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Hitting the Mystery Spot

From the reptile museums of Arizona to the Cadillac Ranch in Texas, roadside attractions promise visitors a glimpse of the fantastic and the strange. This week Rachel Anne Goodman takes us to The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, California, where the laws of physics don't seem to apply.

Hitting the Mystery Spot
by Rachel Anne Goodman

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I've always loved mysteries. Not the Nancy Drew type, but the weird science type, like crop circles and Virgin Mary apparitions. It turns out I've been living just minutes away from California's own weird science tourist attraction.

The Mystery Spot is a 150 square foot piece of hillside land in the Santa Cruz redwoods, where, it is said, a compass will not work, and where people appear to grow and shrink. It opened to the public in 1939, and not much has changed since then except tours went from a nickel to five dollars.

In summer, a thousand people a day make the pilgrimage here from all over the world. What brings them? Mostly curiosity. Claims are that gravity doesn't apply here, balls roll uphill, and people appear to lean at odd angles to the earth. Ever the skeptic, I've brought along my friend Joe Jordan, a physicist from NASA. Maybe he can solve the mystery behind the Mystery spot. But first, a reality check.

Rachel: "Do you feel confident gravity always works pretty much the same way everywhere on earth?"

Joe: "Yeah. Well, in my experience, every time you let go of something, it drops. That's about as close as you can come to proof."

With a firm grip on reality, we proceed through the turnstile. Standing beneath the dripping trees in a light drizzle, we meet our guide, Randall.

Randall:" Let's have everybody come right over here..."

The first stop? Two parallel cement blocks about four feet long embedded in the asphalt path. In the center sits a carpenter's level with the bead centered exactly. Our guide, Randall, stands at one end, Joe at the other. Joe is about a foot taller than Randall. Then they trade sides.

Randall: "You notice anything different?"

Joe: "Yes, I'm looking at your mouth."

Randall: "You're quite a bit shorter. That's right my friend, you paid five dollars and lost three inches of your height. Welcome to Santa Cruz."

Joe appears to have shrunk, although both men are standing on a level surface. In 1948, the cover of Life Magazine showed a smiling couple standing at this very spot, demonstrating this shrink and grow phenomenon. As a short person, I find the idea of instantly gaining height very appealing.

Rachel: "So, Joe, what is the explanation?"

Joe: "Everything around there, the fence, the stone wall, the turnstile, was all askew. So it seems like it's a really ingenious construction job."

Apparently, the skewed backdrop makes us think objects in the foreground change size. Our brain does some quick shorthand about how tall objects are in relation to their background and sometimes miscalculates. It appears to be a brilliant optical illusion.

A short, steep climb brings us to the famous tilting cabin. It's door, walls and floor all slant at impossible angles.

Randall: "Come on into the first room, folks, come on up."

Joe: "It feels like there's a magnetic force... weird."

Inside the cabin, our guide climbs onto a narrow shelf suspended about four feet from the steeply canted floor. He appears to be leaning out from the ledge at a 17 degree angle into thin air.

Randall: "You might feel a little dizzy and light headed, the feeling does go away in a few days."

This place might be a hoax, but there's nothing fake about my car sick feeling. The odd angles are confusing my sense of equilibrium. Joe, on the other hand, maintains his cool.

Joe: "See, it's a matter of reference frames. When you have very few cues to the outside, there's just a little window or two in here, the internal consistency of the inside of this house here really does a powerful job of fooling you into just bizarre perceptual effects."

Rachel: "Like the fact that you're leaning out over space with out falling?"

Joe: "Yeah, I imagine I look like an astronaut on the Space shuttle."

O.K, so most of this is optical illusion. But what explains the other phenomena here, like spinning compasses and trees that lean towards the center of The Mystery spot? Theories range from alien space ships to buried asteroids, but nobody really knows.

Randall: "That's why it's called the Mystery Spot, if we knew, we'd have to change the name and call it The Spot."

The Mystery Spot is open seven days a week from nine until five. In Santa Cruz, California, I'm Rachel Anne Goodman for the Savvy Traveler.


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