Online Exclusive: A Return to “Return to Mill Valley”

Marc Smirnoff

Marc Smirnoff shares more from his visit to his quirky hometown in northern California.

My dispatch “Return to Mill Valley,” in the November/December 2013 issue of DEPARTURES, came to the editors in a (comically) longer version than could possibly be squeezed into print. There were two main reasons for my excess: I am technologically inept and failed to figure out in time how to access the word-count mechanism on my new computer, and my visit to my hometown of Mill Valley, California, provided so many magical experiences and introduced me to so many wonderful characters that the writing swept out of me.

The magazine has graciously allowed me to share some extra Mill Valley scenes and memories here.

I Encounter Mechanical Creatures and Homo Sapiens

For eight perfect days this past spring in Mill Valley, California, Michael Pringle’s Illumigarden (35 Corte Madera Ave.; 415-380-1888; was my base. The Illumigarden did not exist when I was growing up and I rambled into it by accident—well, if you can call wanting to see why a metal sculpture of a bull is sniffing around in the shrubbery of a downtown parking lot an accident. The bull—and other metal creations (dragons, symphony conductors, giant mice, abstract blobs)—are for sale at the Illumigarden, but Pringle doesn’t so much push sales as he pushes art experiences. He even keeps the gates unlocked at night to encourage nocturnal picnics.

Mill Valley: Woman Illumigarden
The Illumigarden

Pringle is a formidable bald man, somewhere in his forties. He looks more like an ex-wrestler than the curator of an art gallery. He speaks with playful double meanings that somehow make sense if you go with their flow. Most of all, he’s an enthusiast. I’d be talking to him and suddenly his eyes would glow and he’d point past me and say something like, “That’s what you should take a picture of—those geese making that triangle shape underneath the wisteria. It’s an optical illusion, but you could catch it. That’d be awesome.”

Mill Valley: Pringle in Illumigarden
Michael Pringle

The Illumigarden menagerie is located next to the famous Sweetwater music venue and across the street from City Hall. Because it is outdoors (save for a shack in which Pringle tinkers with paperwork), its atmosphere differs noticeably from the stereotypical image of an uptight or intimidating art gallery. Jostled by free-ranging breezes, it is literally not stuffy.

In my youth, what we had instead of the Illumigarden was the Unknown Museum, a one-story building whose window displays riveted the eyes of us kids. In those windows, dolls, action figures, puppets and all manner of vintage toys would be twisted into various caustic, adult tableaux that we did not quite understand but whose mysterious implications seeped into our dreams and nightmares. In a nice touch, Pringle’s farm of robots and witches and giant butterflies inhabits the very spot that the Unknown Museum once haunted.

During my week in Mill Valley, I dragged in a few townies who said they had passed by the Illumigarden but had never entered it. They are initially a little suspicious, but once inside they move around transfixed, inspecting nooks and crannies.

Mill Valley: Girl in Illumigarden

One morning I find a Mexican-born photographer named Andres Carnalla at the Illumigarden. Pringle had taken his family up to the Sierra Mountains and enlisted his friend Carnalla to watch over the place. Carnalla is instantly likable and his pictures, when I visit his website (, are sensitive and brooding. Later it occurs to me that Pringle has, in a way, curated my encounter with him.

Mill Valley: Andres's son

Despite all my hanging-out at the Illumigarden, I fail, by myself, to see everything worth noticing. It takes two eight-year-olds—Andres’s son and a friend of his—pointing out their favorite pieces for me to notice: the businessman’s shoes in the mailbox, a girl robot playing guitar and an extremely crooked but functional birdhouse. Moral: To do the Illumigarden justice, you need to be as open and alert as an eight-year-old kid.

Instances of Sentimentality are Detected

“Sentimentality is what happens when you put more tenderness on a thing than God does.” —J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

My story is not about how different my town is from my childhood memories. It is not about how much better the good old days were and how a newer generation of young punks ruined everything. I’d have to ignore a lot of reality to go that route. I’d have to, for example, ignore how almost every building and street from my childhood seems to look and feel just as they used to. If the cars were different, it could be 1976.

There’s been change, of course, maybe a lot, but it’s happened indoors. I wrote about one example in my piece: the Shoreline Coffee Shop (221 Shoreline Hwy.; 415-388-9085), a seminal Mill Valley diner. Though the Shoreline recently changed ownership for the first time in 40 years, it still looks like the same cozy Americana diner it’s always been—a joint you'd half-expect to find Tom Waits snoozing in a booth. Where the Shoreline is different is in the reclamation of its menu.

Shoreline Coffee Shop

Despite the improved menu, I hear from a few Mill Valleyians who regret the loss of the “old” Shoreline Coffee Shop. I don’t get it; what’s wrong with better food? Then I hear from a Shoreline employee who tells me about a regular, who happens to be a famous singer, who boycotted the diner for a few months after a favorite item on the menu had been removed by the new owners. What this loyal eater did not realize was that the item in question had come out of a can. Literally. And this story helps me to see how nostalgia has the power to blur. (When I lived in Oxford, Mississippi, come to think of it, there was a picturesque but terrible-to-eat-in old diner that people would wax sentimental about. And it, too, served canned food!)

Moral: Just as some Mill Valleyians lament the loss of the legendary Village Music record store while not noticing that a very similar version of it sits close to the original, some people will lament the loss of canned grub.

Another place a few townies tell me they miss is the old Sweetwater, which for many years was the choice music club in town. I get it—vintage rocks. But the new Sweetwater (19 Corte Madera Ave.; 415-388-3850; is just a few blocks down from the old one and has better acoustics, better chow and even smells better than what I recall of the first one. Also, when I visit the new Sweetwater’s weekly open-mic show, the level of talent turns out to be formidable. And I leave with a new musical hero: a funny singer/songwriter named Captain Wayne-O, who could pass as a fantastical mix of Daniel Johnston, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and his own distinct self. He’d be the first act I’d sign if I had a record label. One of the songs he performed that night was the original “I’m Not Complaining,” part of which goes: …I’m not complaining / I’m sure that's not my job / I’ll just pick up my guitar / and aim it at a star / It’s a thing I usually do

Captain Wayne
Captain Wayne-O

Trying to Walk the Town Like a Buddhist, I Meet a Hippie Chick

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” —Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

If cycling brings you “completely in contact with it all,” what does walking do?

Strolling around with my camera at dusk, I find myself stalling beside the entrance to Old Mill Park, a playground smothered by the dense shadows of the surrounding redwoods. In my childhood, we thought the world of Old Mill Park, and I decided I needed to see it again and take some pictures. But with the hour growing late, I deemed it too dark for photos and chose, instead, to come back another time. (Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, as the poet says.) I began to walk off.

Zoinks! How quickly I forget! For my trip, I had promised myself to engage, if not embrace, the here and now—to throw myself into the swirl of as many moments and experiences as possible. I wanted to do justice to the zen-like characteristics of Mill Valley. It is easy to support the impression that Mill Valley is zenny: The long-standing Buddhist Temple of Marin on Miller Avenue, for example, is almost in the center of town; Alan Watts, who is credited with introducing Zen philosophy to the United States, lived for a while in Mill Valley and died here; and so on.

There is zen in the words locals use to describe Mill Valley for me: “laidback,” “mellow,” “hippie-dippy.” Those might seem more appropriate blurbs for a 1976 Grateful Dead album, but it was what I heard from people walking the town’s streets in 2013.

So instead of dismissing Old Mill Park, I turned around and pushed myself into it. Dusk or not, who knows whether I’d pass by here again?

It astonishes me that a playground I haven’t thought about in 40 years can reassert itself with overwhelming immediacy. First, I feel the shade I’d only seen from the sidewalk, quickly remembering how the drop in temperature was one of the park’s more memorable features (it was always a little chilly here). Then I recognize a tree and I remember a protuberance on it that kids’ hands had worn smooth. And merely by treading on it, I recall how hard the ground was for us kids to dig into and that to successfully construct our dirt kingdoms we first had to find sandy, more welcoming spots.

Mill Valley: Old Mill Park
Old Mill Park

With such thoughts piercing, or calling, me, I wander. I meet two college-age boys under a stone bridge. Nearby stand the remnants of the Old Mill that gave the town its name. The boys allow me to take their photos. With them, I now see, is a teenage girl with her hair arranged in a style we used to call punk. She is sitting cross-legged. She listens to the boys and me talk about movies for a while and then says, looking straight at me, “Can I play for you?”

I am baffled until I notice that she is holding a flute. Weirdly enough, I have of late been listening to a lot of flute music (like the groovy rock-jazz records of Hubert Law) and I’ve even thought about playing the instrument myself and have spoken to the flute-maker back on our street in Arkansas about it.

The girl’s name is Emily and she apologizes for the amateurish playing that is to follow, but her notes waft sweetly into the cool air and hang there, mesmerizing my ears. Every time I think I know how Emily will end a riff, or a phrase, she softly, slowly, uncurls a surprise.

Mill Valley: Emily

Afterwards, Emily and I talk and I observe that her lack of guile is no act. Thanks to her, “hippie chick” loses, for me, its cynical, mocking sheen. She is the real thing if we can agree that by “hippie chick” we mean someone who is kind, artistic and totally sincere.

I Meet a Hippie Dude

Later, at a laundromat, I spot a male hippie: a boy in his twenties with a tan and long blond dreads. If it weren’t for his skimpy shorts, he’d be naked. Because I can both wash my clothes and skip across the street to a gloriously jam-packed record shop called Mill Valley Music, I’m in and out of the laundromat that afternoon. Each time I return, the young charismatic is either singing to himself and his dog or twisting into a flamboyant yoga pose in the middle of the room, oblivious to onlookers. Finally, I ask if I can turn my camera on him.

He looks at me with deep sadness, as if I’ve ruined something.

“Hey, man,” he says, softly. “I’m not animal in a zoo, man.”

Taken aback, I mumble, “I know you are not.” I add, “I didn’t mean disrespect. I just thought you’d make a good picture.”

He lets me off gently: “Hey, man…I get it.... It’s cool, man….”

These beautiful, truth-telling children of summer love—how do you keep producing them, California? You got a secret garden of special hemp and poppies tucked away somewhere on Mount Tamalpais for expectant parents?

Mill Valley: Hippie Dude
A young male hippie on Miller Avenue. (Not the same kid I encountered in the laundromat.)

I Learn How to Live Like a Millionaire Without Money in Mill Valley

The people I quiz on my visit overwhelm me with their affection for Mill Valley. But they also answer emphatically when I ask them what they don’t like about the town: “Entitled” newcomers with new-money pushiness who they fear threaten the town’s very spirit and future.

You surely have to be loaded to buy a house in Mill Valley—the average cost is $1.5 million.

Even if you rent it is still going to cost you. Of all the 73 rental Mill Valley properties listed on Craigslist on a random day in the spring, just one costs less than $1,000 a month and that is if you don’t mind sharing a “mid-sized” room. (“I cook meat so you have to be cool with that,” the poster writes.) The lowest offer for a whole house without roommates is $2,400, and 12 rentals go for over $5,200 a month, with the winner reaching $10,000.

I hear that people who work in retail or at restaurants or in other parts of the Mill Valley service industry either commute from less fabulous hamlets or find tiny but expensive rooms to rent in town.

One single mother I thought to ask about all this happened to be the girl who, back in the 1980s, I had the world’s biggest crush on: Diana Byars! (O DiBy! The torrent and anguish that I poured into all those tragically unpublished poems and songs and novels about you. It’s lucky I didn’t know about tattoos back then.)

Anyway, Diana is still lovely and now has an incredibly charming daughter, Kaia.

Mill Valley: Kaia

The Diana I knew was the most mule-headed girl on planet California. Cute, delightful, funny—but mule-headed. And once the older Diana, who now works in a Marin County restaurant, determined that Mill Valley’s public schools were first-rate, and the streets were safe, and the overall environment was just ideal for raising a little girl, well, nothing was going to get in the way of her raising Kaia here—not even her low income and Mill Valley’s ultra-expensiveness.

For a restaurant worker, $1,200 a month in rent is a lot to pay. But that’s what DiBy pays and her place is tiny: Kaia gets the bedroom; Di sleeps on a pull-out couch in the front room. What money is left over is mainly spent on essentials and Kaia.

(Eight months after my visit, Diana found a bigger place in Mill Valley to live in. It is more expensive, and has to be shared with a roommate, but the trade-off is that it feels more like a real home than the tiny apartment did. To land this house, DiBy had to, in that mule-headed way of hers, scan every rental listing every day for eight months before spotting a reasonable option that she then had to beat others to. Only the strong survive Mill Valley’s rental jungle.)

Twenty-five-year-old Erin Eastabrooks (pictured below), who could pass for Katie Holmes’s kid sister, is another person I meet who is willing to make sacrifices to be near Mill Valley. She was raised in town and now works at Small Shed Flatbreads (17 Madrona St.; 415-383-4200;, one of Mill Valley’s two cannot-be-missed pizza joints. (The other is Tony Tutto [246 E. Blithedale Ave.; 415-383-8646].) Although she keeps leaving Mill Valley, she also keeps coming back. She is willing to work in the service industry and share an apartment with two other girls in an adjoining town because she loves, among other things, Mill Valley’s “insane sense of community.” Maybe people are “too cozy” here, she says—too slow-moving—but that’s also what she likes.

She says that her friends complain “endlessly” about the influx of “entitled” people. She finds it ironic that the complainers don’t see that “they are privileged, too.” And she means that the very fact of living or working in this town, not the amount of your paycheck, is what gives you that status. She means that being able to hike up to Mount Tam’s summit and enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime view is what makes her, and everybody in Mill Valley, privileged.

(Update: Since my visit, Ms. Eastabrooks and her wanderlust have moved to New York.)

Mill Valley: Erin Estabrooks
Erin Eastabrooks

Another restaurant worker I chat with in Sausalito echoes Eastabrooks. “You get what you pay for,” she reports. “Everybody talks about how expensive it is here...but you get the mountains, the ocean, the city, the culture, the amazing diversity of food—and it’s all high quality.”

Yet another young restaurant employee, who I met at the Mountain Home Inn (rooms, from $195; 810 Panoramic Hwy.; 415-381-9000;, justifies her $4,000 monthly rent (shared with two roommates) because her house and garden are so beautiful she doesn’t spend a dime on vacations. When she gets days off, she stays home.

Still, I hear complaints—about New Money snootiness, trophy wives and the extraordinary cost of living in town.

I Meet Jack, Who Argues on Behalf of New Money

The only time I personally pick up on what I suspect is some kind of “entitlement” swagger (and I was looking for it!) is at the entrance of an upscale restaurant, where I ask a precisely attired man in his forties or fifties about his good-looking dog. The guy slowly looks me up and down before finally giving a curt, one-word response. Whether he was Old or New Money I can’t say—but he exudes wealth and I’m just glad he doesn’t bark or bite.

Other than this character, all I notice from Mill Valleyians is their affability and openness.

It is while struggling up the Dipsea steps that I meet the one person on my visit who forcefully defends New Money. He is a retired chiropractor from Sausalito named Jack, who looks to be in his sixties, or older, though he doesn’t move like it. (Clarification: It is I who struggled up the Dipsea steps, not shirtless, smiling, jogging Jack.)

Mill Valley: Jack

Jack is kind enough to slow down to talk with me. (He is also instructive enough to grab a weed from the side of the steps and tell me to eat it. “That’s miners’ lettuce,” he says. “When you need water and can’t find it, eat this.”) About the New Money complaints I am interested in, he says something like: “Look, these New Money people got their money from working their fucking asses off. And you know what? I love my iPhone.” (That last point references how much of the New Money flooding into Mill Valley comes from Silicon Valley, where a good number of the world’s smartest technology—and newest millionaires—is forged.) He also suggests that it is, in fact, the kids from Old Money we should be concerned about because they don’t have to challenge themselves or earn their cash.

Jack even has a snappy response to New Money snootiness. “If they are used to getting their way and maybe are too pushy in restaurants, well, give them till they’re in their forties,” he says, “they’ll change then.”

I Say Goodbye to a Favorite

On my last day in Mill Valley, Rebecca Chapman tells me she has reached day 901 of her homeless streak. The manager of the Depot Bookstore & Cafe (87 Throckmorton Ave.; 415-383-2665; had introduced us. Because Rebecca and I both walk the town and gravitate toward the downtown and the Mill Valley Library, we kept bumping into each other throughout my visit. 

Rebecca grew up in Mill Valley and had only been a year behind me at Tamalpais High School, though neither of us remembers the other. She is also the person I meet who, at times, is most critical of Mill Valley; she recounts some awful stories of being rudely snubbed when she was hungry. But it’s complex. I can understand why people would be at first wary of Rebecca. I was at first wary of Rebecca.

Because she’s vocal about being homeless (who wouldn’t be?) and because she’s lost a tooth or two, she might at first appear to be drugged or otherwise frazzled. And as she openly admits, she did, in fact, have a “crazy period” where she stomped around in public and yelled and accosted people.

But the truth, Rebecca tells me, is that her bad behavior—and the unfortunate condition of some of her teeth—was caused by the administration of the wrong epilepsy medicine.

For what it’s worth, I believe her.

Anyway, our encounters help me get over my preconceptions and we form something of a friendship. It is easy for me. Rebecca is a hoot: smart, funny, driven. (Despite living on the streets, she is somehow writing a book.) I’ll go even further: Despite missing a tooth or two, Rebecca Chapman has one of the most beautiful and photogenic smiles that I’ve ever seen on an adult.

Mill Valley: Rebecca
Rebecca Chapman

For all the adversities she faces, Rebecca is one of the most upbeat people I meet on my visit. One morning I learn she has Googled me on the library computer and read about recent troubles of mine. Result: I ended up being sweetly and gently consoled by a homeless person!

And you know what broke my little heart? Dear Rebecca never, ever, once asked me for money. The one time I thought to bring up the subject, she very shyly and quietly confessed that she hadn't eaten all day.

I’ll share one last story about her: She is a very close friend with a young comedian who happens to be the son of a famous comedian. She dotes on this kid and mentions how he is forever thinking about and working on his craft. In fact, during some of their deep conversations, Rebecca will notice an almost covetous look cross his face and will say, while no doubt brandishing that special smile of hers, “Stop foraging me for material!”

Where to Hang Out When Visiting

The aforementioned Depot Bookstore & Cafe offers the best seats in the kingdom for people-watching. Smack dab in the middle of downtown Mill Valley, the Depot faces a big, open plaza (and a cluster or two of redwoods) and this is where parents, kids, street musicians and tourists come together.

For at least an hour, you ought to settle in with your accouterments, in silence, and read and feel the breeze and, most importantly, just watch. (Though the Depot’s coffee and cappuccino are excellent, I advise buying a croissant from Beth’s [34 Miller Ave.; 415-383-3991;] across the street—not that the Depot’s own are bad, but Beth’s are made right there in the little shop and are extra special.) Somehow a magnificent show will unfold. The entertainers flutter by from sunrise to sunset and seem very happy to perform before you in the sunshine.

Mill Valley: violinist

Photos ops at the Depot plaza abound. I can’t resist taking portraits of: a violinist, backgammon players, a self-aware teenage couple on a date, a girl reclining on a big tree limb, a sitar player (I have been collecting Indian music for years and had never before heard a sitar in person) and an elder statesman of a hippie in a puffy green down parka and knit cap enjoying ice cream in clear peace and harmony.

Parents with kids are another Depot staple. As are parents with dogs. Many shops around it have water bowls placed at their entrances. At first I thought those bowls were for the owners’ pets but they are there for all pooches.

Mill Valley: man with dog

The one conversation I don't initiate occurs when I am sitting inside the Depot fiddling with my camera. That’s when a mother at the next table, whose second-grade daughter is delighting in some kind of pastry, starts talking to me—me, the blabbermouth who is accidentally mute for a few moments—and we end up having a long, pleasant talk.

At one point, the second-grader, who is studying local history at school, chimes in to tell us—accurately, as I later learn from Barry Spitz’s history of Mill Valley—how rattlesnakes, during the great fire on Mount Tamalpais in 1929, escaped the flames by converging on the train tracks.

Mill Valley: little girl at the Depot

The Depot, by the way, is not the only good coffee shop in the downtown. I think I partook of three others. And the adventures I had, and the great people I met, do not constitute the entirety of Mill Valley’s riches.

Many more await the curious.

Photos by Mark Smirnoff