Notes from Sebastopol, California

If you want to read my previous travel-ish essay, check out my Notes from Lake Tahoe. Unless you already have—in which case, good for you!

On a Sunday with no obligations, my boyfriend and I decided to pick some city at least an hour away and explore. Most travel guides recommended Sebastopol, and almost all of them described it as “artsy.”

For as long as we’ve been dating, Tanner has cringed at that word. “Artsy,” he often says in quotation marks. “What does that even mean?”

Relating to berets? Or intentional paint-splatters? Outside of beatnik stereotypes, I suspect that only people who don’t identify as artists would call something “artsy.” For writers like me and Tanner—who deeply, almost manically strive for individuality—a single word to encompass all artists seems heinous.

But we were intrigued by Sebastopol’s local lore: In 1997, junk art sculptor Patrick Amiot and his wife, painter Brigitte Laurent, moved to Sebastopol. They were embraced as the town’s resident artists. Now, their fanciful works rendered recycled metal can be found on street corners and on front lawns.

So we set off to toward this “artsy” town. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to the north and ended up almost instantly in the green, wooded North Bay. As we neared Sebastopol, the road narrowed, a lazy string of yarn winding through the hills.

In Sebastopol, “artsy” is a spectrum. Perhaps on one end was our first stop, a vintage store called Aubergine. (Sadly, I’ve just heard that its brick-and-mortar store is closing.) Racks of clothing from the 1970s onward parade offbeat patterns and textures, in rows that span the length of a warehouse. I will admit, though, that the occasional cobwebs made my stomach turn. I don’t pretend to embody that “starving artist” grunge life.

As we neared downtown, signs of not-so-starving artistry appeared: a Whole Foods rose on the horizon. I spotted Many Rivers Books & Tea, a spiritual book and loose-leaf tea shop. “Spiritual” isn’t the first genre I reach for, but the combination seemed idyllic.

We pressed on, in search of the storied sculptures.

Tanner and I had to lean back to take in the sight of a Tyrannosaurus rex, who stands nearly as tall as the roof of a house. Under one arm, he clutches a red convertible. The driver’s wiry hair squiggles upward in distress. The scene plays out on the front lawn of artists Pierre Amiot and Brigitte Laurent’s own home.

Walking down Florence Avenue in Sebastopol is like taking a stroll through someone’s happy-go-lucky imagination. In front of nearly every suburban home is some, large playful statue. A diner waitress holding stacks of tin waffles and pies. Three jugglers, standing on one another’s shoulders. Everything is crooked and goofy: I think of Picasso’s angularity and Charles Schultz’s homeyness, all with a gritty industrial edge.

Late-afternoon sunlight, protracted and crisp in the winter, stretches out on the sidewalk ahead of us as we walk. I smile the entire way up and down the street.

The day in Sebastopol draws to a close like this: I sip a strong tea and watch the last moments of sun filter into a coffee shop, diffusing a deep amber dusk into the room. This is my favorite kind of light.

We came inside to cup our hands around hot tea. Taylor Maid sells organic coffee and teas in a cluster of shops called The Barlow, an airy market comprised of artisan restaurants and shops. Before we stopped for coffee, we walked into California Sister, a flower shop. We chatted with Kathrin Green, the shop’s co-founder, arranging a vase of poppies in the corner.

Whimsical. That’s the perfect word for them, isn’t it?” she said, remarking on the way that poppies’ stems start to spiral up toward the bud.

Kathrin clued me into what is perhaps the essence of “artsy” in Sebastopol: an eye for noticing the small things and making something more delightful out of them. Old clothes, scrap metals, the stems of flowers—artists and creative spirits in Sebastopol seemed attentive to the way that details came together and could tell a story of their own. And as a writer, I can accept this definition.

We ended our day in Sebastopol at Lowell’s Restaurant, a farm-to-table nook whose ethos reveres and draws inspiration from Sebastopol’s agrarian roots. Tanner and I split an indulgent duck liver mousse with a light-as-air Margherita pizza. As evening fell, a dazzling concentration of stars emerged.

“Are they always out there?” I asked, dumbstruck. (I grew up with light pollution, leave me alone.)

And as luck would have it, we had a vase of fresh poppies at our table. If you look at them closely, their stems look like corkscrews, or crooked grins.

Have you been to one of California’s smaller cities? Can someone explain healing crystals to me? They were everywhere, and I still don’t get it.

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