I’m Packing My Bags to Visit the Real-Life Inspiration for Windows XP’s Wallpaper

I’m Packing My Bags to Visit the Real-Life Inspiration for Windows XP’s Wallpaper
Image: Microsoft, Other

I don’t think about the iconic Windows XP wallpaper often, but when an article or a video comes across my social media feed reminding me of it, nothing but happy memories come flooding back. Thanks to a recent SFGate article, I feel like I’m lying in a soft patch of grass, a cool breeze washing over my skin. I can see the clouds forming Windows logos and hear the joyous piano melody and strings humming as I press my old Fujitsu laptop’s power button in my mind.

The Windows XP wallpaper pictures “Bliss” hill in Sonoma, Calif., as captured by photographer Charles O’Rear. He uploaded the photo, which he took in 1996, to a stock photo agency he helped co-found. A couple years later, that stock photo agency was bought by another stock photo agency, one that Microsoft regularly used. To make a long story short, he ended up selling the photo to Microsoft to use forever, which is how it became Windows XP’s default desktop wallpaper.

When I do think about that rolling hill and vibrant blue and green colours, two memories immediately come to mind. The first is sitting in an airport with my Fujitsu laptop in my lap, tiny wired mouse on top of the arm rest that doubled as a mouse pad as I cradled my mobile phone against my left ear with my shoulder, gabbing away with one of my Star Wars Galaxies guildmates as we raced speeders to a nearby cantina on Naboo.

The memories cascade in a domino effect. My first Windows XP device was that Fujitsu laptop, which I got as a high school graduation gift and would end up using throughout my four years of college. But before I went off to college, I played the crap out of Star Wars Galaxies all summer long, even lugging my laptop to that airport as I was waiting for my flight to visit the friend I was chatting with on the phone. I’d wake up in the morning to go to my summer job as a pre-school instructor’s assistant, but before I left I’d boot up the game and set a few macros so I could earn XP to level up my entertainer while I was away. Those were the good old days, before real adult responsibility kicked in.

But the second, and perhaps more important memory, is that Windows XP was my dad’s all-time favourite Windows operating system. It was Microsoft’s first OS aimed at both the consumer and business markets, so naturally my computer engineer dad loved it. He didn’t like the sort of half-bubbly, half-blocky look of the start bar and its colours that matched the “Bliss” wallpaper because it reminded him of Play-Doh, but other than that he really just loved Windows XP.

For all the pleasant memories I and countless others have of that Bay Area hill, you’d think maybe I would’ve voyaged to find it — after all, it’s in the same state I live in. Maybe others have. And now that I know exactly where it is, I might just do it — and not just because I’m such a huge nerd I need to visit the real-life site that became the wallpaper for the operating system that helped define my college-era gaming years. (OK, maybe a little bit.)

You see, my dad wanted to be buried at sea. So we rented a boat that could take us to a quiet, serene spot off the coast of the Pacific Ocean to scatter his ashes. It was what he wanted. But that boat rental wasn’t cheap. It was worth it for his service, of course, but to go back to the same spot would cost the same amount. I haven’t found the right spot to go and really think about my dad in the same way I can visit other family members at cemeteries scattered across California.

Driving to the “Bliss” hill, though? That’s doable. To see a physical manifestation of the relationship my dad and I had? That seems like a good spot to visit.