Understanding Bobo

By Liz Garone

BOLINAS - Its biggest claim to fame is not as the epicenter of last month's temblor or the neighborhood great white sharks that have been known to take a chomp out of the occasional surfer. Nor is it the town's raucous Fourth of July parade complete with the finale of a nude woman/girl (hard to tell which) draped only in an American flag.

Rather, it's a plain, green highway sign and the town folks' undying efforts to keep the tourists out of this coastal hamlet. But, the harder “Bobo” tries to stay out of the limelight, the more it gets sucked in, whether it's on Microsoft's San Francisco sidewalk.com site or playing unwilling host to the 6 o'clock news on three channels after the recent temblor.

Still, publicity is nothing new to Bolinas. Over the past couple of decades, it has appeared in both highbrow and lowbrow publications, once as the subject of a New Yorker cartoon, another time in an article in the National Enquirer. Back in 1984, it even made it to the revered front page of the Wall Street Journal.

With the advent of the Web, it is becoming even more known -- in places as unlikely as Kentucky. A design firm there adopted the bolinas.com domain name. Bolinas Design opens its site with a description of the town and its affinity for it.

"...Apart from the rare temblor, Bolinas is unobtrusive, under publicized, non-commercial, overlooked by the masses, and yet of lasting impression to the curious who visit,” reads the intro page of bolinas.com. "Our approach to business is similar. Over the last four years we have found our niche -- striving to attract and serve clients who have differentiated themselves from the mainstream..."

All of this because of a small and seemingly inconsequential green sign that used to grace Highway 1, pointing the way for the masses to Bolinas. This is the sign that never was in the town that never was, the one that residents spent years taking down - and Caltrans spent years putting back up. Some 10 years ago and 30-plus signs later, Caltrans finally gave up.

Myth has it that the only places that various renditions of the sign can now be found are as makeshift coffee tables in people's living rooms or welded into car panels.

Locals don altered signs (no "Bolinas" on these, just an arrow and the number 2) in bumper-sticker form on the back of their pick-up trucks and vintage Mercedes.

"Why did I put the sticker on my car?" queried back one recent transplant, who knew better than to give a name. "So that people would not identify me as an outsider."

For UPS driver Tom Jacobson, Bolinas is a fun detour off his usual Mill Valley route.

"This place is definitely unique. I’ve visited a lot of places, but there’s nothing quite like this," said Jacobson, who hails from a small town in Mendocino County.

"It's different here, because they want it to be," said Jacobson. "It's simple: It's off the beaten path, and they don’t want anyone else here."

For Jacobson, the town has mellowed with age. Back in 1994, when he started covering the West Marin route, the only thing that saved him from getting lost was that the streets on "The Mesa" (as the hill above town is called) are arranged alphabetically. Street signs were virtually non-existent. Today, they're posted in haphazard fashion, scrawled on old pieces of driftwood or carefully chiseled into gray wood.

"They really didn't want any outsiders in those days," said Jacobson.

Rumor has it that years ago when someone had the not-so-bright idea of bringing a tour bus to Bolinas, the townspeople surrounded the bus and pelted it with tomatoes.

But, what with all the press -- and almost every article offering detailed, easy-to-follow directions to town -- tourists are no longer all that uncommon in Bolinas -- and town folk, minus a few, rarely growl.

"People aren't as friendly as in San Francisco," said 19-year-old German tourist Lars, who was picnicking on the beach with his girlfriend. "But, so far, we haven’t had any problems."

At least during the week, you’re still more likely to see dogs roaming the streets than out-of-towners. On the weekends, the traffic can get a little hairy, especially on the downtown's main drag, Wharf Road, which dead-ends at the beach and doesn't leave much room, not even for an in-the-know locals, to turn around.

But, Bolinas traffic pales in comparison to its neighbor, Stinson Beach, where mile-long delays can leave beachgoers stranded for hours in their cars on a sunny Saturday or Sunday in August or September.

That, along with rising rent, is what drove one Stinson Beach transplant a few miles west to Bolinas. Like so many people in town, she would only talk on the condition that she would not be identified.

"In Stinson, there's a community behind what all the tourists see. But, that community is getting harder and harder to sustain," she said. "They've made an effort to preserve the community here (in Bolinas). That's why I'm here. And, I'm not going anywhere."

Bolinas has only a sign out of town.