We rented a house about 60 miles up the coast in Dillon Beach, with a population of slightly more than 200 residents, one of the small, isolated communities that hover anonymously on the coast perfectly in sync with the ocean. While it sits on a cliff overlooking the beach, there are several nearby pathways allowing beach access, though a clear path to the beach in town is not accessible during high tides, so one has to be cognizant of the tide schedules. The town is located opposite the peninsula tip of the commercially undeveloped Pt. Reyes National Seashore, just at the point where the ocean feeds into Tomales Bay, the site of the freshest oyster harvests serving the Bay area. This is really a tale of two towns, where the older part of downtown features a trailer park and a few tiny houses all packed together just off the beach, featuring a surf shop, a small diner opened only a few days a week and a general store owned by the Dillon Beach resort, offering a few cabins to rent. That’s it, with the irony being three palm trees planted directly outside the café windows, creating a post card effect, with the owners adding a bit of southern California kitsch to the northern California landscape. While up the hill, a newer community is being developed, an elevated subdivision of homes built on a hill with ocean views. As a single road winds through these “beach” houses, they are comprised of a variety of smaller houses to immensely lavish estates, each with large picture windows offering a view, most featuring outdoor decks or patios, sporadically placed so that large open spaces exist that don’t obstruct the views. Much like Chicagoans have summer homes in New Buffalo or Benton Harbor on the sandy shores of Michigan, wealthy Bay area residents have summer beach homes that they can retreat to from time to time, often renting them out during their absence. What surprised me the most was how empty these gorgeously located houses were, with more than 50% of them completely vacant. It gives one pause to think of all the homeless people living in tents or under blankets on the streets, where an entire tent community was seen living on a public sidewalk against a wall of a Best Buy store in San Francisco, compared to this wealthy group of multiple home owners, moving from house to house depending on the seasons, and leaving multiple bedroom houses empty for large periods of time. Only in America, one thinks, is there so much disparity. But perhaps not, as this may reflect the impact of a global economy, where so many people have been left behind, and the haves express so little interest providing for, or even thinking about, the have nots.
Just down the road from the public beach is Lawson’s Landing, which is a privately owned gated community, where you have to pay to enter, offering trailers and campgrounds for fishermen, considered a fishing and boating resort at the mouth of Tomales Bay, including a large sandy beach that is relatively calm waters. While there is public access to the Dillon Beach, the parking is not free, as it costs $8.00 a day, payable to the general store, making this the only private beach anywhere in California. Deer roam the town and the hills, often hanging around the road, where they are not afraid of people or even cars, but seem more like pets roaming the countryside. They might cross the road, but never run away, as people routinely leave apples for the deer to eat. The town is a favorite for surfers, all wearing wet suits, as they tend to get bigger waves away from the protection of the Pt. Reyes peninsula, but there are also body boarders and even kitesurfing, as the wind gusts are strong enough to propel the surfers. Curiously, there is no road in or out of this town that does not involve jutting away from the ocean, where there is a series of country roads traveling through the rolling hills of farm country, with cows seen scattered about the hills, but also sheep, horses, free-range egg farmers, and even a llama mixed in. This inner territory is sunnier and hotter, certainly dryer, with completely different characteristics than small coastal towns, as these folks don’t have neighbors or towns for miles in any direction, generating their own income through a kind of self-sufficiency, yet most of these farmers collectively belong to the Grange, an organization where they band together, sharing common interests, where rural communities continue to have Grange Halls. This continuing practice feels very old-fashioned, yet is a vital part of the farmer’s history. This region accentuates organic food, even in restaurants, where they are strong farm-to-table advocates, where everything they buy and prepare comes from local produce, including local livestock. The best example of this, and the best breakfast place within 50 miles (and a place I’d drive 100 miles to get to), is the Estero Café (http://www.farmtrails.org/partner/estero-cafe), open daily from 7 am to 3 pm, with dinner served on Wednesdays, located in the heart of farm country on Hwy 1 in the small town of Valley Ford. Formerly a roadside hamburger joint attached to an auto body shop, it sits directly under one of those picturesque water towers. While there used to be a gas station, that’s long gone, and it used to be run by a mother/daughter team of Ariana Strozzi and daughter Lesley Smith (Ariana Strozzi - Casari Ranch), but they now run a horse ranch, selling the café to new owners Samantha and Ryan Ramey in December 2014. Both are chefs, but she runs the café, which is obviously a labor of love, also the Community Farmers market, while they both team up to run a catering business as well. With a small counter in front of the grill with about six stools, along with a few indoor and outdoor tables, a unisex bathroom, and local art for sale on the walls, this place has an extraordinary option of choices, where you’re not likely to find fresher ingredients anywhere across the land.
When heading north up the coast, we have to pass through Valley Ford to get to Bodega Bay - - yes, the site of the apocalyptic 1963 Hitchcock film The Birds - - which is evidently the biggest town for miles with a population just over 1000. The Bay itself is hardly recognizable from seeing the film, as there are houses and commercial development surrounding it, though it’s interesting that the town is swarming with birds, seen sitting on docks, telephone wires, or fence posts. While there is a gas station in this town, there are also plenty of bikers hanging out, as if expecting to take up the reins once Hitchcock’s apocalypse kicks in. In the nearby town of Bodega, about a mile away, there is a general store that is a veritable shrine to Hitchcock’s film, including movie photographs, posters, clothing articles, DVD’s, and other paraphernalia associated with the film, while out front there is a statue of Hitchcock greeting all incoming customers. More visible, even along all these severely hilly country roads, is the presence of cyclists, who are literally everywhere in this state. In some cases the incline is too steep, and cyclists are walking their bikes uphill, but we were shocked at the level of difficulty that many of these cyclists were pulling off, as they weren’t shying away from some of the steepest and most dangerous climbs on cliff edges, especially sharing these narrow, winding roads with vehicular traffic, as they are seen on every road surface traveled on his trip with the exception of interstates. And not just a few, as they are out in droves, with each seemingly scrutinizing their maps at roadside stops. While Los Angeles is consumed in snarling auto traffic and smog, northern California is totally committed to going Green. This is noticeable each and every day. Easily the best restaurant in Bodega Bay is the Terrapin Creek Café, (http://www.terrapincreekcafe.com/), which is all about local ingredients mixed with Asian fusion, giving each course a modernized texture. It’s located in what looks like a strip mall just off the beaten path, with no views of the Bay, yet this place is extremely popular with people of all age groups, with a very relaxed vibe, and was absolutely packed even on week nights. The best restaurant with a view is Drakes Restaurant, formerly The Duck Club, which is part of the Bodega Bay Lodge (http://www.bodegabaylodge.com/), which is located directly on the grounds of a bird sanctuary, offering views of both the Bay and the ocean right outside the dining room, with sunsets occurring nightly. Obviously the reason to explore this territory is the ocean, as it offers an ever-changing landscape, as you can literally drive up the coast all the way to Alaska and see some of the most spectacularly beautiful, rugged coastal landscapes in the world. California has the advantage of towering redwood forests that still survive, adding an element of unique distinction to the rest of the world. Driving further north to Jenner, another tiny town with a population just over 100, this is where the ocean meets the inlet of the Russian River, with more than a half dozen beaches to pass along the way, with giant-sized rocks and boulders sitting just off the coast getting splattered by the waves, where often you can catch a glimpse of harbor seals and sea lions sunning themselves.
Heading south of Dillon Beach, following the Tomales Bay, you come across two towns, Marshall, with a sign claiming a population of 50, though it’s closer to 400, home of the state’s longest running sustainable oyster farms that provide service to most of the entire state, where you can shuck your own, reserve picnic tables, or buy the freshest oysters, clams, and mussels in the state, providing an array of organic, homegrown sauces, where they love BBQ oysters out here. The popularity is reflected in the back-up of customers in cars parked in the vicinity stretched for about a half a mile in both directions. In town, we ate at Nick’s Cove (https://nickscove.com/) overlooking Tomales Bay at sunset, where a married couple rented a cabin at the end of the pier with a piano and heater, where servers walked the entire length of the pier replenishing their food and drinks, where they were still at it when we left hours later. Interestingly, a rival oyster company has recently been forced out of business. Drake’s Oyster Company was the only commercial fishery with traps along the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, which was declared preserved national grounds by President Kennedy in 1962, granting a 40-year lease to the company to continue harvesting as they had an established history. Once the lease expired, it was granted a ten-year extension to study the environmental effects, however the Department of Interior refused to extend the lease after December 31, 2014, finally sending the company out of business (After a long battle, Drake's Bay Oyster Co. packs it in - LA Times), with the government insisting that a wilderness area remain free of any commercial impact. If you mosey on further south, you come across the town of Point Reyes Station, a thriving metropolis of less than 800 people, named as one of the ten best small towns in America by Budget Travel magazine, yet it retains a distinctive counterculture vibe mixed with modern chic, a unique food scene with Cowgirl creamery (which also has a storefront at the San Francisco Ferry building, though it was recently sold to a Swiss dairy company) that uses only organic milk, making a variety of organic cheeses, with a best-selling Mount Tam triple cream brie cheese, but also eclectic café’s, bakeries, and a general store that also includes an art gallery, a yoga studio, and a coffee bar. The town also served as science fiction author Philp K. Dick’s home residence from 1958 to 1963, and got its name as one of the 19th century railroad stops north of Sausalito. The 70,000 acres of the Pt. Reyes National Seashore are home to more than 1000 species of plants and animals, including Tule elk grazing on the shoreline of the Pacific Ocean at the northernmost tip of the peninsula, while 45% of the birds in America can be found here. There is a lighthouse on the westernmost point, which can be reached by climbing down 308 steps, but unlike most lighthouses which are placed at the highest point so they can be seen at a distance by ships at sea, the Pt. Reyes lighthouse was built low to get below the habitual fog banks that perpetually hover over the territory. While there are 140 miles of hiking trails, outside of camping, the only lodging available is the Pt. Reyes Hostel near the Coast Trail trailhead called Hi Point Reyes (http://www.norcalhostels.org/reyes), which was once the grounds of three 19th century pioneer dairies, now providing dormitory style rooms at a cost of $35/day for adults, half that for children, situated about two miles from Limantour beach, a two-mile stretch of continuous, unending beachfront, with cliffs and dunes on one side and the Pacific ocean on the other, where the more remote northernmost area is a nude beach with clothing optional, also reachable by 1.8 miles of hiking trails, where the closest bus stop is six miles away. For Bay area residents, this is the best and closest opportunity to get into the wild.