The Russian River in rural Sonoma County was THE vacation spot for us City kids. Only seventy miles from San Francisco, the area provided a sunny haven from those fog-bitten summers. It felt like the entire world was a cookie jar, and you never got caught. One adventure after another waited for us. Trolling for chicks along the banks was a favorite hobby. God forbid that one of the girls should test our bravado and say hello. What then? But for the unseasoned “cruiser”, the Russian River was the perfect place to hone your skills. Trial by fire (the fire being the unrelenting punishment by God in the form of eternal guilt).
During the summer of 1953, I remember Harry James and His Music Makers were playing for the last time at Rio Nido. The Big Band sound was not my thing. Even as an eight-year-old, singers like Roy Orbison and Bill Haley rocked my world with their sinful music. But Harry James’s jazzy style would provide the background music for my first kiss. It was behind the four-lane outdoor bowling alley. Of course, I had to bring witnesses. I brought three for insurance. Francis was her name. It was a delightful kiss done with the utmost propriety. Damn. Years later, my friends would tease me, saying I had kissed Francis the Talking Mule (named after an old-time movie). Poor Francis. She deserved better.
Russian River, Memories That Linger:
But times changed for Rio Nido The bowling alley, the pinball arcade, the bingo parlor, the dance hall, the soda fountain and of course the beach all vanished. The muni-green cabins were left abandoned and squatters took advantage. But that’s for another novel (coming soon-Don’t Stop the Music). In addition, other venues and inventions captured our interest back in the fifties. Commercial airlines had become viable options, swooping you up and delivering you to Las Vegas or Hawaii. Highway 80 had been completed, offering easy access to the “Biggest Little City in the World”. The suburban malls held yet another distraction where trolling became an art form. In addition (and certainly not last), Lucy and Howdy Doody and the Lone Ranger visited our living rooms via a magic screen. Distractions-they became plentiful.
But wait, there might be a happy ending. Only time will tell, but the Russian River appears to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Restaurants have been featured in the New York Times and the Sunset magazine. AAA has declared Guerneville a “food destination”. Fourteen art galleries festoon Main Street and nearby lanes. Jazz and Blues and Rock rattle our cages. And what about Rio Nido? It too is poking its beautiful head above ground. The old lodge is under new and vibrant management. The residents have kept alive old traditions and continue to inspire fresh ones. Have new temptations risen from the ashes? I certainly hope so.
Until next time, my friends, keep turning those pages.