In search of the springs
Staying afloat in a sea of contradictions
We entertained the fantasy of photographing a taco truck by the front door of the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. Couldn’t be done. But the very idea illustrates the obvious paradox of a place where opulence and poverty coexist in intimate proximity and where, between the two extremes, you can find the universe of diversity that is California. So we went in search of The Springs
It was a short trip, but wide and deep. Whether we found it or not we don’t know. But looking was a lot of fun and we invite you to come along for the ride ...
Squatting just outside the official city limits, tattered, motley, perhaps a bit unloved, it is bold in its proximity to the charming élan that defines Sonoma proper. It is the Wine Country poseur, the redheaded stepchild. The Springs.
Bracketed at its southern border by Maxwell Farms Regional Park and somewhat less definitively by the Church Mouse donation station at its north end, the commercial corridor demarcating the Springs runs less than two miles in length. Two little miles abutting the proper edge of town, just over 10,000 feet, and yet so far from the Sonoma of glossy travel magazines and discriminating sipping tours that it may as well be the moon. Home to a good percentage of the Valley’s population, the Springs is a curious juxtaposition of rich and poor, a complicated roux of Mexican and American, an anomaly of blended styles almost schizophrenic in its complexity. The famously potholed and mostly sidewalk-free stretch of pavement down Highway 12 is a primary commute route for the locals who live in the adjoining neighborhoods; for tourists, it is a confusingly low-rent detour between wineries.
Tasked with defining the essential character of the Springs, I wriggle into my battered Wellies and set out on foot to find what seems elusive prey. Can a place as diverse and diffuse as the Springs be neatly organized into a single bracket? Can an area rife with contradictions and odd-couple alliances be pigeonholed in a meaningful way? It’s said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I take my first in the whispering forest that lies behind Maxwell Park.
Swollen and rushing with the glut of water from recent rains, Sonoma Creek winds past old oaks and dormant brambles. It’s quiet here, the simple melody of moving water punctuated by bird cry. A profound gratitude takes hold as I venture deeper into its wild. I see heron and geese, all manner of fowl. Such unscripted nature is lovely, although—predictably—man’s thumbprint mars the tableau. In the low-lying branches near the water’s edge, soda bottles glitter and sway like wayward Christmas ornaments. A rusted grocery cart hulks at the edge of a run of rapids. The homeless have claimed this place, too. They cluster near the mouth of the forest, amicably sharing bottles shrouded by wrinkled brown bags. Following the sandy path, I walk past the local boys & girls club, an architecturally pleasing structure anchoring the park’s southwest corner. Inside, latchkey girls and boys spend supervised afternoons noisily awaiting the arrival of their harried parents. Their collective shouts breach the stucco walls, composing a dissonant symphony with the birdsong of the woods.
On the other side of Verano Avenue, a stand of expensive date palms and a low stone wall wrap their way around the local McDonald’s, seemingly a part of the restaurant’s exterior décor. But this small outpost of beauty has nothing to do with the purveyors of portable food: It belongs entirely to the Springs. Along with the controversial arch a bit further down Highway 12, the landscape is a visual cue signaling you’ve entered unincorporated Sonoma.
I sit for a moment on a publicly financed bench, anchored to the isthmus under the arch. Traffic streams by steadily. Exhaust and bluish clouds of particulate matter hug the pavement in the cold, and I breathe from the corners of my mouth, conscious of my lungs. Mobile-home parks hunker off the road right and left. Bucolically titled, they are less precious in form. Is the relentless hum and honk of traffic somehow mitigated by the fact that home sweet home is Meadow Brook or Brookside? One wonders if the developers meant to be ironic. A bit discouraged by my detour, I circle back past bridge abutments covered in gang tags. Norte and X3 drip messily down the cement in red paint.
Perhaps the thick milkshakes and meaty burgers at Happy Dog will lift my spirits. The freckled mascot painted on the building’s exterior smiles in welcome if longtime owner Judy Chang does not. Famously taciturn, two decades spent manning the deep fryer has left her in no mood to suffer fools, and she fields my questions with hard-boiled economy. If she serves your meal with a dash of curmudgeon, count yourself lucky: It’s a notable local spice.
Further on, a cul-de-sac of small gray buildings—none bigger than a single car garage—houses a collection of immigrant families. Tidy but plain, each small hut tells its own poignant story. Outside this one, plastic geraniums bloom; over there, a little pink bike, streamers waving gaily from its handlebars. It is hard to fathom dividing up such a space, and yet through the thin doors one hears the everyday sounds of family life: a television chattering, kids giggling, a refrigerator door sighing closed.
Standing sentry over Mary’s Pizza Shack some yards ahead is an ancient magnolia tree, its smooth limbs seductively low to the ground. A sign wards off indulgent parents and willful ascenders, “I’m getting old so please DO NOT CLIMB ON ME.” Inside the pizzeria, the aroma of oregano and sage, dough and baked cheese should be bottled and sold. It is the smell of homecoming, of welcome, of happiness.
In Fiesta Plaza across the road, the Dollar Store on the western corner offers nirvana for the under-10 set. Here, a kid can give the average allowance a reasonable run. Penny candies, Pokemon cards, a scrunchy for your pigtails. All of it cheap and fabulously gaudy. In the Carniceria around the corner, a meanly marinated carne asada—perfect for summer barbecues—sits behind glass aside unfamiliar cuts of beef and what I’m fairly certain must be goat. Sonoma Cinemas in the far corner of the mall, the Valley’s only multiplex, boasts first-run films and stadium seating. At the Rack-N-Cue next door, pool sharks circle one another. They chatter in rapid Spanish, curious about the white lady watching, wondering what she writes in her book. But they don’t approach. An invisible barrier exists between us, a distinct border none of us is brave enough to cross.
Another block up at the open-air fruit stand, Markos Dalakiaris keeps watch over melons and artichokes and plums, a de facto local personality, a sort of unofficial mayor. Rain or shine he’s rarely absent from his Fruit Basket perch, reigning sovereign over the comings and goings of a population as diverse as his produce. Giant Hummers and weary Corollas, shiny German coupes and rusted Datsun trucks migrate up and down this corridor, and Dalakiaris knows most of them—and their drivers—by sight. He is a merry man, quick to laugh, short and sturdy with a bushy head of salt and pepper hair. A Greek from the island of Skopelos, he and his brother laid claim to this stretch of highway some 20 years back.
Mexican markets sit on various corners all over the Springs, and I realize with amazement that I’ve never been inside one before. Opposite the sleek offices of architectural firm RossDrulisCusenbery, a building in need of paint sits on the corner of Calle de Monte, its papered windows crowded with advertisements and sputtering neon promises of ALCOHOL. From the eaves, a plastic banner invites workers to settle up with Uncle Sam, beckoning Haga Su Income Tax Aqui! Inside the store, North meets South: chilies, fried pork rinds, fresh pound cake and other Mexican sweets vie for shelf space with M&M’s, soda and gum.
Swallowing one long block in its entirety, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is an island of American affluence smack in the middle of an exotically Mexican neighborhood. Pull through the pink stucco gates off Boyes Boulevard and enter a different world. Inhale the lavender. Relish the immaculate loveliness of manicured lawns and tiled floors framed in gleaming grout. If the surrounding neighborhood is coach class, the Mission Inn & Spa is a rarified first, a world of extravagant massages and 20-dollar cocktails. Here, patrons pass one another in dignified silence, eyes averted, voices low.
Just across the street, rancheras blare from tinny speakers affixed to the La Familia taco truck. Patrons slap backs and grin. Profound happiness can be had for a buck fifty: savory tacos packed with fresh cilantro and seasoned with lime. A mustachioed man holds court over what appears to be man’s first barbecue—a dilapidated, three-wheeled hulk of charred steel—turning out perfectly roasted whole chickens. A family of four can eat big and spicy for the grand sum of nine dollars.
North of Boyes Boulevard, the corridor grows increasingly hardscrabble. Boarded storefronts are more prevalent, graffiti ubiquitous. Men loiter at the intersection of Vallejo and Bonita, scanning cars for the possibility of a day’s work. Weathered homes hug the shoulder of the road, wedged between businesses offering cigarettes! beer! Western Union transfers rapidamente! And yet, an attempt at renaissance is evident, too. Shouldering up to an abandoned, graffitied storefront are the attractive new offices of Richard Hancock Incorporated. Across from the seismically iffy Valley of the Moon Teen Center, an ambitious new teen center has broken ground. A string of especially sketchy buildings occupy the highway’s east side, curiously rhomboidal, their front doors swinging open just inches from the fenders of cars gaining speed as they break toward the edge of town, toward open spaces, toward big skies. Scrawled on the front of one, this news: Tamales today, $1.
Like the commerce along this skinny corridor, the neighborhoods beyond run the gamut. Million-dollar homes share fence lines with extreme fixers. Converted summer cabins sit alongside virtual mansions. On Riverside Drive, houses in various stages of neglect dot the landscape, interspersed with a few newly constructed, sturdier looking homes. In front of one, a homeowner’s plea—in spray paint on plywood, reads, “Please! Return my apple tree.” It doesn’t tax the imagination to picture thieves pilfering a tree from the middle of someone’s lawn here, where the fences are wobbly and the paint less than fresh. But at the top of Mountain Avenue, on the other side of the highway, a string of gated manses sprawls across the landscape, tidy little vineyards separating one roomy estate from the next. Creeping up Hillcrest Drive, the houses get exponentially grander, culminating with a huge Tuscan villa at the tippy-top. It seems money does not trickle downhill, after all.
Before the buildings and the businesses and the people, there was the water itself. Indigenous people were first to discover the hot, sulfurous element springing from the earth seemed to possess healing powers. Revered by Indians as sacred ground, a sweathouse stood near the spring for generations. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a profusion of hotels and bathhouses turned the waters into a vacation enterprise, and the Springs became a resort destination for affluent San Franciscans eager to “take the waters.” They arrived in droves by boat, stagecoach and train. In 1923, a cataclysmic fire destroyed many of the resorts and surrounding area. From the ashes where the legendary Boyes Hot Springs Hotel once stood, the Sonoma Mission Inn rose in 1927. Shuttered during the Great Depression, it was repurposed as an R&R destination for military personnel during World War II and later, in the 1940s, training headquarters for professional sports teams. When a two-year search finally uncovered a new source of 135-degree artesian mineral water, the Springs story came full circle, although its setting is now distinctly modern: Vacationers of yore are, today, year-round residents; the affluent have become working class; and half the natives speak Spanish.
Shambling between points A and B in traffic that grows worse every year, lost in private thoughts and mentally organizing our lists of to-do’s, it is possible to pass through the Springs without absorbing its character. Like the familiar contours of your own reflection or the well-known timbre of your partner’s voice, it is possible to experience it without experiencing it at all. An amalgam of seemingly oppositional identities, it is, like most everything else, in continual transition. The Springs remains, like its namesake, fluid.