Filed from a creekside cabin outside an unincorporated hamlet, Alexis Coe's Dispatches From the Russian River is a personal and historical exploration of leaving home and pursuing dreams.
"All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears."
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
A historic moment is happening all around me. As the cultural conquest of tech enters its final stages, I sit in thrall of a city where so many people are being forced out. I have been living among the region’s rising class of techie plutocrats in Noe Valley, one of their favorite neighborhoods, watching this process happen from the inside. I know the boomers and the busters, and I call them friends—though the opportunity to socialize in mixed company has become increasingly rare. The cultural appeal that originally tempted Silicon Valley’s relatively young, moneyed classes might just disappear because of them. If you don’t work at Google or Facebook, chances are you can’t afford to live near those who do. It turns out that “San Francisco values,” the pejorative term conservative politicians use to decry our supposed cultural pluralism, doesn’t mean much on the ground. It’s all talk. Progressive talk, but what use is a shared language when urgent civic issues, like affordable housing, make no progress? The entire city of San Francisco is going through a protracted separation on the heartbreaking, but relatively civil journey toward divorce.
They invite me to stop by, which I take as just that, an invitation, but the succession of knocks on my own front door, one that has no drapes to hide behind, quickly disabuses me of such a big city assumption.
So am I. For the last six months, I’ve been in San Francisco on borrowed time, in an apartment I once shared with the man I used to call my husband. When we met 13 years ago, neighbors in our sophomore year of college, I called him my boyfriend, and the next year, unbeknownst to our parents, my roommate. Despite being in my early 30s, I’m on my own for the first time in my adult life, and nothing that has come before this time applies. My knowledge of dating circa 2002 is just about as useful or practical as trying to live in San Francisco as a writer. If I’m no longer part of a household that includes two incomes, I don’t think I can justify living in such an expensive city, yet I can’t imagine putting down roots anywhere else.
That’s the thing about this particular moment—all that I don’t know. How has the city I romanticized for my entire childhood become so inhospitable? How do we know this tech bubble is really a bubble before it bursts? How did I go from being on the most traditional path to the most bohemian? And the truly bewildering part? I might prefer it.
Or do I? Soon after it happened, the lead-up to the publication of my first book demanded that I gather myself up and hit the road. My book tour, which kept being extended, had me playing the role of busy author for months. When I had a moment’s respite, my wildly supportive, loving friends thankfully demanded an audience nearly every hour of the day, and then I spent a couple of months in New York. I haven’t stopped moving since June.
That ends now. For the next two months, I’ll be writing dispatches for Pacific Standard from a one-bedroom cabin somewhere north of Guerneville, near an unincorporated community on a tributary of the Russian River in Sonoma County. If the 2010 census is still accurate, I’m the 355th resident. Cell service ended more than 10 miles away from my cabin. If I want to send or receive mail, I have to travel five miles to the post office. For a girl who grew up in Los Angeles and, with the exception of Santa Barbara, has only lived in major metropolitan cities, my main concerns have turned decidedly primal. If I want to stay warm under the damp, thick mass of towering redwood, oak, and bay laurel trees, the wood burning stove needs my constant attention. The nearest supermarket is 13 miles south. The cabin is furnished, down to the sole book on the coffee table, How to Stay Alive in the Woods. I brought no more of my life than what fit in my car.
A few towns over, I have one acquaintance, the writer Manjula Martin. She was just as happy to be aggressively befriended as I was to do it, but other than that, I know no one. Within the first day, however, I learn that the people who live along the creek already know me. My landlord told them I was an author, and that’s how I’m greeted when I walk outside with Rosie the Riveter, my 10 pound, five-year-old dog. There are a handful of cabins on my long, dead-end road, and all along it neighbors stop me, eager to meet the “New Yorker bestselling novelist.” I repeatedly find myself explaining the differences between making the to-read list at the New Yorker and landing on the New York Times bestseller list, the gulf between critical and commercial success, an MA in history versus an MFA in fiction, but those details don’t seem to matter to these men. The gender breakdown on the creek is inconsistent with the Census figures; it skews toward men in their 40s and 50s. I see them outside all day, tinkering with trucks and bikes, wooden structures and irrigation systems. There are a few exceptions. A nearby cabin is occupied by a woman five years my junior who rolls joints for a living, and my next door neighbors are a gay couple I’ve yet to meet.
Everyone is a shade of white. I don’t know what they make of my olive complexion, but I think that this year’s Passover Seder will be for one. They’ve told me that this is backcountry, and coming from them, that means something. Many grew up nearby, and I’m bombarded with stories about someone they went to high school with who also lives in town, a person they love or hate or impregnated. They invite me to stop by, which I take as just that, an invitation, but the succession of knocks on my own front door, one that has no drapes to hide behind, quickly disabuses me of such a big city assumption.
On the second day, I walk five miles into town, delayed by a collection of wild turkeys crossing the road. Other than that, I’m undisturbed, passing farms and vineyards, walking up and down grassy hills populated by horses, chickens, sheep, and cows. Away from the cabin, I travel unnoticed by all but a beast of a bull who watches me every step of the way, thwarted by a fence splattered with signs warning against trespassing. I never knew “moo” could sound so menacing.
The friendliest of all my neighbors is Hank*, a mensch who seems to be everywhere doing everything, a “MARINES” hat permanently affixed to his head. He renovated my kitchen, repairs cars, and, like most of the men in my area, is a part of the entirely volunteer fire department. When I run into him at the general store, he tells me that he’d like to redneck my Volvo. I smile gamely, but I have absolutely no idea what he means.
I’ve thought about taking to the woods for years, but there was never a good time, in my stable life, to go there. Suddenly, it seems like the perfect place for me to be, roaming a landscape that is so extraordinarily fertile it has, since gold was discovered in 1849, been the steadfast object of exaltation and exploitation.
“I’m gonna make it four wheel drive,” he says.
“It is four wheel drive,” I reply.
“Not until it’s raised four feet up,” he guffaws, and the woman behind the counter howls appreciatively.
I don’t need anything here, but I came to see what the 100-year-old institution had on offer; the brand of choice seems to be Kirkland, Costco’s finest, with a hefty convenience tax. The town has a bakery, a tavern, a supply store, an inn, a bed and breakfast, an auto repair shop, and a café. There’s one of everything, except for church. There are two of those, and a Baptist camp. In just 15 minutes, I’ve visited every single institution that tends to the needs of the community.
That’s just as well. I want what’s here to be enough, not just in the town or in the cabin, but in myself. I’m no transcendentalist, but I won’t deny this is all very Walden. Like Henry David Thoreau, I’m quitting a big cultural center I love in order to understand it from a distance, throwing myself into a sojourn of simple living, self-sufficiency, and personal introspection. But at this point, I’m also one of Joan Didion’s women, a habituate of my own badlands, my consciousness sharpened by change. I’ve thought about taking to the woods for years, but there was never a good time, in my stable life, to go there. Suddenly, it seems like the perfect place for me to be, roaming a landscape that is so extraordinarily fertile it has, since gold was discovered in 1849, been the steadfast object of exaltation and exploitation. I will spend quiet days here, considering dislocation and transmutation, the complicated nature of leaving home and pursuing dreams, and the dance between running and seeking.
I’ll likely wax rhapsodic about my surroundings and make romantic literary comparisons throughout this series, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s not Eat, Pray, Love meets Wild, either, though my experience as a youngish woman living alone will indelibly color this adventure. The next seven dispatches will blend history, reporting, and memoir, and include everything from start-ups to pot farms. From the mouth of the Russian River down to the San Francisco Bay, I’ll be casting a critical eye on Northern California, and what becomes of our most ambitious dreams.
*The names of locals have been changed.
Lead photo: A creek near the Russian River. (Photo: loresjoberg/Flickr)