There's an old Humboldt County map hanging in the newsroom that has intrigued me ever since I came to work for the paper.
Actually not so much the map, but a spot on the map near Petrolia someone marked "Secret Scientology Vault." Like most people, my only knowledge of scientology is that supposedly celebs like Tom Cruise and John Travolta dabble in it.
But did the vault actually exist, or was it just an old newsroom prank? If so, why would it be on some remote hill in Humboldt County?
Turns out it does -- and, not to burst the bubble -- it's really not that much of a secret after all.
My search started, the way all quests do nowadays, with Google. Using the key words "Scientology vault Humboldt County," I yielded about seven entries. One that caught my eye was an Associated Press article dated fall 1992 -- "Neighbors suspicious of Scientology's Steel Vault." The article was written around the time the vault was being permitted.
Subsequent queries confirmed that the vault sits on a huge ranch owned by the Church of Spiritual Technology. Because of security concerns voiced by church spokeswoman Jane McNairn, I won't disclose exactly where the property is located.
Valued at more than $8 million, the vault was built to store the writings of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, author of books such as "Dianetics." Hubbard, also a science fiction writer, once reportedly said, "If you want to get rich, invent a religion."
The pipe-shaped vault is as wide and high as the cabin of a Boeing 747, but more than 140 feet longer than one of the jumbo jets. The vault was designed to last 1,000 years and withstand any act short of a direct hit by a nuclear bomb.
Inside the vault the writings of Hubbard are preserved on a specially treated paper designed to last a millennium, while his lectures are stored on gold-plated compact discs.
"It was very interesting -- obviously a well-engineered and thought-out facility," said Sheriff Gary Philp, one of the few people who's actually been inside the vault. Philp was invited by the church a few years back to tour the vault, an invitation Philp said the church made in part to dispel rumors that anything illegal or sinister was happening on the property.
"It's fascinating," Philp said. "A lot of work went into preserving the items they want kept there."
Armed with a map, a pack of smokes and a digital camera, I headed out this past week in search of the "secret" vault, filled with excitement as if I were looking for the treasure of the Sierra Madre, or perhaps the Dead Sea scrolls.
The hour-long drive took me out to the Lost Coast, that misty, roaming land that looks like an abandoned set from "Lord of the Rings." I arrived in Petrolia and, hoping for help, went into the general store. The clerk, a sunny-dispositioned woman named Trish, dropped her polite smile when I asked directions.
"That's a private road," she said.
I laid my cards out, explaining who I was and what I wanted. After a few minutes, she took my name and number and said she'd pass it along to the church's caretaker, who lives on the property.
I suspected the call would never come -- and it never did. So I went out myself and -- to make a long story short -- eventually found the property. Not the vault itself, which is located somewhere deep within the 3,600-acre ranch. Freedom of the press doesn't give me the right to trespass. So I had to settle for driving up to the gate and taking a desultory picture of the "No Trespassing" sign.
Driving back to Eureka, I was disappointed. True, I'd found the vault, or at least its general location. As I drove, I waited for deep or profound thoughts to come into my head, answers to questions, as if I'd been on a quest for the Holy Grail or something. But no thoughts came into my head, except a fragment of an old song, "Never wonder why everyone's dead/never wonder about the voices in your head/Never try to understand the terrible face of summer."
Looking back, I had to be a bit stupid, or at least careless, to even look for the place. The Lost Coast doesn't get its nickname for nothing. It's a wild, mostly uninhabited place. Help could be hard to find if the car broke down on one of its lonely stretches.
When I was driving down one back road in search of the place, it occurred to me that I could be lost and wandering unawares onto some private pot grow in the hills, where some guy with a gun is waiting to blow my head off. It was a frightening moment.
So if you've got a notion to grab some buddies and a six-pack and go browsing the bushes with the ridiculous idea of running into Tom Cruise leading some backwoods ceremony, I can only tell you this -- it's a long way to go for very little.