This was a beautiful summer day. A marine layer lay comfortably over the green valley, spotted with orchards, orange groves and avocado trees. It is a very familiar sight to me as I have driven this road many times in my life yet it never fails to impress. I am on a journey. I am going to borrow a phrase here from a good friend, as Charleen coined, I am on a Magical Journey, to reach Neverland.
I love and delight in ‘June Gloom’ as it is called here in Southern California. This is a wonderful occurrence that happens every year, during early summer, in this area of Southern California. My early morning drive now affords me the privilege of driving through this early morning, low laying cloud that has settled in over the little valley very near where I live. It occurs to me I can predict the cheery sun’s arrival because of the haze from the “June Gloom” as you can’t have one with out the other. Somehow this “June Gloom” that lingers on into July always seems to supply the analogy for the struggles of my life, for I have weathered much.
I am on a mission today to visit someone who had met Michael Jackson, just another everyday guy who did a job for our King of Pop, Rock, Soul and Music. Yet to me this was a gold mine. You see I had recently been blessed on God’s path to have received the most beautiful drawing of Michael Jackson from an incredibly gifted and blessed artist from Russia, Max Popov. I had it neatly tucked away and had waited patiently praying where and when God would lead me to have this piece framed. Now it was sitting safely in my car on the back seat and I was on a mission to deliver it into the most capable hands of a man who had himself framed many of Michael’s own chosen art pieces. One most especially important piece he worked on and repaired the frame on was “PMJ” by Dave Nordahl, which was an incredible picture of Michael’s son, Prince, while just a little baby sitting in a very similar red, gilded throne just like his daddy’s.
I now find myself embarking on this Magical Journey as I drive up the Pacific coastline. The windows are lowered and the sights and smells of the ocean are fresh in my face and nostrils as I breathe them in deeply. I look out over the Pacific Ocean and think of the power and majesty of Our Creator, the Lord. I think about how He has control over every last grain of sand on every beach and every wave that hits the shore and how I am but a tiny grain of sand in this universe. Yet here now in this place and time I feel so important… so important to my creator…so LOVED. He has touched my life in ways I can’t describe. His love is ever evolving and changing me. Not always a comfortable or gracious process. Then I think about Michael Jackson and how God’s touch allowed him to change the lives of millions and ponder how infinitely impossible it is for someone to have planned that sort of life. Only God could have assigned him that task and afforded him the knowledge and capability of accomplishing such an assignment. I am over whelmed with a feeling of gratitude for having lived during Michael’s life time.
Dogs and children run in the sand along the beach and campers line the beach for at least a mile at a favorite spot I have visited in the past. I long to go and visit with them and feel the sand between my toes… but alas I have a mission today… I am on a journey to higher ground. MJ’s music is the back drop for this panoramic scene as I hear his beautiful, perfect pitch sing to me “You Are Not Alone” and I expectantly listen for God’s guidance this day. I keep driving up the Pacific coastline.
June Gloom has not deterred the beach goers for they know as I do it won’t be long and the suns rays will warm the sand. Inevitably the sun does break through as it climbs into the sky. Just as I turn inland ‘Smooth Criminal’ begins to play and I hear Michael’s voice ring out a crescendo of “Annie are you okay?” Now I make the next leg of the journey up the mountain to Los Olivos and Neverland. The temperature now suddenly changes as the suns rays warm the landscape with a warm yellow glow. Here the sky is a brilliant blue azure and 100 year old Oak trees dot the rolling golden hills. I am entering God’s Country as my mom used to call it and Michael’s Neverland Country… just there… 2nd star to the right.
I see a sign which reads ‘Las Padres National Forest’ and think how fitting that Michael was so close to a forest as he loved trees so much, but this is not your typical forest. Now I travel a winding two lane road up the hillside and see much more lush green summer foliage and yellow wild flowers randomly decorate the hillsides. It occurs to me my entire adult life has been like these random God placed wild flowers. My life has vacillated between hard, harsh reality and ethereal moments of spiritual blessing and growth. All seemingly randomly placed to the naked eye but in all actuality God purposed and ordained each step, as He does not miss a thing and knows the existence and location of every atom in this universe. I am just where I am supposed to be in this moment in time. There are no mistakes, no coincidences.
I round a bend in the road and before me lays the vast beautiful vista of the Santa Ynez Valley. Simply laying out before me its bounty of lush green landscape, more rolling hills and the stretching waters of Lake Cachuma. I look at those rolling hills and picture God’s giant hand as he created this wondrous masterpiece. I see him scoop the sand up from the Santa Ynez sand box and slowly like an hour glass lets it sift through his mighty fingers to create these round mounded hills. Then just for good measure he scatters the seeds of golden brush, Oak trees and wild flowers to decorate His majestic creation. It occurs to me that Michael must have driven these very roads many, many times in the years he called Neverland his home. I now have a CD playing in my car which I recently made, with the help of a generous and kind friend. It plays Michael’s voice. It contains excerpts of many of his speeches and I hear him say “Without hope we are lost.” I look back at these rolling majestic hills and wonder now about why Michael had to leave this incredibly, lovely place he called home and think "Was he lost? Why did it have to be?" God had appointed him this very amazing journey which was Michael’s life. "Why did it have to end this way?" So many unanswered questions, when will the answers come? Questions lead to more questions in my mind.
As I continue to direct my car along the ribbon of winding road my mind moves back to the landscape and the old Oak trees. I think about the "Giving Tree" and how in tune with God, nature and life Michael was, every fiber of his being and pour of his body was gifted to feel the life of music, art and creativity and he shared all he received with the world so generously. He so freely gave of himself over and over. The gorgeous, stately Giving Tree comes to mind. This is one of those old Oak trees that was a true friend to Michael and blessed him with so much inspiration while Michael sat comfortably in its arms. I so wish someday to lay my eyes on this tree and embrace this friend to Michael. To possibly feel in some way its life and character as Michael did.
I now think of the name Cachuma Lake and remember the first residents of this area the Indians who first traveled this land, the Chumash Indians, who settled all along the Southern Pacific coast and close inlaying valleys. They traveled on foot with the changing seasons and would bend and shape the Oak trees to grow as markers along the way directing their path for generations. Not long after the covered wagons from early settlers to the West who traveled along these rolling hills and lush landscape. This was their promised land…their land of milk and honey. I remember Michael’s love of history and wonder if he ever learned about them. It is fascinating to think I am traveling on land where so much history has taken place and so much hope sprang to life.
Now the landscape changes and there are many, many vineyards. These were not present when Michael Jackson lived here years ago. Although the vineyards are not new to this area the swell and increase in the amount of vineyards is a new phenomenon to this countryside. It has been a source of beauty and a wonderful boost to economy for local towns and land owners. The Vineyards are now many and cover all of Santa Ynez County. ‘Heal the World’ begins to play as I turn left into the town of Los Olivos. The town is filled with many tourists there on wine tasting adventures. Parking spaces are hard to find on busy, bustling, fun filled tourist weekends but just as in so many of my God ordained adventures on this journey for Michael I am blessed to find a spot directly in front of the very art gallery I have come to visit. I ease into it and carefully lift my precious package from Russia out.
This is not my first trip to Neverland and Los Olivos. Not my first trip to the quaint and cozy town Michael Jackson frequented while living at Neverland. There seems to be a need within myself to glean every last drop of anything pertaining to Michael Jackson into my life, perhaps some way to keep him alive forever, an unquenchable thirst for more of Michael Jackson. It was on the previous visit that I had learned that this shop I was now revisiting was frequented by Michael in his everyday life. This shop owner is expecting me. As I open the door and step inside he greets me and says “Hi Betty. You made good time.” I smiled and thought, “Yes in deed I had because I was on God’s time, God’s clock.” Things in life always go so smoothly when I am in God’s time and place of appointment, those God ordained assignments. Here I stood before him with my beautiful art rendering and knew without a doubt I was exactly where I was suppose to be in God’s great universe. I slowly revealed from the packaging the beautiful picture of Michael. I felt the shop owner become quiet as he previewed this art in awe. Then he said “You know the man who drew this? This looks exactly like Michael. This is his skin tone. This is how his skin looked, life like yet porcelain. This is beautiful. He is very talented.” As he asked me questions about the piece I began to explain the origin of the picture we now admired. That it was a gift of gratitude to me for being of service in God’s assignment. God’s blessing to me from this fine artist, Max Popov. He reveled in the blending of the colors and Max’s artistic touch on paper. He even saw beauty as I did in the beautiful stamps on the packaging. I had held on to this gift for many, many weeks praying for God to lead me. I knew I wanted it framed in a special way then on my last visit to Neverland had met, Ralph Young. Ralph and I stood there together in full agreement. This drawing needed a special frame. We talked about the drawing and the artist for some time, our eyes always returning back to admire his work. Then we began to plan how it would be framed and labored together to pick just the right mats, glass and wooden frame to accent Max’s picture of Michael. All the while we worked Ralph, regaled me with stories of Michael’s visits to his store and his personal visits to Neverland, which was right down the road, when he delivered Michael’s art work to him there. It was no surprise to me seeing Michael’s love of art over the years that he would gravitate to the art store in the local town at one time or another.
He entertained me with stories about Michael driving into town in an old beat up ranch, pick-up truck and baseball hat in hopes no one would know it was him. He would get out and just walk around. Drop off his art to be framed and visit the video store and local market. No one bothered him. He was just part of the community. He shopped and walked the town as a regular person. Ralph shared one day while he was driving into Solvang, the next town over, he saw MJ driving in that same pick-up truck, coming toward him down the two lane road on the opposite side of the road. All the windows were down and the wind was flying through Michael’s hair as he drove quickly in the direction of Neverland after an apparent visit to Solvang. Solvang is a beautiful Danish town close by where Michael loved to visit the antique and candy stores. Another time, which was one of the first times Michael visited the art store his driver parked out front and Michael walked in with a mask on, accompanied by Raul, Michael’s assistant. Michael stood against a wall just inside the work area and whispered to Raul. Raul approached Ralph and asked about an art piece Michael wanted framed. Raul relayed the messages back and forth from Michael to Ralph several times. Slowly they bartered and the original price came down. Michael was a man who loved to make a deal and worked at getting a good price. I chuckled as Ralph shared this memory and seemed a bit miffed at having been at the other end of this bartering system. A smile filled my heart as I remembered Michael in his home movies where he chastised his brothers about how they should check out the local thrift stores because they would be surprised at what they could find at good prices there. I totally related to Michael as this appreciation of a good deal seemed to be deeply ingrained.
I had stood in this store only a week earlier for the first time with some beautiful MJ ladies. We had visited the gates of Neverland and written heart felt sentiments on small flat stones and lovingly tossed them on to the property so when the ground is tilled every year our hearts and sentiment will forever be embedded in the landscape where Michael used to walk. I was back again… for today this was a private journey. I had planned on taking several others with me but as God would have it… I was to be alone with Him, my Jesus, my friend… the one who has guided me on this incredible journey exploring the heart and life of Michael Jackson; this man, who was not a God, not a saint, not an angelic being but still yet angel like on earth as he emulated Jesus, and most especially just a human being. A most incredible human being destined to change and reach the world with God’s goodness.
Michael’s mother Katherine Jackson states in her book “Never Can Say Goodbye” that she believes Michael fulfilled the purpose God had for him on this earth. Millions of people all around the world attest to the touch that Michael Jackson’s love and talent has made in their lives. I now stand in this little art store in Los Olivos, California and I have an unquenchable thirst to find out who MJ was and in what ways has he touched people’s lives. I want to hear these stories for myself. From the very beginning as God placed on Michael’s soul while he was still in his mother’s womb a talent and genius not seen by any other entertainer in this world, as God first quickened within his body the gift of dance, song, and creativity Michael was making music. A child prodigy turned stratospheric super star was just a human being. I want to learn about that everyday person.
On this day with my rendering from Max of Michael safely placed where Michael’s art used to sit when being worked on in Ralph’s art gallery and with precious stories of Michael tucked neatly into my memory bank I wander over to the little grocery store where Michael shopped to see what BBQ lunch was available. Here there is a giant BBQ that sits out front and each day Tri Tip is BBQ’d for the customers. I purchase this scrumptious smelling potion of comfort food and make my way beyond the flag pole at the center of town and find the local park to partake of my feast. I no more take a seat at the first available picnic bench when two young violinists who happen to be about Prince and Paris’ age pull out their magical instruments and begin to treat my ears and heart to Chopin. This again a reminder that since June 25, 2009 every where I go I am reminded of Michael Jackson in so many ways and forms. I sit blissfully enjoying my BBQ Tri Tip and listen joyfully to the beautiful violin renderings. First Chopin, then Bach then of all things the Disney classic, and just so much like MJ, “It’s A Small World” and “Zippity Doo Dah”. I think how this would have brought a smile to Michael’s face had he been there to see these children entertain the town… but then maybe… was he? Then I stop myself. No! He is in heaven enjoying the comfort and peace of the Lord’s welcoming arms. Far away from all this painful earth doled out. Although I think at this particular moment and many others over the last year the Lord has said “Yes Michael please… give these children a nod of your presence. Bless them this day with a memory of you as only you can.” Yes I like to think that Michael is there watching, smiling and approving of this scene right along with Jesus. I finish my sandwich and wander over to listen more closely and learn the names of these budding virtuosos, Billy and Abby. Thanking them for sharing their gift of music I place my tip into the violin case as many of the street audience have done to thank them for their musical offerings.
Now I am off to visit the next stop on my journey of retracing MJ’s steps in Los Olivos. J Woeste is a nursery that I am told Michael Jackson visited several times. He purchased planted pottery and statues for Neverland here. It is a magical and intriguing place. I am enthralled as I enter through the gates. The soft sounds of giant wind chimes which hang in the branches of a huge tree at the entrance gate greet me as I approach. The sign at the wooden picket fence warns you to close the gate so pets do not escape. I obey. Once inside I am mesmerized and intrigued. The beauty lures me in deeper and deeper. Each turn and each glance takes me to a new fantasy land where my imagination runs free. This is a magical place that inspires both the artist and the gardener in me. I look up and see Michael’s hands as he held them in “Will You Be There?” I do a double take… yes just like Michael’s. At every turn in this mystical, magical land I am reminded of Michael. As I approach a chicken coup that sits in the far back corner of the lot, I see it houses the biggest, healthiest, happiest chickens I have ever seen. Then I look up and see these words posted, the song that both Michael’s mother used to sing to him and my father used to sing to me…”You Are My Sunshine.” On a subsequent visit to J. Woeste, I learn there are doves housed at the back of the chicken coup as well. There are just no coincidences in life. I also find white ceramic doves to commemorate the recent ‘Doves of LOVE Release’ that my beautiful friends and myself worked on and held to honor Michael Jackson and the Jackson family, on June 25th, the anniversary of Michael’s death. This a day which could have been so sad, so morose, yet as the Lord blessed us with the flight of these beautiful, graceful creatures we laughed, gut wrenching laughs, in a way that Michael would have loved. We celebrated his life with enraptured joy just as he would have wanted us to. Those Doves blessed the Jacksons and millions of MJ fans around the world in a most special way. Another God ordained assignment which as it unfolded gave all honor and glory to Jesus Christ who opened the doors against all odds and obstacles to enable 400 Doves to fly free over Forest Lawn that day.
The sun is now relaxed and low in the sky and creating a sleepy effect in the town. It is time for me to make my purchases of magical planted landscapes and move on down the road to Neverland. I approach the gates of Neverland and there are many people politely paying their respects to the King of Pop this day. Visiting bikers both male and female, families, travelers and there are many more security guards on duty this day. I hear Michael’s voice singing from a nearby car. No one is marking up the walls or leaving graffiti. Not a pen or marker in sight. Everyone is respectful and dignified as Michael would have wanted it. I begin to talk to the guards and they tell me this crowd is very respectful. They are tired of unruly MJ fans writing on the walls. They tell me although fans write on the walls most are calm but I am saddened to hear there are those who threatened the guards over the last months with physical harm and they are very tired of rebellious fans who refuse to adhere to their requests to stop writing on the walls, curbs, trees and light fixtures. We talk for about a half an hour and during this time I am invited inside the gates to the security shack. I am simply amazed I am on the other side of the gates, yet it is meaningless because Michael is no longer here. It is apparent all these men really want to see is respect and acknowledgment that this is private property and there are certain rules of common decency that should be adhered to. They are very nice and respectful of me and I of them. On this day there is a large, local event being held inside the property. I am somehow so surprised to learn life does in fact go on and the new owner of this property, we the fans still call Neverland, is now leasing it out for local events. I see many local, cowboy hat adorned ranchers driving out of Neverland in their cars and trucks as I continue to speak to the guards. It is now time for me to leave this once magical land… to the fans it will always be Neverland… the 2nd star to the right just up the road from Los Olivos… but in real life it is now once again Sycamore Valley Ranch… it once was a magical place where Michael Jackson lived, entertained and created in, a place that sparked the imagination and inspired many of Michael Jackson’s great works of art. It is also the place he said, “I won’t live there again. It’s a house now. It’s not a home anymore.” He had moved away years ago… no it is a shell of what it was when Michael lived there. No magic left. The house is empty, the rides gone, the zoo empty, no children laughing inside those gates, no endless paths of blooming flowers, no train whistle blowing. Yet still there are fans making the pilgrimage here everyday from all over the world, just as I have, hoping to glean anything, any little small moment of remembrance of our King of Music, The King of our Hearts, Michael Jackson who was taken from us far too soon. I silently plead with God…please can’t we turn back time… for so many different reasons and on so many different levels. I sigh. I pray. I accept. I vow I will return… for after all I have a new appointment in Los Olivos. My assignment here is not complete.
To be continued….