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Turmoil to Tranquility

I spent many years at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City before coming to Lancaster. We were frequently on lockdown due to recurring violence. Races were separated and contact was limited. I had to navigate through rules with which I didn’t agree; rules that were enforced through my intimidation, coercion and extortion. Being fearful and “looking over your shoulder” was a constant norm. Most men just watched TV all day because very few programs were offered.

After attending college for a few years, I was given a job as a teacher’s assistant. I had the honor of helping men attain their GEDs. This position gave me purpose and helped me escape the joylessness of prison. By the grace of God, I was able to stay disciplinary free. Eventually, my record earned me the privilege of transferring to CSP Lancaster. I had heard rumors about the Progressive Programming Facility (PPF yard), where there were men like me who didn’t want to partake in racial prison politics, join a gang, or do drugs.

Upon arrival, I first noticed different races sitting together, talking and walking the track. I found dozens of educational classes, religious services and self-help groups that were offered on a daily basis. I immediately enrolled in several of these programs and I was thrilled when my friend, Jon Grobman, asked me to become part of the “Paws for Life” program. Seeing dogs running on the yard is astonishing, petting them is amazing, and being a part of their lives is a true miracle. I’ve been blessed to have been in this life-changing and inspirational program for over two and a half years. More than ten of the dogs I helped train now have “Forever Homes”.

Bolinas — My Portal into Self-Awareness

There is one road in and one road out. The ocean is on one side, a lagoon on another, and national park everywhere else. The mall town of Bolinas is twenty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. My parents first took me there in 1965. Bolinas had a family style Italian restaurant that went by the name of Tarantino’s. I can still picture the wife of the owner who got around by pushing a food cart. She was quite feisty! Delicious food!

One of the beaches (Agate—near Duxbury Reef), when at low tide, had an abundant selection of ocean life, such as Starfish, crabs, abalone, sea urchins, sea anemones and other colorful “creatures of the deep”. What first caught my eye as a child was all the dogs roaming free and most of the men had long hair and beards. The atmosphere in town was so peaceful and relaxing. It felt special everytime we traveled there. A few years later Tarantino’s burned down.

After high school and college, I started going to Bolinas on my own. I used to sleep in my car and wander around town. The only tavern in Bolinas was Smiley’s (originally called The Schooner Saloon built in 1853). It is the oldest continuously operating saloon in California. Due to its location, prohibition (1919 – 1934) didn’t affect alcohol sales if you’d “Speakeasy”. I enjoyed many fun evenings with the locals at Smiley’s. Most Bolinas residents like their privacy. They would remove the sign on Highway One pointing in the direction of town. The Bolinas Lagoon separates the town from Stinson Beach. I’ve swam the Bolinas strait between the two many times at the mouth of the lagoon. It is usually overcast in the morning and clears up later.

In the late 1970s, I lived in Berkeley with my hippie girlfriend, Mary. I knew she would love Bolinas as I did. I owned a Ford van with two captain’s chairs in front and a cozy bed on plush carpet behind them. We’d “Camp” in it on secluded back roads. We felt totally safe. When Mary discovered the “Nude” (clothing optional) beach, she never wanted to leave. She was completely happy naked. On the other hand, I was a bit shy. Mary liked her marijuana cigarettes. Every time she lit up a joint, it seemed couples from all over the beach made their way to our blanket. She sparked up often. It was a good way to meet locals and other “tourists”. I recall a small cottage/house at the corner of Wharf Road and Brighton Avenue that welcomed us. We spent a lot of time in Bolinas the next few years.

The funky stores were a highlight for her. Mary’s favorite was named “the Chameleon.” It sold clothing, mainly. The Bolinas store had everything we needed. John, the proprietor, was there often. The community bulletin board on the store’s outer wall filled us in on the latest happenings in town. The Coast Cafe served fresh fish and tasty ice cream for dessert. The Grand Hotel always seemed to have a flea market in front of it. The community center had all kinds of interesting activities with guest speakers. I recall attending many a breakfast to benefit local causes. We enjoyed the book sales in front of the library.

There are various routes to get to Bolinas. Highway One is a pretty drive, but the heavy traffic can make it miserable. Via Olema is another choice. The Fairfax-Bolinas road is my favorite. A slow, relaxing cruise through the redwood trees. It Always puts me in a mellow mood. True bliss is when the Pacific Ocean comes into view. I believe it followed an old stagecoach route or horse trail from San Rafael through Fairfax up the Bolinas Ridge to the summit house and down to Bolinas.

For most of my adult life, Bolinas has always been the “Go To” place when “city” stress got to be too much. The solitude of strolling an isolated ocean beach with the fresh air blowing through my long hair, cleared my head from the daily turmoil. The magnificent sea life during low tide at Agate Beach is truly unique and added to the enjoyment. The dirt path down to the beach is less than a half mile.

On one particular day, the wind was howling and extremely unpleasant. By a stroke of luck, I discovered a small opening hidden and partially obscured between some overgrown vegetation. It opened up into a small serene valley protected from the wind. It felt I was treading through uncharted territory. A little further up this curious route I noticed a wooden bench near a creek. It was a welcome sight. The babbling brook was uttering captivating sounds. I immediately flashed back on a book written by Herman Hesse (Siddartha). An elderly man listens and learns from the river. I began to take a few deep breaths. The guise of this bench had become my portal into self-awareness. I relived past experiences, pondered the future and then, returned to the present moment. I never judged myself too harshly. I have laughed, shed tears, made love, meditated, prayed, asked for forgiveness, grieved, was lonely, had anxiety, released anger, felt calm, was grateful and hopeful as I sat on this invaluable creation.

Who built it? Why? When? Perhaps I’ll never know. Returning often over the years, I always left encouraged, optimistic and rejuvenated. You can see why I hold it dear to my heart and why I hunger and thirst to return one day for more spiritual guidance. I wonder if anyone else has felt the magic here. I’ve never seen anyone while I was there.

I took my future wife there in 1987. Sharen was pretty, conservative and didn’t quite understand the peace I felt while in town. After a few years of dating, she wanted to get married. Her being Catholic (I wasn’t), Sharen needed to be married in a Catholic church. I agreed, that is, if I got to pick the location. Enter Saint Mary Magdalene Catholic church in Bolinas.

Gregorio Briones willed the land upon his death in 1863. The Mexican governor of California deeded him ten thousand acres (roughly three miles by six miles) in western Marin. The land grant was called “Rancho Baulenes.” The church was built by Timothy Phinney (a chicken farmer) in 1877 for $2000.00. It has always been a mission church without a resident pastor. There is an old pioneer cemetery behind it.

We met the priest and decided on a wedding date for November 17, 1990. Father Raymond Decker presided over the ceremony. We filled up that little country church with  family  and friends totalling nearly 100 guests. We were told of a secluded bed and breakfast inn for our honeymoon. It was on the road towards the southern entrance to Point Reyes. A “Rose” symbol was the only clue to its location. I’ve forgotten the friendly owners, but I do recall their huge dogs (Huskies?) named Oscar and Lily. We continued the tradition of staying there yearly to celebrate our blessed union.

Our reception after the wedding was on the mesa. The location was a lighthouse style Bed & Breakfast (on Kale?) with a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean. The catering was provided by the local bakery. All the employees wore tie-dyed shirts. The pumpkin cheesecake made the special occasion memorable. A couple we met at mass performed the music at our reception. They lived across the street from the church. A long dirt driveway led to small cottages. I booked the two rooms at the Grand Hotel for my best men and their friends. Everyone went to Smiley’s afterwards. 

Sharen and I had three children. The five of us strolled through the cemetery before and after mass. We noticed very few new plots. I seem to remember a wooden bear tombstone with trinkets left under it dedicated to a young boy. It was drizzling a certain Sunday morning and we took refuge under a tall redwood tree. Right in front of us were two burial plots. Our middle daughter suggested we purchase them. To make a long story short, I did, #173, #174! They overlook the beautiful Bolinas Lagoon. It gives me total satisfaction and peace of mind knowing I will be buried in a place dear to my heart. I often daydream of all my carefree and fun times in lovely Bolinas. Soon, my spiritual eternal home will call my name.

Dedicated to my two friends: Norman Staub Sr. of Stinson Beach and Father Raymond Decker. Acknowledgments: The Bolinas Museum and the Stinson Beach Historical Society.


My life as I once knew it, is gone forever. It has been replaced by a new set of rules that I have little control over. In my freedom I took a lot for granted. I used to swim, loved driving my car or riding a motorcycle. I used to go to restaurants, take hikes in the forest and stroll up and down the beach picking up seashells. Can you relate to this? I used to check out concerts, play golf (it was my thing) and feel the thrill of catching fish. Even the little things: walking to the store, or setting off fireworks on the 4th of July. All of that is gone now. I miss going to sports events, living with a woman or cutting down a real Christmas tree. And Halloweens were the best!

Now I can’t even visit my friends and family. And the worst is not being able to go to their funerals when their time comes. I can’t even say that last goodbye. Many have passed away, and the mail is so slow I always learn of something after the fact. My parents are currently 87 and 88 years old. I don’t even like to think about it.

I have made some really bad decisions. I have caused a lot of pain and grief to many people, friends and strangers. When you hurt people it spreads to other people you can’t even imagine, hundreds upon hundreds, because people know other people and we are all connected. It could even be a thousand people affected in my case. It is very sad. I was a selfish person. I didn’t think of anyone but myself. That’s not the way it goes. I was doing drugs. Even when you don’t plan for it, that’s what drugs eventually do.

I didn’t listen when people were trying to advise me. It was like they were preaching to me. I hated it. My parents, teachers, and friends all tried to tell me I was going down the wrong path. I refused to listen. Even to my best friend! I began doing drugs by myself. I would hide it from people. I spiraled out of control.

Don’t make the mistakes I made. Don’t spiral out of control.

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