We pass through the town of Sonoma with its plaza and historic buildings and continue on to The Valley of The Moon. Out the car windows, we see vineyards, wineries, charming local shops, art galleries, and restaurants. I am overcome with emotion. I cannot help but profess my love for Sonoma County, California. My children groan.
“We KNOW Mom. It is so beautiful here. You were so lucky to grow up here. We know. We know. We know.”
Despite my children’s lack of appreciation, time has granted me newfound love and respect for my childhood community. Life experience has made me realize just how lucky I was growing up in Sonoma County in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
For those unfamiliar with the region, Sonoma County is about an hour and a half north of San Francisco, California. In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Sonoma County was a harmonious community of ranchers, farmers, and hippies. The biggest town in the county was Santa Rosa with a population of approximately 30,000 people in 1960. Not a tiny town by any means, but to give you an idea of the landscape, there was nothing but farmland, ranches, fields of sheep, cows, and chickens in the 55-mile span between Santa Rosa and San Francisco. Today Sonoma County is a popular tourist destination, but back then it was the boondocks.
It was so remote during my youth that when I moved to Los Angeles for university, more than one fellow Californian remarked, “North of San Francisco? What is north of San Francisco?” A girl from Laguna Beach asked me if we had running water. Another friend from Manhattan Beach picked up a photo of me and some friends and exclaimed, “Cute. What were you dressed up for?” The photo showed me and my friends donning cowboy hats, flared Levis, and cowboy boots. “Uh, just another Friday night in Rosa,” I replied. She looked confused.
The Sonoma County of my childhood was a place where teenagers really did cruise the main street on Friday nights after American football games. A tight-knit community, it was not uncommon for your friend’s parent to be your teacher, counselor, principal, doctor, dentist, etc. and you almost always knew someone who was showing livestock at the county fair. It was a place where everyone in town knew what everyone else was doing, and, there was a safety in that feeling.
Truth be told, while Sonoma County offered a quiet beauty, there was not a lot for teenagers to do other than hanging out. And hang out we did. We climbed in and out of each other’s bedroom windows at night. We walked to the mall. We toilet-papered each other’s houses. We sneaked into the pool area at The Flamingo Hotel to sun ourselves. Once we had driver’s licenses and the freedom of mobility, we hung out all over Sonoma County. We thought nothing of jumping in the back of a pickup truck and driving out to the coast for bonfires and beer. Or driving up Sugar Loaf Mountain for a snowball fight. We drove over Mount St. Helena, past the Petrified Forest to the stock car races in St. Helena, and out River Road to Johnson’s Beach to swim in the Russian River. We explored, enjoyed and escaped to the outdoors as much as possible. We grew up in the age where having food on the table and a roof over your head was all that was required of parents. Thus, friends became the mainstay of emotional nourishment.
It was during my misspent youth that California wines gained worldwide recognition. It began with the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, known as the Judgment of Paris. In a blind tasting competition with all French judges, Californian wines rated best in each category and won 6 out 10 spots in the top prizes. Needless to say, the French were shocked and California was officially on the map as producing world-class wines. Suddenly, Sonoma County began to experience tourism.
As the tourism grew, so did the towns. Development edged its way in yet, the small town feel and sense of community remained. And, while modernization and development have built up the space between San Francisco and Sonoma County, the landscape is still one of the prettiest I have seen. Everywhere you look you see pine, oak, and Sequoia trees. There are mountains, vineyards, a dramatic coastline, rivers, and lakes all in one county. As one friend so aptly put it, no matter how far I travel, no matter how long I am away, I still have the strongest physical pull to the actual place.
Why was this time in Sonoma County so special? Why are the ties that bind so strong? Growing up in a rural area, traditions are strong and the shared memories of those traditions are equally strong. A rural childhood means that you are free to explore and grow in a natural environment. When you find yourself away from the more sophisticated forms of entertainment you talk, you gaze at the ocean, you learn how to be quiet with yourself and others. Those quiet days foster an intimacy that sticks to your bones and soul.
Despite scattering to the far corners of the world, I am still friends with many people that I grew up with so I reached out to my Sonoma County friends and asked them what they thought about our bonds. Our bonds are more than simply understanding each other’s references. We concluded that what binds us so strongly is that each of us understands something about the others. Something deep and meaningful. We feel safe with each other.
I have not returned to live in Sonoma County for over 30 years, but I left a huge part of my heart there. The recent fires have devastated so many in the community and I am pulled to return. I need to sink my toes into the dirt. I need to smell the horses, the mix of pine and eucalyptus trees (or what my Mid-Western husband calls ‘the California smell’). I need to feel the fresh, cool, coastal air coming over the Mayacamas Mountains from Bodega Bay. I need to go home. I just need to be there again. To feel safe there again.