(C) Julie Boyd 2010
‘Would you like some sun-tea?’
From my prone position on a daybed atop the deck outside my friend Jeanne’s lake-house I replied ‘yes please’, followed closely by ‘what’s sun tea?’
‘Ah, you Aussies think that America is the land of the coffee drinker and we know nothing about drinking tea, but we have a few tricks of our own,’ she said, as she tied a sunbonnet onto her small dog Millie’s head ‘to stop more skin cancers growing on her ears.’ She continued, ‘ a Native American friend of mine taught me to make sun-tea when I was quite small. You simply put fresh water and tealeaves tied in muslin out in the sun and leave them until they’re ready, then you drink the tea. We make moon-tea on special occasions as well. It’s ceremonial’
We sipped the tea, which had quite a unique flavour, and watched my kids out on the lake. My 12 year old son was driving the speedboat and his younger sister was on a ski-tyre being pulled along, quite sedately. There is no need for speed here. The boat is the only form of transport at Echo Lake which is located high above Lake Tahoe in California, and only a few hours drive from the fleshpots and gambling dens of Las Vegas. This is a different world.
There are no roads in and the whole lake is privately owned – body corporate style, though there are moves to try and change this. If there is a problem with your boat, and there is no one around to help, you usually have to backpack, or tramp as the Americans call it, out to the main road. Huge masses of granite, forests of red fir, hemlock, pine, and juniper are all around. Lush meadows alive with wild flowers and the clear blue lakes give the area spectacular beauty in Spring and Summer. A very beautiful walk through unspoiled wilderness, however packs are heavy, as everything has to be carried both ways, and you have to keep a close eye out for mountain lions which share the area. Small dogs like Millie are often carried in packs for protection.
In winter you can ski in, as we did one year, only to find we were standing on the roof of the cabin. The snow was so deep we had to dig a way through to the front door.
There is one tiny shop at the head of the lake where everyone parks their car, collects their mail and supplies- including fuel, and leaves their boat when they head back home. Before mobile phones, the single public phone at the shop was the only communication available with the outside world.
The isolation is intoxicating, and there is a close-knit but respectfully distant community, sharing the area. It’s a wonderful place to write, to walk, swim, and just be. A fabulous place to host small, retreat type conferences where brilliant thinkers I could only dream of meeting from Australia, sit comfortably in their old clothes and discuss mind-boggling ideas, or their latest best seller. These think-fests are highly prized in forward thinking California but not valued to the same degree, and seen as a bit of a luxury in Australia.
As we sat there, Jeanne waved to a famous author reclining on his deck across the lake. His latest book had just been published and he was taking a well earned break before a gruelling round of publicity engagements. A billionaire movie-man with whom she shares an accountant, meandered past in his small fishing dinghy. Another well-known businessman called out ‘hi there,’ as he carefully manouvered his boat, filled with the large plastic containers of toilet waste, that also has to be carried out.
This is a place where people get back to basics, and love it. It’s not necessarily expensive, but you do have to wait for someone to die before a property may become available, and they are often handed down through generations.
We had driven up to Echo from Sausalito, Jeanne’s other home , which is just across the Golden Gate Bridge from the fascinating city of San Francisco.
To get there you drive past Golden Gate Park, with its famous rose garden, and zoo – complete with buffalo and rhinos, across the bridge, and past the wandering hills of Marin County to the left of the freeway, which provide mainly tramping country. An unexpected treasure, so close to such a major city. Very few people live there, because those who do are wealthy enough to buy their privacy. It is home to the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Jeanne’s movie-man colleague who purchased his land from the profits of the Star Wars movies, and now houses the Marin Institute where new animation studios like Pixar had their genesis.
To the right of the freeway, and down a very steep hill, is the coastal community of Sausalito, famous for the many artists who have made this their home. The distinct village feel of small, fascinating shops and galleries housing photographs, sculptures, paintings and creations too wonderful to be referred to as crafts, all of which would effortlessly grace major exhibition halls anywhere else in the world. The Sausalito art festival, held every September (?) is one of the must-see markets of the world for anyone who appreciates human creativity. Coffee shops and eateries are not purveyors of mass-produced junk, but places to discover new sensory experiences, often along with a history lesson. The pride of these artisan shopkeepers is a joy to behold as one explains how he uses ancient and traditional Mayan recipes for preparing chocolate, and, next door, a barista describes exactly where his coffee beans are grown and the methods of preparing them passed down through four generations of his family, with the heirloom roaster still proudly on display.
Directly across the bay is the bohemian University city of Berkeley, and in the centre of the deep, shark-infested waters of San Francisco Bay sits the rocky island of Alcatraz, home of the infamous prison. Looking down the bay we had the most incredible view of Angel and Ellis Islands, and the skyline of San Francisco.
Most people live ‘up the hill’ – where they have a magnificent view of San Francisco Bay, in all its moods. Looking up at the apartment complex owned by the Righteous Brothers of 1960’s fame, I listened carefully, hoping to hear the soaring harmonies of my youth floating in the breeze.
When the fog rolls in it comes up over the hilltop and rolls down like a cauldron of dry ice being poured, as if it was coming from Spielberg’s place and he was playing around with some special effects.
Jeanne’s home is a houseboat, one among a whole raft of colourful floating creations moored along the waterfront marina. The artistic flair of the owners sees anything from a mock Tudor house to the ‘old woman who lived in a shoe’ as constructions. There are strict rules to ensure minimal pollution, and many are close enough to be able to step from one to the next. On the pylons and walkways you can see a magnificent assortment of birds ranging from small terns, cormorants, herons, and snowy egrets to the gorgeous brown and white pelicans. Plus the ever present seals gaflumping lazily over jetties and boats..
Jeanne was fortunate enough to buy the old harbour-master’s boat, so she had her very own private jetty. Finding available Sausalito Houseboats is like finding a four leaf clover, since this picturesque area is one of the oldest floating house / houseboat communities in California. Hers was a gem among gems.
A three storey delight, the sizeable living area and galley were at water level, with three bedrooms below. Our favourite place to hang out was the open top deck. Sipping a glass of good Napa Valley white wine while barbequing salmon fillets fresh from the fishing boats which had just come in, chatting to passing boaties, and enjoying conversations with a wonderfully eclectic group of friends and colleagues, was a true delight.
A smallish dinghy lowered from the side, and piloted by Jeanne and my son, provided an alternative route across to Tiburon, another beautiful artists village, a little further around the bay, to join Jeanne’s sister at the Yacht Club for lunch. Laurie was the first female Commodore of the club, and first in America, so the service was extra special. These two fascinating and energetic women, both in their 70’s, had a highly contagious love of life. Laurie also owned a hat shop in Tiburon. Her shop was full of nooks and crannies, stuffed with whimsical confections, from Mad Hatters toppers, to genuine Parisian berets, Mexican sombreros and expensive hand fashioned, race-going creations. It was a ‘dress-up and play’ paradise. Her hats came from all over the world and she explained to me that she had once been asked by the local school to build a partnership with them. She did, by sending postcards to the students from wherever she was in the world buying hats, and the kids and their teachers built an entire curriculum and community service projects around them.
I’d never been interested in travelling to America, before I went there. But finding, through friends, places where intelligent, big-picture conversation mixes with magnificent scenery, great food and wine, and precious space – so close to the madness of the seething masses, made me realise that it really was a place I wanted to revisit again and again.