Despite the promise of sun on the Fourth of July, a heavy mist clings to the surface of Bolinas Lagoon, curling over the water like a cheap special effect. In real time, the sight is stirring, a picture-perfect ending to the winding coastal roads that lead to Stinson Beach. But all is not exactly California poppies and gentle salt-brushed breezes.
Across calm waters freckled with long-necked birds and yellowing sea foam rages a 10-year-old struggle of civic might: the annual Bolinas-Stinson Beach Tug-of-War. In the midmorning hours on Independence Day, townspeople from opposing sides of the shore line up to grab hold of a tremendous rope stretched across the watery expanse that divides them. They pull and pull and, in the end, one town gets wet.
The women of Bolinas triumph in just over six minutes. The men of Bolinas, who have carried the day on only one occasion in the last decade, don't prevail so quickly. From a distance, the contest looks unimpressive -- just a very still, taut rope suspended five feet above the water's surface -- but up close the physical strain is unmistakable. Rivulets of sweat form on the participants, trickling between jutting shoulder blades; veins balloon under clenched jaws and hairlines; grunting gives way to panting; and calf muscles quiver like homemade marmalade. As nine minutes stretches into 12, some of the men start to foam at the mouth. Finally, the Bolinas men are victorious.
A few sandy-haired boys whimper about exertion-related nausea, but most of the team is ready to search for beer. For those not familiar with the exact location of Bolinas, the abandoned rope is as good an indication as any. No road signs mark the highway exit, nor will they as long as residents have the means of removing them.
"They're not exactly isolationists," says Denise Cespeato, a 32-year-old Mill Valley resident who never misses the Bolinas Fourth of July parade. "People in Bolinas like going other places in the world, they're just not crazy about having other places in the world come to them." Today is a slight exception. While the main road into the center of town has been completely blocked off, a distant parking lot has been made available to outsiders for $5, which will be donated to some environmental cause. Once parked, a free shuttle is offered by a British sousaphone player who volunteers for the Bolinas Border Patrol. "I run them until 3. After that," he says with a wink, "you're on your own."
Downtown a couple thousand people are milling around drinking beer and eating fresh barbecued oysters. The crowd is heavy with children, hound dogs, and flamboyant beachside apparel in shades of red, white, and blue. It is an amiable reflection of a local mural portraying a colorful band of rapscallions with a caption that reads: "I was looking for Bolinas but I couldn't find it."
At noon, Annie Price, a small snowy-haired woman who, I am told, once ran the post office, climbs onto the flag-trimmed balcony outside Smiley's Hotel & Saloon accompanied by an accordion and a saxophone player. She sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a grandmother's voice that gets some folks in the crowd roaring, "Take care of yourself. We need you for the millennium."
The community parade begins quaintly enough, with the local fire department followed by the Bolinas-Stinson Beach Baby Group (in strollers), the Bolinas Children's Center ("Giving Our Children Wings"), the pony club, the soccer team, the produce market, and a few kids in soapbox racers. Then come the Sisters of Li"bo"ty -- large green women in high heels and togas passing out sparklers -- and a crazy circus bike that reads "Commemorate Revolution." Mikel de Mower Man advertises his small engine repair business in a VW Bug-turned-mammoth lawn mower. A school of mermaids blows bubbles off a flatbed truck planted with succulents and strung with carnations. (The movable garden reads "Make Friends With Your Anemone.")
A relatively normal-looking man walks by pulling a small train of toy trucks, globes, shoes, gloves, oranges, jugs, and dildos. The Grim Reaper reminds us that the United States is No. 1 in arms dealing, incarceration, murder, execution, and illiteracy. The Sons and Daughters of Orpheus offer warmer sentiments like "Forget Safety," "Destroy Your Reputation," "Be Notorious," and "Be Mad, Be Mud." A mud-caked man offers red clay from a wagon. Folks comply, joining the mobile mud-caked drum circle as it moves toward the ocean. Invitations are made. "C'mon, grab an animal head and some mud," says a nature boy wearing a muskrat mask. He offers a Vienna sausage-sized roach. I opt for the liter of Jack Daniel's. "Journalists!" says the muskrat in dismay.
Back in the comforting environs of blacktop and urban refuse, etoy -- the Swiss technological art corporation that landed at blasthaus Gallery last month -- is preparing for their first Fourth of July. Their showpiece, etoy.TANK14 -- a bright orange 40-foot-long cargo container -- stands in the middle of a vast parking lot where a small number of etoy.SHAREHOLDERS have been invited to assemble. A black sedan with darkened windows pulls up under the tank door and four etoy.AGENTS emerge wearing their standard-issue black suits and mirrored cop shades. After acknowledging our presence they slip into the tank, reappearing on the rooftop with barbecue supplies. "We are still in preparation stages," says etoy.MARK in his Teutonic English. His practiced smile is useful in his role as etoy.POWERMODEL, but it doesn't soften the image created by etoy's smooth bald heads and heavy black boots.