The Town That Doesn’t Exist

This t-shirt does not exist. Because the town of Bolinas does not exist. Or, that’s what they’d like you to believe.

It’s from Bolinas, California, a beautiful little end-of-the-road seaside village near San Francisco. And yet off the beaten path, or it has been.

End of the road? Looks more like the end of the world? Even though it’s Just twelve miles from Fisherman’s Wharf as the crow flies. For most of modern history, Bolinas was just an obscure seaside village: fishing for awhile, then a little tourism. Then cows.

Then, cultural refugees. Bolinas locals aren’t you average locals; more about that later. But they have long worried that the village, their refuge, would be “discovered. They would even tear down road signs that led motorists to Bolinas.

In fact, they only stopped tearing down the “Bolinas” signs when the county resolved to stop replacing them. Why waste the money? To this day, no road sign on coastal Highway 1 points to Bolinas.

Well, Bolinas was discovered and exploited anyway. Greater forces were at work: like, piles of money. But it did take a while.

Bolinas was and is an outpost of old hippies, dreamers, artists, poets, eco-farmers and utopians; rich people live in the heights above town. The hippies fled to Bolinas from the decline of the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco in the late ’60s.

Bolinas became a mecca for true hippies fleeing San Francisco, and the decline of the Haight Ashbury in the Sixties. A group of New York City poets, improbably, also settled in. Land was still cheap in odd corners of the Bay Area. Bolinas is simply the most famous of the places that hippies resettled. Even though it didn’t want the fame.

The hippies and poets made Bolinas, a village of 1800 or so, a community with its own special culture, locally-grown organic vegetables, murals, literature, art, and surfing (hence the Bolinas Surf Shop tee . Bolinas even possesses a nice surf break or two, and when you’ve got those it’s nice to be off the beaten track.

This alt community thrived for decades, ever striving for undiscovery. “Live and let live,” the Bolinas Surf Shop t-shirt says. That could apply to Bolinas on the whole, but probably refers to the tee’s great white shark logo. Bolinas is famous for its great whites. People surf anyway; the last incident was 20 years ago, and the victim needed only 100 stitches. Great whites don’t hunt people; they only attack when they mistake you for a seal. So don’t act like a seal; and live and let live.

I knew about Bolinas, but never bothered to go: I wondered, why go to a place that didn’t want to see you? About 30 years ago, however, I visited by accident:

Coming back from a long day of hiking in Marin, my host’s car pulled off Highway 1 in Marin in search of cold drinks. “There’s no place to buy drinks out here,” I said. The driver just grinned. We drove down a side road, crossed a causeway and glided into a rundown if leafy business district. People milled around in a disorderly manner. Cars parked creatively. It looked exactly like this:

“Bolinas, huh?” I thought. I was unimpressed. Though the market where we bought soft drinks was full of earthy-looking organic root vegetables. And the newspaper in the rack was mimeographed and full of stream-of-consciousness journalism. But you won’t get the full effect from downtown. The full effect is more visible from a distance, as from the Bolinas photo above, or this one.

Yes, the locals had good reason to keep Bolinas off the map. But try as they might, real estate prices continued to edge up. After the Internet hit big, few places on Earth could stay “undiscovered” for long. The new tech money began to desire weekend homes: some of them in beautiful Bolinas. Surf’s up at the end of the road! At some point there were Bolinas t-shirts.

And when Air BnB came along, it really was game over. Bolinas rental homes began shifting over to lucrative short-term rentals only. The permanent population of Bolinas is in decline. Of those hanging on who don’t own property, many sleep in yurts, in trailers parked on a friend’s property, and in other stopgap situations.

The locals aren’t giving up: a locally-organized housing trust is building affordable housing for the working classes. But not fast enough.

Meanwhile, Fortune magazine reported in May 2022 that you could snag Grace Slick’s old Bolinas pad, complete with guitar-shaped swimming pool, for a mere $14 mil. A lovely life-sized dolphin sculpture presides over one end.

You should buy it: so you can loll at poolside where Slick and Jerry Garcia used to jam and feel like you’re part of it all. Or something. Some day, no doubt, there’ll be tour guides to “authentic old Bolinas.”

Hey, it’s not that much different from the town I live in, down the coast 90 miles or so. My town, Santa Cruz, changed from beautiful hippie and surfer haven to plush Silicon Valley suburb in 40 short years. We keep the traditions alive — for marketing purposes, and for the old timers who “got theirs.”

This sort of transition goes back to the Roman Empire, if not further. If there’s a beautiful spot near where the money lives, the wealthy will find that spot and push out the regular folk.

The fifth-century Roman poet Rutilius Namatianus wrote a poem called De reditu suo, (“The Return”) about his voyage home to Gaul from Rome by boat to check on what invading barbarians had done to the family estates.

About 30 miles out of Rome his boat passed the port of Pyrgi, part of the larger community of Caere. Once, fishing towns had dominated this stretch of coast. But Caere had become a vacation spot — a great place to swim, apparently. Now all that could be seen from the water, Rutilius wrote, were the quiet seaside estates of wealthy Romans. No doubt each villla had its own bath house or outdoor bath with gorgeous mosaics and perhaps a dolphin statue at one end of the big pool.

The Western Empire was on its last legs in those days, and before the fifth century concluded the barbarians would sweep through Caere and Pyrgi and destroy it all.

One hopes that Bolinas faces a brighter destiny, and all of us with it: even as our own world grows more and more insecure. I do wonder what the hypothetical barbarians of tomorrow would make of the guitar-shaped pool.

Postscript: as of October 2022, Slick’s Bolinas mansion is off the market and now available as a short-term rental for a mere $1900 a night. You know you want it, right?

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