Life at the crossroads of West Marin
Photos by Tim Porter
Surrounded by Golden Gate National Recreation Area lands and just a stone’s throw from Samuel P. Taylor State Park and the Point Reyes National Seashore, Olema is in the middle of one of the most beautiful parts of West Marin. So it is only fitting that the land named after the Miwok word for coyote is also known as the epicenter, quite literally, of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Even though scientists have since adjusted that location to somewhere near Daly City, large ruptures in the ground can still be seen and locals still embrace the fact that they live atop the San Andreas Fault and in the middle of it all.
“Everybody comes here, people from all over the world, places like Iceland and Russia, and people come from all over the country as well,” says Dana Davidson, who has owned the appropriately named gift and clothing shop, Epicenter, for 20 years. “I get a lot of people from the Midwest who stop and take photos of my sign.
“I’ve lived on faults my whole life; I grew up in Los Angeles,” says Davidson, who commutes in from nearby Nicasio, where she built a house with her husband. “You have to have faith that it is going to be OK; you are either going to be in the right or wrong place.”
But when it comes to selling her mix of handmade and European clothes as well as various tchotchkes including Japanese toys, Mexican wrestling masks and other items gathered from her travels, Davidson is in just the right place. “I feel lucky; I’ve never had to work over the hill,” she says. “I’ve figured out how to make it work close to home.”
Another who has found a way to stay local is Davidson’s retail neighbor, Vita Collage owner Victoria Swift. “The world comes to West Marin in the best possible way,” she says. “It is incredibly beautiful. Once I was here I never wanted to leave.”
But Swift has another trick up her sleeve: in addition to the store, she runs and owns the Olema Druids Hall, a small luxury inn overlooking town that opened in 2001 after almost 10 years of restoration.
“It was very, very rustic and really, really funky,” she says of the hall, acquired by her husband’s family in the late ’40s from the United Ancient Order of Druids for whom it was an actual meeting hall. “The building had no hot water.”
The couple moved out of the hall, which was constructed in 1885, in the late ’70s and built a more conventional living space in Point Reyes. They started renovations on the building in the early ’90s and now offer a luxury resort there for tourists or those closer to home looking for an intimate first-class escape.
“Reaction has been very, very positive,” Swift says of the hall. “We felt the building had a stature and core that we needed to respect. We put a lot of work into it—maybe more than was practical.”
When it comes to beautiful historic places and inns, Olema might have an embarrassment of riches. Petaluma-based John and Carole Wiltshire were looking all over the country to find an inn to purchase and run when an episode of Bay Area Backroads mentioned that one might be available right in their backyard.
“It was strange to find something only 18 miles from where we lived,” John says of the Olema Inn, first opened in 1876 and purchased by the couple in 2007. “But we fell in love with that beautiful building.”
Wiltshire says he and his wife spent 10 years dreaming of owning an inn, and doing it in Olema has been an amazing experience. “I traveled my whole life and I wanted to do something more stable,” he says. “I plan to never get on an airplane again in my life.
“You couldn’t ask for a more beautiful place to live,” he adds. “We have great customers and great people come through the door; I am perfectly content to just hang out here.”
The Wiltshires were lucky: property doesn’t come up for sale very often in the tight-knit community of Olema, where the population and the elevation are almost perfectly in balance, at 55 and 60, respectively. According to Seadrift Realty owner and agent Katie Beacock, no property sold in Olema this year, and nearby Point Reyes has seen only two sales.
But she says nothing beats the natural beauty of West Marin and the unique flavor of its many communities. “It is an amazing opportunity to live a different lifestyle,” she adds. “Coming out to work is my therapy; it’s the best part of my day.”