February 12, 2009

The central insight of conservatism”€”that everything is always getting worse”€”is dramatically illustrated by the little hamlet I recently moved to. Rio Nido, California, is located in the wine country of Sonoma county, about five miles north of the infamous Bohemian Grove facility where the elites meet annually to plot the fate of the world and enjoy the scenic Russian River as it flows lazily into the Pacific.

Rio Nido”€””€œriver nest”€ in Spanish”€”is an idiosyncratic collection of some 250-odd summer cabins, and a few rather more substantial structures, about a mile and a half away from the resort town of Guerneville, on the north side of the Russian River. Endowed with a post office, its own zip code, and the faux-Tudor style Rio Inn, this little hamlet nestled in the redwoods was once a thriving and picturesque summer retreat for San Francisco’s oldest families, mostly Irish Catholic firefighters and policemen who came up here with the brood on the old Northwestern Pacific railroad, which, in better days, used to run from the City to the wilds of Sonoma county. When that artery was cut, by the general failure of railroads in favor of a government-subsidized highway system to benefit the auto industry, the lifeblood was slowly drained out of all the communities along the Russian River, most especially Rio Nido.

This little fairy-tale hamlet of clapboard cottages and imaginatively redone two and three-story homes is curled up in a canyon, sheltered under the thick canopy of a redwood forest. Stylized runrays slant through the gloom and settle in pools of light on the forest floor, mist rising from the ground as if from underground fires. The older homes have names: “€œThe Hideaway,”€ “€œJoy Joynt,”€ “€œDewdrop Inn.”€ Cats slink noiselessly through the shadows while giant blackbirds”€”their caws like mordant laughter”€”hover overhead.

At the mouth of the canyon is River Road, and you can pass underneath it through a garbage-strewn tunnel. On the other side is the river, and what was once the beach, now overgrown and virtually impassable.

Photos from the time show the bridge that crossed the river to the wide beach, still extant, on the sunny southern side. A 1915 postcard shows a redwood arch spanning the river and floating changing houses forming a little bay on the northern side, while swimmers frolick in the shallows. The railroad ran from the farming community of Fulton, all along what is now River Road, through vineyards and the Korbel Winery, stopping at Rio Nido and going on to Guerneville, Monte Rio, and the wilds of Cazadero.

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From a mining town, Guerneville was soon a center of the burgeoning lumber industry, but as this declined, the area became San Francisco’s summer playground. Mark Twain’s remark that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco is all too true. Starting in the late eighteen-hundreds, when the first railroads snaked northward from Baghdad-by-the-Bay, the City’s inhabitants sought sunlight and fresh air along the banks of the Russian River, a tradition that persists to this day, albeit in very attenuated form.

The big band era was Rio Nido’s heyday. A 1930 photo shows a gathering at the Inn featuring “€œRan Wilde and his Orchestra,”€ as several zoot-suited characters lounge around the entrance to the Rio Inn. The Inn is a structure whose architecture “€“ and fate “€“ in many ways captures the history and essence of the place. A three story building with some thirty or so rooms, built in the vaguely Germanic style of a country inn, with overhanging rafters and steeple-towered roofs, it crouches in the midst of towering redwoods, half Hans Christian Anderson, half Alfred Hitchcock. The interior is solid redwood, with bay windows and details that recall the Arts and Crafts movement, roughhewn and often whimsical. Today its carved doors and main hall”€”where once bigtime band-leaders like Muzzy Marcellino, Ken Baker, Griff Williams, and Ozzie Nelson played to crowds of GIs and their sweethearts “€“ are covered in a thick layer of dust and neglect. The antique furniture is frayed, and water-stained, and a moldy smell wafts through the upstairs hallways, which are redolent with the smell of marijuana and other less benign substances.

As the Big Band generation gave way to the Beatles, and the demise of the railroads choked off the vital link to urban centers, the Inn went through a succession of owners, each more incompetent and indifferent than the last. During the sixties, the summer people”€”the descendants of the old San Francisco families who have been coming up to the River for generations”€”were shocked by the hijinks that went on. One woman told me that she once received a midnight phone call at her home in San Francisco, informing her that a tribe of local hippies had decided to “€œsquat”€ in her cabin.

The Seventies brought in the gays, who bought up homes, fixed them up, and injected some much-needed cash into the local economy. As the eighties rolled around, however, so did AIDS”€”and the gay playground on the Russian River was hit hard. In the wake of this sudden depopulation, another darker element appeared: in the eighties,  the biker subculture found refuge in Rio Nido, and across from the Inn, the Rio Nido Roadhouse garnered a reputation as a biker hangout”€”and the center of attention for the Guerneville cops. With the bikers came meth”€”methamphetamine, the home-made drug of choice for the country’s rural lumpen”€”and Rio Nido was a notorious node of the trade. A crackdown in the late nineties, pretty much stamped it out: that and a local neighborhood watch, headed up by the local colony of lesbians who make up a substantial portion of the population, put an end to the crime spree.

The Rio Nido beach, which had lured generations of Bay Area vacationers from the dusty pavements of the City, was by this time overgrown with weeds: the bridge, long gone. One Rio Nido postcard in the archives of the Russian River Historical Society depicting swimmers with bathing caps and boats with crossed oars promises: “€œMemories that will last.”€ Yet those halcyon days are little remembered, except in the archives of historical societies and the mind’s eye of the avid researcher. From those archives, we retrieve idyllic scenes of Arcadian serenity: the radiant faces of happy families idling in the summer sun, floating down the river in fanciful boats and laying on a beach now thick with brush up to the water’s edge. A bathhouse, a hotel, and the Inn, along with a dime store and the dining room, where members of the Eagle Lodge supped and drank local wine from the winery just down the road”€”all of it gone, replaced by waves of successive countercultural colonizers, although a few remnants of the old crowd “€“ retired firefighters, mostly, or their spouses”€”are still a big influence in the local homeowners association.

When I hear the catchphrase “€œshovel ready,”€ in relation to the public works programs recently approved by the Obama-ites and touted as the salvation of the nation, I think of Rio Nido: if ever a place was in need of “€œinfrastructure,”€ then this is it. The roads are as pockmarked as the surface of the moon, and the gutters”€”they don”€™t exist. When it rains, as it does often and torrentially, the water careens down the road in a veritable river, down into my driveway, into Rio Nido Creek, which runs directly underneath my house. If the drain clogs, my property floods”€”but since Rio Nido barely merits streetlights, in the eyes of the county government, gutters are out of the question. And don”€™t even think about sidewalks”€”which might be out of place, anyway.

Today,. Rio Nido is a ghost of what it once was: the Inn is owned by a psychologist who works at San Quentin: he has taken to using it as a halfway house for recently released inmates undergoing “€œrehabilitation.”€ The place has been for sale for ages: it needs more repairs than anyone can afford these days, and there it sits. The same landowner also runs a trailer park in the Armstrong Woods area, near a state park, which has been cited more than once for health violations. 

It wouldn”€™t take much to restore Rio Nido to its former glory, but there’s no bailout for this rural enclave of eccentrics: there’s nothing to be gained politically, and our little unincorporated area has about as much clout in Washington as I do”€”i.e. zilch. Aside from which, restoration has little to do with the nature and mission of government, especially on the federal level: if, by some miracle, some of that “€œstimulus”€ money were to be spent in our neck of the woods, it would most likely go to protect some heretofore unknown species of salmon or to fund a homeless shelter for the people who live under the bridge in downtown Guerneville.

The economic hard times are hitting these parts pretty hard: the other day some ragged looking types, a toothless man and woman, came to my door looking to do “€œchores.”€ Half the storefronts on Main Street are empty, and the local unemployment rate is skyrocketing, along with the foreclosure rate. My own house was a foreclosure that I snapped up pretty quick, and one down the street, which was recently sold, yet more are in the pipeline, especially as you go down the canyon toward the Inn and River Road.

Yet the people endure, and a new wave of homeowners has taken up the battle to preserve the character of this little redwood glen. The guy across the street is a contractor who describes himself as an “€œurban pioneer,”€ and works on his house on weekends: he’s redone it from end to end, painted it bright yellow, and it stands, like so many of Rio Nido’s houses, with its gabled windows and whimsical turrets, along a street of well-kept homes. Down the hill, toward the road, a new business has opened up in one of the Inn’s outbuildings: a copy center and notary public. Another new business has opened up in Guerneville, run by a Rio Nido resident: a bike rental place and fabric store. Signs of new life spring up amidst the decay. Maybe we don”€™t need any of Obama’s “€œstimulus”€ largess: being here, living in what looks for all intents and purposes like a cathedral, is stimulus enough.



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