'Alta Live' Recap: Best of the Hidden West with Will Hearst and Paul Saffo

Two California aficionados give tips for finding your own secret places.

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If you like the Western states, if you feel there’s something interesting and powerful and magical about the geography, you explore a little bit,” Will Hearst said at Alta Journal’s most recent Alta Live. Explore, we did. Hearst, editor and publisher of Alta, and Paul Saffo, a noted futurist and professor at Stanford University, led Alta Live viewers on a virtual tour of their favorite hidden spots throughout California and the West, touching on everything from a metal plate lost by Sir Francis Drake to alien-seeking telescopes. Both seasoned California adventurers, Hearst and Saffo ran out of time before they ran out of places to share. In California, “there are stories behind every rock, it seems,” Saffo said.

Hearst and Saffo started their virtual journey in Northern California, where they recommended visiting Pluto’s Cave, the Black Butte Trail, and Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point in California. They shared rumors of a hidden city under Mt. Shasta, alleged to be part of the lost continent of Lemuria (like a West Coast Atlantis). “The mystery is just a marvelous excuse to have an adventure,” Saffo said. They then headed south, naming sites of plane crashes, shipwrecks, final resting places, and lost artifacts. Saffo recommended sipping wine on the San Andreas Fault and looking for signs of alien life with the Allen Telescope Array. Hearst briefly left California to show us Roden Crater, in Arizona, occupied by the artist James Turrell and not yet open to the public.

A highlight of the event was Hearst, Saffo, and the audience’s shared enthusiasm for discovering independent bookstores, both local favorites and those hidden in remote parts of California. As Hearst said, “To own a bookstore in the year 2021 is kind of a passion project.” Saffo and Hearst recommended Floating Island Books & Publications in Cedarville and Point Reyes Books. Viewer recommendations included Bart’s Books in Ojai, Beers Books in Sacramento, Treehorn Books in Santa Rosa, The Last Bookstore in L.A., Libros Schmibros Lending Library in L.A., Underground Books in Sacramento, Readers’ Books in Sonoma, Vroman’s Bookstore in L.A., Booklegger in Eureka, Walden Pond Books in Oakland, Owl and Company Bookshop in Oakland, Village Books in Ukiah, and Kelly’s Books in Watsonville.

Not every treasured destination was up for public discourse. The pair explained why there were some special locations to which they’d rather not direct viewers. Some, Hearst said, are too environmentally fragile or already overvisited. Still, “almost everything in life is more fun if you share it with your close friends,” he said. When it came time to offer starter tips for those hoping to discover their own hidden West, Hearst and Saffo were full of advice. “The older the guidebook, the more interesting,” Hearst said. Saffo recommended Huell Howser reruns, Russ Leadabrand’s guides from the 1960s, and old issues of Desert Magazine.

Saffo and Hearst emphasized that one need not travel far to discover a tucked-away treasure. Close to home, the best place to start is a local historical society, where adventurers might luck into a lonely librarian delighted to share area secrets and lore. And “never,” Saffo said, “drive by a historical marker without stopping.”•

Alta Live is a weekly event series produced by Alta’s digital editor, Beth Spotswood. Alta invites innovators, academics, change makers, and artists to share their work with our readers in these free virtual events. Join us next Wednesday for a conversation with Max Chafkin on Silicon Valley’s mysterious powerbroker, Peter Thiel.

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