I am in Old Town at midnight. I am not surprised. While it is a place, without question, built for tourists, I balk at the suggestion that ‘locals don’t go there’ and such ‘traps’ should be avoided by those looking for an ‘authentic’ experience.
For me, there is nothing more authentic and alluring than the post-structuralist pastiche of real and pretend. Old Town is a piece of living theater staged on the actual blood, sweat and bones of San Diego’s history. The lines between reality and mythology blur amongst historical landmarks and themed restaurants, dusty graveyards and costumed guides.
I come for Café Coyote tortillas, Fiesta de Reyes mariachi and the trinkets of Bazaar del Mundo as much as I do for a drink and a some history at the Cosmopolitan Saloon Bar or a private tour of the Whaley House.
The latter is my mission tonight. The Whaley House is arguably the most famous building in Old Town. Lovingly restored to its 1860’s heyday, Whaley’s mansion once stood as an impressive monolith of mortar and brick- a statement of Eastern structure and civility ready to tame and develop San Diego’s wild Western ways. But let’s be honest, it’s famous for the ghosts. According to the Travel Channel’s America’s Most Haunted, the house is the number one most haunted house in the United States. The hanged criminal. The suicidal daughter. Fantastical realities which produce countless legends and leave us all wondering where history ends and histrionics begin. This is the essence of Old Town. And this is why I love it.
After the tour, most everything is closed except for the Old Town Saloon, lively with industry workers who finished the late shift in a little, old town vaneered with tourism. Feeling more meditative, I stroll through the dusty and deserted ‘town’ and find myself taken by the nightscape. Huge cacti, soft lamplight. It all makes for a haunting and happy midnight stroll.