here. All sorts of stuff goes unexplained.

Consider this: In Piercy, Calif., up the northern coast, there's Confusion Hill. Try walking up it and you wobble like a Weeble. Maybe the place was once a landing site for aliens. People have come up with all kinds of ideas.

Not far from that spot, hikers like to trek through the coastal forests. The seldom-seen Sasquatch, some say, likes to hike there, too.

But I was working alone; I had to be selective. A man can see only so much. So I started a bit farther south, in the Red Rock Country of Sedona, Ariz., where there are so many buttes and pinnacles you nearly expect to see the Marlboro man. What you see instead are lots of New Age bookstores and crystals shops. And companies offering vortex tours.

What's a vortex? No, it's not a cross between velvet and Gore-Tex. It's a spiritual spot where earth's healing energy rises from its core. Skeptics snicker, but believers come in bunches—tens of thousands every year.

There are four major vortices in Sedona. (Used to be more, but one got paved over by the post office.) The big ones that remain are Boynton Canyon, Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, and Airport Mesa. High up on a cliff overlooking the village of Oak Creek there's a vortex known as Apache Leap. Story goes that a small group of fugitive Apache warriors arrived at the cliff's edge and, rather than surrender to the soldiers trailing them, jumped. Not many people go there. It's a heck of a climb.

"There is no one singular vortex experience," a local tour operator named Marc Avery told me. "Everyone gets something different out of them."

We were standing at the base of the famous Bell Rock vortex, a red rock outcropping that is shaped like—well, let's just say the name rings true. Like all the local vortices, this place was sacred to the American Indians. These days it's a destination for people who hope to cure their hepatitis and for couples who want to heal their marital difficulties. Psychics come here to hold séances. Gurus gather here to meditate. Avery told me that some people stand at a vortex, focus really hard, and swear they can make clouds disappear. Scientists have taken magnetic readings. Some say they found "energy." Others say they didn't.

That afternoon I picked up something—a candy bar wrapper on the ground near Cathedral Rock. That piece of litter aside, it's a stunning place, an ornate rock outgrowth standing sentinel near a bend in babbling Oak Creek. I sat on a large stone, listening to the gurgle of the water. There was no special energy that I could sense, except for the intense beauty of the spot. But I didn't give up. As I drove off around sunset, I focused hard and looked out the window. Scout's honor, Scully, I couldn't see a cloud in the whole dang sky.

It was overcast that night when I rolled into Las Vegas, where I bumped into this stumper of a mystery: Why so many Elvises in one place? But Las Vegas wasn't my destination. I was headed up the freeway, 2.5 hours northwest through the desert, to Death Valley National Park.

Through the park entrance, down the road dropped, nearly 300 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. I passed Ubehebe Crater, a vast hole in the earth formed by a volcano. The wind whipped at more than 50 miles per hour.

I had swapped the sedan for a big four-wheel drive. I needed it to get where I was going, some 30 miles down a rugged dirt road to Racetrack Playa, home of the mysterious sliding stones.

Racetrack Playa isn't really a racetrack. It's a dried-out lake bed, nearly two miles long. They just call it that because of the stones. I could see them in the distance as I rolled around a bend and rumbled toward the playa. They were like a flock of ducks sitting on a placid pond. I parked the truck and walked half a mile across the cracked-dry lake bed, just barely keeping my balance in the gale-force gusts.

At last, I stood among the sliding stones. There were dozens of them, some barely larger than pebbles, others twice the size of basketballs. I couldn't see them sliding. No one ever has. But I could tell that they'd been on the move. Across the vast expanse of Racetrack Playa, the stones had left snail trails, long snaking furrows in the silt clay. Some of the trails were several hundred feet long.

What makes the stones slide remains a question. As always, some people suspect aliens. If that's the case, E.T. is stronger than a team of oxen. Some of the stones weigh 700 pounds. Other theories have emerged. Maybe it's the high wind, though wind alone couldn't budge some of these babies. Maybe it's the rain, which freezes in cold weather, forming a thin icy film over which the stones could slide. Maybe it's a combination of the two.

Experts have promised to unravel the riddle. They could set up cameras, use fancy measuring devices to watch the stones move over time. Out on the playa, the wind was still howling. I hunched my shoulders and trudged back to the truck. Mulder would take issue, but here's my belief: Some mysteries are better left alone.

That's how I felt when I made my next stop, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, at the fabulously famous Mystery Spot.

Here's your background: During the 1930s, a fellow who'd bought the property was surveying the hillside when he felt a strange force dragging him down. He built a shack with a firm foundation. Soon enough the shack was unaccountably tilting to one side.

It's still tilting today. That much you can see when you pay your $5 and breeze through the half-hour Mystery Spot tour. Lots of odd stuff strikes you as you stroll up the hill. The slope doesn't get steeper, but your legs grow heavy. Each step is harder than the one before.

Stand on a plank—it's perfectly level. Put a cue ball down and it won't roll away. Now walk the plank. Your friends will swear you're shrinking. Walk the other way, and they will insist you've grown. At other spots, try to stand up straight and you'll be leaning backward. You can't help it. Gravity is goofy here.

The entire Mystery Spot is just 150 feet in diameter. But, the tour guides say, planes won't fly over it. Rumor has it that it throws their instrumentation off. Some visitors get dizzy and don't know why.

But lots of folks have come to their own conclusions. UFO fans insist that some mysterious metal is buried in the earth here. It supposedly helps flying saucers navigate.

Then there's the carbon dioxide theory. A scientist once detected high concentrations of the gas here. Said it oozes from the earth and makes you feel light-headed. Said it refracts the light so it plays tricks on your eyes.

No tricks here: When I got back to the office, I read the Mystery Spot brochure. Seems that one scientist visited the Mystery Spot and found "the highest dielectric biocosmic radiation" known in the world. What does that mean? That, my dear agents, is a mystery, too. And here's another one: Do spirits really live in the Winchester Mystery House?

Sarah Winchester believed they did. She was the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune and in 1884, shortly after the deaths of her husband and infant child, she moved to San Jose from Connecticut. She was grief stricken, conscience stricken, and stricken with the sense that spirits trailed her. These were the shades, she thought, of people killed by Winchester guns.

Mrs. Winchester consulted a fortune- teller, who gave her advice on keeping ghosts at bay: Start building a house, the seer told her, and never stop building or you'll suffer the same fate as your husband and child. And so she did. Her strange Victorian megamansion stands just a few blocks from the interstate. Guided tours are required. Without them, you might not ever make it out.

There are 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, 47 fireplaces, and six kitchens. (Do you know what a bungalow in this neighborhood goes for today?) The place is as endless as a daytime soap opera, with just as many twists and turns. There are stairs that lead to nowhere, doors that open onto nothing, windows that look out at solid walls.

Maybe Sarah built it that way to confuse the ghosts. When she died in 1922, construction ceased. But the phantoms, it seems, never skipped town. Folks who work there swear they hear evidence of them: footsteps in the hallway, voices from the kitchen, doors that seem to slam all by themselves.

No spirits showed up when I toured the place. But they can't fool me: I know they stay out of sight when there's an agent around. So I left San Jose—I could almost hear the ghosts breathe a sigh of relief—and drove north up the coast to Klamath, Calif., not far from the Oregon border.

I rolled through stands of mighty redwoods, then stopped at some of the mightiest trees of all.

You know you've arrived at the Trees of Mystery when you see the giant statue of Paul Bunyan standing alongside his giant blue ox, Babe. They guard a patch of forest that the American Indians feared to enter. They believed that spirits lived here. How else could the trees grow so tall?

What I wanted to know, as I paid my $15 and lit out down the footpath, is how the trees here could grow so strange. They're twisted and gnarled into elaborate formations: a tree shaped like an elephant. One that resembles a bolt of lightning. And another that grows upside down, its roots springing forth from some high-hanging branch.

I spent an hour wandering amid these ancient monsters. A tree shaped like a candelabra caught my eye. Want to know what I was thinking, Mulder? People may be weird, but Mother Nature is the greatest mystery of all.

Or is she? I began to wonder, after driving three hours from Klamath over the mountains to Gold Hill, Ore., a small town on the state's southern lip. I took a winding road through the forest. Eerie setting. Forget the X-Files—I'm talking Blair Witch Project II. A few miles in, I reached the Oregon Vortex, home of the "world famous" House of Mystery.

Brochure says the place is unique, but it closely resembles the Mystery Spot. Actually, it opened in 1930, a decade before the similar place in Santa Cruz.

At any rate, what I saw was a shack and a steep hillside where gravity seems to perform in contrary ways. Hold a broomstick at an angle, handle touching the ground, whisk end up, then let go of it. The broom just stands there. What could explain this? I scratched my head. No shame in that— plenty of scientists have scratched theirs, too.

So many questions, so few answers. But lots to ponder on the two-hour drive to Mount Shasta, land of the Lemurians. Arriving downtown, a Mayberry-looking stretch with some shops and stop signs, I moseyed into one of the bookstores. There were crystals in the windows and New Age books on the shelves. I approached the owner.

"What about these Lemurians?" I asked. She gave me a grave look.

"The problem that I have with the media," she said, "is you're always coming here trying to make us look like a bunch of weirdos." I said I'd be going.

And then she said, "But you know, there was this one night when I saw these lights out there . . ."

I drove up Lake Street, up the mountain, as far the snowplows would let me go. Sunlight danced in the bleached-out distance. Or was it the lights of the Lemurians? I drove back down, across the freeway, then seven miles back up the foothills to Castle Lake, which was backed by cliffs, iced over and dusted with a thin layer of snow. Legend has it that in the 1960s, flying saucer landings were common here. Time was, some say, when you could see the burnt patches where the ships touched down.

No one knows why the aliens traveled here. For a dip in the lake? For a day at leisure with the Lemurians? I stared across the valley at the looming elegance of massive, snow-white Shasta. Stunning. Silent. I could well understand the mountain's allure. Was there anything out there? Aliens? Lemurians? I don't have the answer. Agents, I leave this one to you.

Photography courtesy of Tahoenathan

This article was first published in May 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.