"... somehow [I]knew in my gut that I was coming home - a place I'd never really known in my nomadic, dysfunctional life to that point. The feeling was strong and inexplicable - perhaps intuition or maybe a prophesy to be self-fulfilled."
I recall so well my first drive to Bolinas. The winter of 1979. A huge storm floods the lagoon across Highway 1, making travel back to San Francisco impossible. "Wait'll you see this place," says my future husband, "I'll take you for lunch at Scowley's." And so we detour off the beaten track (down that infamous 'road not taken'), and drive through the wind, and the raucous rain, pummeling our windshield and tossing my future's faded and dented orange Fiat like flotsam fighting in a whirlpool, through water which floods mid-tire through farm fields lining the rutted county road which winds into downtown Bolinas. At first impression, Bolinas truly reminds me of a town time has forgotten; that is, until we walk into Scowley's, just as a chicken scurries outside before the wind slams the door shut behind us. I don't remember what they are serving at Scowley's that day. What I do remember is there is no electricity (something I will become quite accustomed to in the years to come) and our waiter runs next door to John's General Store 'cause he's run out of lettuce. A few lost souls are hanging out, dressed (I recall thinking) in what any sane person would consider rags, kinda just 'being there.' We are the only one's eating.
I had a little shack on the Bolinas Mesa, about two miles from the bar in town. Most nights I was too lit up to make the walk, so would stagger across the street to Scowley's restaurant, climb in the window of the pool room, and sleep on the pool table. Since I worked in the restaurant, I would simply wake up in the morning, & get busy. Often, Danny would be up & around, & would show up at Scowley's door while I was still mopping the floors & prepping the kitchen. He'd come in & make a pot of coffee (mud) & hang out until the cook showed up.
At that point we would usually find our way to the old upright piano in the pool room, & would spend the next hour or so singing & playing for the breakfast crowd.
The breakfast crowd often included people such as Jerry Garcia, Jesse Colin Young, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Alan Watts, & assorted other famous types. It wasn't uncommon for someone to show up with a six pack & a guitar, which usually sent us into a day of jamming & foot stomping.
Crashing through the 'Coastal Curtain'
I know the awesome beauty of Stonehenge, the blinding beauty of the sun-soaked Sacré-Cœur as it straddles Montmartre, the Disney-like aura of Old Town Prague when the bridges light up in the evening. I have lived and loved in London and stepped off the plane into the sunshine of a Dublin afternoon to feel the fierceness of my ancestral blood curse through my 'black' Irish veins. But I have never melted into a world with an intensity anywhere equivalent to what I experience each time I travel over Mt. Tamalpais and crash through (what my husband and I used to call) 'the coastal curtain.' There is just no turning back, no forgetting the sheer spirituality of this immersion.
We move to West Marin in 1982, and so is several years before we arrive in Bolinas.
I still feel in the recesses of my soul that clear day, our car canopied in the bright green overgrowth of overripe tree branches embracing above us ... that feeling of déjà vu ... I am transported back to 1971, to Pentraeth, a breath of a town on the Welsh Island of Anglesey. It is then that I fall in love.
I quit my full time writing gig in San Francisco, and start working on a book, free-lancing for the Pacific Sun, and pulling in $6 a hour making cheese cakes, slicing bread, and selling pastries at the Bolinas Bay Bakery. Such an mismatched crew we are: the owners, two gay men from San Francisco; the bread baker, a single mom, who arrives at 2 and leaves at 6:30 to wake her 3 kids for school; and the stop-dead-gorgeous, lithe and leggy pastry chef, a fellow New Yorker, with a perpetual tan and an abusive husband, who demands freshly steamed brown rice and veggies every night.
Plans proposed by the county to widen Highway 1 to improve access to West Marin County were seen as a declaration of war by most in Bolinas, and were met with outcry and demonstrations of vehement protest. A contingent of local guerrillas (now known as the Bolinas Border Patrol) carried on a low level sabotage operation in this war on tourists, steadfastly cutting down each sign the Highway Department erected pointing the way into town from the main highway.
The county would put up signs on 4x4 posts by day, only to have them hacked off at the knees by night - the chainsawed remains left in shards, like body parts at a grizzly murder scene. The county would erect signs mounted on steel posts by day only to have them hacksawed down by night, or even more dramatically dragged from their concrete footings by truck and chain.
My shifts at the bakery begin at 5:30 am and the Bolinas Border Patrol is still very much active. I am slicing bread and pouring coffee as the town's butchers, farmers, carpenters, gardeners, fishermen, midwives, writers, artists, wine makers, ranchers, and the usual horde of homeless street people wander in for their morning coffee with a scone or croissant. Two of my regulars (probably the first true goths I ever saw) pull up each morning in a large black sedan with "Bolinas Border Patrol" brilliantly splashed across the rear fender. By now, even I know a highway sign is a cherished trophy, to be showcased with pride as part of your home decor. In the early 80s, the highway patrol is still actively battling to outwit Bo people, ever searching for permanent ways to direct traffic into the town. I don't remember when they finally surrender.
Still, it takes some time to acclimate to this town. After all, I am a New York City girl, accustomed to hanging onto subway straps on the "E" train, shopping at Bloomingdales, hanging with the hippies in Washington and Tompkins Square parks, wearing those faux hippie clothes, love beads and scarves and Helena Rubenstein's Rum Raisen nail polish. It is not as if I've ever lived somewhere where women wear quarter-sized nose rings or dusty tosseled dreads. I have never even talked to a farmer before.
Bolinas is taken straight from the ghost of John Steinbeck, an update on Tortilla Flats, where the most important forces are those of love, and lust, laughter, faith, fear, and passion. Bolinas wears these on her sleeve, unashamed in the face of the greater world of our time. That world which values it's technology, productivity and profit motives above fat chickens, Father Cribari wine, and the blithe warmth of exceptional company.
It's not as if Bolinas is a welcoming town. You are a stranger here until the first disaster strikes. Until your next door neighbor comes knocking at your door at 2 am, because the creek beneath your houses is overflowing and another mudslide threatens a handful of homes. You have to get some mud under your broken fingernails, sprain a wrist or wrench a back as you struggle side-by-side in the darkness, dragging dead limbs and huge clumps of god knows what to set that water flowing free again.
When the sun comes up after a night like that, sharing warm coffee and whole wheat & sunflower pancakes with Bob Marley serenading in the background; when you buy your first pair of those god-forsakenly hideous and humongous black rain boots from Bo's hardware store; when you have your first baby and the Buddhist piano teacher who lives a stone's throw away blesses her with the gift of free Suzuki lessons when she's five ... well, that's when you know you are truly home. It isn't long after that I'm a regular at the Freebox, and bringing along my own sacs to shop at the local food co-op: The Bolinas People's Store.
The Bolinas People's Store is located off a plaza behind the town's library and community center. I remember when we first moved to town, how organically grown produce lacked the luster of conventional vegetables. Back in the day, lettuce, broccoli, and carrots and potatoes looked kinda scruffy, grainy.
The Fight to Save the Bolinas Lagoon
In the summer of 1984, a red tide attacks birds from all over the west coast, and they fly, hundreds of them, all species, sizes and colors to feed on the fish which have chased millions of sardines to an untimely death trap in the Bolinas Lagoon. The smell from the rotting fish hangs over the town for over a month, long after the birds have departed. But the problems facing the Lagoon become a matter of great concern when we realize the ever increasing rate of sedimentation threatens the very life of our beloved 1,1000 acre eco-sanctuary. The lagoon is home to numerous species of "rare, threatened or endangered amphibians, birds and mammals: Over 245 species of birds have been identified at the Lagoon and its surrounding watershed. Fears are that, barring a major environmental catastrophe, like a large earthquake or a dramatic rise in sea levels, the Lagoon will be dead by the end of this century. Link
I'll always remember the sight of the lagoon at sunrise from that perch; flocks of white egrets rising gracefully into the pink skies as flocks of smaller birds rose and circled in juxtaposition, the sun a golden promise behind the misty Tamalpais Ridge. This was salve to the bruises of my hapless adolescence, and here I began to find a little healing.
Bolinas proves to be a siren for many - alluring and seductive, but soon reveled to be a tyrannical mistress who takes her lovers hostage. Boredom runs high during the long, gray rainy season, and the small world of a small town becomes a glass house where all are privy to the most intimate details of each others' lives. Often, those who rode in on a tide of high ideals and communal zeal rode out on a backwash of disillusionment and resentment as the reality of Bolinas fell short of her promise. So, in rides the next wave, who fall spellbound into the whirl of Bo-culture, and soon are quite busy with the task of keeping out the next wave of newcomers which threatens this little Valhalla they have found... yet another turn on the circle.
Welcome to "Bo." Heading into town
I trace the dramatic shift in Bolinas to the purchase of the Francisco Mesa by Esprit founder Susie Tompkins. The small mesa had been the property of the Tacherra family, one of the oldest dairy ranchers in West Marin. Tompkins coming to town signals the 'tipping point' and, all too soon, real estate is being snatched up by the ultra rich as second homes. Locals don't take too well to Tompkins move to town. One night, someone saws over 50 saplings she has planted alongside the border of her property clear near to the ground. Biking past those baby trees as they battle back towards the sun darn near breaks my heart. Is this sacrifice what might be considered 'acceptable losses' in a fierce battle to preserve what we view as 'sacred space', perhaps a 'utopia?'
Warren Weber's 40-acre Star Route Farms traces its roots back to 1974 when Weber, a long haired idealist bought a five acre plot and harvested it with horse-drawn sulkey plows and cultivators. Now, the oldest continuously certified organic grower in California uses precision planters and hydrocooling equipment and sells its famous 'spring mix' to restaurants and grocery stores around the country. Weber, former president of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), is the co-founder of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), president of Marin Organic (MarinOrganic.org), and past vice-president of Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT).Star Route Farms is certified by Marin Organic Certified Agriculture (MOCA)."
In a recent Slow Food Nation tour to "Mysterious Bolinas," guests visit Weber's famous spread, along with stops at Fresh Run Farm and Paradise Valley Farm. They also tour Regenerative Design Institute & Permaculture Institute of Northern California, where events, workshops and classes focus on the ecology of leadership, permaculture certification, and soil building and water management systems.
Also out on the Mesa, Bill Niman and his wife support the nation’s largest network of U.S. family farmers and ranchers – more than 650 and growing. Their mission is to strengthen rural America and reverse the destructive trend of industrial agriculture. In addition to providing a market for livestock, the Niman Ranch network is a nexus for farmers and ranchers to share and learn best practices for both their animals and the land.
Flowers for sale alongside old tractor on road into town... "I love this fruit and vegetable stand in Bolinas, CA. It has the freshest produce you could find and the prettiest flowers too! I love the pumpkins lined up on the bottom."
Cars have a difficult enough time navigating downtown Bolinas. For starters, both roads dead end at the Ocean. Parking is scarce and the streets are fair game for pedestrians, bicyclists, and the handful of stray dogs who have first dibs on the asphalt outside Smiley's Schooner Saloon.
Bolinas Beach. I am on this beach with my 5-year-old daughter and her friend when the 1989 7.1 earthquake occurs during the third game of the World Series at San Francisco's Candlestick Park. The sand is like a 7-11 slurply beneath our feet. I expect to round the corner, pass the groin and find the town's old buildings tossed like feeder fish off their fragile foundations.
Coming this November 3,Measure H on the local ballot brings to vote the future of overnight camping on Bolinas beaches.
Bolinas dogs are as sacred as the Holy Cow is in India. My brother used to say Bo dogs had a more complicated social structure than the townsfolk. Our own Bolinas mutt, Augusta - a Coyote/Aussie mix - is born on Superbowl Sunday, 1989, under an old school bus deserted on one of the Mesa's main dirt roads. She, one of her siblings, and her mom follow my neighbor home from the beach one morning, and Gussie follows her up the steep slope to my door while her family looks on from the woods below. BoBo joins us 6months later, a runt of a black lab pup, who is abandoned during a thunderstorm at a dance in the community center.
Communicating 'Bo' Style
Back in the 70s, you couldn't even pick up tv reception in certain sections of Bolinas, and you would have to wait until you got outside of town to catch your favorite FM station on your car radio. Bolinas always has had it's very own way of communicating. And there's that funny thing about time, too. You pick it up after a few years of showing up on time for a performance of the elementary school's trapeze club or the African Drum Ensemble or Sha-Sha Higby's Performance Art or the West Marin Community Orchestra, only to wait an hour or so for the event to begin. "Bolinas Time" means whenever it happens it happens.
Lost dogs, parrots and warnings about tipping cows; samba, Swahili, drum, and Bes Holland's painting lessons ...
Lucrative business offers by homeless Wall Street entrepreneurs, long before anyone has a computer or even envisions something like Ameritrade.
Even now, six years after leaving home, I return here with my old 'new' dogs, Stella and Macaroni. We sit and watch as the tide moves into the Lagoon, and I remember hundreds of walks along the shore with Gussie and Bo; and Stella as a pup, how she would swim across the channel against the tide to chase after seagulls on the Stinson shore; how my brother, early one morning, drives over the hill to pick up kids' rods for my daughter and his two girls so they can compete in Bolinas' First Annual Fishing Derby; how they stand just yards away from where I sit now. On his last visit, before my divorce, he drives down to this bench at sunset and returning, eerily predicts: "I just had the weirdest feeling, as if it has all ended. Like I was saying good-bye. You won't be living here the next time I come back." By God, he is right.
There are experiences throughout one's life, one feels afterward, that seem to end before you properly acknowledge their passing. Powerful memories, like walking down 24th Street in Noe Valley, back from the J Church streetcar ride from work downtown, watching the moon rise over Twin Peaks; driving through the Queens Midtown Tunnel, alone after 2am, the top down on my Firebird, as Neil Diamond sings "I Am I Said, To No one There ... And I am lost and I don't even know why."
When I finally do leave Bolinas, my daughter is 18, our house has sold. My husband is involved with another woman. She is a gardener and comes by, just before the moving truck, to dig up my daughter's rose bushes (one for each year of her life). She has promised to replant them at her house because I have no idea what my future holds.
And the truth is, I still don't know. Six years have passed, six years of me trying to find a way back home, to Peace Cafes in the Bolinas Community Center, to days when the first thing you consulted was the tide table, to bike rides along the unpaved back roads of Bolinas, my daughter and her best friend struggling to keep up, our hair tossed everywhere. To my daughter's voice, each and every morning, calling out from her bedroom "Can Gussie and me get up-a-dup yet?"
I have no doubt that what I lack now, what I am endlessly yearning for is roots, deep roots, roots which are green with new promise, taut with life and hope, pushing up through scarred unyielding (often toxic) dirt, against all odds, towards what has been lost .... towards that which we lost in the bat of an eyelash, while we were sleeping ...
I felt that on a basis of a "search for the miraculous" it would be possible to unite together a very large number of people who were no longer able to swallow the customary forms of lying and living in lying."
"There are periods in the life of humanity, which generally coincide
with the beginning or the fall of cultures and civilizations, when the
masses irretrievably loose their reason and begin to destroy everything that
has been created by centuries and millenniums of culture. Such periods
of mass madness, often coinciding with geological cataclysms, climatic
changes, and similar phenomena of a planetary character, release a very
great quantity of the matter of knowledge. This, in turn, necessitates
the work of collecting this matter of knowledge which would otherwise
be lost. Thus the work of collecting scattered matter of knowledge fre-
quently coincides with the "beginning of the destruction and fall of
cultures and civilizations.
In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. P.D. Ouspensky
Backyard Steve Steve Nelson, who lived in Bolinas through the 1970's, is the CEO of NACER.org, an animal welfare and educational organization. He is a writer, musician and Human Services professional. He currently lives in the Denver, Colorado area.
Photo credits (in order of appearance)
Heading into Bolinas by Agent of Orange
Pelians Lagoon by Konaboy
A farm stand just on outskirts of town.
The peace barn by Miwok.
Bolinas Border Patrol by Ed Fladung
"The Freebox" by Josua of California
Bo Dog sits on Public Phone by enrguerrero.
"The Bench." by Miwok.
bolinas beach by prima momma
"The waves will still be there..." by tzargregory
Libertarian Graffiti by philosophygeek
Peace on Earth by tzargregory
Bolinas Bulletin Board by soaringnc
No more computers please by enrguerrero
Two remaining pianos by Luiza
The road leaving bolinas, fall day
Bolinas Peoples Store by enrguerrero
GreenRoots is a new environmental series created by Meteor Blades and Patriot Daily for Daily Kos. This series provides a forum for educating, brainstorming, discussing and taking action on various environmental topics. Photo by Miwok
Please join a variety of hosts on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday at 6 pm PDT. Each Wednesday is hosted by FishOutofWater.
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