The Lost Coast

Jeff Ewing

Bolinas, California isn’t quite there. Threads of fog drift across the middle distance, making the landscape insubstantial, the people half-formed. I can hear the thud of breakers crashing somewhere up ahead, just shy of the edge of the world. My car slows on its own, adding to the sense of stalled momentum pushing like a headwind in from the Pacific. I’ve crossed four counties chasing a ghost from the dry heart of the Central Valley to a stretch of coastline crawling with them. I’ve made an effort to get here, but the people I pass on the street make it clear that I really shouldn’t have. A pair of sixty-year-old surfers amble along the shoulder toward the gentle break of Bolinas Beach, their thinning ponytails and gray chest hair curling like dried kelp. Eyes straight ahead, they pretend I don’t exist.

The residents of Bolinas are willfully oblivious and value their privacy to a famously absurd extent. Throughout the ’90s, they waged a guerilla war against the highway department, repeatedly tearing down the sign on Highway 1 pointing the way into town. Each time the sign went back up on a stronger pole, sunk deeper in the ground, and each time it fell to greater applause. Caltrans finally gave in and gathered up their cones. But the truth is, the road’s not that hard to find if you’re really looking for it. Its entrance is marked by a wide apron of dirt on the shoulder, a crosshatch of tire tracks that a hundred yards in becomes the well-maintained pavement of Olema-Bolinas Road. The road drops sharply toward an encroaching finger of Bolinas Lagoon. The wind off the lagoon carries the brined tang of oysters and the cat pee smell of eucalyptus. The water looks thick and torpid, sloshing against the bank.

The first houses are strewn in a line of flotsam along the edge of Bolinas Lagoon. Their walls have the texture and substantiality of driftwood. The town proper begins a little farther in, condensing along two streets branching in a canted V like the half-open legs of Joao Carita’s pregnant Carla. Brighton Road heads off to the right toward the houses clinging to the side of the bluff above town. Wharf Road meanders straight ahead, past Smiley’s Saloon—a hotel bar where Hemingway and Bukowski clones drink themselves self-consciously to death—until it dead-ends at a concrete barrier at the south end of the beach.

The fog thickens near the water, leaving the jetty at the mouth of the lagoon hanging in midair. The fog is a part of the town’s personality, an atmosphere especially conducive to creativity and depression. The mordantly comic author Richard Brautigan killed himself here. So did my friend Michelle Turenne. They both auditioned other places along the way—Brautigan in Montana and Japan, Michelle in Sweden and a string of Northern California towns—but none fit the bill quite like Bolinas.

In 1579, Sir Francis Drake drifted along the California coast for almost a month, past Stinson Beach and Bolinas Lagoon, recording the same weather every day: fog. Chances are, he sailed past the entrance to San Francisco Bay without seeing it. Eventually, the fog lifted enough to reveal a usable harbor, which most people put at Drakes Bay in the lee of Point Reyes.

As many have done since, Drake pulled in and hung out for a few weeks. He careened his ship in the bay, which involved beaching it in the shallows and tipping it part way over to make repairs to the hull. Through gaps in the fog, the ship would have appeared to be wrecked on the rocks of Point Reyes, the first casualty of many.

At some point, Drake explored inland far enough to find, to his surprise, the sun still burning. He left a handful of his crew behind to establish a doomed colony along the lines of Roanoke, then tipped the Golden Hind back up and headed for the Moluccas.

When he returned to England, Queen Elizabeth ordered Drake to forget he’d ever been to North America to avoid stepping on any Spanish toes. She hid the records of the journey away, and only scattered pieces have resurfaced since. The primary existing account is the Anonymous Narrative, a heavily edited summary that reads like a travelogue dictated from a rehab clinic. It does mention the harbor and the fog, without locating it very precisely. It also describes a trip ashore to plant a brass plate nailed to a post commemorating the landing and claiming the peninsula for England.

Maps drawn later, based on the Anonymous Narrative and second-hand sources, show the West Coast blooming out into the Pacific like a cloud of silt, the cauliflower shore a transcription of fog mistaken for land.

Michelle and I met in 1978 on a plane to Paris. From there I was going on to Norway, and she was flying to Sweden for a year’s study abroad. We were kids, wired up, sailing off to who-knew-what. The Atlantic rolled away outside the window, ours the only two with the shades up. I moved two rows forward, and we talked across the aisle for the last half of the flight. In Paris, she went out to the Latin Quarter with a group of other exchange students, and I went to meet a friend of my sister’s who was studying Saint-Saëns and playing pipe organ in a 15th-century church. She partied most of the night, and I ended up at Shakespeare & Co. like a stereotypical pilgrim, flipping through books that I thought at the time might tell me something. The next day we took separate flights to Oslo and Lund, and that was that.

Two years later, back in California, she was a new person. On the plane she’d been a petite blonde with a shyly direct way about her; a good student, you could tell without asking. Now she was in and out of school, working at a biker bar in Davis, living briefly with a nineteen-year-old and raising sheep. She’d probably begun her transformation in Sweden, turned her back on herself and tried to become someone she might have seen that night in the Latin Quarter: a French girl with oil-black hair, spiderweb stockings, and a train of admirers. Whirling out on the floor at the tail end of disco, a figure by Toulouse-Lautrec if he’d been alive in 1978 and doing coke instead of absinthe. I have no idea what brought about the change. I put a lot of stock in free will back then and believed that everyone did things for very considered reasons no matter how impenetrable those reasons might be. It would have been unthinkable to me that she was simply fed up with the person the rest of us were so taken with.

Brighton Road threads between a white Melvillian church and a shingled mini-mall before dissipating in an estuary of parking spaces. Three surfers tug their wetsuits on beside their salt-crusted Xterra, and a mother and daughter make their way hand-in-hand toward the long arc of the main beach. About halfway down the parking lot, Terrace Avenue veers uphill in a tight S. It hugs the edge of the bluffs until it tops out on the Mesa, a flat expanse of wind-stunted bishop pine and cypress hanging out over the Pacific like the ragged border of a pre-Magellan map. Most of the roads on the Mesa dead-end at No Trespassing signs or locked gates. There are rumors of booby-traps, spiked boards and buried saw blades, but that seems improbable. It’s not that the people of Bolinas wouldn’t stoop to such tactics. The thing likely holding them back is that the effort would be ultimately counterproductive—if you get a flat, you’re stuck, and they want you out.

The Mesa is where the artists live, and it shows. Most of the houses have a homemade look. Wooden towers, rodeo stands, and aircraft turrets top the roofs in far-out-of-code attempts at getting a better view. Brautigan’s house was on the Mesa, a three-story redwood-paneled Arts & Crafts jumble pressed into the side of a hill and surrounded by trees. At night, with the lights on, the windows would have reflected heavily. Looking out, he would have seen himself thrown back, self-consciously hunched with a bottle or a glass in his hand, his thin hair brushing his shoulders, a loner kid from Oregon walking toward a trout stream that would always turn out to be a stairway in the brush. Then he’d take a slug, turn around, and head back the way he’d come, back toward the study in the corner of the first floor where his daughter had seen a ghost their first day there.

“Don’t worry, it won’t hurt you,” he’d said with seeming familiarity. Then added, as a friend or a lawyer might: “It’s best just to leave them alone.”

Somewhere along the coast of South America, Sir Francis Drake picked up a small herd of llamas, vicuñas, and alpacas. His crew called them sheep. One of the crew, a wise guy named Tom Moone, tried to ride an Auchania llama. It had been a long voyage already, with few diversions. According to Francis Fletcher’s account, it didn’t go well: “The sheepe turned his mouth toward moone and spued full in his face a very lothsom stincking vomyte.”

They ate that llama.

Drake took the rest north with him as he nudged the North American coastline, looking for the inlet to the Northwest Passage. It’s possible he let them off to graze around Bolinas. Their unfamiliar Andean bleats would have rattled the Miwoks living along the shore and up on the Mesa, their cries rolling up over the bluff like shipwrecked children abandoned in the fog below.

Before she moved to Bolinas, Michelle lived not far from me on a seasonal creek in a suburb of Sacramento. There’s fog there too, called “tule fog” after the valley’s once ubiquitous reed. In the winter, it rolls in, thick and low-slung, hanging close to the ground and cutting visibility to a matter of feet. It can last unbroken for weeks. The only relief is to drive up into the foothills where, less than a thousand feet up, it vanishes and becomes almost impossible to imagine. The sky opens up; there’s color and light and folks who have no idea what fog can do to you.

Most people need the refuge of that clear air, but for some, the sun and the sky seem in their suddenness artificial and falsely soothing, like unearned laughter. They miss the low visibility, the damp air, rain and fog. They’re subject to a kind of inverse seasonal affective disorder, an agoraphobia to SAD’s claustrophobia. Long vistas are oppressive, the blue sky a vein waiting to open. A contradictory sense of possibility lives out in the fog—anything could be waiting beyond its gray wall; love, happiness, success. It curls around them like the shell of a fortune cookie.

If there were officially designated disorders—the way there are state flowers and birds—Bolinas might claim this one for itself. Fog masks the awareness that comes on clear days, looking out on the gape of the ocean, that you’ve come as far as you can, that aside from the occasional container ship drifting like a toy along the horizon, there’s nothing more out there.

Following the road down off the Mesa, I pass through a tunnel of eucalyptus before meeting up again with Olema-Bolinas Road. Michelle’s house is close to that junction. There’s a For Sale sign in the yard. The house has changed hands several times since her death, a common fate of houses with that kind of history. The ghosts of speculation move too easily through empty rooms.

I don’t know the specifics of precisely where, or even how, she killed herself. There are people who would know, but I can’t call them. They’d wonder why I’m curious after all this time. It might strike them as morbid or sensationalist, a ghoulish game of Clue, and I don’t think they’d be wrong. But there’s another possible reason for wanting to know: the idea that the how will give some kind of intimation of the why. A sort of emotional CSI, with the loop of the knot or the resting place of the bottle communicating what was going on in her head or her heart. It’s a tempting trap that’s almost certain to lead nowhere. There’s too much missing. The years, for one thing, between the Air France departure gate and a shingled house in Marin County. What happened in that interstice I can only guess at. People change, is the common explanation. But it’s also possible that people simply continue along the same trajectory, a long fall we mistook all along for something else. 

I look back up at the Mesa, at the windows throwing what light there is back at me. Maybe Bolinas has earned its privacy, maybe I’m just looking for someone or someplace to blame. But the hauteur of the town’s insistent silence puts my hackles up. 

I spoke to Michelle only once in the five years before her death, at the wedding of a mutual friend. She was dancing with her daughter, who was about five then, the two of them spinning in a tight circle, moving so fast that the little girl left the floor on the outside of the turns. There was a contrived freedom to Michelle’s movements, a careful neglect in the way she was dressed as if for a picnic, in a print dress almost as girlish as her daughter’s. It was just the two of them. She was married, I’d heard, but there was no sign of her husband. We talked briefly about inconsequential things, exchanging the guarded pleasantries of people who realize they don’t know half of what they thought they did. She lived in Bolinas now and loved it. Had I ever been there? No? There was no place like it. A real community.

I wasn’t a big part of her life, and I can’t pretend to know what last thing drove her to do what she did. I’m just someone who knew her and who, every once in a while, misses her. An occasional hitch, as though a tooth’s broken off a gear somewhere. The wheel catches and things fall briefly out of sync; a momentary stutter, the strike-slip of an alternate world brushing up against this one. It’s what she might have sensed out there beyond Duxbury Reef: a half-seen land drifting in and out of view, an irregular line in the fog. The what-might-have-been. An imagined lost world that revealed itself in the after-ring of a voice somewhere behind her or in the thumping bass line of a dance song. Or by way of smells—dinner cooking, candy wax lips melting, wet hair drying.

The part of her that I can get at is very small. The rest disappeared in a rush on July 30, 1993. Everything was lost—the conversations, the jokes, the regrets, all gone in the warehouse fire of her death. I look up the year online to see what was big then, hoping to jog something loose, hoping that other things will fall into place behind: Informer, Freak Me, Janet Jackson, UB40, Robert James Waller, John Grisham, Jurassic Park, The Fugitive, A Few Good Men, Bosnia, Howard Stern, Tommy Tune, etc. etc., a list that means absolutely nothing and could play no possible part in talking anybody into or out of killing themselves. I scroll back through earlier years: Put a Little Love in Your Heart, Is That All There Is?

The malignant utopia of iDeath in Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar was purportedly modeled on Bolinas. It was the first book of his I read, a remote and uninvolving allegory that, despite its surface breeziness, is singularly oppressing. The quick and funny insights that keep his other books alive are missing entirely, replaced by a vague, psychedelic dread. The whole book is deadened by a barren hipness—except for that first line:

In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my
life is done in watermelon sugar.

It’s got a music to it that he spends the rest of the book trying to recapture, the voice of a kid who’s not a kid anymore playing tricks on himself, devising clever obstacles to moving on. The words curl back on themselves, feeding off their own friction, refusing to progress. It’s a strange way to start a novel—with the deeds already done, the life already lived, the taste for sweetness gone. There’s a tangible regret to it, its melody grown sadder for me over time.

The fact that Brautigan came back to Bolinas to kill himself says something about Bolinas, and that’s this: The self-creation encouraged so enthusiastically here will always drag its opposite along with it. If you’re the artist, you’re free to tear up the painting. And that’s cool, the Bolinistas would say. Except that it’s not. There’s an air of hand-washing, of self-absolution, that starts to grate before long. You see the bones of it all around once you start looking—in the bullying individualism of the No Trespassing signs, the bunker-like stance of the houses on the Mesa. And it becomes increasingly difficult to buy into the sincerity of a community spirit that applauds its free-clothes giveaway while at the same time letting Brautigan’s body lie untouched on his floor for a month. Live and let live’s one thing; die by yourself is another.

The picture I’ve stumbled across online—Dog in Field at Dawn with Fog—was taken near Bolinas, according to the caption, but it could be almost anywhere. The dog is frozen, tail up, looking off toward the tree line in the distance. The fog is well off the ground, wispy, in the process of burning off. The grass is still wet. The bird scent that the dog has caught on the air is a promise unfulfilled—and, for the moment, unbroken.

Michelle was trained as a vet, a childhood dream she’d followed dutifully through college and veterinary school. She made it all the way, but even before she moved to Bolinas, she’d lost interest—or the obligations of other lives asked too much—and she let that dream go too. Nonetheless, the inscription on her grave reads: She loved all creatures great and small. The grave is just inside the iron gate of the Olema Cemetery, a little up the road from Bolinas. It’s sheltered by a hedge of junipers and covered with a blanket of white gravel. There’s an etching of a pine tree in the stone, the chiseled edges of its stylized limbs already rounded by fog and salt. 

A few miles farther north an old farm fence straddles the San Andreas Fault, the left section twenty feet ahead of the right. The two halves were offset during the 1906 earthquake and vividly illustrate the slicing action of the fault. It tears and severs, rather than opening up. In the fog, the farthest post could almost be mistaken for a skinny child. I start to calculate how old Michelle’s daughter would be, then I stop.

Sir Francis Drake left the Point Reyes-Bolinas area in late June 1579, heading home across the vast question mark of the Pacific. The locals saw him off, lighting fires and wailing. He might have made a speech, pulled a MacArthur and said something like: “I shall return.” He didn’t.

In 1936, a plaque thought to be Drake’s was found half-buried on a ridge near San Quentin. It was displayed at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library until an examination by metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith determined that it was a fake, part of an elaborate hoax. The real plaque is unaccounted for. The original residents of Bolinas, the Coast Miwok, have not so far admitted to having removed it to discourage other ships from stopping there.

Jeff Ewing

’s essays, stories, and poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, Utne Reader, Southwest Review, ZYZZYVA, Willow Springs, Subtropics, and others. He is the author of the short story collection The Middle Ground, published by Into the Void Press, and the poetry collection The Wind Apples, coming in 2021 from Terrapin Books. He lives in Sacramento, California.

ART: Los Angeles by S. Levina

SOFIYA LEVINA is a Russian-born mixed-media artist who blends idiosyncratic characters and abstract environments to represent internal worlds. For the past five years, Levina has been working in Los Angeles and New York and recently held an eight-month-long live painting residency at Raised in Los Angeles for DTLA Art Walk. Levina has showcased art in stores and galleries in Los Angeles and New York, runs a monthly online holistic health/art zine called Raw Honey, and creates custom clothing and embroidery.

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