Devastating wildfires, California community spirit and my cousin Deb.
Super Sonoma. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe my love of this amazing area, but I’ve had a go in this post. My most recent visit to Sonoma was in October of 2017, just before I flew to Australia for winter and further studies. If you have been even remotely tuned into global news since September 2017, then you will know that Santa Rosa was the centre of the most horrific wildfires to have hit the area in decades, if not ever. I went up to visit my cousin in Sebastopol, next door to Santa Rosa, a few short weeks after the fires were finally out and just before Halloween. Having only been there a few months before in August, it was somewhat shocking to see the devastation the fires had caused first-hand.
It appears that the fires behaved a lot like a lottery, picking off properties at random and engulfing them. Where one home was almost pristine, their next-door neighbour’s house was quite literally a pile of smouldering ash. Thousands of people lost their homes, some their livelihoods as well, in one fell swoop. With no warning, residents had to run from their homes for their lives. Children and small pets were thrown into cars, as flames were looming overhead. Horses and other livestock were freed to run, with the phone numbers of their owners painted on their sides, if there was time to do so – just in case they survived.
Picture for a moment all you’ve ever owned – all your memories, your family photos, kid’s school artwork and their clay handprints, gone in less than 10 minutes – that is how fiercely the fires burned. Aside from material personal belongings, let’s remember that many people lost their lives. I heard the story of one lady, whom, unable to sleep happened to walk out of her cabin at 4am, and saw flames fast approaching. She ran back in and saved the four friends she was with on a women’s retreat. Nothing else survived other than the car they sped off in and the nightclothes they were wearing.
It was explained to me just how complex the long term recovery would be – aside from insurance covering less than 50% in many cases, there are simply not enough craftsmen to complete the work necessary. Some estimates put this at 3-4 years. In the short term and as life returns to some form of normal, neighbours and friends are housing entire families, in humbling acts of generosity and kindness. The locals that lost their entire lives in a swift blaze have been left in a total mess, and yet still they remain unified and upbeat. The only positive thing to come out of this traumatic time it seems has been the tremendous level of community engagement. Despite losing everything, the inhabitants of Santa Rosa and Sebastopol joined forces to help each other. These people set an example in detachment from the material and surrender of the ego that we should perhaps all follow.
I have my cousin Deb and her partner Jon to thank for my knowledge of the fires and the county itself. Deb, herself, is a die-hard fan of Sonoma, she leapt in to volunteer at the local school gymnasium, looking after the elderly whose homes had been destroyed. She cared for them round the clock, nobly stepping up to be a part of the relief effort. Simultaneously and seamlessly, Deb carried out her relief duties and ran her successful print business.
Over the years Deb has introduced me to the positives of Sebastopol. She has driven me around the county a total of maybe six (or seven, eight) times. They’ve started to blend together as one beautiful meander. For someone so well seated in her truth, she has been a massive source of inspiration as I have departed my old London life and set up as a freelance coach. Her family, friends and clients lap up her honesty, as do I.
On our strolls around the town, my cousin and I grab a lunch and simply potter. A local vegetarian spot, ‘Slice of Life’, is a must visit. Their salads are sensational, with tons of vegan options. The other place we both love is ‘The Sebastopol Cookie Company’. We will often pop in and get takeaway boxes for the clients that Deb will go and visit for meetings. They have many gluten free treats and a couple of awesome vegan options. They have promised me that they will make me a vegan protein bar recipe…hope to be posting that soon! I have a great pleasure in supporting truly independent local businesses that simply set out to do great things. If you visit Sonoma – these two uncomplicated places are top of the list.
The owners of The Sebastopol Cookie Company Maayan & Annie – sweetest (boom-boom) couple you will meet!
From morning coffee at ‘Hard Core Espresso’ to relaxed lunches at any one of the amazing local places, flowers and gifts at ‘California Sister’, to dinner at the local ‘Hop Monk’ (often with great live music), Sebastopol has in my opinion got it all. To venture further afield, surrounding areas such as Healdsburg, The Russian River, Occidental are all well worth the postcard perfect drive. On the way to any of them, its highly likely that you will drive by a local vineyard that has a sign up outside saying ‘free BBQ – come and join the family’. You can sample the local produce, have some lunch on the house, and without a spot of pressure from them, end up taking away a whole case of their delicious wine. I would much rather experience a vineyard in this way than to go on a cable car to a pre-set 15 minute express wine tasting, as is the case in neighbouring Napa.
Just a few examples of Patrick Amiot’s artwork – famously nestled in many of Sebastopol’s front gardens. Check out ‘Florence Avenue’ walk for more…
As urban sprawl takes a hold and ‘Franciscans continue to look out of the city, Sebastopol risks some level of corporatisation. The arrival of CVS pharmacy (huge US chain) and a proposed ‘boutique, luxury hotel’ in the middle of town have been widely condemned and met with large-scale demonstrations – with placards and – very Sebastopol – protest art.
The local defender of Sebastopol’s community spirit.
I distinctly remember one of our many visits to Doran Beach in Bodega Bay, wrapped in a blanket and watching the ocean for seals and whales. Two teenagers came over and started chatting. They told us about how they were still in school and studying environmental sciences. My impression is that the children from this area are raised in a very balanced way. They seem to be world-savvy, environmentally aware, confident and intelligent. Given this combination, I often feel like I am surrounded by one of tomorrow’s breakthrough scientists whom solve our plastic addiction. I live in hope.
Just four of the 2,000 or so pictures I have of Bodega Bay & Doran Beach…paradise in any weather and at any time of the day, and finally the footprints of our darling Tommy, Deb’s Havanese dog.
The eerie beauty of the church used in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film ‘The Birds’ on the drive from Sebastopol to Doran.
If there are any takeaways from Sebastopol they are as follows:
1. Always look for local businesses and producers to support – maintain your independence!
2. Look after your neighbours – you will always need them, they will always need you
3. Your community is your responsibility – keep it clean and connected
4. Understand that global warming is most definitely REAL – fires, drought and mudslides are all linked
Sebastopol, Sonoma County is quite simply one of the most wonderful places you could ever visit. Every time I go it’s a continuum of fresh air – both literally and figuratively speaking.
With gratitude to Deb, Jon & Katie for always hosting me so graciously, and all the other amazing people I’ve met along the way,