Different religions teach that there are different ways to get into heaven, but students have decided that all they really need to do is cross Folsom Dam Road, make a few more turns, and they’re there. The spot isn’t really heaven, of course, but a growing number of students are finding that it makes a reasonable facsimile.
The spot that students have come to refer to as heaven sits high in the hills above Folsom, offering breathtaking views over the valley and Folsom Lake. On a clear day, the views reach all the way to the mountains 75 miles in the distance that mark the eastern boundary of the Bay Area.
The spot has an almost magical quality, conjuring up different moods at different times of day and in different weather conditions.
Midday can bring a sense of majesty, as you look down on all the tiny cars and little people scurrying about their business, feeling like you could pick any one of them up and pop them in your pocket.
Sunset can be like fireworks, as the sun drops behind the mountains and creates a rainbow of colors. The tops of the mountains turn bright red. A band of orange lies just above. Then come yellow, green, blue and indigo, created because the atmosphere works as a prism for the setting sun.
“Heaven” is shrouded in mystery. Almost a “secret garden,” it’s difficult to even find unless you know someone who knows how to get there. Even that may not be enough, because some students guard the location jealously and avoid helping others find it.
Senior Sophia Zogopoulos, whose father owns the land, says “Heaven” started to become popular about a year and a half ago when students from Folsom High School and El Dorado High School discovered the magic of the place. They told friends, and word quickly spread.
“It’s just such a beautiful view,” Zogopoulos said. The spot “makes you feel like you’re above it all, where nothing can touch you.”
The day after senior Adam Johns passed away, Zogopoulos and a friend, sophomore Erica Peterson, went up to “Heaven.”
“It was a good place to be,” Zogopoulos said.
Peterson agreed. “When you’re up there, you feel invincible,” she said. “It’s just breathtaking.”
The two wrote messages to Johns on a helium balloon and then released it.
“We watched it float up into the sky until it was nothing more than just a speck and then just disappeared,” Peterson said.
Junior Connor O’Guinn said, “it’s really chill to be up there late at night and look at the lights.” He added: “Knowing me, sometimes I see stuff in the lights.”
Sophomore Megan Zabrowski went up to “Heaven” the night of a lunar eclipse and marveled over the clear skies and the amazing experience.
“It’s totally different from anything else you can see,” Zabrowski said. “From one place you can look around and see what seems like everything. It’s just a different perspective.”
“I really like how it’s so secret,” Zabrowski added. “It makes it more peaceful, because a lot of people have heard about it but most of them haven’t been there.”
Senior Jamie Cologna, who said she has been to “Heaven” maybe seven times, enjoys the secrecy.
“The first time I went, my friend and I had the hardest time finding it.” Cologna said. “Someone had told us where it was, but we couldn’t find it, so we walked around for about 30 minutes. It’s cool though, like a rite of passage.”
Cologna said she likes going to “Heaven” with a group of friends and taking photos of the beautiful sunset and the night sky, with sunsets galore.
“When you’re up there you, you feel like you can do or see anything,” Cologna said.
Senior Kyle Chin said his favorite time is when the sun is setting.
“It’s just so peaceful,” Chin said. “I don’t think it’s a place that can really be put into words, but I think ‘peaceful’ works the best.”
The entrance to “Heaven” is inauspicious. Instead of pearly gates, there is a metal fence that closes off a stub of asphalt that will eventually become a road — meaning “Heaven” will be turned into a community of houses someday and be closed off to the public.
The graffiti is, unfortunately, a sign of what is to come. Kids have painted on just about every rock outcropping. Some is cussing and swastikas. Some is an English teacher’s worst nightmare — someone added an extraneous apostrophe in writing “Nazi’s suck,” and someone somehow forgot an “e” in writing “Welcom to Heaven.”
Some of the painting, while still jarring, at least seems to have its heart in the right place. Kids have spray painted hearts and peace signs. A couple have done some rather impressive drawings that bring to mind Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.
Zogopoulos said the graffiti is getting to be bad enough that a neighborhood watch has been set up, and police cars sometimes patrol the area.
Students also say there have been uncomfortable moments because some use “Heaven” as a spot for making out or drinking. One said a kid actually wrote his number on the car of a girl he thought was hot. Zogopoulos said she once saw a couple making out so intently that they didn’t even notice a coyote standing 10 feet away.
Fortunately, there aren’t all that many surfaces to paint in “Heaven,” and the space is so grand that it’s possible to avoid the occasional drunk or lovey-dovey couple.
In any case, students say any problems are overmatched by the experience of wandering down a dirt path through the massive old oaks that dot the hillside and through the spring grasses rolling in the light wind, while gazing out at the world below.
My own first experience at “Heaven” was almost celestial. The breeze ruffled my hair as I sat watching the sunset. A chorus of crickets serenaded me. I felt like every little bit of stress was gone, even though I had been cramming for AP tests for days and had had just a few hours of sleep for each of the three previous nights. I watched in wonder as the sun drifted down and silhouetted the mountains. As darkness settled, the sun lit up a poof of cloud, making it look like fire rising from Mount Doom.
Looking down, I felt like I could see everything. I watched as, all in a row, traffic lights turned green, then yellow, then red. I saw the low, Tuscan-like sun warm the landscape. I watched the light shift, making the colors deeper and richer. The greens seemed greener and lusher. It was peaceful.
The setting sun could have easily resolved into a Cezanne painting with the planes of colors, the peaceful landscape and the masterful composition. Lights in the distance shimmered in the haze. Folsom Lake became almost a sapphire color. The currents in the lake were so distinct that they made it look like shards of broken glass.
Then finally, the darkness from the east crept across the sky, almost as though God was pulling the covers over the world and tucking it into bed after another day.
Originally appeared in At the Bay magazine.