California’s Coastal Villages: A Primer


I live in one of Northern California’s quaint yet tattered coastal villages. I happen to love cold, wind and fog, which is why it works out so well for me. Northern California’s beaches are very different than the beaches you see down in Southern California. People actually die in the surf here on a regular basis because of what we call “sleeper waves,” big waves that come out of nowhere, snatch up random people, and play with them until they are worn out and can’t make it back to shore. This is a place where even PETA would lobby in favor of saving the poor oppressed humans against the heartless cruelty of the ocean.

Ours is a sleepy little town, mostly. During the week it is especially so, as the residents get up, go to work, and stay inside their houses once they get back home. Dogs are walked, children are heard but not seen, smells of cooking and woodsmoke intermingle with fabric softener as you stroll down the streets. There is a mixture of neighborhoods here of course, from the high-priced homes around the golf course to the trailer park down by the water, but in general people go about their lives in relative peace and harmony.

On the weekends, though, things change. The RVs start rumbling in midweek, the largest of them towing smaller cars behind them like giant toddlers trailing their favorite pull-toys. The RVs towing big boats are manned by the most erratic drivers, but fortunately most are aware of that fact and occasionally pull over to let others pass them on the narrow roads. The giant toddlers seem to be unaware, perhaps because of their age, that there are other humans behind them with schedules to keep, schedules that could actually be met if the incredibly slow toddlers in front of them would only pull over and take a nap so that others could get by.

Also appearing on weekends are the bicyclists. They ride up to the local coffee shop at all hours, clip-clopping inside with their cleats and their Village People aerobics outfits as though nothing were amiss, even looking at us strangely for wearing age- and weather-appropriate clothing. I have noticed the local shopkeepers being very civil towards them, which I think speaks well of our tolerance and social etiquette.

While some cyclists descend on us suddenly like a plague of locusts, others give fair warning by first driving up in their SUVs with bikes perched on top like mechanical plumage. Drivers sporting bicycle plumes atop their cars always seem intent on reaching their destination promptly. But at a certain point one has to wonder what sense it makes to spend a day’s wages on gasoline to go someplace where you can ride your bicycle for three hours in the wind and fog. In their favor, however, they are much better drivers than the RV owners who plan to watch their satellite TVs all weekend. Maybe it’s the exercise.

There are three types of cyclists I have identified on our local roads. The first is the Pack Animal, those brightly colored, uniformly dressed cyclists who buzz up and down the coast in pods of a dozen or more, like emaciated whales migrating along the coast. These cyclists are fearless, or maybe just suicidal, which would explain why they are here at all, on narrow roads with no shoulder and curves which allow for no visibility by speeding motorists (motorists, it should be noted, who may be feeling the flush of victory after having actually passed an RV).

Pack Animals can be found on any given stretch of barren countryside pedalling hell-bent for leather, whether uphill or down. They carry no jackets, no handbags or toiletries aside from a water bottle, so it’s safe to assume that they’re just doing laps and not actually going anywhere. When I had to run laps in P.E., I went at a snail’s pace so that I wouldn’t overtax my system before the bell rang. It was a pleasant meander really, and this was in the days before the jogging craze even caught on—I have always been somewhat ahead of my time. I did not understand these energetic lap-runners then, and I really don’t understand them now. At least back in P.E. we could wear baggy shorts.

The second type of bicyclist out on the coast highway is the tourist. Tourists are easy to spot. They come in pairs usually, and may or may not be dressed alike. They have jackets, a sensible accessory in the biting wind. Their side bags are loaded down with gizmos, snacks, and a good novel. They toil up a hill, stop for a sip of water, and coast down the other side. These cyclists actually seem to be enjoying the view, enjoying the ride, and in no particular hurry to get to the next night’s camping destination. I like these people on principle, and am always careful not to hit them when driving past.

The third type of bicyclist is the local. The local is usually male, usually in dishevelled clothing, with the ruddy complexion that speaks of days spent out on the open water or propped up on a barstool. I’m not sure whether they ever make it from Point A to Point B, but either way they are clearly not enjoying themselves. Their expressions are grim, their pace slow, wobbly, and difficult to predict. I have on occasion pulled over to let them pass me.

Normally ours is a sleepy little town, yet there is no end to the excitement around here, if excitement were measured by emergency vehicle sightings. On weekends especially there are more screaming sirens rushing up and down the highway than I ever heard while living in San Francisco. Partly this is due to the vagaries of Mother Ocean and her seemingly endless appetite for human catnip toys to bat around. But many of those 911 calls are caused by sheer human stupidity, and the ocean air seems to bring out this quality in people who otherwise lead sane, responsible lives.

For instance, there is the classic tale of the vacationing couple who wisely avoid the dangerous surf and instead loll in the river lagoon, a pleasantly warm body of water on the sheltered side of the beach. By the middle of the afternoon however, this couple drowns after all because tragically they couldn’t swim in the first place and should never have been in water deeper than a bathtub.

There are also the brave young men who decide to climb on large rocks that are accessible at low tide, but when they try to get back the tide has come in and they are left stranded on a lone rock surrounded by raging surf. These gentlemen are similar to the intrepid youth who decide to climb up the rocky cliffs, but neglect to plan their descent and so are stuck halfway between land and sea until the shiny red rescue helicopter comes to aid them. While we do have deaths and dangerous accidents caused by factors other than stupidity and poor planning—the occasional shark attack, for instance—the numbers do seem to pale in comparison.

Of course this is just the breaking-news version of what goes on here, delivered in breathless tones on the evening news. In fact, most of the time things around here are pretty quiet. A typical weekday morning on my block starts around 5 am, when the fisherman down the street steps outside and tosses the evening’s empty beer bottles into the recycling can. It is a sound that, while a little loud given the time of day, reminds me above all that I live in a village where people care about the environment. We recycle, and each of us has a huge blue echo chamber of a recycling can out front, where empty bottles can be heaved with great fanfare so we all know 1) who is up at this ungodly hour, and 2) what they’ve been doing all night. Yet I am not complaining. I like a fisherman with a tidy house.

Fishermen get up, get in their boats in all kinds of weather, and spend a day or half a day out on the open ocean. That type of danger keeps a person honest, and makes him stick to traditional drugs such as alcohol. Part-time construction workers, on the other hand, do not get up at 5 am to toss their empties in the bin. They are still awake because they have been imbibing a little local methamphetamine, and they will go off to work strangely subdued with an intense glint in their eyes. Later they will come home and crash, and for the rest of the week their pickup trucks will sit idly outside their houses while they stay inside with the blinds shut, recovering from their earlier productivity.

Occasionally I take a Sunday drive down south to our sister villages in coastal Marin County. Now, to most people there is really no difference between one or the other California coastal town. However, to a local the differences are enormous, and every so often we have to drive down there for a day to remind ourselves how happy we are to live farther up the coast.

The entire history of California can be summed up by the sentence: “They messed up all the good places, so we had to move a little farther out.” You see it time and time again, from the Indians trying to escape the Spanish to the farmers trying to escape the sprawling cities. In the case of Marin, the problem is not that they have destroyed the environment, but that they’ve refreshed and renewed their towns so much they have become parodies of themselves, and everyone who lives there is too earnest and well-meaning to notice it. After half a day spent eating and browsing, I am more than happy to return to my town which is a little farther out, a little more windswept, a little less cared-for.

There are lots of bakeries, cafés and hand-made clothing boutiques in West Marin towns. The boutiques are set up in quaint old storefronts along the main street with cute, organic names like Elk Mountain Weavers Cooperative and Shred of Decency Knitters Guild. Apparently there are whole communes of women living here who raise alpaca sheep, spin and dye the wool, and turn it into clothing. Apparently too, all they ever wear are brightly colored hand-woven shawls, scarves and hats over shapeless tunics made of natural fiber.

You can tell right away that you have stepped over the line from Sonoma to Marin County, because entire towns along the highway have been photoshopped. Everybody who works in a bakery there looks like a young Sophia Coppola. Touring bicyclists who have stopped there for lunch sit around carving thin slices of pear with their bicycle repair tools, and topping them with dabs of fresh goat cheese from the local creamery. They all own “green businesses,” whatever that means, and talk in reverent tones about their recent audience with the Dalai Lama. Not to be outdone by the day trippers, the local erratic bicyclists in Marin towns are actually enlightened yogis, even though they still look like town drunks. The Dalai Lama stays at their homes when he comes to visit.

The whole Marin Coast has a right-livelihood patina that hugs the land like a layer of cotton lycra. You can go into any bar and shout the words “Sustainability! Community!” and instantly three dozen yoga instructors in sexy yet casual workout clothing will be swarming over you, wanting to know whether you own a green business and how long you’ll be in town. Yes, the coastal towns of Marin County are heartwarming places, freshly painted and full of wholesome fun, as befits any town sitting smack dab in the middle of Ewok country. Fortunately, their coffee is also very good.

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8 Comments on “California’s Coastal Villages: A Primer”

  1. Chas says:

    “emaciated whales migrating along the coast”

    I like to call them Spandex Insects.

    “They all own “green businesses,” whatever that means, and talk in reverent tones about their recent audience with the Dalai Lama.”

    Too funny.

  2. Buffalo says:

    Nice writing, Anne. Like most of my urban friends, I love to drive up the coast, but I always feel a little uncomfortable, since there’s no getting around the fact that, no matter how well behaved and polite I am, I’m still an auslander. It helps that I’ve spent so much time in the Mendocino range, so I know a few things about living on the edge in weather that can be challenging, but that was awhile ago, and now I’m pretty much just another weekend flat lander, trying to remember not to clamber on the outlying rocks above the surf.
    One thing that does help, though, is when DJ and I bring our mountain dulcimers along. We’ll play anywhere, anytime, and it’s rare when we don’t get a few people, asking about them and singing along. I guess musicians- at least acoustic, stringed instrument players- are pretty much welcome wherever we go.
    Again, nice writing and thanks for the thoughts. I can smell the sea weed from here.

    • annehill says:

      Oh that would be a nice sight, among the fresh-pears-and-goat-cheese crowd, Buffalo! The Mendocino coast is enchanting; being there briefly as a kid was what made me decide to live on the coast as an adult.

  3. When I lived at Tahoe, we called them “Tourons” – a combination of tourist and moron.

    This is wickedly funny.

  4. Martha Hill says:

    That safely leaves all the Angry Buddhists back in Berkeley, I suppose…


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