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Summer Travel: Authentic Pt. Reyes

Krissy Clark

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Oldest barn on the former Giacomini Dairy Ranch
(Krissy Clark)
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Point Reyes Station is a little town between golden hills and a shallow, green bay, a few hundred yards east of the San Andreas Fault. It is a beautiful town, in a landscape defined by dramatic change. There has not been much dramatic change, geologically speaking, to this place since the earthquake of 1906. But in the last few years, the town itself has gone through a continental shift. From mostly cow-town, to mostly tourist town. But in the last few years, the town itself has gone through a continental shift. From mostly cow-town, to mostly tourist town.

Even the sound of the place has changed. Time was, you could hear the mooing of hundreds of dairy cows that lived two blocks off main street, at a dairy farm that dates back to the early 1900s. But last year, the dairy closed down. The cows were sold and trucked away. Now, the only moos you hear in Point Reyes Station come from a recording that blasts out of loud speakers from a bar on Main Street. "The noon moo," locals call it.

All the actual cows are gone. Many of the older locals used to say that when the cows left, and the smell and the flies left, that would be the end of Point Reyes Station. But it was not. The town is still around, population 818. It turns out, the old dairy barn where the cows once lived is still around too. And now people don't quite know what to do with it.

"You can see the closer you get, the less durable it looks," says John Hulls, a local newspaper columnist, who has lived in town for more than thirty years, as he takes me to see the barn, which he recently wrote about in his column.

It is beautiful. With a peaked, sagging roof and wooden walls, worn and silvering, that look great against the green-gold fields. But Hulls tries to be realistic about it. "It's just an old building that's about to fall down," he says.

Still, its beetle infested walls hold something else for Hulls, too. A choice: between a world of authenticity, where barns are for cows; and a world of signs and symbols, where barns are for sight-seeing, to remind you of the cows the town used to have

"If you only focus attention on the signs and symbols, then you only live in a simulacra, a simulated world," Hull says. "You cannot have an authentic barns without having the dairies." Hulls likes to read French philosophy in his spare time.

Hulls also liked living near a working dairy barn, owned by a local family that sent their kids to the local school, and employed other local families. Now that the dairy is closed, John would just as soon see the old barn torn down... Otherwise, it's just one more bit of quaintness for the tourists to admire. Every year, Two million people visit Point Reyes Station.

"There are quite a few bed and breakfasts around, they sort of spring up with great abandon," Hulls says as he shows me around Point Reyes Station. Houses have become art galleries. The old livery stable in town has now been converted into a gym and offices.

"This all was pasture land," Bob Giacomini tells me as we drive his pick up truck around the old dairy. "Last summer they took all the buildings down, took all the fences downs except for the old barn." Giacomini grew up next to this old dairy barn. His dad owned it.

"That's our house that we've turned into a B and B now," he points. "That's where I grew up."

Giacomini's father bought this ranch in 1945, when there were 150 dairies in the area. Now there are less than thirty. Back then, the routine was pretty much the same on every ranch. Wake up before sunrise, milk the cows. Sometime in the middle of the day, if you were lucky you got a little cat nap, and then you go and do the same thing again. "But it's a good life," Giacomini says. "You're your own boss. You're working out in the open air all the time."

In the 1960s, the federal government started buying up farms around Point Reyes in an effort to turn the land into a national park. Point Reyes National Seashore became the perfect weekend get away for folks in San Francisco, and the perfect stop on a road trip down California's coast.

Giacomini says, eventually, the Park Service approached his family. "We weren't too excited about selling it to them. In fact we weren't excited at all. But as time went on, pressure kept building. We could see the writing on the wall, that the time was going to have to come when we were just going to have to sell it and move on."

It was mostly economics for the family. Ranching was getting more expensive, and though the actual sale price was never revealed, the family got well over $4 million for the land when they sold a few years ago. Giacomini remembers the day he and his brother-- who ran the ranch--watched the last milk cows get trucked away. He says there were tears in everybody's eyes.

This summer, bulldozers will come in to raze the dykes that Bob's dad built in the 1940s-- dykes that turned hundreds of acres of marshland in to some of the region's most fertile pastures. Once the dykes are gone, the creeks will start to meander, the salt water from the bay will seep back in, the pasture will die, and the land will slowly revert back to wetlands.

"That's an osprey!" Gordon Bennett says, pointing to a black shadow flying low along a dyke. It is hunting for fish. "We'll see more of them out here, the more the water gets in here." says Bennett, who is the Conservation Chair of the local Sierra Club chapter. He takes me past the old dairy barn, which he finds it handsome but basically uninteresting, to the wetlands restoration area. Bennett worked alongside with the park service for fifteen years to make this restoration happen. Ninety-five percent of U.S. coastal wetlands are gone.

"Looking at the damage we've done, and the simplification we've imposed on the world," Bennett says, "it's nice to look at an area and restore it to its complexity. To allow nature to the furthest extent possible to do what it wants to do, with out human direction."

Even though the wetlands restoration has barely begun, Park Service scientists have found tiny, endangered Gobi fish here, some of California's last remaining Coho Salmon, and rare birds called Clapper Rails who hide in the marsh grasses.

For Bennett, these animals, long native to the area, are the authentic Point Reyes. He appreciates the cultural history of the defunct dairy. Still, he says "the cows are not an endangered species, the ag operations are not an endangered species, but the animals that will use this are. And that's what's important to me."

Randy Flemming likes to do a little visual experiment with the old dairy barn and his right index finger right. "If you take it out with your finger-- crop it out--the landscape flattens to me," he says. "There is something about the visual activity, the lines of tension of that barn, rising to the sky, against the gentle curve of a hill, counteracting the flatness of the wetland environment. If you do take it out," he says, covering up the barn with one finger in front of his eye, "the landscape shifts, it flattens." It's almost boring, he jokes.

Flemming moved to town a few years ago, after he retired as an architect. He loves cows, but he says he thought restoring the wetlands, and retiring the dairy, was the right thing to do. Flemming lived near the dairy--upwind, he points out---and he says now that the cows are gone it smells better. He's glad to see more wildlife back in the area, more wildness.

But Flemming does not want to see the old dairy barn go. He is working with the park service to see how much it would cost to restore the building, maybe turn it into community center--something to keep the town from losing an authentic piece of town history.

"I think the barn is obviously symbolic, or representative of a different time," Flemming tells me. "I'm comforted by seeing it there."

In post-modern French philosophy, this would be called the barn's symbolic or sign value, as opposed to its functional one. Kind of like the noon moo that comes from that bar on Main Street, which is where I go on my way out of town, to ponder the slippery of nature of authenticity... It can be better done with a drink.

I remember a conversation I had with Bob Giacomini--the old dairy farmer---about the noon moo, when he was driving me back from his old dairy farm to my car on Main Street.

We had to drive past by the entrance to the wetlands restoration area, past the Bovine Bakery and a little take out cart called the Chinese Chuck Wagon, past several B and Bs, including the one his family now runs.

Giacomini told me he likes the noon moo.

"I think it's kind of unique. It's kind of corny, but it's a corny town."

I asked him if he you ever wonders if the town could get a little too corny, too quaint. "It's getting there now, but you're not going to stop it," Giacomini says, with all the practicality you'd expect from a dairy farmer. "It's a fact of life, so you might as well admit it and try to take advantage of it a little bit. What else you gonna do, you know?" In Giacomini's lifetime, his family has gone from agriculture to agri-tourism, from selling milk, to selling views of where the milk used to come from, because that is where the money is now.

If, like the French philosopher said, authenticity is about using something for its actual function, rather than a symbolic one, then maybe a tourist town is as authentic as you can get.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Minotaur Shock
    CD: Maritime (4AD)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Sammie Grib

    From Grass Valley, CA, 06/14/2008

    When my children were in elementary school in Novato, CA they had a kindergarten-first grade teacher named Jeanette Giacomini. She took classes yearly on the most fabulous field trip. It was to her family diary farm. It was a joy to be able to join the class as well. This is the family farm we toured along with Point Reys Station. Thank you for the memories.

    By Anthony Cardone

    From Strongsville, OH, 06/14/2008

    So where does Gordon Bennett go when he wants a cold glass of milk? Would he prefer one from Wisconsin? I understand his concern for the return to the natural state of the Giacomini Diary Farm, but his attitude about farming seems a bit aloof and officious. It reminds me of my upbringing in Connecticut when the farms started disappearing to urban sprawl. The city people (some from NYC)complained about the odor and the noise, but they wanted the rural experience, allbiet without the natural ambience. At that time all the locally grown produce disappeared and the replacement produce was trucked in from across the country. If nothing else, the barn should remain as a tribute to the family and the town that probably supplied San Francisco with it's milk supply.
    Regards, Tony

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