Monday, 24 September 2007

Week 28 : Olema To Tomales Bay

Heading north from Olema, Amy and I stride out in the direction of Point Reyes Station. I am driven by the prospect of discovering more about this delightful corner of California, Amy is driven by the hope that where there is a Station a train cannot be far behind. If you look at a map of California, Point Reyes Peninsular looks like one of those annoying cuts you get on your finger, where the skin is partly lifted off leaving a painful gash deep into the flesh. Point Reyes Station sits at the very end of the gash. Thus when you get to the town you have a decision to make : you can head up the west side of Tomales Bay and thrill to the scenic splendour of Point Reyes National Seashore or keep to the east and the familiar security of Route 1. I wanted to go west (it was supposed to be more beautiful), Amy wanted go east (it was shorter and didn't necessitate swimming across the Bay at the northern end of the peninsular). We couldn't agree so we spent some time investigating the town of Point Reyes Station.

It gets its name from the narrow gauge North Pacific Coast Railroad which was built in the 1870s to carry redwood lumber, local dairy and agricultural products, and passengers from the north of Marin County to a pier at Sausalito (which connected the line via ferry to San Francisco). The line was eventually closed down in the 1930s and now lives on in the name of Point Reyes Station and in the predominant architectural style of main street. The trains may be long gone but if you close your eyes and breath in heavily through your nose you can occasionally catch the unmistakable whiff of steam and engine grease.

This part of California has constant reminders of that infamous day in April 1906 when the earth began to move leaving behind death, devastation and the the legend of the great San Francisco Earthquake. The epicentre of the quake was in the Point Reyes peninsular but most of the devastation was further south. But the quake did have a dramatic impact on the railroad. A contemporary account takes up the story. "At Point Reyes Station at the head of Tomales Bay the 5:15 train for San Francisco was just ready. The conductor had just swung himself on when the train gave a great lurch to the east, followed by another to the west, which threw the whole train on its side. The astonished conductor dropped off as it went over, and at sight of the falling chimneys and breaking windows of the station, he understood that it was the Temblor. The fireman turned to jump from the engine to the west when the return shock came. He then leaped to the east and borrowing a Kodak he took the picture of the train here presented.' (From 'The 1906 California Earthquake', David Starr Jordan, Editor, 1907, A.M. Robertson, San Francisco

The fear and destruction of 1906 put our argument into perspective, so Amy and I decided to settle our differences. We would take the road up the east side of Tomales Bay. In return, Amy agreed that we could spend the night at the Point Reyes Station Inn which advertises itself as a "newly built Inn with an old world character". She pointed out that the website said "well behaved pets welcome". A asked what significance that had for her. And so we fell out again.

While Amy sulked I read the local weekly newspaper. The Point Reyes Light is justifiably proud of its history. It is one of the few weekly newspapers to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. In 1979, when the paper's circulation was only 2,750, it received the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Meritorious Public Service as a result of a series of exposès and editorials about the Synanon cult. The cult was not only abusing its tax-exempt status, it had also turned to violence in an attempt to silence critics. The violence culminated in October 1978 when Synanon members tried to murder a lawyer by planting a 4.5-foot rattlesnake in his mailbox. The lawyer was bitten but survived, and The Light was the first to reveal that cult leaders had orchestrated the attack. I found no reference to what had happened to the snake so I quickly went and found Amy who was sniffing around in the hotel garden.

The following day we continued our journey north. The southern end of Tomales Bay is a marshland but as you head north the bay widens and becomes more attractive. With its calm blue waters and gentle hills, this is a popular weekend escape for the city-dwellers from the south. The walk up Highway 1 was a pleasant one I had to admit and this left Amy with a smug self-satisfied smile on her canine face.

Nevertheless, the grass is always greener on the other side of the Bay, so I gave Amy a running commentary of the places we were passing (or we would have been doing if we had been walking up the west side) : shell beach, pebble beach, shallow Beach, and even the delightfully named Hearts Desire. None of these seemed to bother Amy at all, but later I hit the jackpot when I pointed out Duck Beach - only a quarter of a mile swim away.

Half-way up the bay is the small community of Marshall which is a centre for the oyster and clam fishing industry. If you want to sample the local produce call in at the Marshall Store which claims to have "the best oysters on the planet". If you check out the conflicting claims for this title on the web you see it is a dead heat between Marshall and Wellfleet in Massachusetts.

Close by Marshall is the Marconi Conference Center which includes a 28 room hotel. Guglielmo Marconi, the father of wireless radio, built the first trans-Pacific receiving station here in 1913; the 28-room hotel was meant to house workers. RCA took over the site in 1920, followed decades later by the cultish drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation group Synanon (the subject of the Point Reyes Light expose which won it the Pulitzer Prize).

Amy and I ended the week camped on the shore of Tomales Bay. In the next field there were some highland cattle. Just beyond them the lush green hills swept up to meet the sky. We could have been back home in Yorkshire. We felt homesick.

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