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By Jonathan Haeber
I wanted to make this post, not simply to jump on the bandwagon of the media outpouring for Michael Jackson. I’m not here to judge his life or talk about his finances, or his troubled past, or the allegations, or even Bubbles. I’m writing this simply to tell a story. It’s a story that I didn’t really have the inclination to say before. Now that Michael’s “Ranch” no longer exists, and — rides dismantled — it simply stands as a bank-owned shadow of its former self, I wanted say a few things about my experience at Neverland, and the truth behind how I was able to get in.
In many ways, I feel this is sort of a confession. I never saw Neverland as an interesting place. At first, I didn’t understood its potential to tell a photographic story. As someone who finds significance in historic architecture, I neither saw Neverland as significant, nor historic. All of that changed.
In December of 2007, I was on my way down to Ventura for the Holidays. I had taken multiple trips down the 101 before. Each trip, I made it a point to stop at a roadside abandonment to photograph at night. As it invariably is every December, just prior to Christmas, the radios are filled with the repetitious yuletide jingles of yore. Usually, the six-hour drive is bearable if I switch from one station to the next – between commercials. This particular drive down, I grew weary of the music. I’m not exactly sure why Michael came to mind. Part of it probably had to do with the silence and the habit of mine to imagine music in my head in such moments. It’s also possible that I passed the off-ramp for Los Olivos and thought of the place, only to think of it more and more. Whatever it was, the idea of then-abandoned Neverland began to roll around in my mind. The radio was off, and I began mentally turning over rocks in the process. What did Neverland mean about Michael? Then the big one loomed: Why couldn’t Neverland be “historic” in my mind?
I must admit, I suffer from the myopic view, like most historians — amateur or otherwise — that history must always be equated with old. That’s why Graceland was “history” to me, but Neverland never would be — at least not until it was gone. Hours passed, and the desire to see the inside of Neverland grew stronger. I had essentially exhausted all other photographic possibilities down the 101, and I knew this opportunity wouldn’t last long. Then, a day before I began the drive back up to San Francisco, I exited a theater to find what seemed like snow falling on me. I immediately realized they were large flakes of ash from a fire nearby. The sky was dark and orange. It was an eerie, foreboding signal, or at least that’s what I made it out to be. I needed to photograph Neverland, or else — and I had a strong feeling — it would all go to ashes without proper documentation.
Once it was decided, there was no convincing me otherwise. Still, I thought more than once of giving it up altogether and to continue driving North. I tried to convince myself that I had trespassed many times before at other locations — but the implications had never really bothered me until I considered walking into Michael’s private park. As I write this, I still try to justify my actions by thinking how much Michael truly wanted to share his world. It was a genuine wish of his for everyone to understand things the way he did. And the world largely didn’t understand what he was trying to communicate with Neverland, so he abandoned it.
People have asked me over the past year what it felt like to be in Neverland at night, alone. I didn’t want to say anything except that it was the most surreal and incredible experience of my life. Others asked me how I felt about Michael, after seeing Neverland, but I couldn’t completely answer that. I was withholding judgement. Maybe, like all battle-bruised humans, I had the sneaking suspicion that all of my best feelings about the man would be shattered when another allegation would arise. But it never happened, just as I suspected, because everything I saw at the Ranch indicated to me that he was an innocent man.
The night I drove up to the front gates, the security guard was there, sitting in a well-lit pillbox on the side of the road. Neverland itself is up the road about 400 yards from the front gate. It happened to be a dark night. In fact, there was a new moon, and the sky was clear of any clouds. Out in Los Olivos, the stars shone brightly, and there was little light pollution in the atmosphere. I was sure to maintain my speed as I passed the guard, and I drove up the road to small parking area east of the park. The walk to Neverland was about a half-mile through rolling hills in pitch black conditions. I carried a GPS, set to its dimmest level, and continued on a straight click, towards the North end of the park.
I came upon a back road that seemed to have been a utility road for the animal caretakers. By then, all of the animals were gone, save a few dogs in the old aviary. Bursting out from the branches of valley oak, I found myself in a miniature city. I had emerged right at the petting zoo. From there, my adventure began.
Strangely enough, the moment I entered, a howling wind spread across the valley. Trees cracked their massive arms and fell; I could hear the Ferris Wheel creaking; the rope drawbridge waved wild and unpredictable. When I walked up to the deserted bumper car tent, the wind had become so strong, that it was tearing the red, canvas roof. It’s fortunate that the wind also allowed me to roam freely around the park without a single bark from the nearby dogs.
In the midst of all of this wind, the only static elements of Neverland were the frozen, bronze faces of the myriad statues that dotted the grounds. The children’s smiles almost seemed sad, in the context; and other than the occasional jolt of fear that hit me when I encountered a new frozen figure (thinking it was a real person), these statues were the subjects that I found my camera most drawn to. The rides themselves could have been found on any county fair in any state in the country. But it was the psyche of Michael Jackson that drew my curiosity. The statues were a conduit; they were my artifacts to catalog before the time of their eventual liquidation arrived.
I took two more trips to Neverland, each time with close friends. In all, I captured hundreds of photographs of the park. Many of these photographs, I will never publish. Each trip became progressively more bittersweet. I don’t really have any regrets about doing what I did, but if there is one thing I wish I had done at Neverland, it would have been to ride down the Super Slide; I think MJ would have liked that, and I’m sure the friends with me on my final trip would have turned it into a photo shoot.
Despite how kitschy it all seemed; despite the controversy; and the fact that I could only see Neverland from one perspective (that of night), the times I spent at Neverland are among the most memorable moments of my life. Neverland allowed me to escape the cynical, xenophobic world of a country mired in war, terrorism, and daily reports of suicide bombers. They may have been only a few nights of escapism, at best, but they allowed me to put myself in the shoes of Michael — moon walking my own way among the soon-to-end dreamscape of a truly magnanimous soul. May you rest in peace, Michael; your dream will live on.