I’m dropping by parachute into the small, western California town of Point Reyes Station.
Sam pilots my private plane. Lucky me that he sports the rugged blond good looks of Robert Redford in his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid days, and possesses the aeronautical skills of Capt. Sully Sullenberger, hero of the Miracle on the Hudson flight. Sam cautions that the cool marine layer, which creeps in at night from the nearby Pacific Ocean, might still be blanketing the area, obscuring my visibility.
With a jaunty “Look out below!” I jump, and it’s apparent that Sam worries for naught, for there’s not even a wisp of fog. The sky is azure and cloudless with a blinding sun. Hot billowy breezes, redolent with the aroma of California privet, swirl around me as I execute my landing onto Highway 1.
This scenario is the pretense I give myself, anyway.
In truth, I arrive at Point Reyes Station in a small van via winding, scenic rural roads that pass through shady redwood groves. Black and white dairy cattle grazing on rolling hills, the grasses brown and crackly from the summer heat and continuing drought, testify to Marin County’s long standing as the dairy capital of California. Popular as a tourist mecca, Point Reyes Station is a gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore, the diverse 71,000-acre park preserve on Point Reyes Peninsula, home to wild coastal beaches, headlands, uplands, farms, and the once endangered tule elk.
I’m participating in a group travel writing exercise offered during the 24th annual Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, hosted by Book Passage in Corte Madera. Our instructor is the preternaturally convivial and acclaimed travel writer and editor Don George. Don is demonstrating the art of finding, researching, and note taking in the field.
He proposes we think of ourselves as paratroopers swooping into Point Reyes Station. Admittedly an artificial premise, it nevertheless jumpstarts our mission: to glean a sense of place within a brief timespan and write about it.
Okay, so I embellished Don’s directive – call it a writer’s prerogative – but my description of today’s weather is spot on. Even the several residents I will soon meet marvel at the exceptionally superior conditions, no doubt re-validating their decisions to put down roots in such an Eden.
Don sets the stage as he leads us on an initial pass through the town, pointing out features that catch his eye, sharing insights, and chatting with a local or two.
“Point Reyes Station is an incredibly eclectic and compact little town,” he says. “This tiny village on the edge of the edge of the continental U.S. is a microcosm of the international world – very Marin, very California.”
I already sense Point Reyes Station exudes a quaint, quirky charm. From where I landed, er, I mean from the small park where we began our walking tour of the commercial district, I see intriguing storefronts, signs, and public art. Size-wise, Point Reyes Station is one-stoplight small, minus the stoplight.
Don dispatches us on our hour-long solo explorations to absorb the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and character of Point Reyes Station. Fueled with a fudgy brownie from Bovine Bakery, aptly decorated in distinctive cow-pattern motif, I canvass Main Street, interview residents, take photos, form impressions, and make memories.
Here, then, is what I found:
Point Reyes Station is steeped in and embraces its history.
Recaps and reminders of the past are everywhere.
I can’t think of any other city I’ve visited that publicly posts a written summary of its history for passersby to read, but Point Reyes Station has a permanent multi-page document on display on an exterior brick wall of the vacant, massive Grandi Building.
Coast Miwok Indians, I read, once inhabited the area. Point Reyes Station owes its existence to the arrival in 1875 of the North Pacific Coast Railroad. The owner of the property where passengers disembarked, essentially a cow pasture, took opportunity by the horns and laid out a town on a grid. Tracks and a depot were on one side of the main street, and a hotel, saloon, and shops on the opposite side, with a school and homes nearby. It was a working class town of merchants and rail and dairy employees.
Buildings dating back to the 19th century have been repurposed to suit today’s needs. The post office was once a train depot. I’m struck by the symmetry of a structure that once transported cattle, sheep, horses, chickens, and people now transports letters and parcels around the world.
A mural of old black and white photos at Wells Fargo Bank further preserves the town’s legacy. An enduring image from the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco and caused extensive damage this far north along the San Andreas fault shows a train at Point Reyes Station knocked on its side.
Point Reyes Station cultivates a present based on both timeless and emerging values, and weaves them into its culture and quality of life.
You could say Point Reyes Station wears its heart on its sleeve. A variety of handbills, posters, photos, and slogans tout the importance of promoting and protecting sustainable agriculture, locally produced artisanal and organic foods, art, the environment, and nature.
An especially telling sign of the town’s character and sensibility is the Table Top Neighborhood Farm, a small honors market a local farmer set up to sell his produce. The wooden stand occupies a corner of the park beside a shingled water tower topped with a cow skull and a Rube-Goldberg-like mechanism underneath. Shoppers make and weigh their selections, insert money into a slotted box, and record their purchases.
“1960s-era hippies and new-era hippies live here,” says Mike, one of the postal workers. “There’s a sense of bonding, and we all think alike. When the world around us is melting down, Point Reyes Station is still the same.”
Point Reyes Station honors those who give of themselves. Also in the park is a bench carved from a redwood branch and dedicated to a resident for “his writing, his life, his work for the commons.”
Betty at Gallery Route One, a non-profit arts organization, tells me they’re holding the annual Box Show fundraiser. She provides boxes to artists to “do whatever.” Their “whatever” is a brilliant showcase of “creativity within constraints.”
Claudia, whom I encounter outside the hardware store, calls the town “heaven on earth.” Owning homes in Los Angeles and Point Reyes Station, she “likes herself better here. It’s easier to be conscious about things like the environment and sustainable foods, because you have to work harder for them.”
Point Reyes Station is a singular town.
There appears to be one of every essential. One bank, diner, barber, supermarket, yoga studio, and bookstore.
One bar (Even such illustrious visitors as Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, have downed a glass of beer at The Old Western Saloon).
One saddlery (Cabaline Country Emporium & Saddlery, with its can’t-miss carved horse head by the entrance).
One garage (Cheda’s established in 1923, boasting a taxidermy wall and a bygone-days cash register, is the oldest AAA contract station in the U.S.).
One feed barn (Toby’s, where the diversity of merchandise ranges from hay bales and salt licks to gourmet snacks, from organic produce and art to jewelry, from brewed coffee and framed art to toys).
Even one Michelin Guide-recommended Italian restaurant (Osteria Stellina). Willow, a hostess, cherishes the continuity of multiple generations. “If my kids talk to a stranger, someone knows them and gets word back to me – not in a gossipy sense, but like a comforting security blanket.”
It occurs to me that what’s not here – but not lacking – is a Starbucks-like coffee shop where people gather, read, work, and pause in their day. Instead, I realize the park serves that role. A calm, collegial sense of community radiates here, from the boy sprouting a fuchsia Mowhawk, to cyclists in spandex shorts resting from their exertion, to the senior couple sharing a brownbag lunch. Why am I not surprised to see a cable strung between two houses with a beat-up tennis shoe dangling from a cord?
I’m glad I arrived in Point Reyes Station by plane (a parting shot at fantasy) rather than driving. I might have glanced around curiously, but not stopped. I might have told myself I wouldn’t miss anything, when, in fact, I would have missed everything.