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.
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.
About halfway along the boulevard sits the B. Gerald Cantor Rodin Sculpture Garden, whose pathways lead to the Cantor Arts Center. Free to the public, the center has 24 galleries, terraces and courtyards for displaying some of the 25,000 treasures from the world's cultures.
I find myself most moved by the two rooms devoted to the history of the Stanford family and the university they built.
Leland Stanford, a California governor from 1862 to 1864 and president of the Central Pacific Railroad, was one of the wealthiest men of his day. For Leland, the huge property Stanford now comprises was once a plaything -- a farm for breeding horses. He built a railroad track around the farm, in part to amuse his young son.
Leland Jr. was clearly an exceptionally intelligent, handsome, precocious and much beloved only son. A room in the museum is devoted in large measure to portraits of Leland Jr. and to his childhood collection of Japanese, Chinese and Native American objects. No ordinary boy, he also had some small pieces from the 1873 excavations of Troy that were found by a family friend, the famed archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.
But in 1884, at the age of 15, the promising son contracted typhoid fever and died.
The first time I saw Stanford University and learned that it had been built to memorialize the death of a son, I felt a stab of class resentment. Most of us are lucky, after all, to get a little slab of marble. But my attitude changed during my most recent trip in July. I was touring with two friends who, like me and the Stanfords, had a single child, born fairly late in our lives. All three of us became teary-eyed reading the framed cable, eloquent in its simplicity, that Leland Jr.'s mother sent to a friend more than 100 years ago.
"Our darling boy is taken from us," it reads. "Pray for us."
The idea of building a great institution of learning "for other people's children" -- as Leland Sr. described it -- was launched weeks after Leland Jr.'s death. It was not always easy. In the museum is a portrait of Jane Stanford's jewels and an explanation: When money began running short to complete this grand university, she sold her rubies, sapphires, emeralds and pearls to raise money, but she first arranged them on velvet and had an artist paint them.
Those interested in science might like to tour the Linear Accelerator Center or stop by the William Gates Computer Science Building, where the walls are made of whiteboard so computer geeks can jot down any brilliant ideas that suddenly pop into their heads, and where there are plenty of showers in case those ideas demand a couple of all-nighters.
My personal favorites: Hoover Tower and Stanford Memorial Church. The church, dedicated in 1903, is made of sculpted sandstone, its arches towering over brilliant mosaics in 20,000 hues. Sound blasts from the 4,332 pipes in the largest of the church's four organs. The sanctuary provides a great venue for classical concerts, and on Sunday nights, the church features candlelit services with Gregorian chants.
The Hoover Tower is part of the Hoover Institution, where prominent conservatives think and write in the midst of an otherwise liberal campus. Prior to my visit to the ground floor of the 285-foot tower, I thought of President Herbert Hoover as the guy who sent in the Army to beat up World War I veterans who came to Washington to demand a promised bonus, and as the president who led the United States during the worst of the Depression years. But it turns out, according to the documents and memorabilia displayed in the tower, he was also a great humanitarian who rescued Chinese children during the Boxer Rebellion and fed millions of starving Europeans during both World Wars.
Politics aside, the observation deck on the top of the tower is the best $2 view around.
The birthplace of Silicon Valley is at 367 Addison Ave. It's nothing more than a nondescript garage, but it's where Stanford alums William Hewlett and David Packard, of Hewlitt-Packard fame, tinkered around and launched the high-tech age.
Combine that high-tech influence and wealth with that of the university -- and you've got yourself a mighty fine little town.
A Palo Alto Web site lists 99 restaurants. You can blow some serious bucks at Wolfgang Puck's Spago, or watch the world stroll by as you sit outside Francis Ford Coppola's Cafe Niebaum-Coppola, or mix it up with the students on a budget at places like the Rose and Crown pub. Between performances at the university and those in downtown venues -- including the Lucie Stern and Cubberley theaters -- you can usually find something going on for any taste. (Just be warned, the Dalai Lama lecture is sold out.) Alternately, you can always just wander through some of the stores and galleries. On the first Friday of every month, the town's Pacific Art League sponsors a gallery walk so you can meet the artists while sipping a local vintage.
The minute you hit Palo Alto, it strikes you: This is what a downtown should feel like. Beyond the trees along the streets, the easy mix of old and new buildings, the cleanliness and free parking, its hard to pinpoint the elements that make it so inviting, but city planners thinking of redeveloping an area that failed should come by and try to figure it out.
I should consider myself lucky to have had a school year here. But every time I return, I am consumed with a sense of yearning.
The place makes me yearn to be rich and young and full of promise. I want to live forever in a beautiful, upscale area with nearly perfect weather. I want one of those $3 million Palo Alto bungalows for my very own. Or what the hey, one of the $10 million California-style mansions within walking distance of a meal at Spago's or a massage at the fabulous, Asian-inspired spa Watercourse Way. I wonder what the world would look like if everyone had wealth and the education essential to spending it well, with class.
Still, if you don't have the means to live in Palo Alto but come upon the chance to spend a couple of days here, take it.