Today, like most days, the world is in some kind of turmoil: bombs in Thailand, toxic rivers in North Carolina, toxic rivers in Colorado, explosions in China, thirsty sinking land in a burning California, interracial unrest, stock market slumps. To escape the bombardment of bad news is a feat reserved for the weary and the restless, those looking for a simpler way of life, or even just a simpler moment. Often we find this way out of the tangled grid of the city, sewn as it is into the tech-ladened fabric of too much information. We find it in places tucked out of the way into crevices and canyons, coves and lagoons, sometimes a short trip on a winding road north of the steel stacks piercing the sky. We find it, sometimes, in a place like Bolinas, an unincorporated township west of the San Francisco Bay on a corner of land jutting out into the ocean. At least that’s where I momentarily found it.
Not much about Bolinas feels like the rest of the world. Before the convenience of GPS, a person needed detailed instructions to find the few-blocks-long town, and some old-timers (like the proprietor of The Grand Hotel, a two-room boarding house above an antique store) still give these detailed instructions even if you assure them you’ll find the way. Not only is the town tucked on the other side of a lagoon from Highway 1, the winding, dipping road that follows the coast up and away from San Francisco, it’s also devoid of all signs pointing the way. This is by way of design: For years, the famously reclusive residents of Bolinas actively tore down any and all signs that the state posted until they officially voted to remain signless in 1989. There hasn’t been an arrow pointing the way since.
Though easier to find these days, the town hasn’t changed much since it’s rise in popularity that came with the 1960’s homesteaders and creatives that made the town their own. The few businesses that serve the community are housed in Old West style buildings clustered along a two-block stretch, dogs seem to have the run of the town and an alternative lifestyle still reigns: town staples include the free box — a wood shed full of the community’s give-aways — a bookstore run by an honor system and a long list of artists that at some point called the tiny town home.
In this way, Bolinas strays from the norm. Walking the streets, playing patron to the businesses, breathing the ocean air is to forget the rest of the world, to forget that you are an hour away from San Francisco where traffic is building and trees are disappearing and the deluge of bad news rolls on. And despite the reputation of cities as epicenters for radical thought, it is this town that feels progressive, that feels like it could change the way of things, if only it could be found. To trust each other to pay for a book, to not open your unlocked door, to accept the presence of your unleashed dog, is radical by the standards of any city-dweller. It is an escape, yes, but not from reality. It is an escape from the patterns we’ve cultivated to be truths, and therefore a breath of fresh ocean-filled air.
The writer Alice Notley, who once lived in Bolinas, wrote: “Any small town like Bolinas mirrors the nation, so to keep track of one is to keep track of both.” I stumbled over this for a bit. It says almost the opposite of what I just wrote about this town — how different, how unique, how unlike the rest of the world. But I realized we forget that most of the world is made up of small towns, and that no place is immune to bad news or the evolution of human things. It is ignorant to think that because there are no signs, because the population is just 1,600 people, because there is little infrastructure or occurrences that this place is somehow removed from the world. It is the world. It’s just a real nice corner of it.