“465, Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz, California” — keyed in our host on her Google Maps app as soon as we sat in the car. “Are you sure it’s mysterious enough?” I asked her from the passenger seat. She smiled and said, “See it for yourself. To each his own.”
Forty minutes from San Jose, the road curved into the Santa Cruz mountains, and billboard signs announced the imminent arrival of the “Mystery Spot”. We entered a narrow exit road, darkly canopied by coast redwoods, resembling an eerie fairytale forest. This should be a sign of things to come, I hoped. A few miles later, my host parked in front of what looked like a little wooden lodge on top of a hill. But unlike deserted decrepit hilltop lodges in horror movies, this one had quite a few visitors for a weekday afternoon.
So there we were, right at the doorstep of the Mystery Spot, believed to be a rare gravitational anomaly on the face of planet Earth. Within its circular area of effect — around 150 feet in diameter — laws of physics and gravity go for a toss. Roofs are tilted, straight beams look angular, shorter people look taller and vice versa.
The Mystery Spot was discovered in 1939 by a group of surveyors, and opened to the public a year later. Ever since, it is known to amaze and perplex hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world, and many return time and time again to experience and decipher the puzzling variations of gravity and perception.
We bought the tickets and stood in a queue, waiting for our group’s turn for the 45-minute guided tour. At the appointed time, each group assembles at the base of the hill, and the guides take over from there, their prattle peppered with a string of factoids about vortex. Our guide John, in his late 40s, was no less. “This hill is two to three times harder to walk up than other hills of the same gradient in this area,” he began. After a steep five-minute climb, 20 of us were standing right in front of a slanted shack. The two-room cabin appeared twisted, its beams and floor seemingly tilted. Children in the group rubbed their eyes in disbelief, while John went on to explain how “powerful vortex forces caused havoc to the architecture of this house.”
A series of demonstrations by John threw up peculiar shifts in the status quo — such as the relative height between group volunteers depended on where they stood and not on how tall they actually were; that if John dropped a ball, it would roll uphill rather than downhill; and even if you stood straight, you would always appear to be standing slanted to the onlooker.
More of this awaited us inside the cabin. “If any of you feels uneasy inside, close your eyes for a while; remember, this place is completely safe,” John assured us. The cabin was essentially a place of murky lighting and unexpected carpentry. The 10-odd minutes that one gets to spend inside are spent in getting over the overwhelming disorientation as one explores its various nooks and corners.
Once outside, we paused for a while to rest before beginning the downhill climb. During this time, most of us browsed through our cellphone photo gallery, comparing the strange shots that we had captured, offering our own logic to explain the experience. Some speculated that a spacecraft was buried deep within the ground, and its magnetic field has caused all the havoc. Other theories included “carbon dioxide permeating from the earth”, “a hole in the ozone layer” and my favourite, “it’s supernatural, man!”
John seemed amused by our conjectures too. In fact, if not for the guides who keep up the momentum, the Mystery Spot would be nothing but an annoyingly steep hiking trail, leading to a cockeyed cabin. My friend was right: to each his own.
Truth of the matter
The Mystery Spot is a gravity hill and the illusion experienced by visitors results from the oddly-tilted environment. Inside the tilted two-room cabin, misperceptions of height and object orientation occur. Even when people are standing outside on a level ground, the slant of the building in the background causes errors in judgement — for instance, the height of people are judged using the slant of the roof rather than the true horizon.