Tales from the Alan Watts Mountain Center

While working at Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books in the West Village—among dozens of Huxley, Blake, eastern philosophy and beat poetry—the owner Jim Drougas told fascinating stories about Alan Watts, the philosopher who was named the bookstore’s No. 1 “Author You Need to Read Before Being Reincarnated.” Jim used to go to Watts’ lectures during the ‘70s, seek out his seminar tape recording bootlegs, collect the underground San Francisco newspapers, and even got to visit the Alan Watts Mountain Center (on the western slopes of Mt. Tamalpais in California) before it burned down in 1995.

Alan used to split his time between this secluded area just north of Marin County and a ferry houseboat on the Sausalito waterfront, named the S.S. Vallejo. During his trip there many years ago, Jim saw the round library housed inside a large redwood water tower, which was where Alan Watts wrote Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975) and Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal (1974). With that title and cover photo, how could you not be intrigued?

So, this being Alan Watts’ hundredth year, I hopped on a flight and went out to discover and uncover this mystical-seeming place. Since the original hand-built homes of Watts and his community were damaged in the fire, Alan’s oldest son Mark Watts has been working on restoring the Mountain Center and building it up again—and better than ever. Talking to Mark about the commemorative vinyl project over the phone, I was excited to meet him and actually experience the landscape of his dad’s thoughts and writing. Mark and I met up at a local weekend fish market in Marin, sat down over some kind of organic juice, and he immediately started telling me stories of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, his father’s death conspiracy theories, and more interesting facts than I could possibly jot down. A small window into the Zeitgeist of the early ‘60s Bay Area cultural art scene suddenly opened up then and there.

Mark's road map of the surrounding area

Mark's road map of the surrounding area

A day before driving up to the Mountain Center, Mark took us around Marin County’s small town of Fairfax (home of the Grateful Dead and the only place in the US that holds a Green Party majority in the town council). We had lunch with his daughter Lia Watts, who makes gorgeous paper flowers and is in the process of hand-building a house for her and her boyfriend up at the Center. We then passed through San Rafael, where Mark told tales of Alan Watts’ public speaking career over Moroccan mint tea. At the age of 18, Mark joined his dad on his seminar tours, drove him around, and recorded many of his sessions. He spent hundred of hours listening to these recordings and put together The Essential Alan Watts Audio Archives (this interview is in the “Face the Facts” liner notes).

After that we drove past a record store called Watts Music (which happened to be a complete nominal coincidence), and made a pit-stop at a cheese factory. Next up was Pt. Reyes, the closest town to the Mountain Center with a very cool printmaking shop and craft market.

Up a hilariously winding dirt road north of Marin County, we finally reached the magical hand-built abode. It could have been the hobbit Shire straight out of Lord of the Rings. Built among the trees on sloping mountains, you have to be careful on the stairs (hand-paved by Lia), and the view is incredible. The silent is stunning. Put well by the Center, “the coastal surroundings rekindled Alan Watts’ appreciation of natural ecosystems and Taoist lore, as is reflected in his latest writings.” Mark Watts and his family rescued all the wood, metal, fixtures, and all of the other property’s material from The Away Station, a somewhat upscale junkyard in Fairfax described as “A Marketplace of ReUse.”

The lodge that will soon house the Watts digital media library is absolutely beautiful—it even has a heated floor. Branching off from the main open atrium space is an outdoor shower, an indoor shower encased by windows all the way around it, plus a large outdoor wooden platform that hangs over a steep slope. There are a few other wooden platforms up and down the mountain slope (still very much in progress) making the center feel like a Taoist tree-house. Every structure of the hand-built “ecotecture” is exposed and impressive. Mark showed us the soon-to-be guest lodge, production studio, and the open-air dance and yoga space. One of the houses used to rotate to follow the sun. The entire structure was built on a round spokes metal platform that would turn slowly throughout the day. This will soon be Lia’s living room.

Here’s what the Center says about the rebuilding process:

“The Center is being built using ecologically appropriate materials, including wood from fallen fir and cypress trees, and has been designed according to principles of sustainable architecture pioneered by organic architect Daniel Libermann. To date sixty-five percent of the main Lodge to house library and film resources has been completed, and studio and guest facilities are in various stages of construction.”

The Away Station // The Mountain Center entrance // Mark moving a table

The Away Station // The Mountain Center entrance // Mark moving a table

Throughout the day, we were waiting for Henry “Sandy” Jacobs to return from a city outing. Sandy, who turned 90 this year, lives up at the Mountain Center and is the co-curator of the Alan Watts Audio Archive with Mark. He produced all the early psychedelic Alan Watts LP releases—including This Is IT (1962) which Numero Group just reissued—and was the key distributor of Watts’s recordings to radio stations throughout the country. Some laud him as the inventor of “surround sound,” being John Cage’s right-hand sound man, while others know him for his experimental tape loop innovations and bizarre field recordings. He gained a large following at the listener-sponsored Pacifica KPFA radio station during the ’50s and ’60s and was at the heart of the post-war San Francisco cultural explosion. He is also Mark’s father-in-law.

Mark and Lia call it “Sandy’s nest” and it truly looks and feels like that. There’s a tree growing up and outside his main atrium entrance, his kitchen is a parked camper van inside, and around that is an open-air dining table, shower, and toilet. Next you go to his main living room, with eclectic instruments and equipment placed around, a grand piano and an umbrella-light fixture hovering over, and his loft bedroom to the side and on top of that.

Sandy arrived later in the day, and we sat with him while the sun set without us noticing. At first we talked about his past and involvement with Alan Watts and his ‘60s tape recordings (the interview is also in the "Face the Facts" booklet), but it soon became clear that Sandy was more interested in the present than the past. I would ask him about “that time when…” and he would end up relating the story back to something he had just discovered recently. Like a true zen master, he likes being and living his life in 2015 rather than reflecting backwards. 

Although his kitchen is a splitty, his shower is outside, and he has trees growing in his bedroom, Sandy is also more technologically proficient than I am. It reminds me that there are so many different ways of moving in the world. He has an iPad that plugs into a large flat-screen TV, and we sat among pillows watching YouTube videos of a young new pianist Joey Alexander and the Robert Glasper Experiment (watching the drumming genius of Chris Dave). One of the things I admire most about Sandy is that he never takes himself or anything else too seriously—he referred to studying with Allauddin Khan “like going to John Lennon to learn clarinet.” Sandy’s memory is crystal clear, he likes what he likes, and he avoids anything too precious. Tangential stories and dry and sharp humor are his strong suits. It was dark already, the white string lights were on outside, and it was time to head back down the winding path to a different kind of world.

The Mountain Center is currently seeking support on all levels, and anyone interested in helping should contact Mark Watts by email at watts@alanwatts.com.