For 25 melodramatic years, I’ve lived as far as one can go from my Marin County hometown of Mill Valley, California, and still remain in the United States. And by “far,” I don’t mean miles; I mean Mississippi and Arkansas. In contrast with the sometimes Very Old South I have experienced, my touchy-feely Mill Valley of the 1970s and ’80s sometimes seemed an übertrendy, überliberal playpen for self-satisfied self-help gurus, stoned spiritualists and tree-hugging millionaire realtors.
Surely I exaggerate?
If so, I am not alone. In a 1978 NBC news special titled “I Want It All Now,” host Edwin Newman mocked the “unusual lifestyles and curious values” of Marin and Mill Valley. Too bad Newman merely recycled insights (minus the wit) from a 1977 literary lampooning by Cyra McFadden called The Serial. McFadden’s oft-repeated anecdote is that the idea for the novel sprang up when a Mill Valley butcher saw her puzzling over the meat counter and thought to ask, “Could you relate to a pork roast?”
Aptly enough, Newman also wrote popular books bashing sloppy English usage. So my home, “where the most vague, unspecific, fashionable, faddish language is employed, often to no purpose other than to make a sound, a noise, not to convey any information,” proved an irresistible target.
But if squares didn’t get Mill Valley’s appeal, the groovy in-crowd did. While I lived there, so did, at various times, such pop music luminaries as Van Morrison, David Crosby, Carlos Santana, Huey Lewis, Grace Slick and a chunk of the Grateful Dead. Movie people converged, too—Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Shepard, Joe Eszterhas and George Lucas—as did literati like McFadden, Alan Watts, Wright Morris, Kay Boyle, Anne Lamott, Don Carpenter and Jack Finney (whose Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes place in Mill Valley, as does the 1956 movie).
What drew them? For one thing, these beautiful people could probably afford the titanic real estate prices. At the time of the NBC flogging, Marin County was America’s costliest suburb, and today the average listing price for homes is $1.7 million, according to trulia.com.
Still, that doesn’t explain why they came.
My guess is that Mill Valley’s physical beauty simply nailed them to the spot. It takes a real knuckle-dragger to resist the invigorating air and Garden of Eden foliage—not to mention the redwood-shrouded, theatrically twisty streets and uncanny climate (mostly warm, rarely hot, never humid). Also, despite the fortress-like privacy (population 14,000), it is absurdly close to other beauties: San Francisco tempts from a mere 14 miles south; Napa wine country begins 34 miles north; Muir Woods, the official sanctuary for America’s redwood trees, is one mile west, while three miles further brings you the Pacific Ocean.
Finally, there’s the town’s vibe. The vibe! Now there’s a word that would pinch Edwin Newman. But wimpy or not, “vibe” strains to convey real meaning, and if you quiz as many strangers as I did on my recent visit, I am confident that you will hear what I heard: The anything-goes, follow-your-bliss, artist-friendly, pet-cuddling cosmic warmth of Mill Valley is not only still perceived but also deeply valued. And those artists I listed above? Before them (and me), such intergalactic visionaries as Jack Kerouac and Charles Mingus summered in Mill Valley, as later did John and Yoko.
Kerouac! Mingus! The Lennons! Were they not attuned? Did they not register vibes as we earthlings register the twinkling of stoplights?
In 1992 I founded a tiny magazine about Southern culture called The Oxford American. Because my work possessed me, I seldom returned to California. In fact, it was only after leaving The OA in 2012 that I was reminded that life is, also, elsewhere. I can add that when you stay away from your home, a rare visit back lets you see things—landscapes, buildings—with a surreal vividness that familiarity can’t deliver.
Take Mount Tamalpais (Tam-mul-pie-es), the mountain that looms over Mill Valley, literally and figuratively. I remembered it, but I’d forgotten how it feels to see it in the flesh—and how others regard it. One local character, Larry the Hat—a music promoter and the owner of Famous4, a clothing boutique—went so far as to say that you can’t understand the town unless you understand the spiritual connection that locals have with Mount Tam. “People come down transformed,” he said. “When I haven’t been up in a while and I go up, I realize that I’m blowing it by not being up there all the time.”
I said, “My God, Larry the Hat, you really believe that stuff?”
He said, “Hey, you’ll never catch me talking this way about Southern California. That place is toxic!”
And I know that I’d turn a corner or absentmindedly look up and there she would be, in all her impossible grandeur, and my breathlessness would instantly mock my ability to drop her from my mind. It was kind of wonderful.
Although my family lived on a typically steep hill a few miles from the center of town, my mother, who has never learned to drive, walked us kids everywhere. I grew to hate walking (for how walking harms your dating life, see volume 4 of my forthcoming memoir), but I didn’t start driving until I was 23.
For this visit, however, I was lucky enough to intuit that walking the place would bring me closer to the “real” Mill Valley. It is the surest way to meet the natives and to breathe in, and lose yourself in, the dense exotica of plant life that splurges forth on every street. Walking also provides close encounters with the otherworldly redwoods. To see them out in the open, and not just sequestered in Muir Woods, is a gift I can’t get used to. How can such splendor be so accessible?
In the late 1800s, a West Coast hiking craze turned Mill Valley into a weekend hot spot—thanks to its nearness to Mount Tam and its own enticing pathways. Hotels, restaurants and a mountain-climbing train soon materialized, as did the 688 uphill-forever steps that begin the seven-mile Dipsea Trail. Those steps then spawned the annual Dipsea Race—the oldest trail race in America.
This mania for the outdoors helped shape the town and its people. I cannot imagine the likes of Ordinance no. 14 (which passed in Mill Valley in 1900) being accepted even now in the South: “It shall be unlawful for anyone to shoot, trap or in any way destroy or injure any free flying birds, quail, doves or grouse or any deer, tree squirrels or chipmunks....”
I knew that to perceive Mill Valley as clearly and impartially as I could in the little time I had here, I needed to approach it without mushy nostalgia or exaggerated bias. Oops. Did I mention that I left Mill Valley partly because I was tired of its self-absorption and trendiness and its audacious wealth and knee-jerk lefty politics? (To be fair, I would learn that knee-jerk righty politics also sucks eggs.)
Physically, though, the place looks and feels unchanged, strikingly so. I can’t, alas, berate younger Mill Valleyians with stories about how my Mill Valley was so much different and better than theirs. Most of the buildings I see are the same ones I grew up around. The change, therefore, has been interior.
For example, Mill Valley has gone gaga for organic. Now every restaurant and every market exudes the farm-grown ethos, whereas in my youth we just had a few such outliers. Take the Shoreline Coffee Shop (221 Shoreline Hwy.; 415-388-9085). After 40 faithful years of serving old-school “Mexican American” cuisine, the Shoreline had its first change in ownership. The place resembles the same cozy diner it’s always been. But what’s different are the fresh, crisp ingredients and the attentive, skillful cooking. I kept returning to the place, as if hypnotized, and as my sister said about her breakfast here when I finally managed to pull her in (remembering the mediocrity of the old place, she resisted): “These are the best huevos rancheros I’ve ever had.” (We Smirnoffs are half Mexican, by the way.)
The other local eateries I swooned over tended, like the Shoreline, to be comfy spots where the fussiness went into the cooking and not so much the decor: Avatars’ Punjabi burritos ($ 15 Madrona St.; 415-381-8293; enjoyavatars.com), Mexico meets India; Tony Tutto Pizza ($ 246 E. Blithedale Ave.; 415-383-8646; tonytuttopizza.com), thin-crust pizza so good that even bloodthirsty meat eaters won’t notice it’s mostly vegan; Small Shed Flatbreads ($ 17 Madrona St.; 415-383-4200; smallshed.com), the other A+ pizza joint; Joe’s Taco Lounge (382 Miller Ave.; 415-383-8164; joestacolounge.com), not Tex-Mex, just Mex; and Sol Food (401 Miller Ave.; 415-320-1986; solfoodrestaurant.com), unpretentious but hearty Puerto Rican cuisine. Murray Circle Restaurant (601 Murray Cir.; 415-339-4750; cavallopoint.com), in neighboring Cavallo Point (a former Army outpost), provided my one posh dinner, and it was perfection. Later, when I asked Murray Circle’s young visionary, chef Justin Everett, to recommend a Mill Valley restaurant—I knew of no better judge—he chose Sol Food, the homey Puerto Rican spot that had already won me over.
Not many small-town retail outfits inspire a coffee-table book, a documentary and, in 2007, a series of all-star going-out-of-business concerts with Elvis Costello and current Mill Valleyian Bonnie Raitt, but Village Music did. So many people I met lamented the absence of the legendary record store that I hope you can imagine my surprise when its founder, John Goddard, told me that he still sells records on Saturdays and by appointment (31 Sunnyside, no. 5; 415-388-7400; villagemusic.com). When he opened the gates, I beheld, verily, a sea of glistening shellac—including the same vintage Beatle dolls that festooned the old cash register. Village Music lives!
The title of the documentary on Goddard’s old shop, The Last Great Record Store, though well meant, furthers nostalgia’s power to blur: There is, in fact, another paradise of vinyl called Mill Valley Music (320 Miller Ave.; millvalleymusic.com), and it even carries over something of the original Village Music feel, because the affable owner, Gary Scheuenstuhl, worked at Village Music for 30 years and remains chums with Goddard.
Locals had urged me to stop by 142 Throckmorton Theatre (142 Throckmorton Ave.; throckmortontheatre.org) for its weekly Tuesday-night comedy show, but I already had enough on my to-do list and hearing Robin Williams’s name dropped so often (as in: “Robin Williams sometimes takes the stage unannounced”) rang out like a warning. Everybody in Mill Valley has a Robin Williams story, including me. But on a nighttime stroll, I noticed that the theater had tried a different tactic, a sign reading something like “Tonight! The songs of Sinatra and Darin.” Well, what civilized person doesn’t love impersonators who croon?
Inside, modern murals with a tantalizing Renaissance flair adorn the walls. When I inquired about the artist, I was led to a room that only a child could imagine: a magician’s studio crammed with dream props—a tall green cardboard cutout of Napoleon; medieval puppets napping; the costume head of an enormous mule; ceramic angels tooting horns; Japanese lanterns; and so on. And there was the artist, too, with paintbrush in hand, about to strike a canvas. His name was Steve Coleman, and he was a thin man, slightly stooped, with a terrific beret sitting in proper jaunty style atop his narrow head. When I asked why he was still at work at ten o’clock, he said he had returned from a daylong visit to a museum and was so taken, so influenced, by what he’d seen that he was painting “before I forget what I saw.” As innocuous as his words might appear, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Later, I puzzled out that I had witnessed something pure: an artist caught up in the midst of literal inspiration.
On my last night in town, I found myself again in the Throckmorton, this time to listen to the TV comic Dana Carvey. And this time to be seated next to Lucy Mercer. Mrs. Mercer! The theater’s founder—and the woman whose portrait the great Steve Coleman had painted next to Joan Baez in one of his murals. I gushed. I told her how I loved Steve Coleman’s art all over the place. Then I said, “But I don’t get it. This is a place for people to watch comics and musicians on stage. Why does Coleman have his own studio in the theater?”
When she ever so slowly turned to face me, I thought I was in trouble. But all she said was: “Because I love him.”
Oh, yuck. Love. How touchy-feely. But you know what? That was now precisely the thing I was beginning to feel for this town I had previously maligned so roughly. That the owners of businesses like the Throckmorton; the Illumigarden (35 Corte Madera Ave.; illumigarden.com), a fab outdoor lighting and sculpture garden across from City Hall; Shoreline Coffee Shop; and Mill Valley Music, to name just some, seemed to have birthed their babies with more than just moneymaking in mind, but with heart and vision, had affected me.
People, please! What more can I say? Must I detail all the charming scenes and people I experienced? Must I confirm that fetching MILFs (an anagram, I’m told, for Mothers I’d Like to Friend) do, in fact, swarm the town and help legitimize its nickname of MILF Valley? Do you require me to mention the almost unnerving scarcity of litter? Should I confess how I once carried a cigarette butt for four blocks because I knew dropping it would curse me forever? Or how in traffic, locals don’t ceaselessly tailgate (as too many do in Arkansas)? How the few speeding cars I saw used blinkers when zipping around others?
Then it came to me, as if from above, that the town’s darkest secret had been kept from me. That despite my interviewing and badgering, no one had been gutsy enough to reveal the ugliest of truths about Mill Valley, California, and only now, on the last day of my visit and a full 25 years after I had moved away, did the knowledge come, unbidden, to drench me...in a horrible gush of clarity.
Where to Stay
Part of Mill Valley’s charm is its proximity to other special places, so I also like to stay in the neighboring bay town of Sausalito. Both towns enchant, and it’s a short, scenic drive between the two.
The former military base sits dramatically beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Twenty-four old Army buildings have been elegantly refurbished and joined by 14 stylish new structures. Rooms start at $350; 601 Murray Cir., Sausalito; 888-651-2003; cavallopoint.com.
“Lovely Secluded Mill Valley Retreat”
The 1930s Italian-style villa’s illustrious interiors will make you feel like you have a top-grossing film at the box office. Villa starts at $220 a night; Magee Ave., Mill Valley; airbnb.com.
Mill Valley Cottage
The former barn belonged to one of the town’s founding families. Today it’s a sun-filled three-bedroom cottage surrounded by a lush garden. $ Cottage starts at $285 a night; 541 Ethel Ave.; 415-699-7996; millvalleycottage.com.
Mountain Home Inn
No frills, and none needed, because the historic lodge sits high up on Mount Tam, where even the parking lots provide astonishing views and soul-refreshing air. Rooms start at $195; 810 Panoramic Hwy.; 415-381-9000; mtnhomeinn.com.
The Inn Above Tide
Each of its 29 rooms faces San Francisco Bay. Keep the porch door open to allow the nighttime atmospherics to seep through. Rooms start at $340; 30 El Portal, Sausalito; 800-893-8433; innabovetide.com.