The Coastal Post - October, 1996

Bolinas: The Snake Within


I am an outsider in this insular village by the sea called Bolinas. Though I'm loathe to admit it, my grandfathers did not toil upon this land. My parents don't own a glass cabin on the lush coastal bluffs. My last name is not Briones, in fact, I haven't a touch of blood from the town's founding fathers. Neither am I a Deadhead wandering downtown in a daze, trying to recover from the staggering death of Jerry Garcia last summer.

This lack of clear identity makes me suspect both among the town royalty and commoners. So before making some observations on this fascinating, counter-culture, let me tell you who I am so you all stop asking me if I work for the F.B.I. or cops.

I am a writer seeking refuge from the noise and bright lights of the city. San Francisco, twinkling in the distant, starlit ocean, was once home, but no more. One year ago this month my "Big Time, Big City" life shattered like glass.

By day, I was a Senior Producer for Channel Two News who traveled the world collecting kick-ass videotape.. By night, I was a drug addict who might wake up in a Tenderloin Hotel surrounded by smudged mirrors and half-filled Budweisers. I finally had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a psychiatric ward for a month last winter. This summer I again went through recovery at Serenity Knolls, vomiting in the same bed where Jerry Garcia died.

I came to the coast to pick up the pieces of my life, like seaglass from the sand. I spend my days collecting shells, playing with wild kittens and writing a book about how drug addiction brought me to my knees.

My trip through the foggy world of recovery in Northern California could not be complete without a pit stop in Bolinas. Beneath this circular town of land and sea, the Pacific and North American earthquake plates play out their ancient game of geological tug-of war. This savage shoving match ripped a gaping hole through town 1906, carving borders of redwood mountains and glacial lakes.

Downtown is a horseshoe-shaped strip of road that curls lazily past a handful of businesses like Smiley's Bar, the oldest watering hole in California. Atop the tree-drenched bakery a giant Jerry Garcia draped in an American flag peers down at passersby. Further down the road, are boat houses and surf shops that wind around to greet the sea as it rushes toward sand in a swirl of wind and waves.

Bolinas is the final outpost of nineteen sixties America. Tye-died fossils roam the streets reading planets and stars... some fix the tires of passing tourists. On weekends, surfers from all over the west cascade upon the beach...awash in seagulls, cranes and colorful, human driftwood.

Dave, a lifelong citizen of the Republic of Bolinas, is such a person. A sunburned, wild-haired wanderer, he is as busy each day as any corporate executive I've ever worked with. Though he could live in his mother's home on La Mesa, he chooses to sleep each night in an overturned boat on starlit Bolinas Beach. His seaside campsite has all the touches of home... a roasting fire, nice dishes, pictures of loved ones on a cardboard shelf. He ghosts around each morning, collecting bottles for food in the pre-dawn shadows. An angel-hearted hippy trapped in the wrong decade, he embodies the simple, free spirit of Bolinas.

As I mentioned earlier, locals don't cotton much to attention from outsiders. Each time the state erects a road sign, it is quickly torn down. The record was the one that stayed up in Stinson Beach for thirty six hours. This quaint small town habit attracted the attention of "The New York Times" a few years back. Yuppy tourists soon flocked to town, looking around in though they'd just stepped in dog shit. And in all likelihood, they had. For, everywhere underfoot are mangy dogs, as beaten up and hungry as their owners.

Social Darwinism is the rule of law on the streets. A group of teen-aged thugs, who call themselves "The Border Patrol," evict any potential newcomers who don't meet their strict standards. A good friend of mine, who I'll refer to as "Young Luke," was threatened with violence by this posse of possessive children. Apparently he offended the leaders by taking a job at the local gas station. Of course none of the hooligans had bothered apply...

Generally, no one calls the police if their is a problem but, still, they are a constant presence. On my second night in town, a sheriff in a Ford Explorer made the mistake of parking prominently in front by Smiley's Saloon, the rough and tumble downtown watering hole. He was responding to a 911 call from an elderly woman here who complained that, "A man of German descent is repeatedly calling my room accusing me of writing the song 'The Beautiful One'." (We'll let that one speak for itself.)

While the sheriff took her report inside , a mischievous teen in green went on a mission to destroy his car. The thug-in-training first tried to grab the cops gun from the front seat, which made me a touch apprehensive. He then turned less violent, bending the radio attennae and knifing the monstrous tire ten times or so. As the air loudly hissed out, the cop sauntered down the walkway -oblivious- then ordered a hot dog from Smiley's takeout window. When he discovered the teens prank, the policeman said, "Hey, I don't really mind. I can just sit here and eat hotdogs all night. But I worry about the rest of the county being unsafe." I suppressed a giggle.

Despite the town's general repulsion toward strangers, I have already made good friends here. There is Don Deane, the town's butcher baker and candlestickmaker. There is Peter Lee, the grey-maned 76 year old artist who chugs down main street in a rusty, silver Cadillac, a beat-up Batmobile that belies his fame and fortune. The son of a man who tended The Point Reyes Lighthouse in the twenties, Peter went on to live in Manhattan and paint for such stars as John Lennon. He has come home to Bolinas to live out his twilight years with his best buddy Frank who saved his life in World War Two. Frank, a dapper old dude in a top hat and tie, can be seen shuffling down main street to fill Lee's grocery orders at the general store. Lee, whose bark AND bite are meaner than a junkyard dog, is causing quite a stir in this quiet town, but, in my opinion, he is a kind genius with a giant talent. He's also a classy guy who serves hot tea and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a demi-tas plate.

I'm actually kissing Peter's butt because I'm dying to buy his painting "Old and New." To me, this canvas of brightly colored buildings, old and new, is a masterpiece that represents my fresh start in Bolinas. For I have come here like a snake, hoping to shed worn out emerge reborn in this grumpy little village that stretches backward in time... then forward, out to sea.