Lately, the Seven Deadly Sins have been rearing their ugly heads far too often. Evil and excess seem to be in charge. In the same week that good Samaritans were murdered on a Portland MAX train defending two innocent girls, I paid $30 to take a voyeuristic tour through William Randolph Hearst’s monument to excess, the Hearst Castle.
The sins were passengers on that Portland MAX train, embodied by one evil man. But hundreds of miles south of Portland, there’s plenty about my visit to “La Cuesta Encantada” (the Enchanted Hill) that made me feel that my tour guides were pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth, and not a middle-aged woman in a Hearst Castle uniform.
When purchasing our tickets to the Hearst castle months in advance of our vacation to California, we were informed that we would need to park at the visitors’ center and catch a bus up to the actual estate. The visitors’ center is a monument itself, as big as a theme park, and just as filled with souvenirs and tourists, not to mention all types of fried food, hamburgers and official Hearst fudge. While you wait for your bus, you can pay extra to see an Imax film about Hearst, the “builder of dreams.” Sitting in the beautiful theater, you feel as though you are flying along-side Hearst in his private plane, swooping over the stunning California coastline and landing on the estate’s private airfield. There’s no mention in the film of any of the Hearst family’s less virtuous qualities.
The bus ride is four miles up a winding road, with incredible views of the over 80,000-acre ranch. Cattle, deer, and zebras graze alongside the road. The recorded voice of game show host Alex Trebek introduces visitors to the splendors about to be experienced firsthand. Upon arrival, we are grouped by our colored wrist bands, denoting which tour we have paid for. For varying prices, visitors can view different parts of the estate. Multiple tours are allowed, but visitors pay for every additional tour. Regardless of the admission cost, throngs of visitors fill every inch of the castle.
Hearst built the estate for his family, his mistress, and his friends, many of them Hollywood stars. To accommodate them all, the estate was designed to have 56 opulent bedrooms and 61 bathrooms. On our tour, we experienced less than a dozen, but did see a plethora of priceless antique European paintings, sculptures, furniture and decorative ceilings, all purchased by Hearst in the early 20th century. One of the most jaw-dropping testaments to excess is the gorgeous indoor pool, massive in size and decorated in and out of the water with glass and gold mosaic tiles.
On the return bus trip down to our car, Trebek’s soothing voice tells about Hearst’s private zoo, at one time the largest one of its kind in the world. Today, the zoo is little more than a series of empty concrete structures. The exotic animals, and the gates that contained them, are gone.
On our return home to Oregon, we learned many of the sordid details about the attacking, deranged man who shouted racial slurs at young girls while slashing the throats of the girls’ rescuers. We wept as we questioned whether we would have had the courage to do what those brave men did. We looked at our own lives, gave thanks that we were safe, and went in search of ourselves and our community for the seven virtues — humility, charity, chastity, kindness, temperance, patience and diligence.
Last night, while attending a graduation ceremony for a group of exceptional seniors in high school, I witnessed many virtues. The students, members of an elective class called AVID, have been together in this program for three years. The official manual describes AVID as a structured college preparatory system that offers direct support for first-generation college goers. AVID’s mission is to close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society. To be accepted into the program, students must have average to high test scores, have a GPA between 2.0 and 3.5, desire, and determination. The demands of AVID are rigorous, but the rewards great. Of the 200 generous college scholarships given out by locals this year, 54 of them went to AVID students.
As a volunteer in this program, I’ll admit I shook hands last night with the first deadly sin, pride. Not pride for what I had done, but pride for this amazing group of students, and for the exceptional educators at Hood River Valley High School who nurtured, cajoled, supported, and celebrated these students for three years. AVID Counselor Melissa Bentley and AVID teacher Haley Harkema are fine examples of virtuous people who practice what they preach. The humble teachers addressed their students and the audience, saying, “Some people are able to take the escalator to opportunity right up. Others choose the stairs. You guys have had to struggle to make it up the escalator that’s going down. You did it!” They did it with unwavering support from their teachers, the high school, and the community.
At the celebration, each student was called up on stage, one by one. As proud families looked on, their teacher and counselor bragged about their accomplishments. There were lots of tears, hugs, and applause. In the end, the virtuous educators had this final piece of advice: “Go into the world and do well, but more importantly, go into the world and do good.”