3:27pm

Wed September 19, 2012
Arts & Culture

Inside Druid Heights, a Marin County counter-culture landmark

National Park Service spokesperson Alexandra Picavet grimaces as we bump down an unmarked, steep dirt road.

“Phew. I really dislike this road,” she says. “I’ve lived in really backcountry areas. And I still really dislike this road.”

We’re lucky. It’s a clear day. In the rain, Picavet refuses to drive this road, which is the only access to a property fancifully dubbed Druid Heights.

We walk beneath towering eucalyptus trees and Monterey pine. In the distance, we see amber rolling hills unspotted by development. We’re not too far from Muir Woods National Monument. The federal government owns this land, too. But the property we’re on is not listed on any map.

After crossing a grass meadow we reach an abandoned house. Its long, swooping roof reminds me of a Chinese dragon boat. The inside reminds me of different creatures.

“You can see the mouse droppings. So the new inhabitants of this house have four legs and long tails,” Picavet says.

The architect of this house was Roger Somers – a white haired, white bearded man with an irrepressible appetite for life. In the mid-1950s, he convinced gay poetess Elsa Gidlow to buy the property, five acres for $10,000. She named the place. He fixed it up, but he often cared more about design than building codes. In this house, large panes of glass tenuously support the roof. In the center of the main room, there’s a table, sunk about four feet into the ground. 

Picavet describes it: “So when you sit at the dining table, really only the upper part of your back and your head would be visible to someone from outside of the building. Because you’re down inside a pit.”

It’s odd, for sure, but thanks to Somers’ eccentricities this house and the rest of Druid Heights was a hub of Bay Area cultural, spiritual, and artistic exploration.

Parties, poetry readings, and jam sessions included some of the Bay Area’s most celebrated intellectuals, musicians, and artists. Beat inspiration Kenneth Rexroth held court at this sunken table, engaged in animated late-night discussions. Poet Gary Snyder lived on the grounds for a year. And rumors have it that Allan Ginsburg, Tom Robbins, and Lily Tomlin all hung out.

“Druid Heights connotes an era of mystery and awe in the redwoods, up on the mountain,” says Colin Farish, a former resident of Druid Heights. “I think it just helped people relax and feel safe to be themselves. Roger encouraged that at every turn.”

Farish arrived at Druid Heights in 1995, long after its heyday. Still, Somers told him many stories, most of which he won’t divulge – but he told me some.

“They used to host the most amazing parties after these bohemian poetry readings in North Beach,” he says. “Everybody would converge on the mountain and the stories of legendary: they were riding horses naked in the moonlight and playing music all night long. And the jazz clubs would let out and Dizzie Gallespie and all kinds of fantastic musicians would continue the party up at Roger’s.”

Jam sessions would last late into the night, with Somers on his saxophone or congas.

“He had a huge, curvilinear closet filled with costumes and outrageous outfits,” Farish says. “Nothing quite gets a party going like a wild white-bearded maniac playing drums and flirting with women, all the women, with so much energy.”

Alan Watts recorded an album, called “This is It,” in 1962, featuring Somers and other friends. The recording contrasts with Watts’ more serious radio broadcasts about Zen Buddhism.

Ed Stiles, who is one of few remaining residents at Druid Heights, says Watts could be found on the property carrying a large wizard-like staff in the woods, or spouting dirty limericks at parties.

“Roger was far and away the most playful adult I’ve ever known,” Stiles says. “And Alan had that streak in him, too. Perhaps that’s how they were friends.”

Stiles is a woodworker, like Somers, and the two met back in 1961, when Stiles was 22. He moved in four years later.

“I was having more fun than I think I’d ever had in my life, probably. It was unpredictable. It was sporadic. You just never knew what you’d find,” he says. 

The Eagles, the Steve Miller Band and the Doobie Brothers all played at Druid Heights. Somers also built a touring bus for Neil Young. In true Somer’s style, it was an elaborate piece of art.

In the 70s, Stiles tells me, more hard-core drugs came to Druid Heights, and that caused a schism in the community. Eventually, that element left. Through many of the years that followed the property remained an unpredictable alternative scene...until Somers died in his hot tub in 2001.

“We’re standing in front of the building that’s sort of, in my opinion, the core of this place back in the 60s,” Stiles says. “My shop, Roger’s shop, which is the original section off to the left there. This was a music room. Over there became someone else’s residence and downstairs was the jazz workshop.” 

We push aside overgrown brush to find the entrance.

“So it has his spirit in here and I can see that. But everything else – the equipment is gone for the most part. The roofs are deteriorated. The floors are sagging and the whole place is coming down fairly quickly,” he notes.

In 2006, the parks service kicked everyone off Druid Heights except those with life estates and their tenants. What remains are memories and buildings crumbling back to the ground.

“I think we’ll probably lose it eventually, before too much longer,” Stiles says. “But it’s the end of an era, certainly.”

Those who knew Roger Somers say it’s a fitting end for his legacy. He lived life as an improvisation. And with improv, once the music is played, it’s gone forever.

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