I went "Back to the Future" but nothing was there: How I lost Hill Valley and where I found it

The first time a movie super-fan visits a film site should be magical, but mine broke all of my illusions

Published July 2, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

Michael J. Fox in "Back to the Future"    (Universal Pictures)
Michael J. Fox in "Back to the Future" (Universal Pictures)

It broke my heart that I couldn’t visit Hill Valley, California. It seemed like such a nice town. I was pretty sure that if stood near the clock tower right as the high school was letting out, I’d see Marty McFly zooming by on his skateboard. I’d yell “Hey, McFly!” but in a nice way, and thank him for being a weird kid from a weird family who still had a pretty girlfriend and a band and a mad scientist for a best friend.

If I could visit Hill Valley, maybe I could tell Marty McFly, “when I’m 17, I’m gonna be just like you.”

I was only 12 when "Back to the Future" came to theaters thirty years ago this week, but by that Christmas had paid to see it 14 times on my budget of allowance and stolen quarters. I’d been addicted to movies for as long as I known what they were, but I understood that Bedford Falls and Gotham City, Moss Eisley Spaceport and Tara weren’t real places.

Hill Valley? That had to be.

It had to be somewhere off the highway and through the mountains, at the crook of the California’s elbow, say between Santa Cruz and San Diego? I was from southeast Michigan and had been west of Chicago exactly once. Was California bigger than Texas, or just taller and narrower at the shoulders? Was Hill Valley just as movie-made up as Shermer, Illinois, or did a sunny town where outcasts saved the day and bullies got theirs have to exist outside of me really wanting it to?

It came to pass that my family had planned a trip to Los Angeles the following winter that included a Universal Studios tour, the folk with the globe logo that had made "Back to the Future." I’d seen enough Entertainment Tonight to know that movies and TV were made in giant empty rooms with smooth cement floors called “sound stages.” You wheel in flat pieces of wood resembling gazebos or doctor’s offices and you’ve got yourself something called a set.

It was all adding up now. Universal Studios was a place movies were made. Our tour would be visiting were those huge airy buildings. Since there’s no way they could fit an entire town inside one of those buildings, the "Back to the Future" set must be based on the real Hill Valley. And the people leading our tour would know where it was!

During the tour our tram got attacked by Jaws (didn’t care) and slowed down in front of the Bates Motel (didn’t know what that was). After breaking at a narrow intersection for group of office workers heading to lunch, we rounded a corner, and there it was.

A clock tower overlooking the town square, a soda shop at one corner and a billboard saying “Welcome to Hill Valley.”

“If you guys made 'Back to the Future' right here,” I said when the tour guide caught her first breath. “Where’s the real town? Where’s the Hill Valley that gave the moviemakers the idea?"

The tour guide smiled but shook her head, which looks like calling someone a jerk face and handing them a lollipop at the same time.

“They made the movie right here, all of it. This is Hill Valley.”

This is Hill Valley? Next to the office building, around the corner from "Jaws?" With trams full of fans who knew less than me taking pictures and asking dumb questions about a movie they’ve only seen a measly five —okay, maybe six — times?

You mean to tell me I couldn’t visit Hill Valley, because … because I just did?

Nowadays, a 12-year-old kid would have reached this disappointment in a fraction of that time. They could have looked up Hill Valley on Wikipedia or noticed that all of the Instagram selfies tagged #hillvalley had tourists and late model BMWs parked in the background. I probably could have done the 1985 equivalent of that research, checking the Hill Valley entry in the World Book Encyclopedia or asking my California-based cousins if they’d ever been. But I was a dreamer, a spindly non-class-president type with a huge imagination and zero common sense. I didn’t look too hard for the real Hill Valley, probably because I was afraid of not finding it.

And then I did. The next year at summer camp I became fast friends with a kid from Pasadena. My parents agreed I was old enough that Winter Break to board a plane to southern California and go visit him.

“Wanna see Doc Brown’s House?” he asked me about 11 minutes after I’d arrived. Ugh, not this again. But while I tried to explain that Doc Brown’s house was probably now a pile of lumber piled behind the Universal Studios cafeteria, he was extracting two bicycles from his garage and leading us north under an overpass and around a golf course to 4 Westmoreland Drive, Pasadena, California. Right there at the junction of the 134 and 710 freeways stood The Gamble House, built in 1908 and now a national historic landmark open to the public. It’s also where Doc Brown, arms filled with blueprints, charges down a short hill barking: “So tell me, Future Boy — who’s president in 1985?”

We acted out the whole scene. Later that day, my friend’s parents drove us to 1727 Bushnell Avenue in South Pasadena, the very house where Marty’s dad George McFly falls out of the tree and Marty rescues him, disrupting the space-time continuum, the whole reason Marty needs to get back to the future. My friend pretend-shoved me out the way of an oncoming car. It was the first time I’d stood in the precise spot where a favorite movie came to life.

Had I felt about the Civil War as I felt about "Back to the Future," this was my visit to Fort Sumter, Gettysburg and the Appomattox Courthouse all at once. And it was the first time I realized that although we see movies as distant, expensive objects made the year before by people we will never know, they were often born in the same world that we pass through every day — they weren’t beamed to us from a far-off kingdom, but lived here, among us, in places that belonged to us, too. Their permanence could be on celluloid or server farm, in the culture at large and in our own memory, but also in concrete, soil and steel.

That’s old news if you grew up somewhere celebrities walk their dogs or buy lamps on Sundays. But movies weren’t filmed in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the1980s. Growing up at that time, I was convinced everything I watched, read, played or listened to came via New York and California. No TV show began with “Live from Cleveland, it’s Saturday Night,” and Harriet the Spy and the heroes of Judy Blume’s books all took taxis and lived on streets with numbers like 78th. Even our beloved University of Michigan football team, if they had a great season, played the championship game not in snowy freezing Ann Arbor, but in sunny, palm-treed, another-planet Pasadena.

Now, visiting movie locations is a lively sector of the travel industry no matter where you live. The towns where "The Goonies," "Stand by Me" and "Dirty Dancing" were filmed all host annual celebrations. Their reasons are both obvious--nostalgia, super-fandom easily shared on Facebook, money to made from both—and elusive (for every successful movie that inspires pilgrimages, there are 10 just as successful that don’t).

In 2009, The Puente Hills (aka "Twin Pines") Mall hosted a screening for "Back to the Future"'s 25th birthday in the same parking lot where Marty drove a DeLorean 88 miles per hour. Last year, a British events company named Secret Cinema recreated Hill Valley 1955 in East London, where fans could order a milkshake from Lou’s Soda Shop and get harassed by actors dressed as Biff Tannen’s gang. The event will be recreated outside of Los Angeles in 2016. Three decades on, the urge to find Hill Valley remains strong enough that someone will invest millions in building it for you.

I wanted to visit Hill Valley all those years ago because I related to the McFlys, who, according to Principal Strickland would never “amount to anything in the history of Hill Valley!” I willed to exist to confirm that Marty McFly had amounted to something and that I did, too. It’s the same trick we play with memory, not retrieving but reinventing what happened, changing the past with the advantage of seeing it from the present. Call it dishonest or self-deception, it’s the exact same instinct behind wishes, fantasy and dreams. It’s also what Marty realized he had gone back in time for, even if an accident of plutonium, flux capacitors and Libyans got him there in the first place.

By Kevin Smokler

Kevin Smokler is the author of "Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies." He's a writer and documentary filmmaker based in San Francisco. He's currently working on a book of conversations with women filmmakers.

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1980s Anniversary Back To The Future Film Movies Nostalgia