Photos by Janet Orsi
The truth is up there: This doorway at the Bartholomew Park Winery was found mysteriously locked from the inside.
One reporter’s long, strange trip among the formerly living residents of Sonoma County
By David Templeton
THE GHOSTS know that we’re coming,” Victoria Bullis comments as she bounds out of my car and stands facing a street lined with old Victorian houses. “The ghosts are waiting for us. And there are a lot of them in this neighborhood, a whole enclave of ghosts down here. I can feel them. They’re everywhere!”
“Good,” I bravely remark, tucking my notebook under my arm and gripping my tape recorder firmly. I join Bullis where she stands on the sidewalk. “Why are the ghosts waiting for us?”
“Well, you have been asking a lot of questions,” she replies. “And word gets around fast among ghosts. I get the sense that they’re eager to cooperate.” She grins and lowers her voice. “Ghosts like getting attention as much as anyone, you know.”
Bullis is a popular Bay Area spiritualist, a psychic to whom numerous clients have turned for mystical insights, glimpses of the future, and the occasional clearing of a ghost. Or two. Or three. She is regularly heard dispensing her clairvoyant circumspections to desperate and/or curious callers on a variety of different radio stations, including KZST-FM. Though she seldom discusses ghosts on her programs, a stray, on-air joke about “ghost hunting” led to my invitation to Bullis to join me in a daylong meander among the so-called spectral residents of Sonoma County.
And here we are. Westside Petaluma. The corner of A and Keller. Ready for anything. Surrounded by ghosts. “You don’t believe in ghosts, do you?” she asks, matter-of-factly. “Well,” I admit, “I don’t not believe. I’ve just never, actually, you know, seen one.”
In other words, I’m skeptical, but hey, I’m open to anything. “Fair enough,” Bullis smiles. “But don’t be surprised if you’re seeing ghosts by the end of the day.”
RIGHT THERE,” Bullis says, stopping in her tracks. We are standing before a beautifully cared-for Heritage Home, near the corner of Sixth Street and Western in Petaluma. “I’m getting a sense of some dark energy up there on the second floor of this house,” she says, pointing. “There’s a quaint little woman who lives up there. She’s looking out at us right now.”
I see nothing, but an eerie sensation has definitely taken hold of me. We have walked several blocks in our quest, and Bullis, obviously delighted, has described dozens of ghosts already. Ghosts in windows, ghosts on rooftops, ghosts turning somersaults on the lawn, ghosts that have come out to greet us and see what all the fuss is about. “It’s a regular ghost carnival,” Bullis joked earlier.
There is a Victorian-era gentleman in the upper left-hand corner of the McNear building. He’s sorely vexed; something about a fire. Walking past the Cavenaugh Inn, Bullis affirms that there is a presence within; she puts the total number of resident ghosts at four.
“They wander in and out,” she shrugs. “Ghosts visit each other just like we do.” Further down the street, she describes two ghosts who live in side-by-side houses, carrying on a feud that has lasted for years. “They can’t give it up,” Bullis says. “It’s their identity.”
J.K. Clark, University of California
It goes on: A Native American ghost, male, steadfastly maintains his place in a corner lot, now under construction. A crotchety fellow dwells in a rundown place across the street, still trying to add to the Coke-bottle collection he started in his youth. A playful youngster hangs out in the garden of a house on Western, amusing himself by trying to get the attention of children driving by.
With my mind as wide-open as certain readers’ mouths are likely to be at this point, I am still unable to detect anything beyond a general, goose-bumpy kind of feeling and the occasional tingle down my spine. Despite my inability to see ghosts, I am obviously getting into this.
“Look down there,” Bullis exuberantly exhorts. “Concentrate. What do you see?”
Traffic? A house with strangely manicured bushes? “That’s the house!” she shouts. “Now look closer. What else do you see?”
Well, my eye is drawn to a glimmering just to the right of the door. “You got it,” she smiles. “It’s an old woman with dirty shoes. She’s waving at us.”
She pauses a moment. “I’m sorry, I meant that in the nicest way,” she speaks toward the house. Turning back to me, she explains softly, “She didn’t like being called old.”
We continue, walking past Bill and Jay’s auto repair shop. “Okay,” Bullis nods. “Ghosts like this place. They sit in the cars behind the wheel. There’s one standing behind that green van. He’s not in a good mood.”
Jay Miller, co-owner of the shop, is amused at the suggestion that his garage might be occupied by otherworldly back-seat mechanics, though he’s never seen anything with his own eyes. “On the other hand,” he chuckles, “I will admit that I never feel alone here. Even when I am.”
“Ghosts can make themselves visible, if they choose,” Bullis says, back at the car. “But you don’t have to use your eyes to see them. I look for a certain energy. It’s second nature now. I tune into the vibration that allows me to see the astral dimension of the ghosts. It’s not hard. Half of the population, or more, could see ghosts.”
A GHOST is someone who hasn’t fully transcended the physical plane,” Bullis explains. “They’re still partly here on an energy level. Usually they’re afraid to go to the other side.”
We are back in the car. After closing her eyes briefly, testing the revenant waters, Bullis has directed me to head out on Lakeville Highway, in the general direction of the town of Sonoma.
“Ghosts are in denial,” she says, explaining how she uses her psychic knack to assist ghosts in moving on. “I just talk to them, like a therapist would. I help them see that it’s time to go. Turn left. Some ghosts are dangerous,” she continues. “They are not to be fooled around with, though most of them are harmless, or even helpful. But it’s inappropriate. They need to move on. Its like not paying your taxes or putting off doing your homework.
“It’ll catch up to them eventually.”
Inevitably, it seems, we end up pulling into the parking lot of Old Adobe Historic Park, the one-time home of Gen. Mariano Vallejo, the reportedly despotic landowner who enslaved hundreds of local natives. His adobe-brick mansion, now undergoing historic reconstruction, stands before us. “This doesn’t feel good,” Bullis nods. “There are only one or two ghosts living in the house, but they are very disturbed. The whole place is bad news.”
After a brief wander up to the imposing edifice, we beat a hasty retreat. “They’re out here,” she says, gesturing to the surrounding fields and hills as we drive away. She refers to the ghosts that we expected to find within the Old Adobe. “They’ve come out here instead of staying there.”
So what about General Vallejo himself? Any sense that he was still around? She checks in. “He’s here,” she nods. “Even he won’t stay in the house, though.” We drive past a small, disheveled farmhouse. Bullis stares at it curiously. “He hangs out there,” she says, almost in surprise. “But he’s getting ready to move on. He’s done a lot of work.”
“Has he come to terms with any atrocities he may have done to his fellow humans?” I ask.
“I don’t know and I’m not going to ask him,” she replies. “What are you trying to do, get me in trouble?”
WE ARE STANDING in the lobby of the Sebastiani Theatre in downtown Sebastopol, where there have been reports for years of a ghost that will come up behind workers late at night and startle them out of their skins before disappearing suddenly. “He hangs out in the lobby,” Bullis nods. “He likes to be outside when people are coming in and out. He’s nice.”
Not so nice is the fellow around the corner, who spends time alternating between two different bars. “He was an alcoholic,” she says. “He soaks up the energy of the bar and of some of the people there. It’s his way of getting a drink.”
Though not as packed as Petaluma, Sonoma has a pretty fair spectral population. There’s one in the bushes across from a deli. Two lounging on the grass at the Courthouse lawn. A few meandering about the mission.
As we stand facing the square, attempting to picture this other level of being, I imagine this landscape of wandering, waiting souls, unable or unsure of how to take the Big Leap into the world beyond, playing games, playing tricks, hanging out. Waiting.
There are those who believe and those who don’t. If ghosts are a fabrication of our collective unconscious, they serve as an eloquent metaphor for procrastination, and the reluctance many of us have to give up old ways and move on to the next phase. On the other hand, if ghosts do exist, then perhaps it is a reasonable and fair system in which they exist; you have lots of time to figure out where you’re going.
“But they need to spend their time here wisely,” Bullis insists, walking back to the car. “It’s long enough, but it isn’t unlimited. The sooner you do your work and get on with life, the better.
“We’ve got a hitchhiker,” she announces, standing beside the car. “He got in somewhere along the way, but didn’t want to get out of the car here.” She informs me that he has agreed to get out where he got in, if I will drop him off in the same place. I glance into the back seat, aware only of the broad stripes cast across the upholstery by the afternoon sun.
Just in case, I drive home the same way I came.
From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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