American Sabbatical 042: 10/30/96

Muir Woods

10/30.. Muir Woods.

It rained again in the night and we awoke to a dripping world. The owl hoots and surf crashing had faded with the night, and a fussy breeze was shivering the junipers. We didn’t malinger in the dunes, but packed Red and rolled south along the twisted highway.

More spectacular outlooks, but the vegetation along the road was crowding out the grassland, and the settlements thickened. As Sonoma yielded to Marin County you could almost feel the city pulsing beyond the mountains. A couple of long inlets reach into the hills along this shore, sending the coast road scampering uphill to keep its feet dry, and you could look down into boat basins jammed with yachts and fishing boats. But there still wasn’t the sort of cottage density we’d expect. A few clustered towns, the odd excessive edifice.

When the road veered away from the bluff shoreline it cut through dry pastureland again, green in the bottoms, sear on top, and crumpled like last night’s bedding. We were navigating toward Bolinas, that storied town by Point Reyes, and the traffic was picking up with haste. We’d dodge into the turnouts and let the Californos slalom by in the intermittent rain.

Bolinas was hiding, and we were half a dozen miles beyond it before we caught on. Turns out that every time the state put out a directional sign the local boys would remove it. Got so the staties were camping out with infrared snooperscopes to bag the offenders. Finally the town voted to not have any signs, and the state shrugged and went home. That kind of town. Most of the street signs are gone, too, replaced here and there with handmade markers.

The whole burg looks handmade. Ownerbuilt imaginations girt in redwood clapboard, shingle, board-and-batten, with flyingthis and cantileveredthat, sprawled along the hillsides, all holding up glass walls to the California sun. Doesn’t look like codes enforcement has a heavy hand in Bolinas. The houses, generally modest for all their phantasmagoria, hide behind redwood fences engulfed in plantings. Vines, bushes, trees, shrubs in explosive exuberance. The natives may be as reclusive as the town, or is this just the Spanish style of courtyard architecture evolved on a northern shore?

After a couple of false moves we found the downtown, maybe a dozen commercial estabs in rickety frame buildings, backed up against the south side of a hill. Sort of a seedy Camden, circa 1950. Only it was more 1960s. A couple of hardcase types were hanging out on the town bench, all heavy whiskers scowling brows and slept-in clothes, but somehow I didn’t get the feeling they were homeless. Just a pair of locals positioned to deflect any cutesy invasion. The best defense against yuppification is some rough boys hanging about. In fact you sensed that this wasn’t a low-rent town at all, just dressed down to avoid gentrification.

It was dressed imaginatively, for sure, and as hirsute as you could wish. We poked our noses into Smiley’s, the local bar and boardinghouse of renown, but the smell of beer in the AM didn’t do it for us, so we retreated across the street for a mugup. We’d been told that Snarley’s and Scowley’s (long defunct) used to be across the street from Smiley’s, and our cafe turned out to have been the former. Nice to think that the sixties only left smiles.

The breakfast crowd were all smiles. Everyone knew Steve Lerner, who’d pointed us here, and they all joined in the converse. Just like Bowdoinham, all restaurant talk is public. When we said we were going to see Arthur Okamura we were told he placed third in last night’s pool competition. This small town has survived right under the foot of the giant metropolis by a strategy of superficial hostility and seedy counterculturalism. A building moratorium hasn’t hurt either.

Arthur Okamura lives surrounded by hummingbirds, and the whirring of wings filled our heads as we entered his private garden. Arthur is a Japanese-American artist, born and bred in Chicago, who was interred during WWII. In the 1950s he settled in Bolinas when it was a raw bohemian outpost. He attributed the epochal change in town character to an oil spill in the early 70s which brought squads of green youth to help rescue the threatened wetlands around Bolinas. Apparently Standard Oil had provided puny containment booms, so the locals and friends constructed massive log and straw barriers, and spent weeks sopping up raw crude.

After the mess was cleared away the town had a reputation as an altered-native kind of place, and longhaired inmigrants came to stay. When cleanwater regulation was changing the politics in Arcata, Bolinas went through political upheavals. Pinkolefty types took over town government, and organic waste-treatment ponds were created, instead of a sewage treatment facility. Watershed analysis revealed there was only enough H2O to supply a limited number of houses, so the town banned new construction. It does sound as if water purification is the hinge issue on this coast.

Arthur’s hinges swung open to welcome us into his gracious hospitality. A successful gallery painter whose wife runs a paper crafts shop in Sausalito, Arthur is a model of what a West Coast life might have been for us, in an earlier generation. He has walked the line between abstract expression and representation, and calls himself an abstract realist. The portrait of a swimming colleague he was working on was all swirling water abstractions with a man afloat in it. Arthur teaches in Oakland, this is his retirement year, so he bowed us out on his way around the bay to class.

It was sopping down again, so we scuttled our plans to gambol on the beach at Point Reyes, but we did wanted to take a look at Commonweal HQ, where Lerner and Co. have done their creative work, so we drove out to the old antenna farm where the Institute lives. Is it true that radiofrequency emissions fiddle your brainwaves, making you more creative? Should we stick the baby’s head in the microwave? Stay tuned.

Commonweal is an alternative medicine think tank, best known at present for providing a supportive, controlled environment for people who choose alternative cancer treatments. Completely openminded, the staff and institute document the various strategies and help those in crisis to pick paths they feel are best. I would have liked to talk with staff about the creative visualization carvings I’ve been commissioned to make for cancer patients in recent years, but the thought of being a tourist where people are fighting for their lives kept us from barging in.

We turned round in the old array, some of which may still be keying on Coast Guard freqs. It felt a lot like the antenna farm at Argentia, Terranewf. Were we ahead of our times back there? Could a marconized ambiance be the wave of the future? The Real Goods grid, the Commonweal array, your local transmission towers.. are these totems of transforming power? Hiss.

We drove round and about in Bolinas, gawking at the towers and turrets and cliffhanging rusticity. Thought about booking a room above the bar at Smiley’s and settling into the local scene. Any place where one of the local ladies walks the street wearing burlap sack pantaloons and a head-dress of rushes, carrying a forked branch to punctuate her converse, has to be all right. But we had promises to keep over the hill, and snuck out of town before we sunk to our hubs.

Arthur had recommended we climb over Mt. Tamalpais into Muir Woods, so we put the Owl into low gear and twitched her tail-feathers. Up on Mt. Tam we got tantalizing snapshots of San Francisco Bay and islands through drifting cloud and fog, and switchtailed into the deep pocket of the family woods.


(Lynn Hunton Photo)
We’d driven all this way down the California coast without getting any sense of impending urbanity, but the parking lot at Muir Woods was full of tour busses and European suits, rented Camrys and avoidance glances. Very strange to walk beneath the giants through trailing scents of French perfume, encountering chic-costumed clusters of aloof strangers, and the music of unknown tongues. The undergrowth was thick here, as well, and you feel you might turn a corner and be in Central Park.. but with plantings like skyscrapers. A ranger crew was cutting up a downed sequoia, and it was eerie to hear the snarl of a chainsaw and the thunk of axes echoing among the leviathans. We smiled at each other and whispered in a secret tongue, “Let’s split.”

Uncoiling out of the big woods we dumped out into the dizzying rush of freeway traffic, and it took us three tries to find an exit for Sausalito. After reading the personals in Whole Earth Review (nee Co-Evolution Quarterly.. Arthur did the first cover for Co-Ev) all these years, it was imperative we get a grok at Gate 5 Road, or the houseboat city, or something. But where Bolinas took down the sign, Sausalito got swallowed whole. Bolinas may dress down, but Sausalito dresses up, even to go pick up the paper. Gunnel-to-gunnel yachts in the boat basins, and wall-to-wall designer stores along the aves. Any counter-cultural air in this burg has long blown over. We scoffed down Greek salads and halva in a middle eastern deli, and bit the bullet.. time to beatwing into the hydrocarbons. Next stop Berkeley.

We had a date to meet a family friend on Halloween in Berkeley, but wanted to check out the proper costumes first. Naturally we got lost in the glittering autobabble, but eventually found ourselves spinning up University Ave in the rain, with the UC tower guiding us to higher ground.

Peggy explained to me that higher means nobler in this kingdom, and the bayshore flats are ignoble enough to make a case for her thesis. Here’s the picture. A mountain chain running along the coast, pierced by the Golden Gate. Sausalito sits on a narrow shelf just inside the gate, to the north, while San Francisco rears up and sprawls over the heights to the south. Once through the narrow pass, the bay opens wide like Long Island Sound, but with a rim of blue hills enclosing the waters and coastal flats. Great bridges and causeways connect San Francisco with the industrial cities surrounding the bay. We skirted the northern perimeter of this basin, then rode over an engineering marvel to the Richmond-Berkeley-Oakland mega-urb. Now we were on the long slope approaching the Berkeley Hills.

UC Berkeley sits at the foot of the uplands, looking down on the industrial peons, but beneath the superior beings on high. Actually the college has a well-deserved reputation for democracy, and the ethnic diversity on the streets and campus is broad and deep. Homeless population and streetfreaks ditto. This is the capital of free speach in America, and the babel is loud and clear. We didn’t have to worry about costumes.

It was getting late in the daylight, what there was in the gray day, but Peggy wanted to try and find the house she’d lived in during ninth grade. So we quartered our way upscale. Leo had been a professor, after all. The Berkeley Hills are the real California: stucco and tile and pastels piled to the sky along impossible slopes, intersected with rollercoaster roadways and glorious plantings. Not the gigantic piles abuilding today, these are relatively modest sized cots, and picturesque beyond telling. But there is zero life on the street, non-automotive life, that is. Does everyone live a life of quiet desperation behind these charming walls?

We didn’t despair, and finally found the vine-covered bungalow on Bonny Lane, hiding under an immense evergreen. Peggy wandered up and down the street in nostalgia while the Owl and I clung to the hillside. The sun was breaking out as it set behind the coast mountains and fog was rolling under the Golden Gate. Then we loosed the parking brake and dove back into rush-hour.

Childhood Scene

We were aimed for a Motel6 in Pinole, north of Berkeley, out where the industrial flats turn into malldom. We got turned around sideways again, but we’re coming to expect that. The motel had hot and cold running modem jacks, so we were content.

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