Scavenger Hunt, Interrupted

Last Sunday afternoon I was tearing north on Alma, desperately trying to get through the list of items I needed by tomorrow: SD flash card, spare pair of cargo shorts, Galapagos/Ecuador nature book(s), enough AA batteries to power Frankenstein and his girl, and… wait – there’s North Face!

“Cargo shorts” + “North Face” seemed like a match. I hauled over into the right lane and squeaked into a parking spot just past the store, ready to score the first item on my list.

But when I got out of the car, I was disoriented. I’d driven this block a bizillion times since we’d moved back to Palo Alto, and been in the North Face Store probably a dozen times, but I was completely baffled by the thing I was standing in front of. It couldn’t have been here before, or I would have seen it.

Maybe it was only there if you were in the right frame of mind to see it, like Harry Potter’s “Platform 9 3/4”, or the back of the C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe. But there it was, set half back in a grass lot brimming with purple flowers and dotted with park benches: an enormous cylindrical concrete tower.

It was clearly old – the ivy had made it halfway up and tumbled wide at the base, burying the features at groud level and giving the whole thing a bit of Sleeping Beauty mystique. At the front of the lot, there was a strange electromechanical device looking somewhat like a water pump set in cement, and adorned with an explanatory sign.

Pablo’s Rule #15 of exploration: when somebody gives you a sign, read it.

Turns out that this was the site of the first municipal water works on the west coast. In 1898, the city fathers wrote a bond to fund construction of a water tower to provide reliable access to clean water, and this is was the standing artifact of their work. Other explanatory signs amid the heather and lavender and lupin described the history of the project, with pictures and testaments to its foresight.

I found myself stopping at each sign, reading, looking up, sitting and breathing in the cool  lavender air while reflecting on this little bit of history lost under my nose. It was probably only five minutes I spent there, getting my little lesson in stopping and (literally) smelling the flowers, but it was enough. When I turned, back to my task list, it didn’t seem all that urgent any more. It would get done, it would get done.

(Of course, once I got into North Face and pushed my way through the parkas and arctic gear, I realized that I’d be mocked mercilessly if I dared ask whether they had shorts tucked somewhere amid the mittens and goggles. I crossed that item off my list as “do without” and moved on to seeing what I could do about Frankenstein’s power requirements.)

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