HOPLAND – My pathological affinity for roadside attractions continues unabated. An intervention may be needed soon but, for now, no one can stop me from stopping at every quirky spot with an odd sign or kitschy figure serving as a come-on.
My latest detour came as I was heading north on Highway 101 in Mendocino County. Just before the town limits here, a series of signs caught my eye:
"Real Goods Solar Living Center"
"Everything Under the Sun"
"Soothing ponds and Oasis"
"Greenest Store on Earth"
Yeah, they had me at "weird restrooms." I yanked the steering wheel of the company hybrid car to the right and entered at a gate with a wrought-iron statue of a man with arms stretched skyward.
I had arrived at the Real Goods Solar Living Center, a sustainable-living "campus" that is part eco-friendly amusement park, part permaculture oasis, part instructional institute (solar energy harvesting, biodiesel use, aquaponics and straw-bale house construction) and part retail space where visitors can spend greenbacks on an array of green products.
That's a lot of parts, huh? Well, the place does span 12 acres on the former site of a Caltrans junkyard, hugging Highway 101.
What at first seems a quirky roadside stop is actually a serious environmental science undertaking, mixed with a strong retail component. The solar product maker Real Goods shares space with its nonprofit offshoot, the Solar Living Institute, which offers internships and programs to teach the practice of living and building in an environmentally sustainable way.
Sounds virtuous and, well, yawn-inducing, right?
Hardly. As Stella Siedentopf, a visitor from Santa Rosa, enthused to me in the parking lot (replete with electric charging stations), "It's like a green Disneyland."
But before admiring the powerful solar panels, before entering the main house-of-straw store, before basking under a sprawling trellis of grape vines and the Agave Cooling Tower, before even hopping on an exercise bike to see how much energy I could generate, I had to check out the "weird" restrooms. That was job No. 1.
I knew I was in the right place not just because the door bore the generic blue-and-white stick-figure man in pants and woman in dress. The sign's bold letters read, tellingly, "Weird Restrooms."
Upon entering, it's not so much weird as intriguing. If you didn't look hard, you'd think it was just another clean, spiffy facility. But what was that pattern, lining the interior walls? Those were toilet tank lids, salvaged from the Sonoma County dump, so a sign informs. The same sign also boasts: "Take a walk down memory lane with the avocado and harvest gold (wainscoting) of the swingin' seventies!"
Strange to say, but this is one restroom in which you'll want to linger.
The ceiling board is made from pressed wheat straw with "only a tiny amount of formaldehyde-free glue." Stalls come from recycled plastics such as milk jugs, prescription bottles and glass. Builders left scraps of paper suspended in the partitions – as reading material, maybe. Wash basin cabinets are a mix of cement and recycled newspaper.
Taped to the stall's partition, at eye level, is a tract on "dry" compost toilets, which are purported to "save 40,000 gallons of water per year per household." But I could've done without the illustration of a man on his, uh, throne and the path the waste takes.
As I washed my hands, a sign affixed to the mirror told me that Dr. Bronner's Magic All-One Soaps donated the dispensers out of the sudsy goodness of its corporate heart.
Once I finally moved on from the bathroom – hey, it was a long road trip – I hit the Real Goods store, its structure made from straw bales and a concretelike substance, its wooden support beams recycled from a razed building nearby. The place was cool in the most literal sense, thanks to manually controlled hemp awnings and strategically placed grape arbors.
Inside was a bevy of sustainable products, from solar ovens to lighting to portable toilets (toilets, again?) to propane-powered refrigerators. Also inside was a conduit of history: Sean Spicer, Real Goods' operations manager.
He related the company origin story: how it went from a single store in Willits in 1978 to a completed complex in 1996, how more than 200,000 people shop via catalog (totally online now), and how the company was a pioneer and now a leader in solar panel construction.
Spicer could really shovel the verbal, uh, compost. But the 12-acre site's vast gardens and orchards produce a bounty for local farmers markets, and its solar panels power not only the grounds but also a significant part of Hopland ("Sure," Spicer said, "it's a small town, but ...").
"We started out as a clearinghouse for everyone who lived off the grid, starting with that whole back-to-the-land movement," Spicer said. "The public attitude now is coming around, but I don't think I'd go so far as to call it mainstream yet. We've still got a little bit of work to do."
Spicer's in retail, so there's an element of selling in his enthusiasm. But Ross Beck, executive director of the institute, is encouraged that people are seeking out sustainable living practices. He talks earnestly about "walking lightly on the Earth."
"It's a natural evolution," Beck said of the public's gradual warming to sustainable living. "Our goal is to help address global climate change and reduce greenhouse gases. We need to look beyond just product development."
Someday, perhaps even "weird" restrooms will become the norm and no longer rank as a tourist attraction.
SOLAR LIVING INSTITUTE
13771 S. Highway 101, Hopland
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily
Tours: 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Friday through Sunday
Recommended donations: $3 per person; $5 family
Information: (707) 472-2450;