There are all types of travelers. Some delight in the beauty of the natural world. Others seek out the best food. Still others enjoy cultural experiences. And then there are those who choose to visit sites that are, in a word, creepy. From supposedly haunted hotels to long-abandoned ruins to macabre spots like Los Angeles’ Museum of Death, creepy tourism is popular.
On my recent trip to Paso Robles and Cambria, California, my research uncovered a place billed as a cross between Hearst Castle and the Watts Towers. Called Nitt Witt Ridge, this seemed like just the sort of quirky spot I love to visit and to write about, and would fill a lovely afternoon following relaxing on Cambria’s Moonstone Beach. It would prove to be quirky, but also one of the creepiest places I’ve ever seen.
Arthur Beal, Cambria’s garbage man – literally – bought two and a half acres of hillside overlooking the town in 1928. Over the next fifty years, he would carve a maze of rooms and passageways out of the stone cliffs by hand. The entire house is built from cliff side and discarded materials. Beal would drive the garbage truck to the top of his hillside lot and dump it out, then pick through for the best pieces to use in construction or decoration. Some of it is ingenious, like the handrails made of discarded pipe that he also used as actual water-bearing pipelines between levels. Other parts are a bit, shall we say, quirkier, like the toilet seats he hung on the walls as picture frames. (Indeed, toilets are a theme here at Nitt Witt Ridge, highlighted by the porcelain throne on the roof he would use as a perch to survey the neighborhood.)
Stairs are commonplace around the property, as it is built on a steep cliff on multiple levels, and many of them are decorated in abalone shells Beal collected. After running out of shells, he turned to discarded tiles, beer bottles, and even pieces of stone he stole from Hearst Castle during the time he worked as a laborer there. It is eclectic, kind of cool, and even beautiful in a strange way.
However, Arthur Beal fell behind on taxes, and was forced to sell the water meter for the property. Thus being declared uninhabitable, the home fell into ruin. In 1999, the property was purchased by Michael and Stacey O’Malley. Their intention was to fix it up, open a souvenir shop, and offer touristic experiences to the California Historic Landmark. (After all, that designation prevents it from being torn down.) Permitting proved to be borderline impossible, so today, Michael gives private tours on the hour with a suggested donation of $10 per person, which is used for the most needed structural integrity projects. And so, visitors today will see Nitt Witt Ridge as largely a ruin, which adds to the creepy factor.
Most rooms are dust-covered, cluttered, and filled with items that make the toilet seat picture frames seem downright normal. Hideously creepy paper maché (I think) dolls fill one room. Pink decoration fades in the room Arthur used to entertain female companions. (He had a serious girlfriend for a time, but she vanished, and I can’t help but think he killed her and she haunts one of the dolls.) An outhouse had toilets facing each other so that Arthur and a companion could have conversations while “doing business.”
The outside is a bit more kept-up, and Michael tells the story of the property as he moves at a brisk pace around the grounds. Here, Arthur used to sunbathe naked because he knew it bothered his neighbors. Ruins of the original cottage on the property are barely visible through the thick weeds, a cottage Arthur abandoned after his girlfriend – theoretically – left him. The man seems to have been an outright lunatic, and the gardens of Nitt Witt Ridge add to that feeling.
The tour lasts about 35 minutes, much of it spent chasing after Michael as he speeds through a structure that he obviously has more confidence in the integrity of than I do. To me, it seems destined to slide down the cliff at any moment, something the neighbors are apparently hoping for. (This, I don’t get. The place is unique and would bring a new type of visitor to the region, adding to the economy.) But the structure holds, and is apparently much sturdier than it appears to the naked eye.
At the end of the day, I got much more of a Watts Towers vibe than a Hearst Castle one, though that marketing sure got me to visit. Nitt Witt Ridge is not for everyone. But if you like creepy places, ones that are probably haunted for those who believe in such things, this is a spot on California’s central coast not to miss. Just watch out for the dolls. They still make me shudder.
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