For 2008, we settled upon “Our Town” as a theme that would allow us to highlight the many distinct social systems&–some of them seemingly worlds unto themselves&–that make up the diverse places in Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties. We’ve profiled various towns from the tri-county area, a meander that begins in Sausalito, goes over the hills from Santa Rosa to Calistoga and ends in Napa, as might a fabulous day trip.
“Tell me a story, Gramps. Tell me about Sausalito.”
“Well, OK, Billy. I guess you know Sausalito’s been my home for an awfully long time, now. Why, I remember these friendly Indians, Seahawks or Kneewoks, or some damn name is what we called ’em. They were still livin’ ’round here when I busted out of the Presidio brig, swam across the Bay and built my first shack right over yonder. They’d just signed the Declaration of Independence back East, and Californey’d been claimed by Spain.”
“You sure sound old, gramps.”
“Hell Billy, ain’t yew heard—250 is the new 25! Anyway, I’ve seen ’em come an’ I’ve seen ’em go. We’ve had yer fishermen, yer hoity-toity hill folk, rum runners, convicts, movie stars, yer boat builders, whores, artists, poets and philosophers, yer hippie houseboaters, nut-ball authors and yer just plain drunks. That’s what I did for long time, Billy.”
“You were a drunk, Gramps?”
“I ran a saloon down on Bridgeway. Flopped in the back room with my paints, easel and brushes. Saved my pennies an’ bought a slab of concrete up the hill. Little Willy Hearst wanted to build his castle on it, but the rich biddies nixed it. That property’s why everyone in this family’s sat on their asses for the last hundred years.”
“Wow, you mean I’ll never have to work?
“That’s right, Billy. You’re destined to be the poster child for 100 percent estate inheritance taxation. You’ll be every bit as worthless as the rest of my progeny.””Bein’ an artist, did you paint pictures of lots of people?””I painted ’em all—the good and the Baby Face Nelsons. ‘Course, my most famous portrait was of yer great-great-grandma Sally.”
“Dad says she dumped great-grandpa on you, just after he was born.”
“Great-great-grandma Stanford was an important person ’round these parts, Billy. She had a restaurant and a scad of houses back in Frisco to run. Didn’t have a lotta time fer the little ones. She also ran this town.”
“They say dad really takes after her, and I take after dad.””Yup. In fact yer grandpa liked how yer dad came out so well he hired Genetic Savings & Clone to make him a double. That would be you, Billy.””I’m a clone?”
“That’s right, son.”
“When did the tourists start coming to Sausalito?””‘Bout when property prices down on Bridgeway started goin’ whacko. Whoops, that’s my cell. Just got texted. Sorry Billy, ‘fraid this is a wrap. Got me a hot date with a waste-management heiress dryin’ out at the Alta Mira. That text was the day spa. I’m running late for my pedicure and colonic. Do me a favor, son. Get on the horn to Vijay. Tell him I’ll need one of his Lamborghini’s brought up here by six, and thank him on that winery-group buyout tip. Now, scoot. I got some serious time to make up for!”—P.J.P.
Mill Valley, with its charming restaurants, its culturally magnetic theaters and music spots, and its celebrity-bedazzled annual film festival, is a town dominated by three things: a longtime reputation as a mecca for social and cultural rebels (Jack Kerouac, for example); its appeal to movie stars and other famous people looking for a nice place to live (Peter Coyote, Dana Carvey and Bonnie Raitt, to name but a few); and, most importantly, the mountain that looms above it like a giant serpent watching over its young.
Mt. Tamalpais, 2,571 feet tall, has been nicknamed “the Sleeping Lady,” but probably not by the Miwok Indians who once lived here, as is commonly believed. The famous story of the Indian princess, Tamalpa, who died on the mountain of a broken heart after being abandoned by her lover, is the same story associated with Mount Susitna, near Anchorage, Alaska, also named the Sleeping Lady. The loveliest variation of the sleeping-lady story, described on the website of Mill Valley’s Tamalpa Institute, is that the lady in the mountain will slumber until everyone who lives in the valley below truly awakens. May we all someday awake to our true potential, and live as brothers and sisters. Until then, the natural beauty of Mt. Tamalpais will endure as a magnificent locus of our collective love of beautiful things, our hopes for a better future and our desire that magic and mystery will always be waiting for us, and watching us, from behind the mists of the mountains.—D.T.
San Rafael can technically be found 17 miles north of San Francisco, but mainly it exists in a seductive limbo-land between the worlds of concrete and commerce and the fog-wreathed wilds of rock, tree, tide, marsh and trail.
San Rafael rises from the sea-level shenanigans of the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse and the historical sufferings of Chinese laborers once housed at China Camp, to the heights of international celebrity with the local-hero likes of George Lucas, the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana, Isabel Allende and the late Klaus Kinski.
Within minutes, a person can travel from the vibrant, bustling, largely Latino Canal district to the imposing, mansion-filled hills of Black Canyon, across the Dominican University campus and down North San Pedro Road for a gander at the crumbling Rat Rock and a beer at the wonderfully Steinbeckian snack shop at China Camp beach, head back toward the Northgate Mall and out through Terra Linda, where the term “420” first became associated with marijuana use when 12 students at Terra Linda High school began meeting at the statue of Louis Pasture at 4:20pm each afternoon. Founded Feb. 18, 1874, San Rafael was a Wild West frontier city named by the Spanish missionaries who’d established the Mission San Raphael Arcangel in 1817. Prior to their arrival, San Rafael was the site of several Coat Miwok villages, and you’d do well to remember that the next time you walk through downtown San Rafael (formerly the village of Awani-wi), or Terra Linda (Ewu) or Marinwood (Shotomko-cha). Parts of San Rafael have been seen in the movies American Graffiti and Gattaca, plus hundreds of long-since-eroded cowboy flicks filmed at Gilbert “Bronco Billy” Anderson’s long-since-eroded Essanay Film Studios, once located in the hills above San Rafael’s Sun Valley neighborhood.
In 1974, someone spray-painted a peace sign on a prominent wall near the Rafael Theater, and it stayed there, without city interference, for over 10 years, while the graffiti all around it was painted over. In other words, San Rafael is the biggest, motliest, weirdest, thickest, deepest and slyly coolest big city in Marin County. And if the people who live there don’t already know it, then we hope this little homage has served to educate them. Now, who’s up for a beer at China Camp?—D.T.
Fairfax is a far cry from the yuppiedom that ensconces the rest of the county. Its Good Earth Natural Foods is the envy of all; workers at the Santa Rosa Community Market have taken organized field trips there for inspiration. Fairfax Scoop organic ice cream draws lactophiles from all over NorCal for a cone, and the area boasts some of the planet’s most beautiful hills and trails (mountain-biking wasn’t born here for nothin’!). It’s hard to understand why everyone in the world doesn’t want to live here. Maybe it’s the fact that the town’s completely asleep by 9pm or that there are some houses on the shady side of the mountain that grow mold in the winter and never get sun even in the summer. Whatever the reasons that Fairfax hasn’t become the next Mill Valley, it’s nice to know that there’s still some places in Marin where the trees are still big and the hippies still authentic.—E.L.
She’s that mousey little wallflower, that dutiful, unassuming and unappreciated matron who’s done every little thing for everyone else in her life since she was a 1950s Daddy Knows Best sweetheart. Now her blowhard crank of a marital anchor weight has performed his last disservice to humanity, leaving her and their thankfully grown brats each with nifty piles. She’s sloughing off the family’s moldering but painfully cute Victorian for a brand-new condo above a nightclub next to the river. She’s suffered 16 lifetimes of garden clubs and canasta, hosting scotch ‘n’ soda dinner parties for her hubby’s boredom-defining investment partners. Now she’s turning the clock back and the heat on high.Word is she’s hooked up with an electronic splatter-game marketeer 25 years her junior. All her new friends work. OK, so a few of them work their trust funds, but she’s never met so many young people with so many exciting job titles that she’s never heard of before and can’t even pronounce. She’s even getting political. Yesterday, she handed a homeless guy a 10 spot, then bought him a coppa and brie sandwich on a fresh garlic sour roll with roasted peppers, EVOO, arugula and a dash of balsamic. The ladies in her DAR chapter would’ve shit.
And you can imagine what her dry cleaner thinks. She danced like a witch goddess one entire full-moon night around a backyard bonfire, pitching her every last house dress, evening gown and Sunday church suit atop the inferno, then left her house enthusiastically trashed for her realtor to deal with the next day. She went straight that morning for a close-cut, three-tone hair job, then for lip, nipple and tongue rings, fashionable IT-exec-meets-streetwalker apparel and has embarked upon a yet-to-be completed serpent tattoo. She’s Petaluma’s 21st-century hatchling woman. She’s got the style and the scratch, and we ain’t talkin’ chicken feed no mo’.—P.J.P.
Sung to the melody of “If I Only Had a Brain, “with sincerest apologies to E. H. Harburg and Harold Arlen
There’s this brace of snuggling cities / College students, toilers, biddies / No mansions, gates or guards / They got their Miwoks diverted / Then a seed farm converted / To a workersÕ country clubOneÕs the city with no middle / There’s no place to go pa-diddle / Or town square to walk Õround / But the box stores are plenty / And chain restaurants are many / OnlyÑwhere’s it’ss oul and heart?
(refrain) / Oh, I’ve been sent from Mars / To snag a vintage Õ60s Strat guitar / Zone Musics’ what IÕm tryin’ to locate / But seems my fates’ a Wal-Mart fake RP’s little next door neighbor / Is more spectaculator / Theres’ even a downtown / It’s got a chief named Kotati / Good places for a latte / Or to fix your baseball gloveTheyÕve got rednecks, scholars, hippies / The bars to make you tipsy / Even bikers and rock stars / Cotati’s hexangle layout’s / Got accordions that play out / Giving all their soul and heart.—P.J.P.
Sebastopol is an onomatopoeic town. Say the name slowly, tasting the word as it passes through the lips. Pare through the thin skin of the first two syllables, and bite into the heart of the name. Roll it on the tongue, savoring the flavor. Ahh pol. ap-pol. Apple: The fruit that names its schools, streets, parades, businesses, festivals and probably even a few of its preschoolers. In fact, the town is formed like the fruit that it grows.
The seeds: Farmers, hard and browned by the sun.
The core: Tough, fibrous muscle power that cultivated the land and built a foundation for the community’s growth.
The flesh: Dense, predominantly creamy white inhabitants, those nourished by the products of the farmers’ hard work, and fattened by the sweet lifestyle it provides. The coloration: Segments of Latino, Japanese and other cultures, who reside among the Caucasian-dominated population, barely creating some diversity in the community.The varieties: Japanese Fujis, Italian Romes and Gravensteins, and English Pippins, to name a few.
The skin: A thin layer of bright color surrounding the town, that, like Eve, entices you to bite and taste its juice.
Seb ast apple. Seb ahhhst apol. Sebastopol.—S.D.
Santa Rosa, the city where people still meet up. Men and women in matching mariachi band outfits, gathering around the taco trucks in Roseland at 1am after that night’s dance. The crowded lobby of the Rialto Lakeside Cinemas, where strangers stop to talk to each other after a particularly great film. Ex-punk rockers from Anarchy Alley reuniting in Jeju Way, the new name for their old stomping ground. Santa Rosa, the busy city. The waitresses at Mac’s busting ass to deliver eggs and hash to the morning crowd. Later, one block over, the waitresses at the Third Street Aleworks hustling to get pints down the throats of those lucky enough to relax.
Santa Rosa, the city of repair. Slowly undoing the damage of shortsighted planning by opening the Prince Memorial Greenway, restoring the depot and reunifying the square—even if it means losing the Ruth Asawa and Mrs. Fred Rosenberg fountains. Still on the operating table: the crumbling, neglected Carrillo Adobe, our former heart. As for the veins, perhaps it’ll pull the creek out of its tunnel one day.Santa Rosa, the city of little people. There’s Tom the Ribbit Man and Grace the Cat Lady and Siren the Prince of Santa Rosa and Downtown Brian, whom everyone’s almost run over at some point. And the big people? Sometimes you catch them browsing the porn section at Sawyer’s News. Sometimes the two coexist, like the cop in Courthouse Square patiently explaining the dwindling options for mental healthcare to one who desperately needs it, right underneath Upper Fourth, the million-dollar cocktail bar built for the daughter of one of the city’s wealthiest developers.
Santa Rosa, the city of smells. The morning fish truck at G&G, the Willie Bird’s turkey legs at the Wednesday Night Market, the unshowered catching some warm shuteye in the heated lobby of the post office at night.
Santa Rosa, the city that still calls things by their old names. Yardbirds. The LBC. The Alpha Beta Shopping Center. Helping Hearts. UA6. Freidman Brothers. We can’t even call our downtown plaza by its real name, for cryin’ out loud.—G.M.
Just before arriving in the main part of town, where the Gravenstein Highway turns off into Box Canyon, there’s a slightly tattered sign that reads, “Guerneville, a Hate-Free Community.” Well, not exactly. In fact, everybody seems to hate somebody, if just a little. But they all try to accept each other anyway and somehow get along.
Guerneville is a town of dreams. As with any resort town worth its postcards, there’s a complex, sexy history, the occasional scandal, some colorful locals and a palpable alchemy. It is in fact, an extraordinary gateway: to the towering Redwoods of Armstrong State Park; to the occasionally flooding and always magical Russian River; to the dramatic, hoary Pacific Coast.
Memory goes to mist and transforms even the most vivid facts—that July 4th romance, those wild jazz-festival nights, that rainy winter weekend—into life-changing archetypes that can’t be recaptured.Some of the locals long for the simpler ways of the homey, blue-collar 1930s, forgetting a dustbowl Great Depression, or for the big-band fun of the ’40s, somehow erasing the horrors of World War II. Others pine for those crisp, winning ways of America’s ’50s, especially the straight, white men who’ve not had it so good since. Still others can’t let go of the hippified ’70s, the hyper-disco ’80s or the AIDS Hospice sadness of the 1990s.The rest of us dream of thousand-year-old redwood slumber and fern-covered dells that survive the harshest extremes of nature, of languid morning kayaks on the river or Drag Queen Bingo at the Senior Center. It’s small-town bliss. —C.W.
Gnarled arms reach out meekly from lumpy soil, grapevines halfheartedly straining against the earth’s steady pull. Three American bison, unreal ancient hulks, stare back across a fence, kick up their heels and, for lack of anything better to do, chase a confused herd of young cattle around a wooded hillock and disappear in a cloud of dust.A coyote skulks low in dry grass and thistles, toward the brush at the edge of a dairy.
The waterworks is dry, the blue slides silenced, while the dark waters of a vast lake of water slides downhill, burbling through the veins of 10,000 sprinklers, greening lawns, growing a two-by-four forest where now dwell 10, 20, 30,000, as if placed by the invisible hand of a SimCity player. Big boxes sprout like mushrooms after rain. Back out to satellite view. An army of ants disassemble a mountain of want, bring the pieces back down trails of black tar that whorl off in every direction and none. The center is missing, the driver slows to a crawl, in a shallow river of red light. Stop.
Start again. New town is old, worn-out tune on the hydrocarbon jukebox. Old Town is new. Olden-time, a model railroad town plucked from a catalogue? Choice of: Mediterranean village, early Americana, late Truman Show, Main Street USA. Restaurant row, choice of: Asian, Mexican and Italian; all-American, too. ItÕs a small world after all. ThereÕs a pharmacy on the corner, where it should be. Fifty cents left in a dish gets you the newspaper, on your honor. Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes, there beneath the blue suburban skies. By the weedy quiet tracks, the stationÕs paint is fresh and bright. Very strange.
‘Action!’ The studio lot false fronts fill out in three dimensions. The model people walk, the mirage real, not perfect; a lazy plume of hasty break smoke wafts by the fashion store.Funky tin-home afterthought on the American road, thirsty suburban labyrinth, 21st-century mixed-use model village. The new urbanism, the latter-day suburbanism. Fed by three exits, straddling the freeway, a chimera arises on unsteady feet, one planted in the past, one in the future, waiting for a train.J—J.K.
Seven years ago, my grandmother, who was born in Healdsburg and graduated from Healdsburg High, said, “I’m not sure how I feel about having to dress up to go the farmers market.” She put up with the sudden right/wrong side of the tracks divide that came as the charming boutique wineries popped up for a few years, but eventually sold the five acres that had been in our family for five generations and hightailed it to Rogue Valley, Ore., where she doesn’t feel uncomfortable going to the grocery in her gardening pants.
A fifth-generation Healdsburgian, I stuck it out until cocktail prices matched those in San Francisco ($12 for a Negroni, thank you very much), and then I realized it was time for me to move, too. After three years of living in San Francisco, each time I return “home,” I recognize it less and less. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’d much rather look at miles of vineyards and squares of cute boutiques than acres of housing developments, but the complaint among my generation is the same: When did our town become Touristville?
It happened slowly: first the wine boom and then the money boom; the influx of hip San Franciscans who told us where to go clubbing in the city; the weekenders who asked us what kind of plant that was. After a few years of clarifying the nature of crabgrass, we started to feel less amused. Now, when people ask me where I’m from and coo, “Oh, I just looove Healdsburg,” I no longer give them the old story about how the town was when I was a kid (two freeway exits, no Michelin-starred restaurants, a kind of a hickish place to grow up). I smile and nod and say, “Yes, I love to visit there, too.”—E.L.
Conversation overheard one immaculate spring morning while sitting next to two visitors outside the Basque Boulangerie, across from the Sonoma Plaza:
“I love the boutiques. Art, he’s only here for the wine and to stuff his face, but that’s why he’s still passed out in our room.”
“What’s the plan for today?”
“Well, you know. More wine, more shopping. I did promise Connie I’d find her some wine-themed napkin holders for her party next week. Did you see that?”
“It looked like a chicken chasing a duck.”
“Over there to the left of that building with the restrooms in the back. But they’re gone, now.””Have you tried the cheese samples down the block? Yummy. I had to literally pull Fred away from their cheese-spread stuff.”
“Oh, yeah—Art, too. And this local told us there’s an even better cheese place in an old brewery building. Said it’s just a couple blocks from here, but I don’t want to miss any shopping.””Yeah, I know. Cheese is cheese. What’s the big deal? By the way, I thought this place was supposed to have orange and red rock mountains behind it.”
“That’s Sedona, Claire. We’re going there in the fall.”
“There it goes again!”
“I swear. I just saw that chicken chase a black lab.”
“Oh, come on.”
“No, really. But they ran behind that building again.”
“Have you seen that bronze statue over there? I think it commemorates some war we had with the Spanish after Columbus.”
“Really. I love visiting historical towns.”
“Frannie, what is it?”
“Didn’t you hear them screaming? That chicken just attacked a bunch of little kids!”
“No.””I swear to you. I just saw it.”
“Should we walk over there and see if the kids are all right?”
“Naw, let’s wake up the boys and find a McDonald’s.”—P.J.P.
Want to squeeze more excitement from this feisty, unrepentant Old West-meets-upscale-Californey spit-stop founded by a Mormon vigilante drunkard now cradling chichi spas, down-home bars, renowned sprizzly waterworks and the museumed remnants of its world-class resort beginnings and surrounded by an old faithful geyser, cumulous clouding fumaroles, shaky hills, arsenic hot springs and bubbling mud pits, a petrified forest, abandoned silver and mercury mines, a literary giant’s love nest, an African animal preserve, a self-described temple to wine and modern art, a Medieval castle overlooking a monorail hauling tourists up a bump in the flatlands to slurp wine while fanciful hot air balloons hang like pagan tree ornaments on clear, hot summer days at the top of America’s most celebrated vineyard valley? Do ya?Try building a nuke.—P.J.P.
Ligurian castles and fake Tuscan villas alongside faux chateaux give the Napa Valley an opulent atmosphere of a big, alcoholic Disneyland for puffy-paint-sweater-wearing, diamond-tennis-bracelet-laden tourists. Servers in the excellent, and expensive, restaurants rattle off a list of ingredients so long that they must have been up all night cribbing menu notes—and that’s just for the sauces. The capital of all this exorbitant glory is Yountville. Where else but at the French Laundry will you wait six months for a reservation and then spend over a thousand bucks on dinner for four? But take a closer look. There’s some substance behind all this (and there’s no disputing that those thousand bucks will get you the best meal of your entire life). Yountville sits in one of the most geographically beautiful areas of the whole country. There’s a reason that the “Tuscan” villas are painted in glorious shades of goldenrod and dusty red: the climate here is just like parts of Italy. Those French chateaux are paying homage to the Napa Valley’s similarity to France’s wine-growing regions—and that’s not even beginning to touch on the wine, which, as we all know, is some of the best in the world. So, yes, the Wine Train is corny and you’re going to drop serious coin on a weekend (or even just an afternoon) in the Napa Valley, but all that ostentation isn’t a false front—Yountville’s got the goods to back it up.—E.L.