Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Welcome to the Hotel California (not)

For the past few weeks I've had the pleasure of spending a couple of days a week at California State University, Channel Islands. Despite the name, the campus is not on an island - it's in Camarillo. The campus is nestled against the hills at the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains, surrounded by an alluvial plane that stretches to the ocean just a few miles away.

The campus opened about 10 years ago on the site of what was the Camarillo State Hospital, the main hospital for the mentally ill in Southern California. Before I visited the campus the first time, I had imagined a cold, industrial, prison-like setting, but instead it's a beautiful example of California Mission Architecture. Given our embarrassing history of mistreating the mentally ill, I'm sure it wasn't such a great place in its heyday, but it feels like a peaceful resort, a place to get well.

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The history of Camarillo State Hospital is rich - many of the people on campus and in the community have friends and relatives who worked there in its previous incarnation, and there are many stories about the early days of the campus when it was common to find former residents who had returned looking for sanctuary. Of course, there are lots of ghost stories. I'm only there during the day but people get spooked at night.

The most persistent rumor is that the hospital was the original "Hotel California", the place where "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave". This has been denied many times by members of the Eagles, but the myth persists, and people say they know someone who knows someone who's seen the secret register of celebrity patients, and they are certain Don Henley stayed there despite any evidence to the contrary. (But jazzman Charlie Parker did spend time there, and wrote a piece "Relaxin' in Camarillo".)

Whatever the history, it's a beautiful campus, and the people I meet there mostly seem happy to be there. It's a nice place to spend some time, and a wonderful place for a student who wants a somewhat bucolic campus to think and learn and grow.

Why is it called CSU Channel Islands if it's not on an island? That's a story for another time.

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