Monday 24 July 2017

San Francisco: On the hippy trail

San Francisco's flower-power generation grew up and created an enclave of protected natural beauty. Tyler Wetherall explores the city's neighbouring Marin County

Tyler Wetherall

'There were men and women naked all over the beach, everyone was huffing and puffing on pot, children were running wild, there was drugs and sex everywhere," Gordon Johnson, a local resident, is telling me, gesticulating energetically at the seaside town in front of us.

I am looking at what can only be called middle-class America. A well-dressed family with a 4x4, a baby and a Labrador are window shopping at an organic store while admiring the "adorable" turn-of-the-century wooden houses. Wild, naked, drug-taking orgies it is not.

I have come to California's Marin County to rediscover the place of my birth and the setting of my parents' numerous tales of 70s rock 'n' roll excess. It is just a 15-minute drive from San Francisco over the majestic orange pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge and past Alcatraz Island; you know you have arrived when you drive through the rainbow-painted tunnel.

But the Marin I am witnessing is a far cry from the former hippy mecca that my parents, and many natives, fondly recall. In 1967, an estimated 100,000 people with flowers in their hair and buzzing with ideas of Cultural Revolution descended on San Francisco. But as the hippy movement became popularised and the legendary streets of Haight-Ashbury overcrowded, many moved to neighbouring Marin, enticed by the untouched wild beauty of its countryside and proximity of the cosmopolitan pleasures of the city -- which remain the two best reasons to visit this unique place.

I am staying with my dad, Ken Chasser, in Sausalito; once home to Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, now a fancy marina thriving on tourism and wealthy boat-owners. He shares an old Victorian pile with two friends, both old-time Marin residents. They spend their days looking out over San Francisco Bay, discussing their medical marijuana licenses and sharing stories with me about the area's past.

Marin folk are passionate about their province, and it's easy to see why. With 520sqm of protected open space -- around half the entire county -- the surroundings are sensational. Small, sensitively-built towns are scattered around the bucolic and diverse countryside, fringed by the wild waters of the Pacific Coast. From the towering redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument to Mount Tamalpais -- the mountain that dominates the skyline -- this is the great outdoors. We spend our days walking the extensive network of footpaths that criss-cross the countryside, perusing the colourful boutiques and eateries of the small towns and visiting farmer's markets and fêtes.

My dad, who is an investment and art consultant, and his friend Gordon Johnson, a former lawyer who now runs a meditation centre in Corte Madera, take me on a tour of the former hippy hotspots. First stop is the seaside town of Bolinas, which once epitomised the anti-establishment ethos of the 70s. But without my guides, I would never have been able to find it -- locals have been tearing down the road signs here for the past 40 years in an attempt to keep their charming corner of California a secret.

After an oil spill in 1971, newly environmentally-aware activists arrived to clean up the mess. When they discovered the town officials' plans to turn the stunning strip of beach into a fancy marina, they staged a coup d'état of the council and have been running the town as an isolationist community, effectively halting all development.

The original settlers grew up and settled down, and the town is now charmingly slow-paced, with ramshackle houses dripping in bougainvillea and quaint art galleries and cafés. Remnants of its alternative history remain in a few confused vagrants and in events such as the annual Sun Festival to welcome newborn babies or the rainbow-painted free box, which distributes unwanted clothing.

From Bolinas, a 15-minute drive along the coast takes us to our next stop at Stinson Beach, a collection of 60s-era beach houses where the clash of BMW and campervan culture is most prominent. The three-mile strip of sandy beach -- where Janis Joplin's ashes were scattered -- is a favourite for surfers and city-dwellers looking for a weekend getaway. With the 6,200-acre Mount Tamalpais State Park encircling Stinson, it has the appeal of being somewhere you can disappear into the countryside in a matter of minutes, as well as enjoy a chilled glass of Californian white wine with a bowl of local Tomales Bay mussels while looking out to sea.

After dipping my toe in the notoriously cold water, we start a six-hour hike from the far end of the beach heading up Mount Tam -- as locals call it -- through Redwood Forest. The trail takes us up on narrow paths through fantastical sun-dappled woods of multi-trunked California Bay trees, with babbling brooks and thronging bird life. The woods open onto a wind-swept heath where we spot our first buck, fleeing into the shadows. As we pass a steady trickle of hikers, my dad recalls the 1967 rock concert on these hills that many say kick-started San Francisco's Summer of Love.

After several hours of hiking we reach another spectacular viewpoint, and it is impossible not to be struck with the beauty of the place. We look down across San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the jagged coastline of the Marin Headlands and over the cliffs out to sea. They say it is possible at times to see as far as the Sierra Nevada's snow-covered mountains, 150 miles away.

These great expanses of countryside were not preserved without a fight. Freeways and subdivisions planned in the 60s were blocked by activism, and environmental groups bought up many key land plots to prevent the rampant development that threatened to take over. The hippy sentiments of the 60s that applauded natural beauty laid the seeds for the growth of green movements that flourish today and saved this area from a rash of garish development and eight-lane super-highways.

Unlike so much of America, the streets here are not plagued by McDonalds and Starbucks.

But this resistance to urban sprawl and preservation of open space has caused house prices to skyrocket, leading to a steady ascent in Bay Area wealth. The small cafés, where ideas of free love were once bandied about over simple homemade fodder, have become chic, organic delicatessens. Once left-wing bookshops that hosted anti-war rallies now sell expensive coffee-table hardbacks. In Sausalito, The Trident, where the Rolling Stones used to hold parties and management had a pro-drugs policy, is now a swanky seafood restaurant called Horizons.

This is the enclave of the former radicals who came up in the world; those who turned on, tuned in, but didn't drop out, and instead went on to become very successful. Marin has the fifth-highest per capita income in the United States.

This development -- from hippy to high-flyer -- has created the split personality of the place. It is eco-aware, yet indulgent; well-to-do yet alternative. A YouTube spoof popular with locals, called The Man from Marin, stereotypes them as eating vegan super-foods, driving Prius cars, holding Buddhist beliefs and enjoying tantric sex. The controversies of the 70s are now clichés.

We loop back around on the Dipsea Trail through dense forests, scrambling over boulders and fallen redwoods and past waterfalls. An annual race continues on this trail straight over the mountains to Mill Valley, an artsy little town with more Buddha statues and peace signs on porches than the Stars and Stripes, and where Yoko Ono and John Lennon spent some summers together.

This is the place that inspired Jack Kerouac's novel Dharma Bums, and the interest in spirituality is still rife. A trip to nearby Buddhist retreat Zen Center for their Sunday public programme of meditation, followed by tea, homemade muffins and a walk through their organic gardens, is a must.

After our seven-mile hike loops back round to Stinson, we drive back to Sausalito to refresh ourselves at the No Name Bar. This hole-in-the wall dive is celebrating its 50th anniversary and could be the last place left in Marin that has resisted the tide of change, refusing to swap its grungy digs for a minimal chic refurbishment. I watch wild-haired singer Geanie Stout belt out heartbreaking blues music and jazz covers at a piano in the corner, the same as she did 40 years ago, except her one-time wild friends are now well-heeled and in bed before midnight.

The days of love-ins on Mount Tam may be over, but the flower-power generation laid the foundations for the Marin of today. "Marin still reflects the Cultural Revolution, but it is gentrified," Gordon explains to me.

"Everything that was in the 60s -- the liberal ideas, the pot-smoking, the interest in the environment and spirituality -- are all still cornerstones of today's community. The only difference is, it is no longer considered controversial. And, of course, we all got old!"

Irish Independent

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