Gnome Man’s Land: A California Fantasy Land 40 Years in the Making

Imagine walking into the backyard of an unassuming single family home, only to find thousands of pairs of beady little eyes peering out at you beneath pointy red hats. 1 No, this isn’t the setup for some creepy B-horror film; it’s a dream-come-true for every hardcore gnome collector. This summer, I had the pleasure of visiting Gnome Man’s Land, an elaborate gnome home and garden in Santa Rosa, California. 2 Now this is no fly-by-night gnome collection tucked away in the bowels of obscurity. Oh, no no. This is a gnomish fantasy land nearly 40 years in the making, operated by my good friend and personal idol, Jean Fenstermaker. 4 Jean was inspired to create Gnome Man’s Land in the 1960s after a few key life events: her Disneyland storybook canal ride, her mother’s rock garden, and her friend who had two gnomes on an office desk. Jean’s first gnome garden was born on January 25, 1976 and spanned just 18 inches by 35 inches in size. From the very beginning, Jean loved to create mini-themes within her garden and stories about her gnomes. With some plant clippings from her mother and tiny bridges and accessories built by her woodworking father, her gnomes’ stories began coming to life. 3 Over the years, Jean has created eight additional and separate gnome gardens in her backyard. There’s The Forest Rock Garden with wildlife, The Frog Garden with gnomes and amphibians co-existing in harmony, and the Life-Size Garden…which is, you guessed it, full of LIFE-SIZED GNOMES. But keep your britches on…even in real life, gnomes are still pretty tiny. 3 You can find everyone from immigrant gnomes, partially-clothed gnomes using the bathroom, gnomes with gambling habits, gnomes fighting neighbor gnomes, and vegetable-growing gnomes lurking around every corner and begging for your attention. 4 The spring and summer seasons bring local visitors, out-of-state travelers, and gnome aficionados from around the globe to Jean’s gnome home. The typical crowd comes from church groups, “red hatters,” and senior living facilities. Gnomes are pretty fragile, and I know that if I ever have kids, I’ll be keeping my gnomes safely packed away ’til they’re old enough to understand how awesome they are. 4 I personally met Jean a few years ago through the International Gnome Club, where we are both tri-annual contributing newsletter writers. For over a decade now, I’ve gotten a kick out of being part of a subculture that baffles the other 99 percent of humanity. 5 I also just need to put this out there: Jean’s husband, Jim, deserves a ton of praise and recognition. Jim has helped build the gardens, weeds the plants, prunes the roses, AND he enthusiastically socializes with random gnome fanatics wandering through his backyard. If I ever have a husband, he damned well better be as supportive of my gnome obsession as that Mr. Fenstermaker. And I’ll just leave it at that. 6 Despite Jean and Jim’s attempts at keeping a low profile, they’ve been featured in lots of newspapers – most recently the San Francisco Chronicle, which led to two subsequent radio interviews. Jean’s garden was featured in the amazing book Gnomeland by Margaret Egleton (yes, I have a copy). And TV crews have been out to her Santa Rosa home from Home & Garden TV, The Travel Channel, and ABC’s Dream Home and Collectibles. 8 Jean is one of the kindest and most welcoming human beings I’ve ever met. So much so that she made a sign (held up by a gnome, of course) welcoming my boyfriend and me to Gnome Man’s Land as soon as we pulled into the driveway.  Gnome collectors truly are kindred spirits. 9 After an extensive VIP tour of her gnome garden, Jean whipped out the Gnome Bingo cards and we settled in for some good ole’ fashioned non-monetary gambling with refreshments. Not surprisingly, each Bingo square depicted a themed section of Jean’s quirky gnome garden. 7 Much to my grumbling stomach’s delight, she offered to cook a delicious dinner to share with us to further chat about all-things-gnome and all-things-non-gnome. All of the dishes were adorned with gnomes, and there were even gnome cookies for dessert. Can you say gnome overload? I was practically hyperventilating for hours. 10 Jean has a true and unwavering passion for gnomes, and it shows so beautifully every time her eyes light up with the reflection of a red hat in the distance. She takes such pride in her home, yard, collection, and loyal following that I can’t help but admire her to the point of stealing her ideas for my own home display one day.

As I mentioned earlier, Jean and Jim like to keep a low profile. Although they are the friendliest of friendly to fellow gnome fans, they don’t exactly just open up their backyard to just anyone either.

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You just can’t be too cautious with vandals lurking in the night. I keep up with daily gnome news, and nearly every day there’s a police report filed about gnomes being maliciously stolen, broken, and vandalized!

However, if you’re ever planning a trip to the Napa Valley region of California and would like to have the BEST DAY EVER, I’m might just be able to hook you up with a Gnome Man’s Land VIP Tour.

(Restrictions and fees may apply. Kidding. Sort of.) 11 “Are there any real live gnomes in existence? If there are, I’d sure like to see one!” ~ The cautiously optimistic Jean Fenstermaker.

Spelunking at California’s Lava Beds National Monument

As I recently discovered, one of the best ways to break up a West Coast road trip is by taking a slight detour to the Lava Beds National Monument. Located in that mysterious Northeastern corner of California, this park makes up the largest total area covered by a volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range.Lava6

Mammoth Crater erupted 32,000 years ago and sent massive lava flows 10 miles downhill, creating some really impressive tubes, caves, and boulder fields. Medicine Lake Volcano last erupted 950 years ago, and shifting tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean could actually make it active again someday.

This area is also steeped in brutal American history, thanks to textbook clashes between the Modoc Native American Tribe and Euro-American settlers. But you don’t have to know much about the Modoc War of 1872-1873 to enjoy this bizarre scenery.

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Surrounded by a high desert wilderness, this national park has over 700 caves, Native American rock art sites, historic battlefields, and campsites. Designated as a national landmark in 1925, Lava Beds has numerous lava tube caves, a couple dozen of which have marked entrances and developed trails you can venture down and explore.
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The best part? You can explore these caves on your own without forking over cash for a guided tour or having to put up with annoying tourists huffing and puffing next to you.

Not surprisingly, the best place to start is the visitor center because you can rent flashlights out here for free. They are heavy, bulky, and painfully dim, but they will set you back zero dollars. Basically, if you don’t have one of your own, they’re better than nothing down there.

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However, if you plan to spend a few hours at the park exploring the caves beyond just a few safe steps inside, splurge on an $8 plastic helmet at the visitor’s center. The cave ceilings get lower the farther you hike in and the ceiling rocks are dreadfully sharp. I had a head wound a couple years ago (the kind that requires 11 staples), so I wasn’t exactly into the mood to go through that all over again.

But before you lose yourself in the netherworld of spelunking, keep in mind that there are plenty of nice hikes above ground as well. Soak in the views of the cooled lava beds with gentle mountain peaks in the distance as you give yourself a mini history/geography lesson to stimulate some sort of brain activity.

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You can wander around to your heart’s content around the lava rocks around Black Crater and Battlefield. This is an awesome place to hike if you don’t want some “trail expert” telling you where you can and cannot go. Vegetation is very minimal, so it’s pretty hard to get lost too. On the day I went, the crowds were unbelievably slim and the whole place had a super eerie vibe.

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Definitely don’t miss out on hiking the Schonchin Butte, a 0.7 mile trail that feels about triple that because of the steep elevation. At the top, there’s a ranger station and the dude hanging out all alone inside was quite friendly. However, I truly wonder what he does all day up there.

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As you get back in your car and drive along the park roads towards the main section of caves, there are lots of places to pull off and check out. The most accessible caves are surrounded by metal fences and a ladder that leads down to their cool and creepy depths.

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To get a small taste of caving without much intensity, you can check out the Mushpot, an accessible cave with a high ceiling, paved surface, installed lighting, and lots of informational plaques to read.

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If you’re craving some more caving at this point, you can either hike or drive along the main road to explore a few others. I hiked down and around Labyrinth, Lava Brook, Sunshine, and Sentinel during my time at the park.

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But by far, one of the most awesome caves to check out is Skull Cave. Not only because it has a hardcore name, but also because the floor is covered in ice…even on a sunny 90-degree California day.

The trail down to Skull Cave isn’t very challenging, but it’s really unique. It’s a remnant of three large lava tubes situated on top of each other, and the rock ceilings are high enough so you don’t have to duck down at all. This odd setup traps the cold winter air and creates a year-around ice floor down a metal stairway on the lower level.

But why “Skull Cave?” Because two human skeletons and the bones of some pronghorn and bighorn sheep were once discovered inside…that’s why.

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To pick out a few routes before you visit, check out this handy PDF of cave descriptions. All the caves are really chilly inside and regardless of the outside temperature, the caves range from about 30-55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although visitors are free to roam around pretty much everywhere on their own, the caves are still fragile. So don’t touch stuff!

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There’s also been an issue with white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal bat disease that’s been killing off bat populations down there. Check the National Parks Service site for current cave closures because of this.

After visiting other national parks on busy summer days, I really appreciated the low crowds and the freedom to wander around on my own at Lava Beds. Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, for example, doesn’t allow visitors to explore the caves unless they’re part of an organized tour group. Mammoth is still an awesome place though, especially if you sign up for the hardcore 6-hour “Wild Cave” tour.

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Lava Beds National Monument might seem a little out of the way for some travelers, but if you are in Northern California or are looking for a really unique road trip destination, I’d definitely recommend swinging by! Who knows, you might even find some of my gnome friends guarding the entrances…

Resort Ruins and an Auto Graveyard: Rediscovering My Love for Hiking in Mt. Shasta

When I first started writing this blog, I couldn’t wait to write a detailed account of every trail I hiked, every river I kayaked, and every brewery I sampled. But over time, my writing has struggled to keep up with my adventures.

Come to think of it, I guess that’s a good thing.

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No baby trees were harmed in the dramatic making of this photo shoot.

These days, it’s been more difficult to see each and every outdoor experience as “blog worthy.” What honestly makes this adventure stand out from all the others? Will this place really stick with me when other memories fade away?

Best of luck out there all alone, Hyundai

Best of luck out there all alone, Hyundai

I recently went on two back-to-back hikes around Mt. Shasta, a small Northern California town that’s flanked by a towering mountain of the same name. After cranking out a few articles at a pretty sweet coffee shop in called Yaks, I drove to a remote parking area and swapped out the generic rental for a dusty pair of hiking boots.

Hikers were here, but where are they now?

Hikers were here, but where are they now?

Even from the first few steps, this trail sparked my interest. Abandoned fire pits and mysterious stone circles lie around every corner.

Evidence of mysterious rituals

Evidence of mysterious rituals

The Ruins of Ney Springs Resort

Anonymous hikers on the Internet promised me a waterfall and some 19th century ruins along the Ney Springs Canyon, and that sounded pretty good to me.

In the late 1800s, several resorts were built in the Mt. Shasta area, one of which being the Ney Springs Resorts. It wasn’t as popular as the Shasta Springs Resort north of Dunsmuir, but it was still a nice getaway spot in the mountains for vacationers back in the day. A guy named Joh Ney discovered that there were springs here, and the resort was eventually able to pipe fresh spring water into the buildings and accommodate 50 guests.

The trail is poorly marked and not surprisingly, I took a wrong turn or five. I kept wondering how visible the ruins actually were, and if I would miss them without even noticing. Finally, I spotted a cistern next to the creek and figured this must be part of the dilapidated structures I was looking for.

First sight of ruins...a cistern!

First sight of ruins…a cistern!

After checking out the cistern for a moment, I turned back towards the trail and instantly saw the next bout of ruins in the distance…the fountain! This find was even better than the last. I was surprised that the cursive letters of “Ney Springs” and “1889” were still so easy to decipher.

There was a really eerie vibe here and a sense that more ghosts than hikers may exist within these ruins. It doesn’t seem like there’s been much effort to uncover more of the resort ruins, so who knows what lies beneath the overgrowth?

The Ney Springs Fountain, 1889

The Ney Springs Fountain, 1889

Still further inside the canyon lies Faery Falls, a 40-foot waterfall that seems to be the main draw for hikers today. The falls are about a quarter mile past the resort ruins, and there are several good spots up close to snap photos of the falls.

The Automobile and Appliance Graveyard

The Sacramento River flows to Box Canyon, where the Box Canyon Trail picks up and an automobile and appliance graveyard is tucked away in the woods. That’s right…this is the place where old cars and broken washing machines have gone to die.

Day hike #2

Day hike #2

The mild trail began on the north side of the Box Canyon Dam, passing through pine, oak, and cedar trees. I couldn’t help but notice an intrusive golf course as I set the pace, but I stayed hopeful that far more interesting things were ahead.

Fortunately, I was right.

What is that I see among the trees?

What is that I see among the trees?

A faded hunk of metal peered out at me from behind a tree. I blinked a couple times to make sure the summer sun wasn’t starting to make me loopy. But hen another, and another.

Apparently, Mt. Shasta residents used to simply push their unwanted cars and appliances down the hill to dispose of them. Everything is completely toppled over, rusted through, and in a total state of decay. So much for recycling!

The aftermath of someone's once-beautiful car

The aftermath of someone’s once-beautiful car

But instead of feeling like I was walking through an old dump, I felt like I had stepped back into another time in history. It’s not every day that rusted car parts lie next to hundred-year-old trees, but it seemed to somehow make sense along this trail.

Although venturing off-trail is generally frowned upon in the hiking world, I couldn’t resist getting a closer look at some of this partially-preserved antique collection.

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Check out my new ride!

Just when I thought I’d seen all the rubble along the trail, another piece of machinery appeared and beckoned me to come take a look. Who did this washing machine belong to and how long had it been buried down here?

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Okay, who needs to do a load of laundry?

It’s baffling to me why people dumped their enormous (clearly non-biodegradable) trash here and why no one has ever bothered to clean it up. But I must say, this graveyard made for one of the most interesting hikes I’ve ever been on.

Stay on the Box Canyon Trail to actually venture into the canyon, which is steep and more challenging than it looks. I’m talking iron ladders mounted to cliffs, rock scrambles, and unsettling drop-offs.

Other Ney Springs Opportunities

I didn’t know it at the time, nor did I bring my climbing gear with me, but Ney Springs is also a fairly established rock climbing spot. I spy some climbers perched on that crag!

climbersApparently, the canyon’s north wall is the best place to climb, and the crags here are a top pick for winter climbing. The crags get a full day’s worth of sun, and the snow doesn’t build up much on the access routes. Maybe next time! If you’re heading that way, bookmark this Alpine Addict page for route info and beta.

mt. shastaHiking in Mt. Shasta meant more to me than stumbling across dusty ruins and unwanted garbage. These two hikes make me remember why I love to hike in the first place – that is, to explore the outdoors at my own pace and encounter unexpected things along the way.

Each trail has it’s own personality, and that personality infiltrates my own when I set off into the woods. I understand that not every trail will have stunning features like Ney Springs and Box Canyon, but I’m going to keep a closer eye out for the subtleties and never underestimate the surprises nature has to offer.

Alpacas in Auburn: A Delighful California Detour

A whole slew of images come to mind when you envision a California road trip…bikini-clad beaches, towering redwoods, vineyards across rolling hills.

But alpacas?

alpacas standingA good friend of mine (who just happens to be one of the biggest gnome collectors in the world) lives in the Northern California town of Auburn, so I made a point stop and pay her and her red-hatted ones a visit.

Little known fact: gnome collectors aren’t just weird over gnomes…they’re pretty freaking random overall. Not surprisingly, my Auburn friend asked if I’d like to spend the morning with some nearby alpacas. Obviously, there was not a moment of hesitation in my reply.

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Many homes on the outskirts of Auburn enjoy acres of open space, and what residents choose to do with all this space is entirely up to them. For Auburn residents Bonnie Potter & August Anema their answer was an alpaca farm.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I arrived on the farm, I was surprised to be invited right into the alpacas’ personal space. Like me, most of them were a little nervous, but a few extroverts led the way to our Frisbees filled with alpaca pellets. I must admit the gentle beasts spooked me a bit at first, but they were incredibly playful and friendly once you got to know them a bit better.

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Bonnie and August own and operate Fair Winds Alpacas, specializing in alpaca sales, breeding, and support. Before starting to raise alpacas, Bonnie spent 30 years in the U.S. Navy. But she’s no stranger to the animal world, growing up with horses, dogs, and cats and graduating from UC Davis with a BS in Animal Science.

And before joining Bonnie in the obscure realm of alpaca farming, August spent nearly 40 years in the construction industry. Like Bonnie, he grew up knowing a thing or two about farming, but in Canada and following in his father’s footsteps with skilled trades.

The lovely couple dreamed of retiring and owning a ranch, and after considering a few different types of livestock, they settled on alpacas. You see, apacas are humanely raised for their fiber, not butchered or milked like cows, pigs, or goats. Today, over 50 happy and healthy alpacas live on Bonnie and August’s property!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd now…a few fun facts that I learned about alpacas! 

  • Full grown alpacas reach 5’6″ tall and between 140 and 200 pounds…so just a little shorter and heavier than me!
  • There are two types of alpacas: the huacaya and the suri (wait, isn’t that Tom & Katie’s kid’s name?)
  • Alpaca fleece is so much softer than wool and it totally suitable for spinning, knitting, crocheting, weaving and felting
  • Alpacas have  been bred for centuries in Peru, Chile and Bolivia to create fiber that is uniform and soft
  • Alpacas eat hay and pasture grasses, and owners typically give them a pellet vitamin/mineral supplement that’s available in feed stores
  • Alpaca fleece is sheared once a year and yields 5-10 pounds
  • Alpacas have pointed spear-shaped ears and llamas have curved banana-shaped ears – that’s how you can tell them apart!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhy would anyone want an alpaca hanging around? 

  • Because they’re soft, cuddly, and hilarious
  • Full-time for-profit business or fun part-time enterprise
  • They’re gentle, easy to take care of compared to other livestock, and easy to transport somewhere else
  • To ditch your hectic lifestyle and choose tranquil country living with wildlife all around you

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You can buy alpaca yarn directly from Bonnie and August in beige, brown, silver, rose gray, and black. It’s incredibly soft, and prices range from $12.50 to $20 per skein.

Or if my article has REALLY sold you on the idea of raising some of these creatures of your very own, you can even BUY one of their alpacas! Now I know you’re curious now, so I’ll tip you off that a good alpaca will cost you between $500 and $2,500.

But if you shop now and choose the mother-daughter special, you can be the proud owner of the Sumatra (mother) and Tiara (daughter) package for just $2,000!

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If you need to mull over this major investment for a day or two, consider planning a trip to visit Fair Winds Alpacas to visit these creatures for yourself! Bonnie and August give farm tours and are more than happy to share their extensive alpaca knowledge with you by phone, email, or in-person.

Fill out a little form and you’ll one step closer to the alpacas of your dreams! Honestly, I think this sounds like an awesome way to live. Maybe someday 🙂