Backstory: In Marin County, walkers, bikers, and hikers rule the road

I AM DRIVING through Mill Valley in Marin County, California. I am happy. And why shouldn't I be? I am surrounded by green mountains and towering redwoods. I am tooling along well under the speed limit on my way to lunch.

Then, in the middle of the block, I come to a squealing stop. I am no longer happy. Pedestrian Power is about to significantly slow down my life and delay my meal. In front of me, a couple is crossing. Another couple, coming the other way, joins them in the middle of the street. All four people stop. They hug. They exchange tofu recipes. They make plans for dinner and discuss where to ski next winter.

And yet, in all that time, nobody, no one in the line of cars stopped behind me or the line going the other way, dares to honk a horn. Not one driver leans out and shouts what any other driver in America would yell, "Move!"

The problem is, in Marin County, where I live, a certain shame is associated with owning, let alone driving, a car. In the most politically correct 519 square miles in America, if you don't walk, run, or ride a bike, it is as if you are personally responsible for global warming. As if you as well as your car are emitting noxious fumes.

This, no doubt, explains why it is so difficult for Marin County pedestrians to keep sneers off their face as they stroll languidly across the street. Or as they stop to look up and check the movement of the clouds, or reach down to save a discarded spinach leaf from being run over. If, by chance, they happen to glance over at the waiting line of cars, the best you can expect is a sorrowful shake of the head to indicate that you probably also purchase nonorganic tomatoes.

Up and down California, pedestrians, by law, have the right of way. Crossing a street in San Diego or Bakersfield is not like attempting to venture across Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where even a green light doesn't mean it is safe to leave the sidewalk. In Los Angeles, only actors with three-picture deals are allowed to walk across the street without being honked at by someone in a Hummer. (If your last name is Spielberg, drivers are required, as a result of lobbying by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to turn off their engines, shout "You're the greatest, Steve," and hurl unproduced scripts at him.)

Still, if you really want to be certain to stroll through an intersection without problems, get across the Golden Gate bridge and into Marin County. Once there, all pedestrians and most species of plants will bring any car to a halt.

You'll find that anyone not in a car has slightly different privileges. Take bicycle riders, for instance. It appears that as long as they wear extremely tight-fitting shorts and keep their body fat less than 12 percent, they are allowed to slow traffic to 5 m.p.h., not stop at red lights, and use no turn signals other than yelling "Do I look great?" for left turns and "Do I look great, or what?" when turning right.

All this should not be unexpected in a place where residents shun plastic bags, Velveeta, nonorganic cat food, and polyester. Where anti-dodge ball activists picket other anti-dodge ball activists for not being anti-dodge ball enough. Where drivers know that all you can do when confronted by a pedestrian crossing in the middle of the street is smile, say "thank you," and calmly listen to the last two acts of Der Meistersinger.

Chuck Cohen, an advertising writer, lives in Mill Valley, Calif.

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