From Point Reyes to Red Bluff and Back

by John on August 7, 2006

With all the imbroglios in the community flaring back and forth about what our new editor is doing, who is truly organic/environmental, and is the community really sustainable, I found myself reflecting that I have lived in West Marin for over 30 years, almost making me a local. But rather than jump into the fray, let me share with you a personal story. I have an addiction to cantankerous old cars, and one of my fondest 70’s West Marin remembrances is of the retired Hells Angel mechanic in the nearby village of F_________. Hank (not his real name) admired my persistence and would let me use the hoist in his garage in exchange for a six-pack and the occasional help with the intricacies of British S.U. carburetors on M.G.’s, Triumphs and other British paragons of reliability.

A classic Marin early autumn Saturday….warm, almost hot, spreading green oaks, golden hills, purple shadows. I had just tuned my car and was finishing up the carbs on an ancient MGA for Hank when the biggest RV we had ever seen pulled up, bus-sized, long before such giant vehicles became common, its two occupants not only from Los Angeles, but exuberantly gay. The fresh water system in their RV had sprung a leak. Could Hank fix it? I helped him as we worked to find the leak, ending up dismantling a large chunk of the interior as the pair told of their travels up the coast and their interest in art…especially stopping off in Big Sur. They liked the scene there a lot, probably because of the influence of gay artists like Emile Norman, who did the marvelous stained glass window at Masonic Temple on Knob Hill in San Francisco. They said they enjoyed San Francisco but expressed that they found the Mill Valley Art Festival somewhat “ordinary”.

It took ages to find the leak, a split plastic fitting that drooled everything out as soon as the hot water heater got going. We got the RV buttoned up. Hank, whose customers often drove VW bugs and busses of dubious provenance, was one of those old school mechanics who would enquire how far they needed to drive their car and how much the could afford and would perform the appropriate level of repairs. Hank walked off into his little office and pulled out his pad of invoices. He told the pair, as he told many of his customers “just pay me what you think it’s worth”. The most talkative one handed him a $5 bill. I winced…but Hank looked at them, smoothed out the bill and looked back at the pair. He paused for the longest moment, wrote up the invoice for $5. and swung his feet up on the desk.

“You know, you’re right about Mill Valley. No young artists can really afford to live there any more”. (Even then, real estate was on the rise….little did we know). “A lot of the artists have moved north….but I wouldn’t try taking your rig up Highway 1 to Mendocino. But if you want to find an innovative art colony before it gets “discovered”, you need to see a town called Red Bluff”. Hank spun a tale of young artists from San Francisco braving the broiling agricultural flatlands north of Sacramento to find an affordable haven of cottonwood shade and sunshine, an artistic community nestled in a curve of the Sacramento River, caressed by the warmth of Tuscan-like evenings. Lines were soon drawn on maps. With palpable anticipation, the RV freshly filled with water and 52 cents per gallon gasoline, the pair left: north, not to a frontier of creativity and tolerance, but perhaps the most conservative, hardscrabble, sun broiled holdout of California’s cowboy past.

It was pretty funny to imagine them asking a bunch of Red Bluff cowboys how to find the “art festival” but then I worried that they had been sent off to almost certain mayhem, Hank was sure they would figure it out. Fast forward some 30 years. After a visit to Portland, I’m on Highway 5 south, glissading down from Shasta’s flanks, past the resonant thrum of half a dozen giant diesel railroad engines challenging northward to attack the grade at Dunsmuir with a couple of thousand tons of freight in tow. Occasionally the road and valley align so I get a rear-view glimpse of Shasta’s peak, turning golden in the late afternoon sun before Hwy 5 launches out of the hills and onto the interminable flatness and haze of California’s Central Valley. Just before the Sacramento River at Red Bluff, there’s a roadside banner.

It reads, “Art Festival”.

No way. Not possible, but maybe…perhaps? I can imagine it might have happened, that Hank was right, and they figured it out, survived and even prospered, seeing a possibility hidden in Hanks yarn-spinning of so long ago. Maybe they were into real estate, not art. After all, a couple of decades make a genius out of anybody who invests on the edge of growth in California. Or maybe they just liked cowboys. Broke Back Mountain is but a couple of years in the future.

It’s a contemplative 200 miles and three and a bit hours between Red Bluff and Point Reyes. Do communities change people as much as people change communities? I’ve spent varying lengths of time in a variety of places that have gagged on their own attractiveness: Marblehead, Massachusetts, New Hope, Pennsylvania, and closer to home, Sausalito and Mill Valley, which I described in dispatches East as Marin’s twin cities of Sodom and Granola. I think I can draw two rules from all this: a place exists in both time and space and communities work best when the majority of folks are willing to stand in the other person’s shoes for a few minutes. West Marin was and is and will be beautiful. Tomorrow, the community will be what those who are able and willing to stay will make of it.

The photo is of  Emile Norman’s Masonic Hall mural, recently restored.  In one of those small world coincidences, I subsequently met Emile along with Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker and Will Parrinelo at the Mill Valley Film Festival which premiered their film on his life.  I was absolutely delighted to find that he had actually read my article on the web.  He’s one of the few artists who, in my aerodynamic opinion, gets birds in flight correct, and we talked about how it’s not enough to get the image right, but the artist had to capture the dynamic.  Unfortunately, he passed away recently at the ripe old age of 91.  I cannot recommend the film highly enough.  Shown on PBS in 2oo8, the video documents a wonderful life, well lived in turbulent times, spanning a continent of geography and social change from a ranch in San Gabriel, to design in New York to a creative haven in Big Sur with his partner, Brooks Clement.  His tales of meeting with Brooks, working together and building a home and community in Big Sur are a true love story.

Emile’s website:

The DVD of the movie from PBS:

Leave a Comment


Next post: