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Savory Sonoma

Savory Sonoma

I moved back to California this summer after eight years in New Mexico, and became a new resident of the town of Sonoma. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Sonoma County was not the same place I had left behind. The pressure of cars on the freeway, the traffic on Highway 12 racing through town just outside my door, the price of food and events to say nothing of rents and mortgages, and the pace of life in this post-recession region, all seem changed. The heat is on, both literally and figuratively: summer days hotter, fall days slow to cool, and a feeling of pressure that’s hard to put one’s finger on but it’s easy to see it has to do with making money. 

Yet in the midst of all this rapid change an older mindset seems to linger. When I turn on the tap, the water gushes out as if it were bountiful, the way it used to be in the 1980s when these apartments were built; and for me that is a metaphor for the time warp we are in, rushing forward while glancing around the corner every now and then, just to check out what may be coming around the bend. The golden hills are brown, and despite the numbers in the real estate ads, this is not the land of milk and honey we once knew, but we keep on trucking, keep maintaining our irrepressible optimism. The drought will end soon.

The word Sonoma literally means “valley of the moon,” I read in Jack London’s novel by that name. In the introduction, Kevin Starr writes of “that longing, that dream of a better life which many call California.” Is the old saying still true, that as California goes, so goes the nation? It’s the land of the future. As I adjust my lenses to read the signs in the community I have recently joined, I can’t help being charmed; and I can’t help feeling a little worried. What will the future bring to this beautifully endowed little town? Sonoma’s got style. Its standards are high; its hospitality, its food, its presentation reaches for excellence. The Day of the Dead celebration gushed abundance: the Mexican fruit punch flowed, the table was laden with pastries, the visitors well attired, the photos and biographies beautifully selected and displayed. Such an interesting heritage, such marvelous characters, and such a proud display! But where were the skulls?

This classy confidence of Sonoma is everywhere – in the beautiful Plaza, richly green despite drought, and the way City Hall is lit every night like a stage set; in the amazing Fourth of July Parade I watched from the special section for seniors arranged by Vintage House; Vintage House itself, the most well appointed senior center I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, with its bursting menu of classes and offerings. The Library, so modern and bright, with its modern electronic book check-out and Saturday concerts. The wonderful paintings created Au Plein Air and displayed that day, as if they were miraculously fashioned out of thin air. 

I’m impressed with the generosity of this community, the way its affluence is shared through festivities like the Beltane Muse event that raised $123,000 for the Community Center, where high ticket prices (pricing admission well beyond the reach of some residents) yield donations for schools, for art, for a new swimming pool, for a sister city in Ukraine or for nonprofits like WillMar Family Grief and Healing Center. 

It’s amazing how much goes on in this town of 10,000, how many theatrical productions, musical performances, gallery openings, holiday events. But we do have our issues, and they are telling. Some long time residents feel the town has been sold to the tourists. As in so many other cities the air B&B’s have turned out to be a way for vacation rentals to avoid paying hotel taxes. What is going to happen to the fabulous estate that currently houses 400 disabled adults in Eldridge? Or the old garage targeted for a hotel? What about water?

I’ll be watching it all go down, writing what I glean in this little column. Send me your comments and news! Reach me at; please put the word Gazette in the subject line.


Stephanie Hiller is a writer and life coach who works with seniors seeking a graceful experience of aging. She blogs at