Point Arena is a fishing town located along an isolated stretch of Highway 1. Its closest neighbor is Gualala, population 176, but Point Arena itself boasts a hearty 440 souls. A movie house, a small library, two bars, and several cafes line Main Street, which is actually two lanes of highway that meander through the center of town on the way to Mendocino. During the gold rush, there were 14 sawmills within seven miles of the city limits, and the tiny Arena Cove was considered a significant enough port to warrant a lighthouse.
Point Arena's importance faded with its redwood forests -- flaring up again only briefly during Prohibition when the town became known for its bootleggers -- and the rugged coastline was left to the equally rugged individualists who settled there. On either side of Point Arena you are witness to some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the world: The ocean is a savage blue, and the sky is infinite; majestic cypress trees, huge callas, wild carrot, and radish flowers accent the wind-blown landscape; imposing crags plunge into the surf and rise like teeth in twisted protrusions of stone. But Point Arena itself has remained relatively fallow. Its buildings aren't quaint, and, as one of the utmost westerly points along the Pacific Ocean, Port Arena is usually cold, windy, and gray.
"We're not cute, here," says Angela Ferrari, who has been living in Point Arena since 1973, even though she still commutes to San Francisco three times a week to work as an emergency-room nurse. "We're really not cute. That's not what we're about."
"You have to understand, this is an outpost town," says Peter "Pedro" Loughran, who moved to Point Arena nine years ago, some time after living in San Francisco had taught him to "loathe everything America stood for." Paradoxically, Loughran now organizes and produces Point Arena's Independence Day celebration, and has done so for the last six years. "Pirates and bootleggers, independent thinkers, people who question authority -- that's who built Point Arena ... So I could really bring my own sense of what independence means to the celebration here."
Residents wearing delightful and ridiculous combinations of red, white, and blue line either side of Main Street (even a few of the town dogs, caught up in the spirit of the thing, have their tails braided with patriotic ribbons) as Neil Diamond's "(They Come to) America" blares through an amplifier parked in front of the Laundromat. Surprisingly, the sun is shining and the sky looks as blue and flawless as a freshly laid heron's egg.
Eight lean, elderly men with snowy hair march down the middle of Main Street with rifles over their shoulders; the first carries an American flag, the last carries a yellow flower poking out of the barrel of his weapon. The crowd applauds mightily, shouting salutations and calling the men by name. Next come the Grand Marshals: Helen and Tony Greco.
"Tony Greco immigrated from Italy in 1930 ..." begins the announcer, but the rest of his life story is drowned out by applause.
A decorated flatbed truck rolls by, filled with spangled Point Arena children chanting, "We want a skate park! We want a skate park!"
For a few minutes, Main Street is allowed to revert back to being Highway 1, and a string of six motorists has no other option than to become parade attractions as they pass through town. A few drivers shrug their shoulders and shake their heads in apology but, for Point Arena, it's part of the fun: Children hurl candy in their open windows, and the announcers take turns rating the RVs.
The parade announcer suggests the ham radio operators hold traffic for a little while as a fleet of extreme skateboarders and street lugers comes flying down the hill. The crowd roars. Several more tourists are allowed to pass through town as the history of our country's birth is deferentially related over the loudspeaker. Phrases like "in a thunderclap of words" and "the long years of despair" float over the wind and coalesce in the reminder that the Bill of Rights was ratified in December of 1791.
A few of the men in the crowd remove their hats. Everyone claps. Between carloads of sightseers, colorful armadas from the local Girl Scouts, fire station, marine rescue, library, humane society, dance studio, Red Cross, and Odd Fellows march by; then, things start to get weird.
First, a crazy psychedelic frog accompanied by a bunch of woolly weirdos banging on a rusty oil-drum instrument-contraption dances through town, then a mustard-colored, shark-shaped car with a giant eyeball on its roof rolls passes with a sign that reads "Celebrate our right to think, look, and be different."
"Throw me some candy!" shouts the driver. "I'm different!"
The crowd is only too happy to comply.
A pack of outlandish bicycles -- tall bikes, long bikes, teeny-tiny bikes, bikes made in the shapes of skeletons, demons, and the Golden Gate Bridge -- coasts through town under the steam of San Francisco's Cyclecide Bike Club. Moments later, the first black spire of "Carthedral" -- an art car of night terrors made from a 1971 Cadillac hearse crowned by a VW bug and covered in stained glass, skeletons, blackened baby dolls, and broken mirrors -- rolls over the Main Street hill. The bumper stickers read, "Don't make me get my flying monkeys," and "Divided, we fall."
"Isn't that just fabulous," coos a silver-haired woman sitting on the sidewalk in a fold-out lawn chair. She waves her little red-white-and-blue party favor and Carthedral's creator, Rebecca Caldwell, smiles and waves back as her miniature dog yaps happily out the driver's side window. Other art cars follow -- a yellow contraption covered in springs and balls and toys, a white spliff-shaped missile called "Joint Attack," and Harrod Blank's famous beetle, "Oh My God," covered in pinwheels, globes, and plastic fruit. The sound of Oakland's most lascivious cacophony makers, the Extra Action Marching Band, drowns out the announcer's PA, filling the air with a glorious tumult. The crowd around me begins to clap. Finally, a woman named Red, riding a unicycle and playing an accordion, heralds the arrival of the silver-toned Cyberbuss, a rolling, roaming, cyber-broadcasting "frHEaK" show that was born in the Bay Area and recently relocated to Point Arena by its creator, C y b e r sAM.
"Back in the Bay Area," says C y b e r sAM, "all we got [were] complaints -- too loud, too late, too spontaneous. Here, the community welcomes us with open arms. It's very different."
Everyone applauds heartily, and much of the crowd follows the bus through town and toward the coast, half a mile to Arena Cove.
The cove parking lot has been transformed into a small town fairground: The local fire department barbecues pork for sandwiches, and El Burrito serves up fresh seafood tacos; quick-thinking entrepreneurs peddle bottles of water and soda pop for less-than-city prices; local craftsmen sell shirts, wallets, and wind chimes; and Hawaiian music streams out of a donated PA. On either side of the stage tower two tremendous metal torches shaped like tulips -- creations of Cyclecide member Paul "Da Plumber" Cesewski. Among Cesewski's other inventions are the pedal-powered bicycle-Ferris-wheel and the Dizzytoy, a sort of circular seesaw with speed regulated only by its riders. But it's the Ferris wheel and the Dizzytoy that get up to speed, and the kids swarm over the rides with grubby hands and squealing laughter. They poke fun and dare each other into greater acts of bravery.
The folkish, freakish frivolity of Cyclecide seems right at home in a small town like Point Arena. No one seems too worried about regulations or policy, so long as everyone is having a good time. (Even when Cyclecide's "Homeland Security Bike" imprudently shoots bottle rockets into the gathered crowd, there is only a brief pause, a momentary talking to, and a simple apology before the proceedings continue.) Strangely, folks seem to assess their own risks and learn from their own mistakes. Otherwise, they just take it as it comes, even if it is only a very long wooden staff used to pole-vault over an old sofa. That game, held on rugs outside the Cyberbuss, draws a line nearly as long as the Cyclecide rides. And the fun never stops: The impromptu pole-vaulting is followed by a game of Stacking-Things-As-High-As-They-Can-Go and Catch-the-Ball-While-Standing-on-the-Balancing-Board and grudge-match wrestling.
From atop the Cyberbuss, C y b e r sAM watches two young girls battling it out in the ring. Both girls attended an informal computer class he taught in Point Arena. "You wouldn't believe how shy that girl is when she's just walking around town," he says, pointing to a girl howling with laughter as she pins her friend to the mat. "It just goes to show you, anyone can be a superhero."
While the sun dips below the horizon where a bank of fog seems magically detained, there is a rush of excitement as the crowd swarms onto the rocky beach flanked by sheer cliffs and icy blue water. As the first burst of fireworks explodes over the flotilla of tiny fishing boats anchored just off the pier, staining the ocean red, someone offers me a cup of fresh lemonade.