Visiting this place
Outside of going home each evening to be with my family, I’ve not traveled very much from my cabin here in Jack London Village, above Sonoma Creek. It’s a good place to be, this place – especially this time of year. I prefer my cabin and my home to restaurants and airports, and my own bed to the ones I find in motels. I don’t feel as comfortable driving a rental car as I do my own.
My older brother is the traveler, mostly around Europe. He just got back from a month’s stay in Rome, including a brief excursion to North Africa. A younger brother lived in Australia most of his life, and traveled frequently about Asia from there, teaching English. My brothers would ask me why I wasn’t as curious as they were about other places, and I would try to explain my delight in simply being here.
However, this does not renounce the rest of the world. People from everywhere it seems pass by my cabin, and stop to talk. They tell me that Glen Ellen is their destination, a place they like to visit, and why. They bring themselves as gifts to this place, and we talk about their homes and families, the way they live and how, and the ideas and feelings that they have. Their diversity helps me feel well-traveled.
I’m glad they like this place so much; I’m proud of it myself. It’s not unlike the way I feel about the young men who come to visit my daughters. But, as with those young men, I feel a certain wariness when I see their approach. You’d better behave yourselves, I think; be kind. And, too, there is a certain danger in making ourselves attractive if, by doing that, we betray who we are for their attention.
This place has always been a destination. It’s said when Tolay Lake – sacred to the Miwok people – was drained by 19th-century settlers to create farmlands, prehistoric charmstones from hundreds of miles away were found, thrown there by visitors. And a gorgeous painting by Erneste Etienne Narjot in 1878 shows happy tourists wading in Sonoma Creek – long before the railroads began bringing thousands of visitors to the Valley of the Moon.
It was the railroads, of course, that made the region accessible to the multitudes that then poured in, many so rowdy that the county was petitioned to designate Glen Ellen a township in 1901, with the protection of a constable. The popularity of outdoor recreation – at first hunting and fishing, until the game was gone, and always the swimming and the hiking – was gradually equaled by the more passive indoor activities of wine tasting and fine dining.
Many visitors come more than once these days, and many of them eventually decide to stay – to buy a home and take up residence, at least on a part-time basis. Many of us are happy to host them, to show them who and how we are; but many of us are now growing uncomfortable with the changing character of this place. We do not want to lose what makes this a wonderful place to visit, and to live in.
A fellow over in the next valley by the name of George Caloyannidis has written about what he refers to as the Five Stages of Tourism’s Faustian Deal. They begin innocently enough, with tourism being purely supplemental and supportive to an existing economic base, but as reliance on tourist dollars becomes increasingly perceived as essential, things start to get dicey.
At stage three, the local scene becomes disrupted, with what Caloyannidis refers to as a gradual tearing of the social fabric, given the proliferation of low paying jobs and outsider investing. Families leave, and vacation rentals multiply; neighbors become strangers, and housing becomes so expensive that workers must come from a distance, no longer identifying with the region as their home – and then there’s always the increasing traffic.
By stage four the process has become irreversible. Tourism is now the primary economy, with a deteriorating infrastructure asking for increasing maintenance, raising taxes and fees. Tourism becomes resented by residents and – most sadly – the authentic indigenous character of the region is replaced by a merchandising that caters to generic notions of a caricature of who we once were.
The Faustian deal with the devil – exchanging an immortal soul for transitory wealth and fame – is complete at stage five. We would then have negotiated ourselves into a vicious cycle of increasing tourism, to pay the cost of increasing tourism. We would never catch up – our social capital and infrastructure would be worn away, and our community would be in shreds.
This is not what we want – not here, not in this wonderful place. This place is unique, has always been, and must always be. People will continue to arrive, bringing with them their ideas and their appetites – much of which will have been fueled by our reputation. We who welcome them must recognize the cognitive dissonance lurking within the conflict between their entitled expectations and our true nature.
Vacationers will always come here to vacate the routines of the life that they live back home, in order to indulge – for a time – their fantasies here. It is for us to help them know where they have come, and to be present in this very special place.