Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Review: "Weird California"

A couple of months ago, I read a book called Weird Hollywood and enjoyed it a lot. I picked it up at the library because I like reading about Southern California, since I was born there and because I like reading about, the, well, I suppose unusual is a good enough word for it.

I was also drawn to it because I remembered seeking another book, Weird California (Sterling Publishing Co., 2006), by Greg Bishop, Joe Oesterle, and Mike Marinacci, in a bookstore a few years ago. The covers were very similar, and I figured both were part of the same series. In paging through Weird California back then, I saw that a site just down the street from where my grandmother lived when I was growing up was in the book. So, after reading and enjoying Weird Hollywood, I decided to track Weird California down and read it as well.

I ended up having to request the book from the library because none of my local branches carried it. But, it finally came, and it ended up being my Labor Day weekend reading. It was perfect for that, nothing too deep, not much that was very serious, and entertaining throughout.

Of course, the first thing I did when I got my hands on the book was to look through it to see if I had remembered correctly about the Bottle Village down the street from my grandmother's house was really part of the book, and it was. That brought back memories of watching the woman who built the place, Mrs. Prisbrey, now known as Grandma Prisbrey, going back and forth to the dump in town to gather building materials for her work. To be honest, I think she was regarded as an eccentric back then by the people in the neighborhood, but that was a more live-and-let-live time in the United States. If she were building today what is considered folk art and has been featured in books and exhibits worldwide, there would have probably been people after her to tear it down because it was an "eyesore". And, in fact, there were once plans to tear the place down, and the Northridge earthquake in the early 1990s did a fair job of wrecking the place. But, it is now on the California and National Registers of Historic places and a preservation group owns the property and is making an effort to restore Bottle Village to its former glory.

But I digress. There is all sorts of weirdness in Weird California, from the expected hauntings, monsters, and UFO stories here. There are cults and murders and oddities of various kinds. There is a roll-call of cemeteries for people, for pets...and one for airplanes, in Mojave.

There are also other places I know besides the Bottle Village. There is Maze Stone, near Hemet, which as far as anyone knows is an example of Native American petroglyphs. There is Zzyzx, a defunct health spa out in the high desert near Baker. While I've never been there, the sign for Zyzzx Road, which leads to the site, was always a landmark we watched for on Interstate 15 during family trips to Las Vegas. There is a long section on Mount Shasta, which is reportedly the site of many odd occurrences, including UFO sightings and sightings (and mysterious disappearances) of supposed survivors of the lost continent of Lemura and of a race of Lizard People. Which all sounds very woo-woo'y. On the other hand, a couple of years ago I drove by Shasta on a trip to Oregon, and I have to say that the area gave me an uneasy feeling and I was glad to get past the area. Same for the supposed curse of Pacheco Pass. I've never seen or experienced anything odd the times I've traveled that road. On the other hand, it can be eerie and unsettling to drive through there at night.

Aside from the usual logical reasons for taking the stories in Weird California with a grain (or a full shaker) of salt is that there is one story there from a town I lived in for 28 years, a story of a ghost that haunts a stretch of road looking for her children after they were all killed in a car wreck in the area. The implication is that everyone in town knows the story and is spooked by the area. Except that, as long as I lived there, I never heard a word about it. Additionally, I drove past the road near where the haunting is supposed to take place on a regular basis for a couple of years on my way to school in Reedley, the next town over, and I never saw, heard, or felt anything strange. On the other hand, it seemed like some of the smaller roads down there in the river bottom seemed to have a habit of disappearing. I'd find an interesting stretch of road on drives in the area, and then not be able to find them again when I went back to look for them. So, you know, who knows.

It isn't actually required to believe in any of the odd things presented in Weird California in order to enjoy the book. Really. It's a fun journey through some of the out-of-the-way parts of the state, and a reminder of some of the weirdnesses that have become legendary parts of California culture.

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