Over the children's spring break, we took them down to see the Hearst Castle. My original idea was to drive down to Death Valley and go camping. Back before I had children, I loved backroads camping, and Death Valley was my favorite place to strike off and set up camp far from any other human being. I also wanted to make a run up to to the Pacific Northwest to visit a slew of friends up there, including my best friend from high school, but that was going to either $2,000 in airfare or thirteen hours in the car with the children. Death Valley would be about a ten hour drive.
As the time grew nearer, I started thinking more realistically about what road tripping with the children would be like. Also, the Sober Husband has only been at his new job for two months, which is early to take much time off. I couldn't face the idea of thirteen hours of driving the children without adult backup, and camping with them by myself was even scarier. I imagined curling up with the children at night in a tent, with them nonstop complaining of the cold, the hard ground, the lack of television (on Iris's part) and the presence of feared cryptids (Lola). So instead I decided to take the children to the Hearst Castle. Iris uber Alles, who is insane for Oprah, has been wanting to see nearby San Luis Obispo ever since Oprah explained on her show that San Luis is "the happiest place in the United States", so the matter was settled.
I booked our tour of the Hearst Castle ahead of time, since these tours often sell out. There are four different tours to pick from, each visiting a different part of the Castle, and I selfishly didn't want to take the first, introductory tour because I've done that one before myself. Less selfishly I picked the tour which features visiting the bathrooms of the North Wing, because Lola is obsessed with bathrooms. Particularly nice ones are called "lands of wonder", and sometimes she draws pictures of imagined lands of wonder.
When we got to the Hearst Castle, I noticed a middle-aged woman on our tour was holding a Barbie and a Ken while we were waiting for the bus to drive us up from the visitor center to the castle. She carefully put them into a large ziplock bag before the bus came. Up at the Castle, she took them back out of the bag so they could see and be photographed in front of the magnificent Neptune Pool. I noticed she was wearing a Warhol-styled Barbie shirt, with four Barbie faces.
As the tour went on, the Barbies went in and out of the ziplock. Sometimes the Barbie enthusiast would give them to her male companion to carry. I found this oddly fascinating, but it soon turned to annoying. The Barbie woman explained loudly to our group that the Ken she was carrying was "the first brown-haired Ken", from the sixties. She explained what made this Barbie so special and worthy of mating with the first brown-haired Ken, but I didn't pay enough attention to absorb that. Whenever something in our tour reminded her of the Barbies, she'd speak up in a loud, carrying voice. Some reference to travel made her, in a world-weary voice, explain to the world in general that she attends Barbie conventions every year, which take place "wherever they want us."
The children were dumbstruck by the Castle and said nothing (later Iris confided that she had so loved the Neptune Pool that she had been considering staging a fake fall into it). They kept close to the tour guide and moved quickly, their eyes wide. Meanwhile the Sober Husband, who hates tours and groups, lagged at the back. His strategy was to linger in a room after the tour had moved on, so he could feel he was exploring by himself. (Back when we were touring elementary schools to pick one for Iris, he used to break off from the group altogether and go into completely different rooms of his own choosing).
We arrived at a room in the North wing famous for its portraits with following eyes. The tour guide explained that because these portraits (of rather stern nobility) had been painted facing straight on but with no apparent light source reflecting in the eyes, wherever you were, you had the feeling that they were watching you. The group made the kinds of jokes you would expect about how it was a good thing these paintings were in a sitting room, rather than a bedroom, but the Barbie woman had a world-weary attitude about it. Addressing the group she explained that she was "used to it. In my bedroom, I have over one thousand Barbies. All watching." Her male companion said nothing.
Wait I don't get it. How could Barbie lady have a male companion?
Was it Smithers?
One would think the excesses of WRH would be enough for anyone. How weird to make the experience all about her.
The last time I was there was over 20 years ago when I was pregnant with my first kid. I don't know if they still use those old school buses to get people up and down the mountain, but at that time it was a little like being hustled off to 4th grade. Appropriately, school buses are not made for extremely pregnant women (as in nearly nine months). So I had to sit sideways. Fortunately the bus wasn't full. Sadly we had bought tickets for two tours and we had to come back down the mountain to catch the second tour. There was no mechanism for staying up there and then catching a second tour. The tour guide told me that occasionally the park service let the staff have pool parties in the outside pool. I would LOVE to get a tour of Hearst Castle from Iris.
Claire, they have new buses now, but it's horrible because they play these tapes of Alex Trebek yammering about the Hearst Castle really loudly. On the way back down when the Trebek tape started, Iris and Lola complained loudly. "It's that guy talking AGAIN!"
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