My Russian River memories started when we joined other families in our neighborhood “up north” for two weeks in July. We thought we would be driving for days as “up north” made it sound like we were headed to a logging camp near the Oregon border.
We even had to have a special shopping trip for things we didn’t use in San Francisco – tank tops, colorful beach towels, inflatable rafts, and flip flops – which only added to our anticipation.
I equate the drive from the foggy Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County with the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the farmhouse door after the storm and everything goes from sepia to vibrant Technicolor. After driving into a barely visible Waldo Tunnel entrance, we emerged on the Marin side into a wondrous, much warmer, and more colorful world.
The first real clue that we were venturing way out of the city was the shift from suburban houses to pastures with grazing cows.
“Are we still in California?” my younger brother asked as he peered out the car window.
“Why does it smell so bad?” I asked, and we received a brief lesson on the clever way farmers reuse virtually everything – even cow poop. I wasn’t sure if my parents were pulling a fast one, but we were assured that the stench wouldn’t follow us all the way up north to our final destination. We were on our way to Forestville, a small town at the Russian River in Sonoma County.
The houses we rented over the years in Forestville at Summerhome Park could generously be described as “rustic.” One of my favorite houses on Laurel Road actually had the fewest amenities. The vintage kitchen had a wood-burning stove and oven, so every time my mom wanted to use it she had to build a small fire. It became a daily ritual to watch her deal with this ancient stove and to hear her admonish us to “stand back!” as she threw in the match that would hopefully light the newspaper she had crumpled up under the kindling. Needless to say, we had a lot of cold sandwiches for dinner that year as the prospect of dealing with the stove was not congruent with the idea of a vacation.
The house had dark, aged redwood paneling that we thought was a bit spooky at first, but it quickly became an asset as it kept the house cooler during the day. The house also came with a wooden rowboat stored under the front deck. Boy, were we in luck!
We quickly discovered that it was quite character-building to be the city kids in the aged wooden rowboat (no clever name painted on the side, either) when everyone else’s ride seemed to be a sleek canoe marked with it’s own name – or at least an address. I assumed it was because if a canoe was ever lost, someone would actually want it to be returned. We also discovered that rowing a boat is quite different from paddling a canoe – it’s a lot more work and not nearly as cool.
The house on Laurel Road also had a front porch just the right size for us to sleep outside in our sleeping bags. One night we heard some strange sounds and I pulled the sleeping bag back to expose part of one eye just in time to see small, dark, nefarious creatures dart across the porch up into the rafters. What could they be? A bratty kid down the road told us they were bats and that they weren’t dangerous at all – unless, of course, they were vampire bats. In that case, we were doomed. After running to the adults with our fears of being eaten alive, we were assured that there were no vampire bats in Summerhome Park and that the bats were actually doing us a favor by flying around at night and eating bugs. Apparently, the bats were not interested in us in the least, but just to be safe we decided to keep our faces inside our sleeping bags at night.
The evenings were spent reading Nancy Drew mysteries and Reader’s Digest “condensed” books left for our enjoyment by the cabin owners, playing gin rummy and Yahtzee, and trying to make progress on a huge puzzle that we had no hope of finishing, but left out on a table for the entire two weeks.
Our colorful beach towels became an effective communication system for us kids – which was very helpful because most of the cabins had no phone. You could figure out who was home from the beach based on the patterns of the towels hanging over the decks, which we read like hieroglyphics. Without beach towel intel, your only recourse was to loudly call out their name from the road and hope they came outside or to hike up what seemed like hundreds of wooden stairs.
We gorged on kid delicacies that we never had at home like cereal from a box (we knew we were living dangerously but it seemed unlikely that our teeth could completely rot in 2 weeks), tons of Popsicles, bags of potato chips (with French onion dip!) and small hand pies we made with blackberries we foraged ourselves with biscuit dough as the crust.
It was a big treat to eat dinner in nearby Occidental, where every restaurant advertised “family style” dining. After eating at all of them in rotation, we assumed for years that family style dining meant each person got enough food to feed an entire family.
“It sounds corny, but those summers up the River really were the happiest days of my life.”
I’ve not only heard this exact comment many times over the years, I feel the same way.
And I’ve given a lot of thought to why that is.
I think it’s because it was a time that we were able to fully live in the moment. No one was thinking about where they were going to go to college, their future job earnings or what they were going to do with the rest of their lives – heck, you didn’t even think about what you were having for lunch that day. The worries of life – both small and large – didn’t seem to matter as much in that moment, at that place.
We had freedom from structure and schedules. No one wore wristwatches – you learned to tell time by the shadows the redwoods cast on the river. At the Russian River we were connected to nature and we lived in her natural rhythms – we slept until we woke up, we ate when we were hungry, and we took each moment as it came.
The River gave us the beautiful gift of a childhood that not every child experiences. One could actually be a child – carefree, exploring, creating your own amusement with unfettered imagination and ingenuity. The River was the one venue that allowed us (and likely, our parents) to simply breathe and to abandon the distractions and underlying sense of vigilance that came with life in the city.
That said, perhaps there is one stress associated with my Russian River memories. We would be summoned out of the water to eat lunch and we stayed on the beach until the hot rocks became unbearable and our incessant begging to go back into the water wore our moms down. We had to wait an appropriately safe (but never clearly defined) time before going back into the water because it was thought to be incredibly dangerous to swim right after eating. Everyone was a bit cautious wading back into the water after lunch to be sure we didn’t sink like anchors from the peanut butter sandwiches and chips we had just devoured.
Our “social network” consisted of intersecting groups of other kids we formed relationships with so we could watch outdoor movies together, fly down the super slide in Guerneville in tandem on burlap sacks, and who we could trust to yell out to us the perfect moment to let go of the rope swing. We learned quickly to look for the similarities we shared with other kids and to overlook any differences because even as preteens, we knew that it takes a bit of compromise and acceptance to relate to others.
I decided to introduce my boys to the Russian River about 15 years ago. A relative joked that I was “trying to recapture my lost youth.” I know now that her comment was not intentionally mean-spirited, and I found it more baffling than anything else. Recapturing lost youth had nothing to do with it – it was a deep seated need to reconnect with the best parts of my past.
While our society values hurling ourselves forward at warp-speed and constantly “reinventing” one’s self, I felt a need to physically and emotionally revisit the places and experiences that had brought me this far. They weren’t destined to remain in the past – they were circling around again and clamoring to be part of my present. It felt like going back and reading a favorite book over again and marveling at the nuances you missed the first time. Sharing Russian River memories with my sons, watching them have many of the same experiences I had, and telling them the stories of the good times back in the “old days” makes me hopeful that many more generations will do exactly the same thing.
Note: Our beloved Kevin, the little “river rat” in the thumbnail photo is now 25 years old!