GUERNEVILLE A few miles east of town, out where grapevines are stitched into the land like a bad hair weave, you start to pick up a faint signal, a mere crackling at first.
Drive on, and the mournful wail of Lucinda Williams comes in clear as heartbreak over the radio.
She's singing about what she always sings about: love gone wrong. Now Williams is replaced by Louis Prima's bouncy "Boney Bones," about a skinny girl who slipped away. That's followed by Big Joe Turner's wistful "Red Sail on the Sunset" and Lynn Morris' bluegrass noir "Love Grown Cold."
As you pull into Guerneville proper, you have no inkling what next will be played on KGGV, Guerneville's low-power but high-concept all-volunteer radio station at 95.1 on the FM dial (well, at least within the greater town limits here in western Sonoma County). Could be disco. Could be punk. Could be mariachi.
Guess again. It's soul the Five Stairsteps cooing "Ooh, Child (Things Are Gonna Get Easier)."
You think that if Guerneville is anything like its delightfully quirky musical soundtrack, you're in for quite an experience.
And so it is: This verdant, leafy outpost on the banks of the Russian River proved as eclectic as it was charming, a pastiche of Northern California culture, a time capsule preserving several seminal historical epochs. You might be tempted only to breeze by Guerneville on a day trip in the wine country or to the coast, but the town offers a plethora of weekend possibilities.
Which Guerneville, then, would you care to know about first?
Guerneville the plucky, flood-prone burg?
The bustling gay and lesbian vacation mecca?
The flannel-and-fleece outdoors playland for kayakers, hikers, anglers and, twice yearly, some of the country's best triathletes?
The redwood forest preserve that both celebrates its logging past and cherishes the towering, 300-foot, 1,000-year-old sentries left behind?
Truth is, Guerneville is all of a piece. It cannot be sliced and diced and so easily categorized. A quick stroll down Main Street and its arteries bear that out. It ranges from the beautiful and diverse antique furniture at the Sonoma Nesting Co. to the nostalgia-laden Russian River Vintage Trailers.
The '60s (that's the 1860s, folks) are on display at the Riverlane Resort, where owner Alby Kass proudly shows off a blown-up photo of loggers felling wide-trunked redwoods while his erstwhile boardinghouse serves as home base. The other '60s is represented by a boutique called "Shakedown Street," purveyor of all things Grateful Dead-related, with a winking-nudging "Hippies Use Back Door No Exceptions" sign in the front window.
The '70s, too, have had a big influence. In the 1870s, that noted cabal of rich and powerful from San Francisco, the Bohemian Club, took root in nearby Monte Rio and radiated affluence and culture to Guerneville as well. Today, its influence can be seen in upscale resorts such as the Applewood Inn (with its Michelin-starred restaurant) and bistros such as boon eat + drink.
Not to be outdone, the 1970s saw the advent of gay and lesbian culture hit town, as nightclubs such as the Rainbow Cattle Co. took hold. Today, yearly Dionysian festivals such as the Lazy Bear Weekend and Women's Weekends are tourist staples, and the community gathers for "Born This Way Bingo, with a Lady Gaga Costume Contest."
The unifying element, what makes Guerneville a thriving tourist stop and not just another one-light town, is the Russian River. It's at once a blessing of a recreational haven for anglers, kayakers and hikers, as well as a curse of a natural disaster area when flooding threatens to whisk away the community in its wake. And the floods inevitably do come, at least once a decade.
Old-timers ruefully remember the 1955 Christmas Day flood, or that doozy in 1967, or the last major high-water episode around New Year's Eve 2005-06. Nothing, however, compares to 1986, when the river rose 16 feet above its banks and washed away cabins and businesses and saturated pretty much everything.
"It's not really a big deal," says Lynn Crescione, owner of the Creekside Inn & Resort and a former member of a civic oversight committee for Russian River redevelopment. "It's about a once-every-10 years thing."
Maybe not a big deal, but a tall one. After the 2006 floods, the county halted construction unless it's over the 100-year flood mark. Which is why nearly all of Crescione's 22 cottages now stand on 12-foot reinforced concrete pillars.
"I was concerned when they said we'd have to lift our buildings," she said. "I didn't think anyone'd come to stay in them. Well, baloney. I was wrong. It's nice to be proven wrong. Our guests say they're sleeping 'up in the trees' now."
That's the cool vibe of Guerneville. You take what nature (both human and Mother) gives you and just deal with it.
Kass, 81, arrived in Guerneville with his family in the late 1950s to "escape the L.A. smog," and bought the Riverlane Resort. In 1986, after 11 straight days of rain, he watched helplessly as three of his cottages floated away while he stood in ankle-deep water in the resort's lobby. A photo of a smiling Kass and his son kayaking over a 5-foot mailbox is framed in that same front office.
"It's like life," he says, "you get used to it. I'm not surprised people stay here despite the flooding. Whether you're gay, an artist, a lover of natural beauty or a rich guy with a second home, you find an area this beautiful, you stay.
"I don't know, maybe it's the flooding and the hard times, when people had to come together and help each other, it smoothed over things between the gays and non-gays. Everybody just gets along. I remember once my son, who was then 17, was working the front desk on a Women's Weekend. A couple lesbian women came in and asked him, 'We were wondering if it's permissible to go swimming topless?' He says, 'Permitted? It's required!' "
Another unifying factor for a small town, one that often transcends cultural differences, is money. Over the years, gay tourism pumped a lot of money into the local economy, and now lesbian and gay couples have moved in and opened businesses themselves.
Bob Fredericks came to Guerneville in 1979 to manage and eventually become a part-owner in the Rainbow Cattle Co., the town's top gay nightclub.
"When I first started, the rednecks didn't really care for the gays coming to town," he said. "We had certain issues. We had to put plastic up in front of the windows because they'd throw eggs at people during Halloween. We'd board them up at the end of my 8 o'clock shift because of the rednecks. But that's not a problem anymore."
Robin Johnson, who owns the Guerneville 5 & 10, a throwback to the dime store days that caters in nostalgic doodads like metal lunchboxes and candy cigars, said gays and lesbians coming to Guerneville to settle down "saved the town back in the '80s. We reflect the greater society and how it's changed. Guerneville, from about the 1890s on, attracted blue-collar people to the neighborhoods cops, firefighters who could afford the tiny houses. In the '80s, they couldn't afford it anymore. But the gay money started coming in from San Francisco."
Longtime residents say families, gay and straight alike, can enjoy staying in Guerneville. Sure, it can be a little jarring to suburban dwellers during such gay-friendly festivals as the Lazy Bear Weekend, but everyone seems to get along well.
"When you see a guy walking down the street in chaps and nothing else I mean, you've got something to talk about," Kass said. "It can get pretty wacky. But I think and I hope I'm right that it doesn't make that much of a difference to the majority of people, gay or not."
Crescione, the Creekside Inn owner, says she has only one rule for anyone staying at her resort.
"What we say is, 'We welcome well-behaved guests of any age or orientation,' " she says. " ' We're not a clothing-optional resort.'
"The Highlands, down the road, is. We have Lazy Bears in the pool with all these kids, buying them floating toys. That's our (wholesome) image. We're not the party spot. We're the place you come back to to relax after the party."
One guest absolutely smitten with Guerneville's eclectic charm is Millie Masi of Stockton, visiting her daughter living in Monte Rio. She was roaming the aisles of the 5 & 10, awash in nostalgia.
Then, as if on cue, the local radio station, piped in to the store's sound system, played Ruby Keeler singing "Shuffle Off to Buffalo." Masi turned to her daughter, Jerra Chavez, and beamed.
"My mother used to play that for me," she said, as the decades flowed away like the Russian River passing nearby.
Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 west to Highway 37 in Vallejo. Follow Highway 37 for 21 miles to Highway 101 north. Go 33 miles and exit at River Road. Take River Road for 15 miles into downtown Guerneville.
Armstrong Redwoods and Austin Creek state parks: 17000 Armstrong Woods Road. (707) 869-2015, parks.ca.gov. The Pioneer Discovery Trail goes by the Parson Jones Tree, park's tallest at 310 feet.
Johnson's Beach and Resort: 16241 First St. (707) 869-2022, johnsonsbeach.com. In summer and fall, it's a great place to launch your kayak or lounge on the Russian River.
Sonoma Nesting Co.: 16151 Main St. (707) 869-3434, www.sonomanesting.com. Don't be freaked out by the large dog prowling inside. Handsome antique home furnishings beckon.
Guerneville 5 & 10: 16252 Main St. (707) 869-3404. www.guerneville5and10.com. Whimsical 1950s-era toys and doodads, and updated gag gifts.
Hemp and Chocolat: 16222 Main St. (707) 869-0843, www.hempandchocolat.com. Sounds like granola-crunching, neo-hippie; it's a boutique.
Twice Told Books: 14045 Armstrong Woods Road. (707) 869-1479. www.twicetoldbooks.com. You can pick up both beach reads and literature with more heft.
Shakedown Street: 16200 First St. (707) 869-3263. Grateful Dead tie-dye clothing and Dead items, as well as pottery and incense.
King's Sport & Tackle: 16258 Main Street. (707) 869-2156 kingsrussianriver.com. Kayak rentals. Fishing supplies, inflatable watercraft rentals.
Russian River Vintage Travel Trailers: 16296 Third St. (707) 865-2077. www.rrvintagetrailers.com. Relive the '50s.
Big Bottom Market: 16228 Main St. (707) 604-7295. www.bigbottommarket.com. A new business that combines a deli with a farmer's market with a hip, upscale vibe.
DINING AND NIGHTLIFE
boon eat + drink:
16248 Main St. (707) 869-0780. www.eatatboon.com. Locavores will enjoy this bistro featuring artisan cheeses, panini and salads.
Andorno's Pizza Cafe:
16205 First St. (707) 869-0651. russianriverpizza.com. Nothing beats a post-kayaking pizza.
16337 Main St. (707) 869-9161. chefpatricks.com. California French fusion cuisine.
Rainbow Cattle Co.: 16220 Main St. (707) 869-0206. www.queersteer.com. Watering hole for gays, lesbians, straights.
Applewood Inn: 13555 Highway 116. (707) 869-9093. www.applewoodinn.com. Its restaurant is Michelin star- rated, and the hotel is a charming bed and breakfast.
Creekside Inn & Resort: 16180 Neeley Road (707) 869-3623. creeksideinn.com. With cottages and a bed-and-breakfast, there's luxury along the river.
16320 First St. (707) 869-2323. www.riverlane.resort. Cabins along river with kitchens, and a pool/hot tub and river beach.
R3 Hotel: 16390 Fourth St. (707) 869-8399. www.ther3hotel.com. Gay-friendly spot featuring the Triple R Bar & Grill.