Bolinas sits on the ground
by the sea, sky
- Robert Creeley, "Bolinas and Me"
Perched upon the southernmost tip of the Point Reyes Peninsula, with the
Pacific Ocean to the west and Bolinas lagoon to the east, the town of
Bolinas seems like an island, just offshore. One day it may be just that.
Bolinas sits on the western side of the San Andreas Fault, the Pacific Plate,
which is slowly pulling away from the continent. This geological fact is
oddly in synch with the nature of the Bolinas citizenry who have worked so
hard for so many years to keep the rest of the world at a distance.
Despite it's physical remoteness, and the prevailing isolationist attitude
of its inhabitants, Bolinas wasn't always known as a place that discouraged
visitors. The California Gold Rush of 1849 drew thousands of people, from
all over the world, to San Francisco. Local entrepreneurs saw a chance to
make their fortunes by filling the need for food and shelter for this tidal
wave of immigrants. The land around Bolinas lagoon, about 30 miles north
of San Francisco, was densely forested with redwood, oak and fir. Easily
accessible by sea, boats could be loaded with lumber and other goods in
Bolinas lagoon and ferried back down through the Golden Gate.
The boom that took place in San Francisco initiated a boom in Bolinas,
which at that time encompassed a large swath of Marin county coastline,
from Dogtown in the north to Stinson in the south—a parcel that had been
part of a Mexican land grant to the Briones family. Saw mills sprang up
overnight and Bolinas became a busy port city. Many ship captains and
crew members also took up ranching and farming, producing goods for the
San Francisco market. There were shipbuilding yards around the lagoon.
Hotels and saloons sprang up along Wharf Road in Bolinas.
But by the late 1800's the silt build-up in the lagoon forced the ship
builders to move elsewhere. It also made it impossible to use the lagoon as
a port for supply ships to load their goods. The boom eventually went bust.
Fishing, farming and ranching still went on there over the years, but Bolinas
became more of a quiet, rural outpost than the bustling center of commerce
it was during the boom years.
By the 1960s Bolinas was a forgotten, scruffy little rural coastal town.
Being just an hour north of San Francisco made it attractive as a getaway
place for weekenders. Some, like San Francisco Chronicle feature writer
Margot Doss and her husband, Kaiser physician John Doss, bought a second
house there - in their case, a house that would serve as an entry point to many
of the poets that eventually made Bolinas their home.
Bolinas was quiet, picturesque, and off the beaten path. Most of the
weekend and summer beach goers chose Stinson Beach as their regular
destination. A few surfers would hit Bolinas, but the place wasn't a heavy
draw for tourists.
Just down the road, Stinson Beach had poetry connections to the 1950s
North Beach scene in San Francisco. Poet Robert Duncan and artist Jess
Collins had a house there, where poet Jack Spicer sometimes visited.
Joanne Kyger among others participated in Duncan's poetry workshops
held there. Later, in the mid-sixties, poets Lawrence Kearney and Richard
Duerdon were living in Stinson as well. Poet Philip Whalen lived for a
short time in Duerdon's garage.
In 1965 the writer Bill Brown, who had been living in Point Richmond in
the East Bay, bought a parcel of land in Bolinas. Poet Jim Koller helped
Brown clear the land and a local Bolinas carpenter named Calagy Jones
built the Browns a house there.
Brown and Koller were the editors of the influential Coyote's Journal.
Coyote's Journal was started in 1964 by Koller and Ed Van Aelstyn.
Koller was introduced to Van Aelstyn by Philip Whalen. At the time Van
Aelstyn was the editor of The Northwest Review, a literary magazine
published by the University of Oregon. The University suspended
publication of the review in 1964 in reaction to an issue which contained
work by Artaud, Whalen, and an interview with Fidel Castro. Koller, Van
Aelstyn and Will Wroth decided to start their own magazine, and Coyote's
Journal was born. The journal printed an impressive array of poets and
writers including Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Paul Blackburn, Charles
Olson, Joanne Kyger, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Brautigan, Clark Coolidge,
Larry Eigner, Anselm Hollo, Richard Duerden, Tom Pickard, Philip
Whalen, and others. Coyote's Books had an equally impressive list of titles,
including Charles Olson's Reading At Berkeley, Philip Whalen's Every Day,
Highgrade and You Didn't Even Try, Allen Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex
Sutra, and Michael McClure's controversial play The Beard. Many of
these books were designed by Zoe Brown (who also designed and typeset
books for Donald Allen's Grey Fox and Four Seasons Foundation books).
Brown's house on the Bolinas mesa was only large enough for the
immediate family; Bill, Zoe and daughter Maggie. Koller built a loft over
the carport where he stayed for a brief period, before moving to nearby
Sebastapol. Several of Brown and Koller's friends, mostly writers from San
Francisco, made the trek north to visit and spend time with them in Bolinas.
Among these were poets Lew Welch, Gary Snyder, Kirby Doyle, Philip
Whalen, Joanne Kyger, and Richard Brautigan. Brautigan began writing his
novel In Watermelon Sugar (which was published in '68) while staying
with a mutual friend near the Browns home in Bolinas.
Brown was born in Seattle in 1918, had served in the Merchant Marines,
in the British Ambulance Corps in North Africa, and then in the U.S.
Infantry. He had survived the Italian campaign in World War II, but was
captured by the Germans near Nancy, France, spending a year in a POW
concentration camp in Poland before being freed by the Russians. His
experiences as a POW are recounted in his novel The Way to the Uncle Sam
Hotel (Coyote Books,1966). Brown made his living in east Marin running a
When Swiss-Italian poet Franco Beltrametti first came to the US from
Japan in 1967, Philip Whalen, who was then in Kyoto, asked Koller to meet
Beltrametti and his family at the pier, and drive with them to Bolinas.
There Franco, his wife Judy, and their son Giona, were introduced to the
Browns, Joanne Kyger and Jack Boyce. Beltrametti returned to Bolinas in
1974, spending several months there.
Just north of Olema, between Point Reyes and Bolinas, Peter Coyote
lived with a mix of truck people and Diggers, a notorious group of San
Francisco anarchist street theater activists that promulgated counterculture
ideals. Many of the group's members partied with the Browns in Bolinas.
Another interesting person in Bolinas, one with heavy-duty Beat
credentials, was Hal
Chase. Chase was a friend of Jack Kerouac at Columbia. He was originally
from Denver, Colorado, and was a friend of Neal Cassady before leaving
Denver for college in New York. It was Chase who introduced Cassady to
Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1946. The character named Chad King in On the
Road is a thinly disguised Hal Chase.
In Bolinas Chase worked primarily as a boat-builder and was something
of a visionary,
preaching a return to nature, farming the land, and using local woods to
make small fishing boats.
By 1968, there was an interesting mix forming in Bolinas, including both
the older representatives of the San Francisco beat scene, and the younger
hippies—representing two generations that shared a similar bohemian
anarchist philosophy. Along with these newcomers were the long-time
residents of Bolinas, mostly farmers and some fishermen. It was by all
accounts a mellow scene, but there was revolution in the air.
It's important here to understand the historical and cultural context. In
the 1960's, America's materialism, as well as the country's cultural and
political norms, were being questioned by a new counterculture of young
people, generally referred to as hippies. It was a tumultuous time. By the
late sixties controversial issues such as civil rights, the Vietnam War,
nuclear arms, the environment, drug use, sexual freedom, and
nonconformity were rallying points for the young whose lifestyle integrated
ideals of peace, love, harmony, music, mysticism, and religions outside the
Judeo-Christian tradition. Yoga, meditation and psychedelic drugs were
embraced as methods to expand individual (and collective) consciousness.
In 1967 the Human Be-In at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park attracted
thousands and was a precursor to The Summer of Love. Among those
taking part in the Be-In were counterculture luminaries Timothy Leary,
Richard Alpert, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. People were encouraged
to question authority in regard to the Vietnam war, civil rights, and
Members of the counterculture believed their way of life should express
their political and social beliefs. Personal appearance, song lyrics, and the
arts were used to make both individual and communal statements. At the
same time the counterculture shaped its own alternative media of
underground newspapers and radio stations.
As the sixties wound down many within the counterculture dropped out
and left the cities for the countryside to experiment with utopian lifestyles.
Away from urban problems and suburban sameness, they built new lives
structured around shared political goals, organic farming, community
service, and the longing to live simply with one's peers.
In San Francisco the blissful 3 month dream known as The Summer of
Love had shattered into police shakedowns and drug busts. Predatory rip-
off's of the spaced-out youth that flocked to the city were rampant. Bolinas
was one place you could go to get away from the street hassles and into the
back-to-nature bio-ethos that was a hippie ideal. The proximity to San
Francisco, as well as the rugged beauty and rural setting made the place a
primo find. Not to be discounted as one of the attractive features of the
town was the fact that Bolinas was (and still is) an unincorporated
municipality—no city government, no police force. The downtown area
consisted of about 2 blocks on Wharf Road. Smiley's Bar, Scowley's Cafe,
and Pepper's (the general store) were the highlights. To the north of
downtown, up on the mesa, was a scattering of rough little cottages settled
in among eucalyptus, cypress, and monterey pines. Giant cascades of
nasturtiums spilling over wooden fences. From the mesa bluffs, towering
over Duxbury Reef, the largest shale reef in North America, you could hear
the tide movements carried up on the almost constant sea breeze.