I found the Bay Area hill in Windows XP's iconic wallpaper – SF Gate


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“Bliss” hill, located in Sonoma, Calif. off Hwy 12, is the subject of one of the world’s most viewed photos: Windows XP’s default desktop wallpaper (above). Today, the hill is covered in vineyard rows (below).
“Bliss” hill, located in Sonoma, Calif. off Hwy 12, is the subject of one of the world’s most viewed photos: Windows XP’s default desktop wallpaper.
“Bliss” hill, located in Sonoma, Calif. off Hwy 12, is the subject of one of the world’s most viewed photos: Windows XP’s default desktop wallpaper.
I trudge along the side of a piercingly loud two-lane highway, stepping over a Modelo can, an empty bottle of wine and a Sonic burger wrapper.
I pull out my phone, open Google Maps, and punch in the exact coordinates again to make sure I’m in the right place before scanning the emerald green horizon.
And then I finally see it. Now blanketed by endless rows of wine grapes is “Bliss” hill, the subject of one of the most-viewed images in history: the default desktop wallpaper for the Windows XP operating system.
Charles O’Rear knows this hill well. He drove past it more than 100 times in the mid-’90s on his way from St. Helena to Marin to see his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Daphne Larkin.
“Bliss” hill, located in Sonoma, Calif. off Hwy 12, is the subject of one of the world’s most viewed photos: Windows XP’s default desktop wallpaper.
“Every Friday afternoon I’d drive down to see her, spend the afternoon, then drive home,” he tells me over the phone from his North Carolina home. “And I always had a camera with me.”
Makes sense, considering the 79-year-old Missouri native was a staff photographer for The Kansas City Star and Los Angeles Times, plus spent 25 years shooting for National Geographic — where he twice landed cover images.
“After 25 years photographing at National Geographic, there will be no mention of Geographic on my tombstone,” he says with a laugh.
And, as much as it pains me to say, he’s probably right.
Because on one of those Friday afternoon drives to see Daphne in 1996, O’Rear pulled over to the side of the road and took a picture of the idyllic hill.
He uploaded the photo to a stock photo agency he helped co-found, and then two years later his stock photo agency was acquired by another stock photo agency that was regularly used by Microsoft. Microsoft found O’Rear’s hill shot, paid an undisclosed-but-exorbitant sum for all rights to it in perpetuity (reportedly in the low six figures) and then proceeded to make it Windows XP’s default desktop wallpaper.
That wallpaper was also ultimately a central figure in an extraordinary $1 billion marketing campaign for the operating system.
The NASDAQ sign in New York’s Times Square announces the launch of the Microsoft Windows XP operating system scheduled for October 25, 2001.
More than 400 million copies of Windows XP were sold in its first five years, and the operating system wasn’t retired until 2014, meaning more than a billion people have very likely seen O’Rear’s photo without ever realizing it was from the Bay Area.
Before the location of the photo was revealed, there was speculation that it was taken in Ireland (or France, or England, or Switzerland, or New Zealand, or Washington or Germany), and that it wasn’t even actually a real photograph.
“A majority of people who saw that photograph, billions of people, thought it was not a real photograph,” O’Rear says.
A man walks past a Microsoft billboard featuring its latest software, Windows XP, at the entrance of a conference center November 7, 2001 in Beijing.
One video posted in 2019, however, makes all kinds of efforts to once and for all prove otherwise. The video’s creator debunks weird conspiracy theories (from hidden messages to Photoshopped clouds), estimates which Friday it was shot in January of 1996 based on Farmers’ Almanac records and the cloud cover (Jan. 19 is the guess) and decides ultimately the photo is real.
Which, O’Rear obviously already knows.
“Driving through the Sonoma hills in January it always gets a carpet of green grass, it’s beautiful. I knew that, and it was just the perfect light, the perfect clouds,” he says. “Still, not a week goes by that some email comes through about that photograph, just like your call.”
I talked to O’Rear almost 25 years exactly to the day he shot the photograph and learned all kinds of fun things about him. For one, he doesn’t use Windows and hasn’t for a long time (“I got hooked on Apple,” he says.). Also, the previously untouched rolling green hill became a vineyard just a few years after he shot it, and he moved to North Carolina largely because St. Helena had become overrun with “second homes” that killed any sense of community.
“Bliss” hill, located in Sonoma, Calif. off Hwy 12, is right across the street from these two alpacas.
A couple weeks after we chat, I retrace his steps to the exact spot he shot the photo from. I make my way across the Golden Gate Bridge, up 101 and into wine country — eventually blurring by Ram’s Gate on Highway 121, before getting on Highway 12. Following a short drive, I start twisting my head back and forth like some sort of deranged bobblehead, looking for a place to pull off on the side of the road when I reach the iconic patch of grass. Except there’s nowhere to pull off — the country road O’Rear remembers taking is now a bustling two-lane highway.
I double back to a little turn-off by an alpaca farm across the street, then trek along the side of the road. O’Rear told me he always makes a point to take this route back to San Francisco whenever he returns to Napa Valley in order to make a remark when they drive by. I wondered why he’d just “drive by” instead of stopping to take it in, but now it all makes sense.
This isn’t a great place to stop and admire anything.
“Bliss” hill, located in Sonoma, Calif. off Hwy 12, is the subject of one of the world’s most viewed photos: Windows XP’s default desktop wallpaper.
Still, I snap a photo of the hill framed exactly like the default desktop background my dad had on his computer for years. It’s the hottest day of the year so far, nearly topping 80 degrees. A rich sun beats down as I imagine O’Rear setting up his tripod a couple feet from where I’m standing to take a photo of a hill that will probably never look like it did the day he shot it. The roaring traffic behind me finally stops and there’s a moment of absolutely perfect quiet — and I feel the sort of calm you get after a really satisfying deep breath.
You might even call it Bliss.
“Bliss” hill is located in Sonoma, California. The best way to find it is by putting the following coordinates into Google Maps: 38.249069, -122.410126.
Grant Marek is SFGATE’s Editor in Chief. He’s spent the last 21 years in various editorial roles for the likes of Thrillist, Yahoo! Sports, the S.F. Examiner, The Desert Sun, The Santa Clarita Signal, and Sports Illustrated. He’s a graduate of UC Berkeley, and has lived in the Bay Area for 18 years. Email: grant.marek@sfgate.com


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