It’s funny the connections you find here. I’ve heard the old cliché that, in a small town, everyone knows everyone else, but I’ve never really lived in a small town before. The closest I came was back in the 1980s, when I lived in Tulare in the San Joaquin Valley: Its population at the time hovered just below 40,000. That’s almost as many people as live in San Luis Obispo — the biggest city in our county — these days.
When I lived in Fresno, people called that a small town, too, but it wasn’t. By the time I was born more than a half-century ago, it had already crossed the 100,000 threshold. It wasn’t the Los Angeles megalopolis (I’ve lived there, too), but it was plenty big. My favorite restaurant there was (and is) El Torito, and I still lament the fact that SLO County doesn’t have one.
The county does have plenty of other chain restaurants, but Cambria itself? Not a single one. Now that’s a small town. The devotion to local retailers is such that, when a sign appeared announcing plans for a Taco Bell in town, no one doubted it was an April Fool’s prank (and a good one, at that).
What’s fun about a small town is you get to know people, which I’m starting to do a little more than half a year into my job at The Cambrian. One thing you find is that people tend to wear several hats. In a big city, you seldom spot anyone you know, and when you do, it’s easy to pigeonhole them. There’s the soccer mom. That guy over there? He’s the environmental activist. And the woman who just walked in? She’s the account executive at the ad agency downtown.
It’s not that residents of a big city are really that one-dimensional, but chances are you often only know one or two things about them — even your next-door neighbors. Those things become, in your mind, their identity.
Not so in Cambria, where people wear many hats and you’re likely to see them don each of them in quick succession. Residents active in the American Legion might also be known for promoting tourism. An elephant seal docent might be active on the Forest Committee. The professional musician also might be a speaker and a writer. If you’re a member of the Lions Club, you might also be known for your role coaching a sport or two at Coast Union. Putting together the Scarecrow Festival? That doesn’t keep you from being visible promoting the arts or working to raise funds for pickleball courts.
These are the sorts of things that happen in a place with connections. Ever wonder why Cambria has so much going on — so many art showings, weekend events, concerts and celebrations? The town attracts plenty of vacationers, but most of these things aren’t for the tourists. They’re of, by and for the people who live here — the people who use their connections to create art, activities and, most importantly, a sense of community.
This past week, I interviewed Wayne Attoe about a new book he’s written about Cambria. You might know Attoe from his involvement in Greenspace — The Cambria Land Trust, as board president. You might also know him as a retired professor of architecture, or you might know that he and Peter Frith were the first same-sex couple to marry in Cambria. He’s also written or coauthored six books.
If you and Attoe both lived in a big city, you might live right down the street and not know any of this; here, it wouldn’t be surprising if you knew all this and more.
Because here, people are connected. So are places.
Take the house that Attoe and Frith own. During our interview, he informed me it had been built by a horticulturalist who worked at Hearst Castle. Later, it was owned by Sharon Lovejoy. Like that first owner, Lovejoy is a botanist; like Attoe, she’s an author and speaker.
Such connections are forged by members of the community who, despite occasionally heated disagreements, look out for one another. When 18-year-old Madeleine Rice was hurt in a crash recently, her mother called The Cambrian to report she’d been released from the hospital and was on the mend. The one thing she wanted to emphasize more than anything was that the community’s generosity had been “heartwarming beyond our imagination.” Someone had found the teenager’s cellphone at the crash site and returned it to the family. The family had been inundated with calls and emails from Cambrians offering to help and wishing Madeleine Rice a speedy recovery.
This is the kind of response that forges connections and makes it a pleasure to live without Taco Bell, or even El Torito.