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A Warm, Fuzzy Surprise

Generic Santa Rosa, California: home of an American dream.



US 101 south of Arcata, California, is among the prettier drives in the U.S. -- and also the goofiest. There's Confusion Hill where balls roll uphill, the Tree House, the Drive-Thru Tree, Trees of Mystery, and every sort of Bigfoot thing you can imagine. There's also the headwaters of the Russian River, a winding road through tree-covered hills, and the little town of Garberville that's like dropping into an Eden of redwoods and riverside cabins with smoke coming from their chimneys.

As the Greyhound dropped out of the mountains, the big trees, fishing holes, and Bigfoot statues gave way to generic Santa Rosa: strip malls, Applebee's, construction sites, Starbucks, traffic jams, and smiling TV news crews on billboards. Feeling deflated, I just wanted a hotel room and some food. Then I saw the words "Charles Schulz Museum." It was one of those "no way!" moments when suddenly your whole perspective -- and schedule -- shifts. I knew I would be spending some time in Santa Rosa.

After transferring to a city bus and asking directions, I arrived at an ice rink. An ice rink in sunny Santa Rosa was odd in its own right, but I was looking for the Schulz Museum. As it turns out, Schulz built the ice rink -- known as Snoopy's Home Ice -- which is done up in a Peanuts/Swiss Village theme with murals of frozen ponds, a Woodstock room, a stained-glass image of Snoopy playing hockey, and a Snoopy room in the Warm Puppy Café (as in, "happiness is").

And thus began my introduction to the world of Charles M. Schulz, a world which happened to take shape in the otherwise completely uninteresting Santa Rosa.

Every day, for 50 years, Schulz wrote a Peanuts comic strip. Every day. For 50 years. Every day, he would dip into his world of ideas and come up with a joke, a situation, and some human interaction that we could all identify with.

For the last 30 of those years, he was in Santa Rosa, living, in many ways, a profoundly ordinary life. He'd wake up and walk over to the ice rink he built. He was a native Minnesotan, so hockey and skating were a big part of life, and Santa Rosa to this day is a hub of both activities. He'd have breakfast at the same table at the ice rink, then walk back home and sit down at his drawing table, which is now in the museum, and sketch out ideas. He'd break for lunch, walk back over to the same table at the rink, and somewhere along the way he would "ink" the final strip for the day. He said you need to be in the same place to let the creativity flow.

They still reserve that table in the Warm Puppy Café for him, even though Schulz died in 2000, the day before his final strip ran. The museum is across the street from Snoopy's Home Ice, where, on the day I was there, all the conversation among the locals was about Olympic figure skating and the problems in the scoring system.

The museum isn't large, but it takes a while for the experience to register. At first, you see the strips and your mind says, "Right, got it -- Peanuts." Then the scope starts to sink in, along with the fact that you're looking at the original drawings, so they're quite large, and you can see the strength in the lines. There are also sketches that Schulz threw out but his secretary rescued, ironed flat, and saved.

You see the changes in the strip over the years, whether it's girls becoming less mean, Snoopy getting thinner, or characters coming and going. And in the sketches you see the subtle changes in a character's expression, or the last-minute adjustments to a joke's wording, or all the cross-outs that suggest a tough day at the drawing table.

Two images stand out in my memory. One is a 17-by-22-foot mural of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. It's such a familiar, sad, and sweet image -- all the elements that make Peanuts what it is -- but the mural is made of more than 3,500 strips printed on 2-by-8-inch ceramic tiles. Somehow that captures the whole experience: the simple made up of the massive.

My other memory is the museum's reconstruction of Schulz's studio, where a video plays. There are interview clips with Schulz, but the best scenes show his hands making drawings. It's pure magic to watch those familiar forms emerge from emptiness: so easy-looking, so clean, so elegant. In the middle of all the marketing and analysis and the years and the memories there was one man whose very routine life included creating a world all his own right here in Santa Rosa.

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