In Redwood City, near San Francisco, a buddha greets us every time we come back to our hotel. He sits peacefully in a pool, water flowing out of the top of his head like a clear stream of knowledge.
Roses cut from the garden on the street side of the hotel float in the pool. In the bedside table drawer is a Bible placed by the Gideons and a Baghavad Gita, side by side for whatever kind of solace travelers might seek.
It’s a nice place to return to after a long day. We are here to visit our youngest, Ellis, and had a free day while he worked.
We spent the day walking around Stanford. It was quiet, since it was between quarters.
When we’re in California, we like to walk around and gawk at all the plants that don’t grow in Illinois. A rubber tree growing right in the ground? Are those lemons in that hedge? Why would someone throw a perfectly good avocado on the sidewalk? Oh, it fell off that tree.
Ever since I read Richard Powers’ “The Overstory,” I’ve wanted to visit the trees he describes that live in Stanford’s Inner Quad. The most remarkable, to me, is the Queensland Bottle Tree with its bulging trunk.
Powers has his character, Neelay Mehta, discover it, just as we did: “He wheels up to the tree and laughs. The trunk looks like a giant upside-down turkey baster. The branches skew and spike at foolish angles. He reaches out to touch its bark. It’s perfect. Absurd.”
It looks like a bottle, but the Stanford Tree Encyclopedia tells us that it also “contains potable sap,” so I guess if you’re thirsty, it really “is” a bottle.
The Inner Quad is full of impressive trees, and I was quite smitten with the Empress Tree. In bloom right now, it’s so full of clusters of blue flowers that you can’t see the leaves. It looks like a festive fantasy tree — right out of Dr. Seuss.
The Inner Quad is a cobbled plaza with eight large circles of trees. The circles are defined by cement benches, and the trees are all exotic to my Midwestern eyes: flame trees, pomegranates, silk floss trees, several varieties of palms and others too numerous to list.
On the south side of the plaza is Memorial Church. It is non-sectarian, welcoming all faiths, but the stained glass depicts biblical scenes and events in the life of Christ, and the general floor plan, which features a cruciform structure, suggests Christianity. The facade features mosaics of Faith, Hope, Charity and Love positioned over three archways.
Just inside the main doors a sign invites visitors to walk the labyrinth inside the church. It’s open every Friday morning until December, a cloth labyrinth up on the chancel.
Of course, I took the opportunity for a little walking meditation. The church was so lovely and quiet. Some children came in after I began, and while they didn’t follow the path (or the rules), I enjoyed their playful presence.
When I got home, I was fact checking some of my memories about the church and the trees and discovered that there is another, permanent labyrinth on campus — of stone. I will be sure to walk that one on my next visit.
We wandered, trying to find an open lunch spot, and discovered Terman Fountain, a shallow sunken pool. We walked down a steep hill to lie in the shade.
I was surprised to see families sitting at water’s edge with picnic blankets and parked strollers, chatting nonchalantly as their toddlers played in the water, inflatable floats, beach toys and all. We couldn’t imagine people swimming in any of the fountains at home — on campus or in town — but California is more laid back.
Ellis told us later that he’s pretty sure that the fraternities play beer pong in the fountains, and indeed, when I was searching for the name of this particular fountain, I discovered that “fountain hopping” and even “fountain biking” is an honored Stanford tradition.
There’s too much to tell in one letter, so we will write again soon.
Travel in beauty; visit in peace; blessed be.