THE DENSE, DOGGED TRAFFIC persisted across the Golden Gate Bridge and all through the Marin County suburbs. The freeway's congestion continued for a twenty-mile stretch. Then, as a city dweller, I felt a quiet thrill and a sense of anticipation to see "Sonoma" in reflective letters on the green sign suspended over the roadway. Few place names held a sense of promise in their very sound, the way they did to Proust's narrator as he surveyed a map, but "Sonoma" was one.
The word worked like an incantation, for as I turned off of Highway 101 and swung sharply eastward, the trappings of suburban sprawl disappeared almost instantly. The motels and fast-food drive-throughs and office parks and housing tracts were suddenly banished. There were open fields on either side of the road. It began to feel like the country, but the remnants of modernity were still too near to be certain. A first-time visitor wouldn't be sure whether this was just an anomalous patch that somehow had defied development but would soon give way to the pervasive concrete and neon of homogenous civilization.
Then came the real portal to a radically different place and culture. There was a little bridge over the Petaluma River, which flows north from San Francisco Bay. The water marked the border to Sonoma County. The span had a gentle arc, and as I came to its peak and could see the other side, I was hit by a panorama of spacious pastures, flat and expansive, a purely rural environment. The roadway descended to the ground and I passed lushly green sod farms. I saw grazing fields with hundreds of idly lounging cows.
The Sonoma borderline had an actual meaning; unlike so many place names that had been reduced to little more than arbitrary post-office markings and administrative zones in a vast undifferentiated megalopolis, Sonoma was a pronounced break, an anomaly and anachronism, a place that still defined itself by a lasting heritage of rural and small-town country life.
On the left there was an old decaying red barn. The corrugated metal panels were torn from its pitched roof. The wood siding was cracking and coming undone. A grain tower leaned at a sharp angle, seemingly ready to topple, a homegrown Pisa. It was next to a farmhouse that was so magnificently warped that its shape, once rigidly squared, had turned sensuously curvilinear. These were the kind of buildings that Walker Evans might have photographed for his portraits of the austere beauty of the impoverished South during the Great Depression. What a shock that this scene was so close to the rich technophilic city, hardly thirty miles, and that I had just passed a string of the most expensive suburban towns in America, and that those cows could spend the day snoozing on such prohibitively costly soil, and that this barn hadn't been supplanted by hundreds of houses.
The grazing land extended from the plain into the voluptuous foothills. While the Marin hills were mostly covered by evergreens, here the sculpted earth forms had been denuded in many places to serve as pastures. The surface still had patches of green from the winter's rainy season, when the color was spectacularly vivid. But the dry weeks of April and the intensifying sun had begun to burn the land back to brown.
Outsiders commonly assumed that the "northern" in northern California meant that it's as far up as the Northeast. But the Bay Area actually covered the same latitude as North Carolina, and the spring sun was direct and intense. The local conceit was that the landscape is "green and gold." The greens were ever present, but the rest was still dirty brown to the visitor's eye, an arid, dusty tone rather than a warmly resonant one. The land's beauty was undeniably weird, a little eerie at first, more like an alien planetscape from "Star Trek" than the Gone With the Wind conception of country. It was a slowly acquired taste for natives of other climates. But after a few years the sun-scorched surfaces began to seem less like the moon and more like the natural order of things.
This little valley beside the Petaluma River was a geographic vestibule or antechamber, a transition from the people country to the coming entrance to the wine country. It was a chance for city dwellers to decompress and adjust.
The car rose up a little promontory. There was another visual explosion as the Sonoma Valley suddenly appeared, the grand mansion that dramatically opened out of the smaller waiting room. The tableau radiated for thirty miles: the eye followed from south to north, right to left, from the fading waters of the bay toward the marshy wetlands preserves and then the vineyards. I scanned from the foreground of wide-open plains to the far-off backdrop of the Mayacamas, the high, dark curtain of mountains separating Sonoma from Napa.
I swung a sharp left onto Arnold Drive, named for a forgotten general who lived in these parts. The road had just a single lane in each direction but nonetheless qualified as one of the major thoroughfares of the Sonoma Valley. Ahead I saw a bunch of cattle amid the unruly grass. A chain-link fence kept them out of the very first vineyard. The neatly ordered horizontal rows of trellises ascended a knoll to a white-shingled winery that looked like a big house.
The road swerved along the edge of the foothills of Wildcat Mountain. The scene alternated abruptly between new money and old country. A grand Tuscan villa commanded the top of a hill encircled by canopies of vines. A little farther there was a stunning abundance of yellow and red roses beside the low stone walls that proudly demarcated another wealthy vineyard. Then came an antiquated little airstrip that still had a few creaky old biplanes parked by the road. More ruins of barns again evoked the Walker Evans motif. A cluster of tractors and plows, long abandoned to rust, seemed like weird sculptures in the weeds. A hillside hacienda looked over hundreds of parallel rows of chardonnay and pinot noir. Then just across the street there was Angelo's homemade beef-jerky shack with a gloriously kitschy life-sized statue of a cow poised on the roof.
The smell of shit infused the air. In the city the term "organic" connoted freshness, healthiness, pesticide-free safety, but here it meant the pervasive odor of manure, especially on mornings when a farmer plowed a large plot.
I swerved right at the fuel-stop intersection that the locals call Big Bend, where the roads fork to circumnavigate a thousand acres of farms. Later I swung left and passed Ford's Cafe, where for decades the local farmers have gathered for breakfast and gossip before dawn, as early as four on summer mornings. Ford himself lived in a trailer home behind the ramshackle diner. A semi truck was parked in the gravel lot.
The lingering stink of shit gave way to a soothing perfume. This road was lined by a wall of eucalyptus, a century old and a hundred feet high, with their layers of curled, peeling barks and their drooping sheets of delicately long, thin leaves. The majestic trees emitted a hypnotically sweet aroma, especially in the moist hours after a sustained winter rainfall, when the air was fully saturated with the deliriously seductive scent. And now, during the rainless months from April to November, when the air was so hot and dry, the eucalyptus were like the wood walls of a perfect sauna, and stepping outside felt like entering a spa.
I went by more vineyards and then the road straightened and a remarkable vista opened suddenly. Far in the distance, down a wide avenue, there was a soaring, slender palm tree in front of the creamy, rough-hewn stone of Sonoma's old city hall. It stood at the center of the verdant town square, the Plaza, which was backed by a high vertical wall of mountains densely covered with green trees. The idea of the natural, curvaceous hills as a curtain behind the linear precision of the manmade vista evoked the aesthetics of refined Old Europe. But as I came closer, the facades of the vintage buildings surrounding the square--weathered stone, craggy adobe, warped wood--were remnants of a raucous cowboy town of the Old West.
I drove along the edge of the Plaza, looking toward the arched canopies of tall trees and the circular stone fountain surrounded by groomed hedges and the vibrantly colorful rose garden. Stopping at the southeast corner, I noticed something most unusual. A healthy, well-fed rooster was crossing the intersection in front of me with the haughty self-assurance and entitlement of a pedestrian in Manhattan. He arrived at the corner alcove of a nineteenth-century stone building, which sheltered the doorway to Maya, a Mexican restaurant. The fowl paused for a moment as a trio of slender young blonde women in chic urban black entered the building. Before the door recoiled, the bird strutted in.
TO GRASP WHAT MADE SONOMA so unique in all of America at the turn of the millennium, and to understand why its townspeople formed a grassroots political movement to repel the invasion of the outsiders, it would be good to know about the old-time movie palace and the flock of peacocks on Seventh Street East and the fellow who sold giant ostrich eggs at the farmer's market. But the swiftest way to appreciate the sublime differentness of Sonoma, the way to get inside its strange culture, is through the chicken saga.
On an early Monday morning at the end of April 2000, as we were parked in front of Sonoma's city hall, waiting for the one bus of the day that could take my girlfriend, Katharine, back to her job in San Francisco, a flock of chickens surrounded our Honda Civic. They swarmed and squawked with a frighteningly manic energy. I counted eight birds in a quick glance, but they were moving too quickly to tag mentally, and the enveloping cacophony meant there were surely many more outside my range of vision. The roosters were cockfighting as vigorously and violently as combatants in a sleazy back-alley betting contest. The hens crushed up against Katharine's side of the car and blocked her door as though they were paparazzi stalking the arrival of a movie star. Maybe they were excited to see us because it was so early in the day that there was no one else there in the Plaza, which was their permanent home. We were the only distraction and entertainment for a bunch of barnyard exiles who had adapted rather effectively to their new environment: They had become accustomed to the nearly constant stimulation of human companionship.
The scene attracted a bunch of curious ducks, who seemed restless by the pond that took up much of the Plaza's western flank. They wandered over tentatively and watched for a while before their wings exploded with fluid motion. They flew swooping loops around us, then sliced low and perilous trajectories between the chickens.
The next morning the town's newspaper, the Sonoma Index-Tribune, ran a bold headline that wouldn't be found in any other paper in the United States: "rooster attacks!"
The full story began:
ROOSTER ATTACKS BOY AT SONOMA PLAZA
CHICKENS KNOWN TO CAUSE PROBLEMS
A 3-year-old Santa Rosa boy suffered lacerations on his face and head when a rooster attacked the child during a family trip to the duck pond at Sonoma Plaza over the weekend. . . .
The boy, little Ian Austen, was looking at the comparatively dull scene of a duck sitting on eggs when suddenly he was enthused to see a rooster. He squatted and leaned over so he could study the creature nearly eye-to-eye. The bird responded with a mad flurry of violence, allegedly jumping on the boy's chest, knocking him down, climbing on his face, and clawing him viciously. His mother, Nikki, finally managed to kick the bird away. "It pierced his earlobe to the neck and just missed an eye by a quarter inch," she told the reporter. A city worker witnessed the attack and responded as though it were a killing spree, calling the police, firefighters, and paramedics. "The police officer told me what a sore spot this is politically, but that you just can't do anything about it," said the Good Samaritan. "Apparently this is not the first time, but it is the most severe."
As the story developed during the week and more details emerged, it turned out that roosters had made three separate attacks on small children over the past weekend, and mothers came forward to report two other recent assaults. What first appeared to be an isolated incident was actually a rampage.
Everyone in the town seemed to be talking about the news.
In the tasting room of the Ravenswood winery, a middle-aged woman was pouring zinfandel while she chatted with two younger male colleagues.
"You try to raise chickens for a while but you get tired of 'em and you want to get rid of 'em and then what are you gonna do?"
"You can't flush 'em down the toilet like an alligator!"
"People drop 'em off at the car wash."
"I've seen plenty of hens and roosters at the Seven-Eleven."
"People drop 'em off in the middle of the night. And then they multiply!"
"My next-door neighbor had a whole lot of chickens. We live in a condo complex and it's got tiny backyards. The condo board had to stop him. I said, 'You know, if this was zoned agricultural, I would have ducks!' The chicken guy was always running around trying to catch 'em. He owned a grocery store in town, and he liked to say, 'Where do you think my chickens come from?' "
WHEN THE TOWN'S PAPER came out again (it was published only on Tuesdays and Fridays), the chicken story made the front page. However small-time the Sonoma Index-Tribune might have seemed, it had an outsized pride: The paper has been run by the same family for a century, and everyone in the town read it. The broadsheet's logo was in Gothic type, as though it were the New York Times, and it enjoyed a similar impact, albeit within in its own modest realm.
Below the fold on page one, a color photograph portrayed a quartet of the Plaza birds: "Rustic reminder or taloned terror?" asked the caption. The reader learned that the first "assailant"--the rooster who nearly gouged the eye of the three-year-old--was still at large in the park. In the second attack, a two-year-old boy chased after a bunch of chickens until one retaliated by scratching him and pecking above his lip. In the third incident, another child was "severely scratched."
The reporter was covering the story with a certain restraint, at least within the careful confines of page one, but when the text jumped inside the paper to a continuation on page ten, it began to seem like some kind of joke. A police report about one of the previous month's attacks quoted a mother as saying: "A cock came close to my daughter," as if the charge were sexual harassment. The reader's gullibility was tested further by this paragraph: "Bob Cannard, a former City Councilmen who has long raised chickens in his backyard, said yesterday that the problem is simple: too many roosters and not enough hens, which makes the male birds more aggressive."
From the Hardcover edition.