(1 of ) Artists everywhere: West county seems like a playground for creative types. From cheery “junk art” in yards around Sebastopol to the city-sanctioned graffiti walls next to the skate park, locals seem to welcome artistic expression with open arms. It’s an ethos shared by a couple places back home, like artist Bob Cassilly’s City Museum in St. Louis. Here, it’s pervasive. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat) 2014
(2 of ) Winter greens: How does that shade even exist? I’m used to nature wearing a somber cloak of gray-brown from November to April. But Sonoma County fields seem to shrug off convention and shine a brilliant, electric green with even a sip of rain. To my eyes, every hill looks like the Windows XP desktop photo.
(3 of ) West county style: Long dresses and leather jackets. Wide-brimmed hats and big brooches. Cowboy boots and witchy rings. West county has an eclectic style that’s all its own. Everyone seems to wear just what they want to wear. To my eye it's both comfortable and chaotic, as people draw inspiration from bygone eras and diverse cultures. Still, one fashion thread seems consistent: everyone dresses like it's 20 degrees colder than it really is. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
(4 of ) Veggie heaven: I’m a longtime vegetarian. Chicago rose to fame as “Hog Butcher for the World.” That combination didn’t always mix well. While the city has its share of veggie-friendly restaurants, I often found myself weighing two mediocre options at a meat-focused spot. Not the case in Sonoma County. Stopped at a small thai place in Healdsburg? You’re getting a full page of vegetarian options on the menu. Hungry for organic tofu on your tacos? No problem. It’s almost too good to be true. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
(5 of ) Brutal traffic, mellow drivers: There’s no getting around this one. Traffic is brutal in the North Bay. But there’s a silver lining: locals seem fairly laid back about the whole situation. West county drivers seem nicer than their Midwestern counterparts, showing their generous spirit from inside a hybrid or Subaru wagon. Coming from Chicago, where crossing an intersection often felt like a risky proposal, I’ve found local drivers to be remarkably friendly to pedestrians. (Kent Porter/Press Democrat)
(6 of ) Rock shops and curiosities: Crystals, minerals, fossils. There’s a real love for rocks in these parts. While the crystal craze has already spread to my beloved flyover states, I’m still amazed by the demand for these rocks in west county. Walking past the display at Sagestone Gallery in Sebastopol, I was taken back to childhood memories of breaking open tiny geodes. But this particular rock in the window was deep purple and the size of a beach ball. (Photo Will Bucquoy/For the Press Democrat)
(7 of ) Whole Foods 101: My first taste of Sebastopol was in the fast-moving aisles of Whole Foods. It’s a small store, with just enough space for a few nimble green carts. I moved around the produce, but my timing was all wrong. I hesitated by the zucchinis (still can’t tell them apart from cucumbers) and immediately caused a traffic jam. Impatient locals stood on either side of me, clearing their throats. I hustled away and found solace by the dairy fridges. Only seven types of organic milk to choose from.
(8 of ) Hippies, farmers and hippie-farmers: Sonoma County is deeply rooted in agriculture. As hippies strayed north from the city, they adapted to the rural landscape and farmer culture. So, too, did local farm folks eventually accept their new neighbors. Now, the variations on hippie, farmer and hippie-farmer have blurred and blended into an interesting local fabric. Pickup trucks from the 1950s, lovingly restored, cruise next to Toyota trucks plastered with Bernie bumper stickers. Somehow, it all works together. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)
(9 of ) New slang: Forget about the Spicoli surfer drawl. There’s a real slang in Northern California. Sentences are peppered with “hella” for emphasis, like a heap of giardiniera on a mediocre sandwich. For instance, “This burrito is so bomb; it's hella good.” Also surprising is the contented “mmm” as a response to almost any statement. I have this one catalogued as a blissed-out companion to “Namaste.” (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
(10 of ) No swimming: Packing for my first visit to Northern California, I carefully tucked a pair of swim trunks into a backpack. “Don’t want to miss out when everyone’s diving in,” I thought with gleeful ignorance. Many months later, those trunks still haven’t seen action in the Pacific. It’s straight-up cold. I’ve learned my lesson from a few toe-dips: bring the wet suit. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat file photo)