Oh, Sebastopol

12 October 2010, from America by housetruck

Sometimes I feel that I collect places, like a child collects rocks. My basket of places holds the complex and variegated boulders of Seattle and Washington, Istanbul and Tokyo, but also the smaller and simpler places: Meknes, Fishguard, Silverton, Freestone. Sebastopol lies midway; it is a small place, but bountiful in its experience. I’ve lived here, or nearby here, twice now. When I return, there are definite changes, but the changes seem to make the town deeper, wiser: a rarity in modern American small towns. I am amazed to see shops and restaurants that were here when I first arrived in 1988, and other businesses which opened only recently but seem like they have been here for years. I believe all places have a personality; if you met it at a party, you’d think Sebastopol friendly, a good conversationalist, interesting and interested, progressive, with a sense of certain but unique fashion.

Since the inception of the housetruck, my friend Sara has offered me a parking space on the street in front of her modest house, up on the hill above Sebastopol’s downtown. Finally, I am able to take her up on the offer. The slope is a bit more extreme than I expect, but it is still a good place to be: walkable to downtown, and with a beautiful view over the Santa Rosa valley. I set up camp – minimally, as I’m able to use Sara’s bathroom, shower, and bathroom.

I’ve forgotten the beauty of Sebastopol, and the city takes great pains to tell me so. There is a surprising balance here between the countryside and the city. At night, I can hear some rumbles of cars on the avenues below, but the dominant sounds are only of crickets. The blanket of stars win out over the mercury vapor street lights. Waking up, I remember that unique feeling of Sonoma County mornings: the light clear and crisp, the heat not yet arrived; I used to eat my breakfast outside every morning, reading the paper, and now I do so again.

During the three days I spend parked on Sara’s street, I have many visitors. Most are neighbors, either walking or driving slowly by. Two women are doing landscaping across the street. Others are friends of folks in the neighborhood. Everyone stops and smiles at the housetruck. I give a dozen tiny tours. More than once I hear a story of a journey in a housetruck sometime in the musty 1970s, apparently the apex of the housetruck movement. And more than once I hear and feel people being inspired by seeing something that is not mass produced, and that has the spirit of travel and adventure engraved so explicitly in the seams of cedar and fir. Where I often see the past – the days before plastics and fiberglass – in the materials of the truck, many people see the future: there is a strange story that arises several times, one of people taking to the road, in small houses, a life less fixed, less complicated. I dare not tell them that I’ve been working all morning, unsuccessfully, on the electrical system.

The second time I lived here, I worked for O’Reilly, a publisher of technical books and websites, and organizer of conferences about cutting-edge technologies. It was 1993, a sort of Triassic period of the internet. The old research/academic/military/hacker community of old was quickly morphing into the contemporary metropolis of commercialism. At the time, O’Reilly was publishing Global Network Navigator, arguably the first commercial website, and I was the webmaster (later known more formally as Technical Director). I moved on in 1995, when GNN was sold to AOL, but those two years were a fascinating tumult of exploring and defining what would become the modern web.

Sara suggests I drive the truck over to the O’Reilly offices for an ad hoc open house. From her email announcement within the company, several waves of O’Reillyians come out to visit, asking questions and telling stories of their own. I sometimes mention that I worked for O’Reilly long ago, and I have a strange feeling of meeting distant cousins.