Palo Alto: Wrap Your Brain Around It
Sunday, October 2, 2005
During anthropological field work in a remote region of Papua New Guinea, Stanford University student Jim Mason showed local woodcarvers pictures of Rodin sculptures that grace the Northern California campus -- one of the largest Rodin collections outside Paris. The men of the Kwoma and Iatmul people were not all that impressed.
"This is nothing," said one. "We can do better than that." Two others proposed that Mason bring them to the place where Rodin's sculptures were, and they would show what they could do.
In 1994, it happened.
Today, you can sit in a wooded grove and watch other artists sketch the sculptures by New Guinea artists who came to Stanford and were inspired by a Parisian. Make sure you read the New Guinea artists' comments. Example: "We saw 'The Thinker' and realized this is something like we have. So we twisted it a bit and made a new one. Ours has a deep story behind it, unlike the one you did."
Beautiful, fun and interesting things occur when extraordinarily talented people find the time and wealth to follow their dreams. You'll discover evidence of those happy collisions of forces all over the campus and the town at its base, 35 miles south of San Francisco.
Palo Alto, where many of the brightest minds of Silicon Valley live and shop, is relatively small: population 58,600. But it offers the amenities of a much bigger place, with numerous art galleries and bookstores, chic shops, spas and dozens of great restaurants -- both for fine dining and for hanging out, student-style. Given its size, the city has more than its share of theaters for both live performances and films, including a restored 1925 movie house where a Wurlitzer organ is played between shows.
Beneath Highway 280, positrons -- or positively-charged subatomic particles -- hurtle down a two-mile path through an accelerator beam tube, part of the equipment used by Nobel Prize-winning scientists at Stanford's Linear Accelerator Center to discover charm quarks. But high-tech modernity has not destroyed nature: A third of Palo Alto's 26 square miles is devoted to parks and other open spaces, including 30 miles of bike trails.
An even higher percentage of Stanford's 8,000-plus acres in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains remain undeveloped. So much land has been preserved in its natural state that mountain lions still roam in a section of campus popular with hikers. Part of the year, when there is enough rain to spoil the perfect weather that prevails most days, Lake Lagunita fills with water, providing an on-campus opportunity to sail and windsurf.
From the top of Stanford's highest structure -- the Hoover Tower -- you can see the San Francisco Bay, mountains and lakes. Directly below, on a campus designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, stately mission-style buildings cluster around quads, their red-tile roofs outlined against an azure sky.
I first saw this place just after finishing college, and it made me want to start over as a freshman. Nearly 20 years later, I got the chance to spend nine months here, but it wasn't enough. If you come, prepare to deal with envy.
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The main entrance to Stanford University is along a broad boulevard lined with towering Canary Island palms that frame the view at the end of the drive: yellow sandstone buildings surrounded by graceful arches and porticos.