Nomaville: Surreal Estate

That's the spot.When it comes to local roadside attractions, Calistoga has a lock on the Petrified Forest (and the car-sickness it takes to get there); Penngrove’s Gravity Hill remains the optical illusion of choice for teens en route to Make Out Point (where their own illusions about love and life are often dispelled on the back seat); the alleged Petaluma “River” (actually a slough or tidal estuary depending on the girth of your thesaurus) still astounds, I hear, neither ebbing nor flowing.

The Sonoma Valley, however, its landscape quilted by vineyards and surrounded by emerald hills, offers little in the way of natural wonders of the “Visit the Mystery Spot” variety. That is until an ad hoc consortium of neighbors on the 400 block of Second Street East devised some mind-bending optical wonders of their own.

Whether this effort is a conspiracy to siphon tourist dollars from that whole wine thing or just a coincidence drawn with a nod to M.C. Escher, the upshot is that there are at least two sights that astound and beguile, which I have added to my Sonoma Walking Tour of Un-Earthly Wonders.

Consider the home on the northeast side of the block, a stately home surrounded by the ubiquitous “white picket fence” of suburban lore. Now imagine a gate in that fence that opens to a path leading to the front door. A tableau worthy of Norman Rockwell, yes? Now imagine the relationship of the fence and gate reversed. There, like the lone first tooth of a toddler, stands merely the gate – but no fence. It beckons one to pass through it, if only perfunctorily, though one could just as easily, in fact more easily, go around it. The gate haunted me such that I couldn’t muster the courage to investigate whether or not it was locked, though some dark part of me wanted to believe it was, if only to underscore the irony of it all. (Paging David Lynch – please report to the white courtesy phone – next to the severed ear.)

Down a ways, across the street, another sight for wide-eyes eerily awaits. The front of the house appears to be like any other of the handsome, early Twentieth Century properties that dot the block: its well-appointed lawn, the paint job tastefully executed and maintained. The diligent upkeep suggests a homeowner we would likely be happy to call “neighbor.” A few steps to left or right, however, and one discovers that the homey image is merely a façade – the rest of the structure has been amputated just a few steps past the door. It’s almost holographic – like my personality, the perception of depth is an illusion.

Unless one is looking for the anomaly, it’s invisible thanks to our minds’ “will to form.” Though our eyes tell the brain that the image is woefully incomplete, the brain finishes the image in an effort to preserve its rather tacit hold on reality. When the brain finally accepts the bizarre notion that only part of a house exists (it looks like a Hollywood set), the resulting moment of disorientation qua revelation is vaguely pleasurable (like purposefully getting dizzy as a child, or inducing a head rush by hanging like a bat above a vaporizer filled with grain alcohol – don’t try this at home, or anywhere).

The mind can be rather willful when it takes umbrage with messages coming from our senses. This is why, for example, people think futons are comfortable when science has proven empirically that they are not, or that tofu tastes good when in fact it doesn’t taste like anything and that words arranged on a page must have meaning.