One of Sonoma County’s most appealing qualities is its blend of rural beauty and urban sophistication. Each quality is easily appreciated on its own, but in these parts the two often overlap in amazing ways.
Take Valley Ford, for example. An off-the-beaten-track village that’s home to fewer than 150 people, it’s located amidst rolling hills about six miles from the Pacific Ocean – on the northern edge of the Estero Americano (a nine-mile estuary originating in Bodega Bay).
The surrounding land has long been home to farms and ranches, with sweeping vistas that include beautiful old barns and plenty of grazing cows.
But back in 1976, one of the most controversial and famous art installations in history ran smack through Valley Ford. It dominated the landscape and brought to the town a heady mixture of international journalists, environmental protestors, passionate art-lovers, and curious gawkers. The artwork also resulted in a 1978 film by cinema verité mavens Albert and David Maysles.
The artwork? It was the Running Fence, created by husband-wife environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. During a shared career in which the pair created massive, temporary environmental works of art around the world, they completely wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont-Neuf Bridge in Paris, stretched a huge curtain across Rifle Gap in the Rocky Mountains, and surrounded eleven islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay with floating pink fabric.
But one of their best-remembered projects continues to be The Running Fence.
The Running Fence stood 18 feet high and consisted of more than 165,000 yards of white nylon made into 2,000 panels and hung from steel posts and cables (the hanging required more than a quarter-million hooks). The Fence progressed boldly and beautifully across the landscape for 24.5 miles, from US-101 in Cotati to where it ultimately descended into the Pacific Ocean at Bodega Bay.
On its journey the Fence crossed 14 roads and 59 private ranches. You can imagine the paperwork involved with all the permissions the route required (just the environmental impact report – the first one ever created for a work of art – was 450 pages long).
The Running Fence existed for only two weeks, and then it was removed. It lives on in the memory of those who were lucky enough to see it – and, of course, in Christo's and Jean-Claude's drawings and photographs.
However, in Valley Ford you can still pay a symbolic visit to the Fence at Sonoma County Historic Landmark #24, located at 14459 Valley Ford Road, next to the post office. You’ll find a bronze plaque commemorating the Running Fence, as well as one of the poles used in the installation.
Slightly more than three miles north of Valley Ford you’ll find a display with details about the project at the Christo & Jeanne-Claude Running Fence Park, a quarter-acre picnic area located on the Bodega Highway.
Read about a 2010 Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit, “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence.”
Read a 2010 post about Albert Maysles on Meeting—and Filming—Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
Want to spend more time exploring this area? Lodging options include the seven charming and pet-friendly rooms at the Valley Ford Hotel (14415 Highway 1, Valley Ford, 707-876-1983) or the 18 luxurious rooms, each with a fireplace and private patio, at the Sonoma Coast Villa & Spa (16702 Highway 1, Bodega, 888-404-2255), a beautiful Mediterranean oasis nestled on 60 acres a few miles west of Valley Ford.
While you're in Valley Ford, fill up your picnic basket at the family-owned Valley Ford Market (14400 Highway 1, Valley Ford, 707-876-3245), a farmers' and ranchers' grocery that features a deli (with items like homemade sausages and home-smoked salmon) and an extensive inventory of local wines. Or, join the locals for a tasty breakfast or lunch at the Estero Café (14450 Highway 1, Valley Ford, 707-876-1974), which serves local, organic produce and meats, typically from within a five- to 10-mile radius of the café.
Local dining options also include the fresh, southern-inspired food at Rocker Oysterfeller's (14415 Highway 1, Valley Ford, 707-876-1983) in the Valley Ford Hotel, or the friendly atmosphere and hearty fare at Dinucci's Italian Dinners (14485 Highway 1, Valley Ford, 707-876-3260).