The best way to get kids to quiet down on a road trip is to take them somewhere that blows their minds.
Oh, the damage shouldn't be permanent. But after a trip to the Mystery Spot, kids have a lot to think about. Actually, everyone has a lot to think about. Because it's unexplainable.
Like they say, it's called the Mystery Spot for a reason: Nobody knows why the laws of physics don't seem to work there.
Located on the Santa Cruz side of the mountains of the same name, the Mystery Spot is a perfectly round 150-foot-diameter piece of redwood forest that was discovered to have its mysterious qualities in 1939 by land surveyors -- their equipment couldn't get a grasp on why this particular piece of property didn't want to obey the rules.
It still doesn't.
The 45-minute tour almost seems too short, even for such a small piece of land. And even though it seems like a perfect way to augment a trip to Santa Cruz, there are enough hiking trails and gorgeous forests around the area to make it the destination of its own day trip.
Plus, kids absolutely love it. I knew mine would find it interesting, but I had no idea how much they would be absolutely riveted (in all fairness, it has a great gift shop, and they love those).
The tour starts with a short walk up a hill -- already a challenge for some of us -- which feels like climbing against a mild-yet-invisible tide once one crosses the barrier into the "spot." As our guide, a 19-year-old cutup named Luke Smith, rolled a cue ball up a piece of wood against all logic, one started to get the idea that this place is something straight out of an episode of "The X-Files."
Luke ran us through a number of demonstrations that were obviously meant to beat down the cynics (and, I admit to being one going in -- though Luke made me a true believer by the time I left). There's a small cabin that apparently slid down the hill some decades ago and simply stopped. Luke swore the tree it appears to lean against sprouted after the cabin halted its descent.
Being inside the cabin, dead-center in the middle of the spot, is like experiencing the wackiest forest fun house ever conceived. Luke ran us through a series of demonstrations involving people leaning in ways that just aren't natural. And it wasn't just the slope of the cabin, which was pronounced. One can stand on a small perch nailed against a wall and lean forward at a terribly unnatural 17-degree angle.
It was strange enough that I started to get dizzy. My 5-year-old needed help getting out. My wife -- who is no shrinking violet -- later reported feeling nauseated inside the cabin after 10 minutes or so. It just wasn't normal in there.
As if we needed more proof of gravity gone wild, Luke pointed out a nearby tree that had grown to resemble the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Once outside, he put a level on a board to prove it was supposedly, well ... level. At least it looked that way. Luke pulled me and two other men out of the group and had us stand on the board. I was the tallest, which was no surprise, since we all stated our respective heights beforehand.
But when he switched us around on the supposedly level board, I was the shortest on the other end.
This was when at least one other guy pulled out his own level to make sure Luke wasn't pulling our collective legs. He wasn't.
Luke finished up the tour by handing out the famous Mystery Spot bumper stickers (he couldn't begin to answer my question about how many have been handed out over the years) and offering up some possible explanations for the Mystery Spot.
One says there's a huge ball of iron in the ground underneath the spot, screwing up gravity. Another is that a nearby fault line opened a pocket of carbon dioxide, which contributes to visitors feeling lightheaded and refracts light rays to create optical illusions. And, of course, there's one theory that says there are cones of metal buried under the site that function as guidance systems for space ships.
Which is right? Who knows, but it's weird enough to keep children speculating for hours. And that's a good thing.
IF YOU GO
Mystery Spot: Open daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends. Tours cost $6 per person. Children younger than 3 are admitted free. Parking is $5. 465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz. Details: 831-423-8897; www.mysteryspot.com.
Parents need to know: A slight hike is involved. And some people have been known to get dizzy, or even sick. So hold the hands of small children, especially inside the cabin.
Nearby eats: Scotts Valley is the nearest town and doesn't have a lot of choices (there are a few taquerias and a couple of sushi restaurants). Try Mint (4652 Scotts Valley Drive), which has a nice menu of sandwiches, soups and salads, including children's fare.
-- Tony Hicks
ABOUT THOSE BUMPER STICKERS
You've seen those bumper stickers on California roads for decades. The Mystery Spot even makes its own little joke about how many of the yellow-and-black stickers they've given out by parking a car near the entrance that is covered in the things. (Ironically, a sign on the car asks that visitors not put bumper stickers on their car covered by bumper stickers.) As for those stickers themselves, every visitor gets a free one from the guide as they end their tour. When asked how many they've given out over the years, our guide shook his head and said, "There's no way anyone knows."
-- Tony Hicks