A half-century ago, beatniks and hippies fatigued by the heaviness of the San Francisco scene began a northward migration toward a quieter life amid the redwoods. Artists and poets like Richard Brautigan, Joanne Kyger, Robert Creeley, and many who are not remembered by posterity burrowed into the tiny towns dotting Highway 1. Inspiration, it seemed, lay in the thickets of West Marin and swirled in the roiling eddies of the Mendonoma coast.
The city looks different these days: The creative class traded its berets for BlackBerrys, and windowpane isn't quite as easy to cop in the Haight. But the North Coast is still there, and it's still a groovy creative escape for the world-weary, especially book nerds. Herewith, a literary road trip.
In watermelon sugar: Bolinas
Through the wooded Tamalpais Valley, past the Flying Pig Ranch ice cream parlor in Stinson Beach, beyond the wildlife sanctuary on the banks of the lagoon, the turnoff to Bolinas is marked only by a single mailbox and an anachronistic hitchhiker lazily thumbing it on the highway shoulder. There are no road signs — the storied “Bolinas Border Patrol” would only cut them down again. This is a town that likes its privacy, but that hasn't stopped its pen-wielding residents from writing about it.
“Downtown consists of two intersecting streets dotted with horse manure, beer bottles, food wrappers, and cigarette butts. There is a post office, a Laundromat, a liquor store, a grocery store, an organic greasy-spoon restaurant, a bookstore, a gas station, and a bar. There were five cars downtown, all of them in front of the bar.”
That's how Anne Lamott described “Clement,” a thinly veiled roman à clef of Bolinas where her semiautobiographical novel, Hard Laughter, is set, and that's just about how I find it when I arrive. The bar is the 150-year old Smiley's Schooner Saloon and Hotel, once a favorite gathering spot for the Bolinas poets.
This little no-horse town had quite the literary scene in the '70s, when the likes of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Lewis MacAdams, Aram Saroyan, and Jim Carroll were hanging out here. Back then, City Lights published a Bolinas anthology, On the Mesa, named for the plateau rising above downtown where a lot of those writers made their home.
I find my way to the mesa by setting out from town on the main road and hanging a left at the composting station, up a little path heading into the woods. Looking out across the flat expanse of marshy grass and secret ponds and grazing cows, it's hard not to think about iDEATH — the commune in Richard Brautigan's utopian allegory, In Watermelon Sugar, which he started writing in Bolinas in 1964. You can almost make out the trout hatchery and the Forgotten Works and the bridges and the tiger-faced lanterns all sketched upon that landscape, where eucalyptus towers overhead while the chatter of egrets and crickets is muffled under a blanket of gathering fog.
Brautigan later bought a house at 6 Terrace Avenue, not far from the beach. He had parties there with his poet friends like Kyger, to whom he dedicated In Watermelon Sugar, and Creeley, who, legend has it, once ruined one of Brautigan's Grateful Dead records after knocking back a few at Smiley's.
In 1984, Brautigan put a bullet in his brain in that house. His body lay undiscovered for five weeks — a hard fact to wrap your mind around, given how tiny and insular and all-up-in-your-business Bolinas seems to be. A spookiness hangs heavy in the air. I can almost see it in the rearview, mingling with the treetop fog, and I catch the faintest scent of watermelontrout oil as I drive slowly out of town.
Haiku country: Gualala
Two hours of hazy, dairy-cow–studded driving up Highway 1 from Bolinas is minuscule Gualala, whose population of 585 includes the illustrious haikujane. The 72-year-old Jane Reichhold is a worldwide haiku heavyweight who, for the last 17 years, has been publishing her poems via personal ad in the town newspaper, the Independent Coast Observer.
another atheist left
in the forest
the voice of the sea
on a rocky beach
These pieces are collected, along with about 500 others, in 10 years haikujane, a book I picked up at the Gualala Arts Center. The center, nestled among soaring, centuries-old redwoods, was founded in 1961 by refugee artists from San Francisco and is staffed by an amiable guy named Sus (pronounced “Seuss”), whose thin gray ponytail slinks gently down his back.
Noticing me poking around the galleries, Sus offers to show me to the “fairy ring.” I hesitate, thinking it sounds like the setting for some bizarre Renaissance Faire ritual, but it turns out to be nothing more than a clearing amid a circle of redwoods where a giant tree, 25 feet wide, once stood. It's pretty magical. The fairy ring is now the backdrop for the center's haiku classes as well as Sus' occasional meditation breaks.
From the redwoods to the dramatic, craggy shoreline, Gualala's natural assets could bring out the writer in anyone. From my room at the Whale Watch Inn, I can see waves poetically cresting offshore and hawks poetically hitching a ride on the late-afternoon breeze. The stack of journals on the nightstand attests to the presence of the Muses. Filled with the flowery outpourings of decades of past guests, these journals have been anthologized in a book published by the innkeepers. With the occasional pithy remark — “We came with no reservations — and are leaving with even fewer” — it makes for surprisingly thoughtful bedtime reading.
Murder in Mendocino
Highway 1 meanders north from Gualala, giving way after about an hour to Mendocino, whose Victorian architecture and moody gray skies threaten to out–New England New England. No surprise, then, that the town doubled as the fictional Cabot Cove, Maine, on TV's Murder, She Wrote, which starred Angela Lansbury as — what else? — a writer.
Visitors to Cabot Cove had a funny habit of being murdered upon arrival, so it's fitting that the Hill House Inn, one of the locations used in the show, is unnervingly situated across the street from a cemetery. Hard-core Jessica Fletcher fans can check into the inn's Jessica Suite, where Lansbury once laid her head, or the Angela Suite at the nearby Blair House, Jessica's home on the show.
With sidewalks that get rolled up around nine o'clock, Mendocino offers few distractions for the literarily inclined: a smattering of restaurants, a pair of spirited pubs. The biggest attraction is the awesome Mendocino Headlands, perched on the bluffs over a furiously churning sea; it's as if you're watching the inner turmoil of generations of authors writ large on the landscape itself. As tremendous waves crash around the jagged, untamed rocks below, the coastline delivers more drama and Sturm und Drang than any fiction Jessica Fletcher could cook up.
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