I used to have a favorite billboard on my commute. Monday through Friday around 7:30 I leave my house in Petaluma and drive about 20 miles north to Santa Rosa. Both of these locations are in Sonoma County, which makes it sound like not a real commute, not like my neighbor whom I’ve seen steering his gold Camry south on the 101 while I go north, headed (in my mind anyway, I’ve never talked to him) for a shiny SoMa office building. But lots of people are going to the same place at the same time as me and on an average day it takes me half an hour, but the other day, for example, it took an hour for no discernible reason. I keep a mental almanac of my commute, how it ebbs and flows. Fridays, for example, are always easier, because fewer people are going to work at all.
The billboard that used to be my favorite billboard was positioned at the point just before I entered Santa Rosa proper, meaning sufficient geographic closeness to know I was going to make it to work on time. I think when I started making this commute there also used to be an easing of traffic at that point, a sense that the worst was over. If that was ever true, that is not true any more, but I still find the location comforting.
The billboard that used to be my favorite was an ad for The Barlow. This is how The Barlow describes itself: “The Barlow is an open-air ‘maker marketplace’ where Sonoma County’s best chefs, vintners and artisans work side-by-side to create local products and experiences found only here.” The billboard had The Barlow at the top (this is all going off memory, you understand) in a blocky type against a yellow backdrop and then there were three pictures side by side of foodstuffs and things to drink and artisanal wood product. One of the images was of a bunch of oranges or other citrus fruits or maybe other fruits altogether that had been sliced in half. All of the colors were super-jewel-like and clear, and the whole thing was designed for people of exactly my demographic status. I knew that and was embarrassed about the fact that it worked and it still made me feel comforted; it told me that a life of both great pleasure and great virtue was right there.
It is weird to live in a place that is as much of a brand as Sonoma County is; long before I lived here I shopped in grocery stores that sold soaps made by Sonoma Soap Company and that name had meaning for me consistent with the pastel sweet-smelling soaps. One of the first times I went to Sonoma County was decades ago on a day trip to the town of Sonoma itself, and driving across the Golden Gate Bridge felt cinematic rather than transport-oriented and we ate cheese at the cheese factory and sat in the sun, and I had that thought that I always have in vacation towns, that vague bubbling-up conviction that life here would be different from actual life.
The thing is, Sonoma County is not totally a lie as a brand. I have never been to The Barlow, but there are plenty of places for me to go when I need to escape what I actually feel about the world, which is that most of its beauty doesn’t require any kind of money changing hands at all, is right there on the surface if you don’t mind stripping off part of your skin in order to see it. Mostly in that mood I walk to Wishbone, which is four blocks from my house and makes panna cotta out of sweet mushrooms and has tree branches hanging from the ceiling. As far as I know, Wishbone doesn’t have a billboard, but if it did I bet it would comfort me a lot.
The stretch of 101 that I drive doesn’t have a lot of billboards, but the ones it has don’t change that often, and that billboard for The Barlow was there forever and then one day it was gone and the billboard in its place was for The Emerald Cup, a marijuana show held at the local fair grounds. That billboard did not comfort me at all. That was sort of on purpose: the background to it was a set of wavy lines that seemed intended to convey a hallucinogenic atmosphere. Those same lines are on the website of The Emerald Cup, but the website is pretty aesthetically co-extensive with the website for The Barlow — the billboard, though, didn’t give me that vibe at all. Everybody knows that marijuana is big business now, but that feels different to me in those parts of Northern California most commonly associated with its cultivation. A lot of the billboards that I drive past — or, not the billboards, but the signs staked more haphazardly along fences and in front of businesses, advertise ways to get more marijuana per square foot. One of them features a seemingly naked woman with a pile of green plants on her head instead of hair. It is hard not to feel like marijuana is the cutting edge of some new boom industry, which seems like an inherently uncomforting notion. Also the idea of a bunch of people crammed together in a fairgrounds with a common exhilaration around marijuana makes me feel claustrophobic.
I worry about what that itchiness says about me. One the one hand, the idea of going to wine tasting is equally charmless — I like drinking wine, but I like drinking wine at home or at a restaurant, at some place with unrolled space and time. I don’t consume marijuana but that used to have to do with the logistics of getting marijuana and now has to do with my fear of going back to smoking cigarettes. But neither the endless Francis Ford Coppola winery billboards that used to be positioned at the very outskirts of Santa Rosa nor the incredibly ugly Korbel billboard made me actively twitchy the way the Emerald Cup billboard did. Some of it’s too much DARE in my youth, some of it is classism, some of it is the fact that the pointless war on drugs has left marijuana enthusiasts with an annoyingly evangelical fervor. Probably some of the twitchiness I felt around the billboard had to do with the way it made me think about what the hell was going on in my own head, which I don’t enjoy at 7:45 a.m.
The Emerald Cup billboard was there for a while and then there were the fires and all the billboards thanked the firefighters for saving us and then that billboard was turned into one for high-end appliances, which was weird to think about, the way a natural disaster is also a business opportunity. There are still more billboards for construction/appliance/home decor things than there used to be before the fires. Right now, though, The Barlow/Emerald Cup billboard advertises a monster truck rally.
My current favorite billboard is one I see on the way home. It has been advertising the same Rohnert Park sex shop the whole seven years I have lived in Sonoma County, although the billboard itself has changed. The sex shop, at least from what I can tell from the billboard, is not one of the new Bay Area sex shops that are designed to feel as clean as possible, not like the Babeland that used to be by my apartment in Los Angeles which I initially wandered into thinking it was like an art gallery or an architecture bookstore or something. The billboard right now says, Cheaper Than Marriage Counseling across a backdrop of fishnetted thigh; it used to say Every Day Can Be Hump Day! Mostly I like it because it is on the back of my least favorite billboard, an unctuous advertisement for a bank. I hate that billboard so much. Driving to work in the morning, I see the bank billboard and think about how much I hate it, but for a while the sex shop billboard had an extra piece on it, outside the rectangle of the board itself, and you could see the raw wood back of that extension over the top of the bank billboard. Driving home in the afternoon, the extension resolved into the glossy tip of a woman’s leg kicking out in pleasure, which whatever, but as a contrast to the weird antiseptic non-humor of the bank billboard the back of the woman’s leg felt like a really solid and human thing and that good feeling about the sex shop billboard has stayed with me.
Right around the time I moved to Sonoma County I was in Barnes & Noble flipping idly through Sunset Magazine, which is a kind of west-coast-only lifestyle magazine with a lot of gardening tips and then also how somebody squeezed an alabaster hot tub into their small lot, and this issue had an article about a woman’s Mendocino County retreat and its outdoor showers. Mendocino County is just north of Sonoma and very beautiful, but the important part is that the woman in question normally lived in Sausalito. Sausalito is a very beautiful very touristy town in Marin where it is hard to escape the sight of the ocean and none of the houses have blinds in their front windows. It is not a place I would think you would need a retreat from.
Sonoma County and Marin County are not identical, but their exterior brands are pretty similar, and the first time I drove through Marin County on the 101 I was astonished at how ugly it was, by which I mean how much it was like any other strip of interstate. Driving the 101 through Sonoma County is not ugly, mostly because it is still significantly less lived in, and also the scenery right around the highway is extraordinarily beautiful in parts, especially during that time of year when I am driving to work with the sun not yet fully risen. But the billboards do their share in reducing the beauty of the landscape, in declaring it something other than a place of retreat for rich people who have come to find Sausalito too stressful, and for that, I guess, I cherish them all.