We have a little black and tan dachshund named Izzi-B. For 14 years now she has consistently searched out the highest possible perch on the sofa and that’s where she settles in to just look around to see what she can find, or sometimes (more often), to take a nap. For some reason, she wants to see the world from the top down, and I can relate to that. Like Izzi-B, I’m always drawn to the hillsides, towers and rooftops wherever I go. Now that I think about it, even our bed stands higher than most. It came with steps, but we don’t use them, because for us, the fun is always in the climb up.
This morning I was drawn to my own little perch high atop the Santa Cruz mountains. My destination was an iron bench in a clearing up there where I can check out the entire valley—all the way from San Francisco to Morgan Hill. In the early morning it’s spectacular with the sun breaking through the soaring redwoods. But as much as I enjoy being up there scanning the horizon, I’m also drawn to the climb itself, the slow, steady trek with its parade of incredible views—everything you look at is picture perfect.
Though the little iron bench is my end point, to get there I have to go through the grounds of the magnificent Villa Montalvo Arts Center. The enticing scenery began as I passed through the iron entrance gates, just up the hill, off highway 9. I followed the road that unravels its way to the villa. Then behind the villa, I continued up the slope of the hillside to the tippy-top. I’m fascinated with that place because of its beauty, yes . . . but also because of its transformation over the years that we’ve lived here. Around the turn of the 20th century Senator James Phalen nabbed a parcel of the local redwood forest as the perfect place to build his Italian villa. It must have been a romantic and dreamy retreat from the bustle of San Francisco when it was completed in 1912. And the Governor’s dreamy creation is still available to this day, since the grounds were donated by the family and made into a public park open for everyone’s enjoyment, as stipulated by Mr. Phelan.
In the 16 years we’ve lived here, the buildings and grounds have been transformed into a world class Center for the Arts, including fine arts, performances of all kinds, outdoor sculpture garden, and an artist-in residency program. The original buildings where the artists, writers and musicians lived during their 3 month stay are still there, including the beautiful old barn used as the sculptors studio. But now, the Montalvo Arts Center Association has recently finished the new residency complex built into the hillside orchard, featuring individual studios designed to inspire the various artists who come here to create. The contemporary structures with their playful, colorful forms are the perfect creative foil against the historic Italian-style mansion with its formal gardens and grand vistas.
Circling the villa, I passed the old carriage house which has been transformed into a wonderfully intimate theater venue. It’s perfect for a single performer, like Ray Davies. We saw Ladysmith Black Mambazo there too. Their a cappella singing was fantastic in that space! Behind the villa is a large outdoor amphitheater which offers its stage to some of the greatest names in music and entertainment from around the world. A few years ago, we saw one of Dan Fogelberg’s last concerts there. Memories of our own experiences there over the years floated by as I made my way to the old stone steps that lead up the hillside to the nature trails.
Magnificent old redwoods stand watch over the sprawling villa and grounds below, with that distinctive cool earthy smell that only a deep forest can hold. On up the switchback trails I climbed with different views opening at every turn—each more spectacular than the one before. My walk was really more like a slow shuffle along the rich organic carpeted trail, laid down slowly over the years by the giant musky trees. I found myself stopping frequently, spinning around to note the changing perspectives, and to zero in on the fascinating green mossy coat that seems to have its run of the place.
Before I knew it, the steadily brighter sun was breaking through and into the deep shade as I rounded the bend approaching the overlook. Like an old familiar friend, there was the bench, waiting patiently just as I remembered. The view on this gorgeous morning stretched all the way up the peninsula. Breath taking! It was glorious to be on top of the world, looking out over the expansive valley. Renewed and refreshed, I was ready to pack my memories away for the day and head back down the hillside.
There’s something powerful about changing your perspective—checking things out from a different vantage point. For me, it’s a spiritual experience that never fails to humble me. But I was equally inspired by the climb past the incredible beauty of the man-made environment that provides me access to such a special retreat. Design with nature. For me, it’s the very best that our creative freedoms have to offer. Even though I’ve taken that strolling climb up the hillside many times before, it never ceases to amaze me with fresh surprises around every turn. The truly astonishing and beautiful fact is that this slice of paradise is available to all of us to enjoy at our leisure.
Izzi-B has it right: get yourself to the high ground, because that’s where you’ll want to spend your time. But, be ready for a few surprises along the way, since you never really know what you are going to find—LOOK OUT!