I grew up in a California town called Woodland, right in the middle of the Central Valley, a stone’s throw away from Davis, and not far from Sacramento. I lived there roughly 13 years, from when I was four to seventeen. Formative years. We moved to Mill Valley in Marin County right before I graduated from high school. What a change! We went from a conservative valley town where the main focus of high school seemed to be football, sports and cruising, to a liberal area where just showing up for P.E. class got you an A for effort, much less whether you participated or not; and everyone had long hair and scraggly jeans.
At the time, I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. Mill Valley was everything that Woodland was not: hip and happening, politically aware, musically attuned, right on the cusp of everything I found interesting, and just across the Bridge from San Francisco, no less. My senior year at Tamalpais High School, I took a poetry class and we all drove over the teacher’s house in Berkeley and spent the morning relating to each other. There was an anti-war protest that year, and the whole school—students and faculty—turned out to march in front of the school. We were encouraged to cut classes to attend the march. What a difference indeed!
If you had protested the war in Woodland, you would have been branded a card-carrying Communist, an outsider to be shunned. (Well, okay, I exaggerate a bit here. But still, it wasn’t a particularly liberal area back then. Probably still isn’t.)
But time has been kind to Woodland. I realize that not everything I learned in Mill Valley has stood me in good stead, and not all my experiences in Woodland were framed by insular redneck-ism. I go back and visit Woodland and am reminded of why it is known as “the City of Trees.” Tree-lined streets everywhere—elms, maple, oak, sycamore, walnut. Lots of beautiful Victorian and Spanish architecture. Parks everywhere. A massive stone court house that rivals any county courthouse in California, one block away from the massive stone post office and massive stone library. (Spent a lot of time there when I was a kid, I can tell you.)
Back then, we all had bicycles. I had a black Schwinn with dual wire baskets on the back. Until I turned fourteen and entered high school—where it was considered social anathema to ride a bike to school—I rode that bike everywhere. We could do that in those days. It’s not that our parents didn’t care where we were, they just came from a generation where kids were automatically given more freedom. We were expected to go out and play. As soon as we got home from school, we’d hop on our bikes and tear off in all directions. A visit to Woodland these days brings back memories of all the neighborhoods I explored on my bike. My younger son, who didn’t grow up with a bike, has no idea how to get around town. And doesn’t care. Different generation.
Of course, it was easy to bike around Woodland. It was flat. No chance of ever getting lost. The Coast Range Mountains were on one side, the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the other. Orient yourself to the two ranges, and you always knew where West and East were. And for the most part, Woodland was laid out like a grid. The new developments have added lots of winding streets, but that’s not the town I remember. I remember a town bracketed by nice, straight streets, stretching out of town and into the open country, where you could ride as far as your legs could peddle.
Main Street isn’t what it used to be. Gone is the Hobby Shop where our mom used to buy us all sorts of projects for rainy days. Gone is Traynham’s Music Store, where I would buy all the latest rock’n’roll singles (to the bemusement of the staff, whose tastes ran to less radical beats). Gone is Goggins clothing store where I got fitted for my first suit. And even our first big box store, Value Giant, has gone the way of the retail dinosaur. The Nugget Market and Rexall Drugs are still there. That’s comforting. We didn’t have a bookstore when I was a kid, so I would haunt places like Woolworths for new science fiction books.
There’s a used bookstore in town now. But still no new bookstore. Some things never change. Like the weather. It’s hot. Damn hot. The whole country is boiling over this summer, but my memories of Woodland summers were of a time spent in front of the air conditioner, reading Edgar Rice Burroughs books with my legs propped on top of the unit in my bedroom. Eureka, where I live now, doesn’t get above 68 degrees generally, and that’s about right for me. But summers in Woodland were usually in the high 90s to 105, 110 degrees, and with a fair amount of valley humidity. Folks on the East Coast and Southwest probably consider this mild, but leaving the Woodland heat behind was a big plus for me when we moved to Mill Valley.
In spite of the heat, Woodland has taken on a rosy glow these days. I grow nostalgic for its slower pace, it’s time capsule memories of a childhood spent exploring the world around me—making crafts at the local park, shooting off our BB guns along country roads, playing baseball in the park and running through the sprinklers; creating blanket forts in the backyard and sleeping outside with the sound of the crickets and the freight trains down the street, serenading us to sleep; waking to the cooing of the doves in the big oak tree in our back yard…
A childhood well spent. Woodland memories.