I spent the last week in a loving vortex of joy and creativity and adventure. The kids and I visited my sister in law Valerie and her partner, Jane, at their home in Fairfax, California which is just north of San Francisco. They are artists and the consummate locals. There is really no way to visit a place and get as much out of a few precious days than to travel with locals and see and experience and taste the best an area has to offer. I am profoundly grateful that they took so much time from their work to play and explore with us.
We stayed in a little motel in San Geronimo called the Valley Inn which is attached to the Two Bird Cafe, a perfectly humble and sweet little restaurant where the kids and I enjoyed a warm and inviting meal. I had an artichoke that was split and grilled and filled with creamy mushroom risotto. I was keenly appreciative of every bite, as we had the whole dining room to ourselves and felt as though we were spending the first evening of our visit with our own personal chef (Tony, who is also the owner of the joint and was therefore our host, as well) and waiter. Our waiter, Billy, took the time to show us where the rhubarb was growing in the back of the restaurant for a strawberry rhubarb pie on the dessert menu. We settled on a huge slice of Dutch apple pie a la mode, that we later learned was Tony’s grandmother’s recipe. You know how I feel about grandma recipes.
Just down the hill from the motel, I happened upon a roadside sign for a market, where the kids and I grabbed a few treats. To my delight, just across the road was a mobile farm stand. It was a really wonderful little business. James, of Marin Community Farm Stands explained that instead of having multiple freestanding markets in several of the Marin County towns, he takes the fresh organic produce to the towns. The farmers who are members of Marin Organic bring their fresh produce to him, he loads it on a truck and takes the truck to a regular spot in each town. There he sets up a tent and a scale and goes about touting the fresh fare. He not only had some of the most gorgeous produce I have ever seen, but also cheeses, breads and oysters. I was thoroughly impressed. I think it is an interesting business model. I love that he is getting the great produce to areas that may be many miles from a grocery store that would be selling food of that quality. It is a terrific solution for an area of the country where so many people bike and walk. This allows him to sell the farmers’ goods four days a week. It seems like a win/win to me.
Our first whole day found us crossing the Golden Gate Bridge back into the city. When you leave Fairfax and head down to the Golden Gate Bridge, there is a tunnel. It is kind of a magic tunnel because in the course of being inside, you change weather systems. On the way into SF, we entered the tunnel in warm sunshine and exited into cool weather and fog. Heading back up the hill, likewise, you enter the tunnel in a gray land and exit the tunnel into sunshine. We dropped down from the bridge straight to the Presidio to look around. Valerie loves every little thing about the city. Val keeps a book in her pocket when in the city called the 49-mile drive which gives a historical tour of the city as you cruise around. We drove from the Presidio through Fisherman’s Wharf and up to the Coit Tower which is perched atop a spiral drive at the tiptop of the city, providing stunning views and the neato binocular machines that drive all children wild. They are the coolest, wouldn’t you agree? You want to look right now, don’t you? Coit Tower is named after this firebrand of a woman named Lillie Coit who at the turn of the century avoided all gender conventions for a woman of her station preferring coarse language, men, and fighting fires. She was a friend of the firemen and they would occasionally allow her to chase the fires and douse the flames right along with the men, much to her mother’s chagrin. I thought that was a good bit of spirit to rub off on my own Lily. We really went because Valerie had long wanted to see the WPA murals inside the tower and we were not disappointed. Numerous artists were put to work in the interior of the tower and the result is extraordinary and captures a time in the history of SF like so few other expressions could. It is worth the winding drive up the hill. But be aware that changing your mind halfway up is not really an option. A line develops for parking which winds back down the hill and I gathered that turning around was not going to happen.
We ate lunch down by the water at a little spot called The Ramp. It is at the top of a boat ramp…not very shockingly. It is a little dive (in the good way) with lots of outdoor seating and it is surrounded by sailboats. There is a boatyard right next to it. We watched men up on their dry boats, cleaning and polishing and whiling away the day dreaming of their next sail. At least that is what I imagined. The Ramp had shockingly good guacamole and we feasted on crab cakes and fish & chips. The Ramp is in an area of San Francisco known as Dog Patch.
Farley’s is a coffee shop. I have never met the proprietor, Roger. He is a friend of Val and Jane’s. In fact, he performed their marriage ceremony. But I feel like I know him because two years ago when we visited San Francisco, I said hello to his Koi fish in Bolinas and for the first time walked a labyrinth. It was his labyrinth in his yard, but he wasn’t there. This propelled us to go that week to the labyrinth outside the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Those moving experiences caused me to build my own labyrinth in Arizona that is 40 feet in diameter. I’ll have to share a picture of that with you next time I am out there. Two years ago, the children and I spent 2 weeks gathering rocks and placing them carefully in concentric circles in the dirt. It was one of the most lovely times in my life. I digress…totally. Anyway, Farley’s is a wonderful coffee shop and they are building a pretty deck out front. The coffee was great. The brownie was great. The people there were nice. And there was a really impressive magazine rack…to which I say, duh. Why don’t all coffee shops have awesome magazine racks? Probably because people sit there and read them without buying them. Who knows? Probably Roger.
Off next to visit Julie, a member of our pack, in Potrero Hill. Then into the best card shop I’ve been to in ages, Serendipity. Then on to the single most wonderful store I think I have ever visited, Paxton Gate. I could have spent all day photographing the curiosities in that store. But I suspect everyone has that impulse and cameras are not allowed. They had mineral specimens, animal skulls, butterfly and bug specimens, an extensive inventory of sedums and other exotic plants, a full size unicorn in the front, stuffed piranhas, starfish, Wardian Cases, and little stuffed rats in suits. It was just the kind of strange spot in which I could spend hours. And the children were enchanted. They desperately wanted to buy Venus Fly Traps, but settled for two really gorgeous mineral specimens. They apparently have a kids shop down the street, but we didn’t make it there.
Right next door is a pirate store. I’m not joking. I understand that it is San Francisco’s only independent pirate supply store. Crooked drawers and chests contain all sorts of treasures. There is a bucket of lard. There are keys, and shells, and pirate stockings, and groovy t-shirts. It is all in support of the 826 Valencia, a non-profit group that encourages kids to write. When we were in the store there was a rather well attended reading occurring in the back. It is difficult to be quiet in a pirate store. The group was co-founded by Dave Eggers, a writer known for his book A Heartbreaking Book of Staggering Genius. I admit that I once bought the book based solely on the title. I never got to it in the pile by my bed and it apparently scurried away somewhere.
This is when Val and Jane told me we were right by Tartine, a beloved bakery, and I almost had a fit. At this point we were in a car with two very patient but tired children, not a long lasting situation. So they dropped me off at the corner and let me run in. It was beautiful. The scents of pastry and yeast floating in the air was intoxicating. Lively and animated customers sitting at tables tearing and sharing loaves of bread set the tone. A three person musical group was tucked in the corner and it was beautiful. It was five minutes of an uninterrupted dream. I left with a huge loaf of walnut bread, a croissant as big as my head, and ten or so coconut macaroons.
We drove on through the Castro, down a giant and panoramic hill, and back to the bridge to head home.
One of the nicest days of my existence was spent at the Preston of Dry Creek vineyard. Odd for a teetotaler to spend the day with her children at a winery, yes. However, Napa-Sonoma is not so much about wine as it is about intoxicating your senses. We were attending a birthday gathering al fresco under the arbor. Mismatched chairs and well worn tables festooned the grounds and people milled about looking at the crops, farmers market and wine tasting room. It was a scene of dappled light and laughter. Val and Jane and I spent the night before making an apple pie for Melissa Phillips, the guest of honor. It was my second traveling pie. I brought the leaf lard all the way from Dallas and we made the pie in Fairfax. It traveled on my lap, heavily taped to a tray, all the way to Healdsburg, where Preston is located. These women and I, and Ford, of course, laughed away a beautiful afternoon, eating bread and cheese, fried chicken, Strawberries with Romanoff Sauce, and birthday pie. Melissa is a chef. She has been a great help to me over the life of this blog. She has given me advice, guidance, and honey. She has her own bees, a wildly fecund garden that puts mine to shame, and a vintage Mercedes convertible for which I lust.
One of the most interesting things I saw at Preston was the artichokes. In the garden proper there were several artichoke plants with the expected green globes on them, but there were also a number of artichoke plants that had gone past the harvesting phase and the thistles had bloomed fully. I had never experienced that before and they were some of the most gorgeous plants I have ever seen, I must have taken 50 photos just of these purple flowers and all of the bees and the bugs that were feasting on them.
We had two beach days, one at Dillon Beach which was crowded and bustling and happy. The other was Agate Beach which was a windy and cool landscape of tide pools and treasures. I felt like I was on a blustery coast in England or Ireland. It was by far my favorite, though the children wanted more sand. I collected on both days more with my camera than with my pockets. It was a good plan, and one which I will continue. Though I did bring home a bundle of beautiful stones. Our trips to the coast were story-book-like for me. We stopped at the Marshall Store, which is an oyster shack on the side of the road. But, it couldn’t be more quaint. We bundled the kids in blankets and sucked down raw oysters. I can’t help but think that eating a raw oyster is a way of greeting the ocean.
We also passed through Point Reyes, which is a sweet little community. I had to buy Ford a t-shirt at a funky little “country emporium” called Cabaline. Ford got happily soaked in the cold water at Dillon Beach and I hadn’t had the foresight to bring a second round of duds. If John Wayne and the Buddha opened a store together, well…it would probably look a little like Cabaline. We also grabbed some coffee at the Bovine Bakery as we passed through. I wish I had explored their pastry selection a little more carefully.
The balance of our days was spent splashing in the pool in Fairfax. The kids challenged us to underwater talent shows and spent countless hours swimming and gurgling and floating. My sisters, Valerie and Jane, took brilliant care of me as I awaited a bit of difficult news and they kept the children in a state of perpetual bliss. They did all this instead of working. We caused them to play hooky all week long, for which I feel slightly guilty. Fairfax is a wonderful little community. And, it is virtually attached to San Anselmo, another sweet little town and home to Bubba’s Diner. We had a great burger and fries there. And it is the kind of kitchen you could just watch hum all day from the counter.
The work Valerie and Jane do is inspiring. Their home is like a gallery. You have to pay attention because there is hardly a inch of the house that hasn’t been touched or adorned with the tiniest little creation or treasure. Yet it is open and full of sunshine. Val is a painter, an encaustic artist and a wonderful photographer. Jane is a graphic designer by trade, and is one of the most creative minds I know. They both are gifted and have the capacity to create incredible paintings of a giant scale. Several of Valerie’s larger paintings hang in their home. It is hard to part with a master work, I suppose. But I can never help but think they are supposed to be in gallery somewhere being fought over. I look at them all in awe every time I visit, ambling from room to room wondering why some people, and not others (I) have this outstanding gift.
Lately, they have also been collaborating with their friend of many years Carla Arimes to create art of a more accessible variety. Carla has been creating jewelry and embellishments for years, inspired by her lovely daughter Izzy. They have been working on these together, which they sell through Carla’s website, Izzy Love, and at various fairs and markets around the Bay area. You can also see the work on Val and Jane’s site, Smiling Dog Studio. I love them. I’m thinking of having them create a few for me. Listening and watching as they collected images with their cameras and talking about next steps and new ideas was inspiring and brought me home wanting to create and write. I was blessed to be there with them. I was welcomed by a giant city and embraced by small towns. I ate wonderful food and strolled on sublime shores. I understand why people spend every last dime getting out there and trying to stay. I love Texas dearly, but, let’s just say I get it.