Retreat from the city: Watts’ mountain cabins and old ferry-boats

My partner, a sculptural artist, and I, with my love of writing, have been thinking about ways we might create some sort of retreat from the city. As I read Alan Watts’ biographies I have been curiously uncovering his two most unusual abodes: a communal mountain retreat with Gary Snyder, Catharine A. MacKinnon, Elsa Gidlow and others at Druid Heights, and an old ferry-boat named SS Vallejo with artist Jean Varda and other party-goers in San Fransisco Bay.

Druid Heights, Mount Tamalpais

“What do you get when you bring together a groundbreaking lesbian poet, a famous Zen philosopher, the founder of a prostitutes’ union and the inventor of the self-regulating filtered hot tub?” writes .

“The answer: Druid Heights — a once-thriving Bay Area bohemia deep in the forest, now moldering despite the best efforts of its residents, a few hardy holdovers from the counterculture, to maintain it.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Secreted away one and a half miles down a dirt road, Druid Heights is unknown to thousands of tourists who flock to the misty redwoods of Muir Woods, even as it comes under review by the National Park Service for recognition as a historic or culturally significant site.


The philosopher Alan Watts, who died here in 1973 in the Mandala House, a circular work of architecture resembling a spinning top, wrote of this community’s “numinous, mythological quality,” which drew artists, writers, musicians and hedonists from 1954 through the early ’70s.

Among them were the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder; Margo St. James, who organized the union for prostitutes; Catharine A. MacKinnon, the feminist law professor who advises the International Criminal Court in The Hague on gender issues; and the lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow, whose ashes reside near the Moon Temple. Her guest room and meditation cabin still exude an otherworldly goddess aura.”

Druid Heights was once a five-acre ranch formerly known as Camp Monte Vista Sub One. It was set up by Elsa Gidlow and carpenter Roger Somers. According to wikipedia: “Somers, influenced by Japanese architecture and American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, built many of the structures with unique furniture designed by Ed Stiles.[5] Gidlow was fond of organic agriculture and grew vegetables for the people in the community.[6]

Druid Heights was acquired by the National Park Service in the 1970s[2][3] and is currently under review for a proposed listing on the National Register of Historic Places.[4]
Watts wrote these journals on this mountain:

Check out the photos:

S. S. Vallejo ferryboat in Sausalito

Built in 1879, and out of service after WW2, this old 37m x 9m ferry boat was bought by artist Jean Varda, surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford, and architect Forest Wright in the ’50s. Wright sold his share to Ford, and they turned it into a houseboat, art studio and party place for the likes of Jack Kerouac among others.

Watts bought Ford’s share of the houseboat in 1961. Varda’s parties and salons continued. The most famous party, thrown in 1967, was known as the “Houseboat Summit”, and featured  Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Watts discussing LSD. Many of Watts’ lectures were recorded on this boat:


This aerial photo was taken by Ted Rose [owner of the white octagon houseboat] and Ford Kiddo.

Marian Saltman, who had begun living on Vallejo in 1971, arranged for its purchase in 1981, and began to restore the boat. She said, “I hope she will continue to be the home of remarkable people and ideas, and I wish her to serve the creative and artistic needs of Sausalito and the Bay Area.”[3]

In 2001-2002 Vallejo was restored by Kiwi’s and privately owned by someone who is now collecting its stories!

photo by Heide Foley

I believe Watts recorded Out of Your Mind: Essential Listening from the Alan Watts Audio Archives on board Vallejo.


Brown, Patricia, Oasis for Resisting Status Symbols Just Might Get One, New York Times article published January 25, 2012


Stories on Vallejo


Also note: if I have not credited the photographer/source it is because I have not been able to locate – please do contact me if any issues re copyright.

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  1. ed
    17 Feb ’15    

    Alan Watts.
    Every article about Watts, any picture whatsoever of the S.S.Vallejo, Druid Heights or of him reminds me of something essential: Let go. The message of Alan is still important because contained within his words and the stories about him is that underlying invitation to Dance. Not DAHNCE in some formal, preplanned and organized fashion but to let go and swing. I will not mention my own profession for it is steeped in rigidity, conformance and having things “as they should be”. I will mention that any thought about Alan whether arising within my own empty head or from others simply reminds me: Let go. I should also “let go” talking about letting go.
    We’re all on a fantastic ride. Thanks Alan, for prompting me to look out the window, listen, feel and smell the trip and my traveling companions instead of getting to caught up reading the lifeless tour brochures often written by those never taking the journey…

    • 14 Mar ’15    

      Three times in the last month I have read The Birth Of The Divine Son : A Study Of A Christian Symbol (circa 2000 wds — originally published in THE SUFI in the late 30s) . Having experienced SATORI 5 times between 1972 to 1976 without ingesting chemical catalysts, for me most of Alan’s writings are pleasantly absorbing — but some of his writing is outstanding.
      The essay mentioned above has been republished by SHAMBHALA 2003.

  2. Captain Blackie
    27 May ’15    

    I was interested in finding out about Alan Watts’ death and came upon your blog. Good job. I was on my first sailboat cruising the South Pacific when he died and somehow was told that he had committed suicide. This was my “knowledge” until a while ago when I found that this is not generally believed nor a part of his official history. I have been a student of Buddhism for many years, particularly under Roshi Aitken and Diatsu Tom Wright and have been sitting with the Buddhist Peach Fellowship banner in front of the Federal Building in Hilo, Hawaii every Friday afternoon for the past 13 years. I am of the generation between Watts and your own, presently getting my Ketch LOVE ready to sail into the South Pacific again. I do not plan on coming back. I admire your eclectic interests/writing & wonder if you have knowledge of Watts’ death. It is an unimportant but interesting issue & I cannot help but feel that there must be some reason that I accepted what appears to be an erroneous thought(knowing the importance of avoiding beliefs) for all these years.

    • 27 May ’15    

      Captain Blackie, thank you for your message. It sounds like quite an adventure you have ahead.
      I do not think Alan Watts committed suicide, no. Various articles and biographies say that he died in his sleep, up in a bungalow in the mountains. It is an interesting idea, though, that perhaps it was an assisted death. Alan had fascinating ideas on death, and certainly would never have allowed himself to die in a hospital. I remember hearing him say in a lecture something like “hospitals are where people go when they are sick, death is not a sickness.” He recommended houses for dying, where death would be a celebration and where people had the freedom to die in the way that they wanted to, without pain and suffering. But to leave this world at 58 years old, so young and with so much more to give… surely he would have fought to live longer if he could?
      Anyway that’s my thoughts on it… good luck with getting Ketch LOVE ready to sail again, and enjoy your journey on the Pacific!

  3. Michael
    8 Oct ’15    

    Alan Watts and my friend Jean Burden were lovers during the late fifties. During that time Alan drank a bottle of vodka a day. She and Alan entered LSD studies on the treatment of the alcoholic with two other associates as a control group under the auspices of Dr. Keith Ditman at UCLA. A pattern is established in the mid 1960s ,when his lover Dr. June Singer reported she had taken Alan to the hospital in Chicago to be treated for severe symptoms of alchohol related illnesses. All his friends: Elsa Gidlow, Rogers Somers, Maude Oakes, Gary Snyder, June Singer and Jean Burden are on record as having witnessed his disease over the course of twenty five years but Alan could not stop, smoking and drinking his way through every one of them. There are numerous examples of Alan having to be helped into a lecture hall because of his drunkeness where he would then deliver, impromptu , a brilliant talk.

    • 25 Oct ’15    

      Oh wow! Great story, your lucky friend! 😉 I’m not really surprised, somehow despite all his vices, what a genius… Thanks for sharing Michael.

  4. Michael
    23 Nov ’15    

    Yes Juliet, I enjoy my connection to Druid Heights, tentative though it is.
    I would point out regarding your desire to create a retreat that Elsa and Alan started The Society For Comparative Philosophy together in1962. This organization purchased the Vallejo and financed construction and remodeling at the Heights. The Vallejo was the public face of the Society and Druid Heights , Elsa’s creation and her domain, was kept for close friends and interesting people. Elsa Gidlow,
    ” sister ” as Alan called her , ran the society , booked seminars and brought prominent and creative people to both venues. She was always the landlord , owning the Druid property since 1954.
    The state of California has little use for Druid Heights right now. Maybe you guys could retreat there someday.

  5. marty baum
    17 Jan ’16    

    what a fun place to practice carpentry…i can imagine the sheer joy of cutting the wood and fastening it together to glass and steel, ceramics and all manner of materials…Alan used to talk a lot about ‘materialism’ and how the modern society is divorced from the love and enjoyment of material…not surprising that Alan was, among other things, a drunken person most of the time…after all, creative people do appear quite prone to excess in many regards…still, it tarnishes not by one iota the genius of Alan Watts, who, in my opinion, has helped to open the doors of perception for so many seeking souls, past and present

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