Bolinas (Part IV)

Yet, the contrast between the north end of Stinson with its elitist enclave and the simple 1960’s ethos of Bolinas could not be any more distinct. Surely, surfers flock here and Brighton Beach has its share of typical beach goers and combers. Nevertheless, the beach scene and the town are unconventional, hidden away out of the mainstream, eccentric even; and the local populace likes it that way. Years ago the county tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the road off the highway into Bolinas marked, as the turn-off does not intuitively present itself. Locals persistently took the sign down until the county gave up and left Bolinas to rest easy, its anonymity preserved.

Something needs to be said here about the origins of this reclusive mindset, the change of circumstances alluded to at the outset. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, young people, disillusioned with the goings on in big city San Francisco, migrated north to this quiet beach town, for even as it is now so it was then. Stinson Beach had been attracting tourists for most of the twentieth century but because of the geographical idiosyncrasies put forth above, few ventured into this secretive enclave.

As more and more like minded individuals settled into the town, they became more politically involved and eventually had themselves elected to the local board. At one particular juncture, a proposal to construct multiple condominiums and a golf course came up for a vote. Contrarily, the newly elected politburo chose to vote for a permanent moratorium on grants to water rights. The result of this bloodless coup is the Bolinas seen today, frozen in time and blissfully ensconced in relative obscurity.

There is a definite counter-culture feel to the place, lacking any sort of tourist culture. Although some wayward groups of the tourist class do wander into town now and then, outside of the beach there is little to sustain any interest. A single block comprises the “downtown”: one general store, one gas station, one café, one museum, one restaurant/bed and breakfast, one or two art galleries and one hotel/saloon, “Smiley’s”. This establishment claims to be the oldest continuously operating saloon in the West (since 1851); it is a grand, old and funky place: a living, breathing microcosm of Bolinas itself.

Brighton Beach

The road into town winds around a bend onto Wharf Road, which follows the mouth of the lagoon out to the sea, terminating abruptly at Brighton Beach. As mentioned, the beach here opens out from a high bluff. Yet, even though this sandstone cliff continues to crumble, houses nonetheless sit high atop this precarious perch, sporting supports that presumably help to keep these abodes from tumbling to the sand below. North of the lagoon, the beach, as in Stinson just across the strait, is a wide expanse of sand but one that gradually narrows as it curves away to Duxbury Point, a mile or two off to the north.

A short way up the beach there is another road that cuts through the bluff. It is here that most locals access the coastline. What little beach activity there is – for Brighton Beach has none of the large crowds seen in Stinson, even on the warmest of days – takes place between the access here and the lagoon to the south. Farther along north, a small seawall extends out to the water line. Beyond this point, the seashore is driftwood and seaweed strewn giving it a wilder character. Large lengths of dead trees and the considerable clumps of seaweed hinder the progress of hikers along this section of the seashore, yet it is not impassable until Duxbury Point where the sand turns to rocky reef that blocks any forward progress except at extreme low tide.

Agate Beach County Park

There are however two different routes around Duxbury Point that allow access to what is known as Agate Beach County Park. One of these requires going up a stairway at the local’s access road, following a couple of roads inland a bit that lead out to a break in the surrounding sea cliff and down onto the seashore on the other side of Duxbury Point.

At the northern end of this beach another trail leads down from the bluff to the beach along the edge of a gulch carved out by a seasonal stream: Jack’s Creek. Trees and brush fill the steep gorge scoured by this creek and the narrow trail leads down one side of the ravine to the beach, up the other side to the tops and from there over Bolinas Point.

Agate Beach County Park comprises the beach here and some of the lands atop the bluffs. This beach is considerably shorter than Brighton Beach, completely wild and not as broad; at high tide the waves crash almost directly onto the crumbling cliffs and at low tide the rocks of the exposed reef fill the southern half of the beach all the way up to the bluffs.

Agate Beach describes another bluff-backed but smaller arc than Brighton Beach that leads to yet another promontory, Bolinas Point. Unlike Brighton Beach, these cliffs are not sandstone but, as the name implies, agate: very hard stone that breaks into small nuggets of rock. Out on Duxbury Point, there are gaping holes in the cliffs where apparently quarrying of this agate once occurred. Towering over the beach, these bluffs look as if they would break apart at the slightest touch – and periodically there are miniature landslides.

Between the cut in the bluff and the creek scored ravine, the sea-cliff is unbroken. Some dwellings stand atop this bluff upon its broad, relatively flat plateau; but a large section of this highland is public property that runs out to the cliff edge. In the summer dry season, the greensward here at first turns a brilliant yellow as if to simulate the sun, then eventually burnt gold, and ultimately a desiccated charred brown; a luxuriant green supplants these scorched fields with the advent of the winter rainy season.

Bolinas Point

As mentioned, at both Duxbury Point and Bolinas Point, rocky reefs – formed of solidified magma, the remnants of long ago lava flows – extend out a considerable distance into the ocean. These are both part of Duxbury Reef, a federally protected marine habitat, which, in turn, is part of Point Reyes National Seashore. Whereas the reef completely encases Duxbury Point, Bolinas Point is actually two separate points, which act as bookends for a small, narrow, nameless beach. These stalwart sentinels – and the short stretch of sand they shelter – extend well out into the waters of the reef; consequently, access to this beach – and passage around the point – is only possible at extreme low tides.

The terrain on the other side of Bolinas Point atop the coastal bluffs consists of rolling grasslands – some private pastureland (watch out for the cow flaps!) and some National Park Service lands – all of which terminate at the crumbling cliffs. The cliff tops here afford dramatic and expansive views of the reefs below as well as the lofty headlands as they sweep from far away San Francisco on north to Point Reyes.

RCA Beach

Also visible from this vantage point, just beyond Bolinas Point, is RCA Beach, so called for the numerous communications towers the now defunct company erected nearby, back a bit from the beach. MCI currently owns the towers, yet old habits persist; locals still refer to the beach as RCA. Two arcs, separated by a small sand-bounded point (calling to mind the top of a valentine heart), describe RCA Beach. The northern arc extends out to yet another point; and so it goes on up to Drake’s Bay and Point Reyes; but this is where the town of Bolinas ends. The seashore here is the wildest yet as there are no structures, except for a small retreat christened Commonweal that is also set back from the beach. Moreover, there is no vehicle access: the only way in is on foot.

Atop the sea cliff, high above the spot where the reef that bounds the northernmost eminence of Bolinas Point gives way once more to a sandy shore, a narrow trail opens and leads down to the beach through an ever-widening cut in the bluff. More, the cant of the headlands here is less acute; consequently, the grade is more hospitable to vegetation. The low dense shrubbery of the chaparral intermingles with prolific plots of ice plant that shroud the slopes. This vine-like, ground-cover succulent alternately displays varied shades of verdure in the wet winter months and canary to crimson by the end of the long dry season. Interspersed among this tangle of scrub are irregular copses of warped, stunted trees that over time incessant winds have sculpted to the contour of the terrain.

Down on the beach the surf comes ashore in erratic swells owing to the underlying reef; the rocks are of such irregular shape and situation that the familiar long break of an ocean swell is not usually in evidence here. Yet, sometimes when the tide is up, the breakers attain the necessary amplitude to surmount the ridge of the reef. On such occasions the waves rise up, roar mightily over the seaweed-enrobed rocks and crash onto the beach, only to recede once again into the roiling waters of the reef, leaving in their wake a shallow white froth that thins to an azure reflection.

Here is seascape I treasure: an expansive, extraordinarily picturesque sweep of undisturbed sand-bounded and rock-strewn coastline utterly exposed to the inexorable forces of wind and wave; white-capped sea-green swells crest and break on a golden shore, set against a tumble of ochre-, auburn- and emerald-hued foliage that falls away to the sea; the salt-laced air resounds with the screech and squeal of surly seagulls skirmishing over some small scrap; skeins of skittering shore birds nimbly flit forth and back in a tightly choreographed ballet performed in perfect synchronization with the eternal ebb and flow of spent waves; while high above, circling raptors wheel adrift on soaring columns of sultry air that ascend toward a pellucid cerulean sky. All of which afford, divest of the tourist horde, an enveloping experience, at once of vigor and repose, which proffers a near peerless serenity suffused seclusion and serves as a soothing counterpoise to the stresses of a worrisome world.

© Stephen Alexander 2008

Bolinas (Part IV)

stephen hewitt

Lanexa, United States

  • Artist
    Notes

Artist's Description

Final entry to a 4 part series

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