Once you find the turnoff from Highway 1 – and you must remain ever-alert, for this town has become famous for what it doesn’t have, namely, a street sign – you begin a mile-long drive into another world. Not quite a ’60s throwback, not exclusively an artistic enclave, not really a fishing village-on-Quaaludes and, most assuredly, not a tourist resort, Bolinas defies easy characterization.
Which is just how the locals want it.
And which is precisely why you’ll want to make a day trip to this spit of land extended like a big, fat finger between Stinson Beach and Olema.
Don’t stay too long, a night at most, or you might just decide to chuck your quietly desperate bourgeois life and go native, which will irk locals to no end.
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Stands of eucalyptus trees on the right wave to you – the only overtly friendly greeting you’re likely to get – as you travel deeper down the signless road (Olema Bolinas Road, for those with GPS). On the left is the lagoon, the main topographic feature that enables the town to separate itself from society. On this morning, mist mingles off the placid water and wafts inland, lending an almost cinematically enhanced eeriness.
At a T-junction in the road, just below a yellow CalTrans double-arrow sign, is what amounts to a Welcome-to-Bolinas sign. It reads: “Entering Socially Acknowledged Nature-Loving Town.”
From there, around a bend, the SANLT awaits. It’s a three-block stretch of commercial buildings – cafe, bar, grocery, galleries – on Wharf Road, with another block of shops on Brighton Road. Hoodie-wearing men, most gone to gray, sit on benches nursing coffees or other potables and give you a wary eye as you pass. Beyond lies the beach, which curves south and west and remains sheltered from prevailing northern winds. Above, houses, ranging from modest to manses, dot the bluffs with views, on clear days, of San Francisco, which is as close as many Bolinasites want to get to the city.
You don’t know why you feel apprehensive to stop, perhaps fretting that intruding on the scene will irritate the locals – renowned for not embracing tourism, hence, the street-sign shenanigans – or spoil the well-cultivated vibe.
Curiosity, though, wins out, because you’ve heard so much about this Greta Garbo (“I want to be left alone”) of towns: how there’s a “Free Box” walk-in closet where people can take and drop off clothing; a bookstore that runs on the same premise; a popular bar where that rumpled guy in the corner might be a famous poet or rocker-in-his-dotage, or maybe just another drunk; a museum with a quality of work from coastal artists that far exceeds what you’d expect from a small town; and a beach with consistently friendly waves that draws surfers from all over Northern California and brings agate-seeking beachcombers as well; and a cafe with a menu in which “fresh catch” really means fresh, like, you know, the same day.
Try to chat up the locals, and two things might happen. Either they will cop major attitude and go all reticent – four locals flatly refused to be interviewed, a personal record on the travel beat – or they’ll bend your ear and over-share about deeply personal matters. The key, you find, is to ease into your interactions with residents, ever mindful of their laid-back ways and respectful of their native habitat.
Daytripper Linda Freeze, who travels from the inland Marin County town of Novato to search for ocean fossils, has learned the hard way. Though she now says she happily interacts with Bolinasites who walk their dogs on the beach at low tide, she recounts one of her initial encounters at Smiley’s Schooner Saloon, the dive bar-cum-music venue that constitutes nightlife here.
“There was some old crusty guy at Smiley’s, like a permanent fixture at the corner chair,” she said. “When I first came here, he looked at me with disdain and said, ‘Tourist.’ And I said to him, ‘Hey, at least I’m a county resident. What’s your problem with tourists, anyway? That’s probably what keeps this place open.’ He just grumbled.”
Bolinas, from one perspective, is like a cantankerous old dog whose default greeting is a growl because that’s what’s expected. It’s their calling card, in other words. You go to Disneyland, you demand shiny, happy people. Go to Bolinas, you’d be disappointed if they didn’t give you some grief.
Yet, one chatty, exceedingly friendly Bolinasite, Martha Wax, who moved here in 1982 into a house her parents bought in 1962, says she’s tired of the town’s reclusivity and exclusivity. It smacks of elitism, a reverse snobbery that goes against the hippie ethos that drew so many to the area in the first place after a 1971 oil spill threatened shorebirds and the lagoon’s livelihood.
“My view?” she said. “We don’t own this land. We’re Europeans who came here and took it away from the natives. As far as I’m concerned, the land belongs to everyone. All this (unfriendly) stuff is pure bull----. Xenophobia is not very friendly. Some people think it’s cool to be like that. People actually believe they are part of the ‘Bolinas Border Patrol.’ But they’ve changed it to the ‘Bolinas Community Patrol,’ because they didn’t want to offend the immigrants. Got to be politically correct.”
It’s one thing to be pro-conservation and anti-growth and keep the town from turning into a rich coastal enclave like Carmel, Wax said, quite another to put up a metaphorical wall around the town.
Besides, it hasn’t deterred the washed masses in their SUVs and BMWs with surfboard racks from finding the place.
“You know, it really is kind of silly,” said Ivan Symthe, an out-of-town surfer zipping up his wet suit. “Everybody knows how to find Bolinas, come on. But I do sympathize with the locals. It’s (a) small (town) and they don’t want tons of people descending on them. Just be respectful to them. I make sure to drive slow through town. And if I see a local on the water, he’s got precedence (for the wave). I also make sure to buy stuff in town, instead of coming, surfing and leaving.”
There are a few galleries and boutiques in which to spread around tourist dollars, but the two most renowned places, which have burnished the town’s hippie/socialist cred, are the Free Box and the Bolinas Book Exchange.
The Free Box is set back several hundred feet from Wharf Road, behind the community center and next to the Bolinas People’s Store, an organic food market. Once you’ve wandered back, it’s impossible to miss. Painted in jaunty pastel shades, decorated with angels, abstract sculptures and wind chimes and slogans such as “Expect a Miracle,” the Free Box is a shed stuffed with clothing, accessories, shoes, toys, small appliances – all manner of castoffs bordering on detritus.
Constructed in 1975, when community center workers found that residents left clothes for donation at the door, the Free Box’s manifesto is nailed to the front door, titled “Social Experiment.” It reads, in part: “Can we be as rich in wisdom as we obviously are in material goods? Can we pass along clean, usable clothing to each other? This space can operate if people of good will do the right thing.” Elsewhere on the door, in a nod to prosaic reality, a sign reads: “Throw away used JUNK like: Yucky, dirty, torn or wet stuff.”
Because Bolinas real estate values have skyrocketed to nearly $1 million in recent years, though scant few houses are for sale, you’re likely to find designer jeans and merino wool sweaters in the Free Box.
“There’s also a lot of crap here,” said Jutta Hahne, a Bolinas resident pawing through the offerings. “But I’ve found many many really nice things. Just before Christmas, it was a beautiful silk scarf and a little beaded purse. See, I put my smoke stuff in that. Isn’t that nice? It’s a wonderful concept. I bring lots of things. Once, I dropped off a pair of pants that I didn’t think I’d need anymore. But I missed them. I came back and there it was. I took it back.”
Over at the Book Exchange, owner Michael Rafferty boasts an even larger and more high-brow selection of literature. Owing to the fact that poets and novelists call the town home, you’ll find many “reviewers’ advance editions” and scholarly texts among the best-sellers offerings. Unlike the Free Box, the exchange has four walls and many alcoves, all stuffed floor-to-ceiling with books. Books even hang suspended via wires from the ceiling, like birds in flight. Rafferty accentuated the space by adding easy chairs and lamps for extended browsing, and among the ephemera on the walls is a framed certificate from the National Penmanship Contest of 1949, which Rafferty tells you he won in kindergarten.
Once Rafferty learned you’re a journalist, his innate Bolinas shows and he won’t tell you anything about the exchange. He does, however, point to a metal lock box where customers can pay what they like for books. The other option is to bring a book in for one you can take. His price list: “Great Books ... $5, Extraordinary Books ... $3, Spectacular Books ... $10.”
Customer Wayne Belles, a local, says he usually exchanges books but throws a few bucks in the lock box “because I power my phone up here. It’s a great idea for a bookstore. Bill Clinton once came by and shopped. They got his picture up there some place.”
They probably also have Clinton on a closed-circuit camera. In a nod to reality, Rafferty put it in after someone stole a container of proceeds in 2007. Last June, someone stole the lock box, a troubling development for such a sharing community and perhaps an augur of changing times.
Wax, the longtime resident, said she’s seen an uptick in fights and drug use, especially among the young in town. Others aren’t so sure the problem is with the locals. They point at tourists. Smiley’s Saloon (which has a seven-room hotel in back) draws people from throughout Marin County with live music at night, and on summer weekends the out-of-towners pack the beach all hours of the day, though overnight camping is prohibited.
“It gets pretty crowded here, you know,” Belles said. “Hell, it’s almost an island. Maybe that’s the problem. It’s isolated and that’s what makes it tough to have a lot of people here. If there’s a big swell coming on or something going on downtown, it’s totally packed. There’s more surfers here now than I’ve ever seen in my life. Because, you know, it’s free. It’s not like going skiing and having to pay for lift tickets. The waves are free.”
Just like the clothing at the Free Box, the books at the exchange and the Farm Stand, an “honor system” produce market, plus art gallery, on a farm just outside of town .
The Farm Stand does have a sign, by the way. A big one. Not everything in Bolinas is so secretive.