Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Off the Road

From the Dead's AOXOMOXOA, taken at Olompali
Jack Casady, Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart playing at Olompali in 1968

Rancho Olompali State Park
I have a feeling that despite spending two weeks around the central coast of California recently, we did not get to nearly enough of it.  The tone was relaxed and the main goal was pretty much just to explore the Napa Valley, which was just fine.  Not knowing our way around very well, we picked a few things to concentrate on rather than spending large amounts of time lost on the highways (although the signage was good, and with a GPS we could have done all right -- without a good map or electronic help, I could not, however, find a shopping center a mile away in compact Carmel). 
The trip down Route 1 from Napa to Carmel was a delight.  We passed by many towns I had heard of and I was fascinated to see how they varied:  some dry and flat, some hidden in wrinkled, green hills, some hugging the San Pablo Bay shoreline, some intensely agricultural, some rich, some forlorn, their industries and military facilities long abandoned.  Legendary poets of the 40s - 70s had lived all around:  Snyder, Whalen, Ginsberg, Lamantia, Kyger; musicians like Suzanne Ciani, Mimi Farina, the Bay area bands, ol' David Freiberg and so many others. The parade of over a dozen Ferraris that zipped by was a nice surprise -- confirming the belief that anything can happen in the Golden State, and does most every day.
The day trip to San Fran couldn't have been better:  a rare balmy sunny day, a  peaceful and uncrowded ferry ride from and back to Vallejo, introduction to the famed Blue Dog coffee stand in the terminal upon arrival, the vast farmer's market, an excellent Italian bistro (across the street from where John Phillips and his associates were once the house band), and finally up to the Coit Tower and down the famed Filbert steps, where Tales of the City was set.
We did go through the western neighborhoods of San Fran from the Presidio through Golden Gate Park, outer Sunset and outer Richmond, which we'd never been near before, and stopped in so-funky Santa Cruz for some creative food and atmosphere.  What to do?  There are years' worth of places to explore just in the SF peninsula, but I looked back to the north-of-the-bay counties like Marin, thinking we'd missed too much even though we'd gotten around more than on previous trips.
Although it's mostly memories now, and peaceful, not looking much like its notorious past, I'd really like to go back and visit Olompali, which I'd first found out about in a couple of old books about the Grateful Dead.  While searching around to find out the who, where and when of this oddly-named place (it's Miwok for "southern village"), I realized that a novel I'd read by T.C. Boyle, Drop City, a Lord of the Flies-like take on a mid-sixties commune set somewhere in Marin, was pretty much the factual story of what occurred at Rancho Olompali just after the Dead, the Jefferson Airplane and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were there in 1966.  The title is actually the name of another, longer-lasting artistic commune in southern Colorado (their story is related in a book by founder Peter Rabbit, but is hard to find).
The Acid Tests put on by the Pranksters, with music by the Dead, were getting a little too much scrutiny in the city, so they all headed northward and spent some summer months at the old mansion and on its grounds, playing away and freely using still-legal LSD. Janis Joplin, tight with Pigpen for a while, added her own considerable color.
The Rancho was a white stucco mansion built in 1911 by the grandson of a dentist who became wealthy by inventing dental powder.  The dentist in the late 1800s treated his mother-in-law who died while under anesthesia, driving his father-in-law, James Black, to drink and an accidental death.  The first home there was an adobe (still extant) built in the 1830s by a Miwok headman named Camilo Ynito.  He was conned out of his land and home by the illiterate, clever but ill-fated James Black for $5200.  The gold coins were hidden; Camilo may have been murdered for them and it's said they were found, with a metal detector, under the floorboards of the unhappy house after it burned in 1977 (faulty wiring or malcontent ghosts?).  The property passed from the family in 1943 when it was bought by the University of San Francisco for use as a retreat, but it was mostly either empty or leased out for the next 34 years until it became a state park.
From November 1967 to August 1969, a commune called The Chosen Family was set up by former businessman Donald McCoy who leased the Rancho and went through hundreds of thousands of his family's dollars supporting it.  It was no model for an intentional community, as McCoy's only principle was doing whatever came to mind, which was mostly large quantities of drugs.  About a dozen children were there, and according to those who remember that time, they were actually the most responsible and turned out well -- except for two unfortunates, very young girls who fell into the unfenced pool while riding their tricycles.  CPR was bungled; cars wouldn't start, and they did not survive.  Two drug raids had scattered the founders, the money was gone, and the deaths deflated what energy was left.  County officials and armed sherrifs moved in, cited code violations, and ordered everyone off.  The pool is filled in now, just a grim ring of grass.
On top of all this strange history, the Bear Flag Revolt staged its first battle in California with the Mexican authorities in 1846 at Olompali.  I doubt if they could have imagined an Acid Test there 120 years later.


1 comment:

  1. And when they plow under Puppywoods, no one will know the forest that lived in suburbia for a while in time and when our names are forgotten and our treasures turned to trash, what will it matter? Enjoy the moment and the faces and the smiles and the sounds of our big adventure while we can.