My love affair with California started in the 90s when I discovered Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Maupin’s tale about a group of friends who live at the top of some wooden steps at 28 Barbary Lane in 70’s San Francisco opened up a portal to a magical land of possibilities, a gay utopia. Much of the action in his book Significant Others is set on the banks of northern California’s Russian River. In my heart I always knew that I would one day visit this fabled paradise. And twenty years later I did just that.
Did you watch the Season 2 premiere of “Looking” where the guys end up at a bacchanalian party in the woods after running into a Faerie? It was set in Russian River, a longtime LGBT getaway since the 1970s. As a card-carrying fantasy addict, I should have known better. “Looking” was riding on a wave of romantic nostalgia that doesn't really exist today.
I stayed at Dawn Ranch, formerly Fife’s, which was Guerneville’s most popular gay resort from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. Back then there was a bunkhouse in the lower meadow which turned into a club. By all accounts it got pretty frisky down there on the banks of the river. Today, Dawn Ranch is mostly a wedding facility with marriage packages. I didn't feel like a solo traveling homo was the kind of guest they wanted floating about. They didn’t actively make me feel unwelcome but they didn’t actively make me feel welcome either. What is it they say about the sins of omission? Being ignored or airbrushed from history is kind of rude, but I digress.
Guerneville is much less gay than it used to be which is indicative of a wider trend but Russian River has its own specific and charged story. Because San Francisco was hit hard by AIDS, resorts like Guerneville suffered. Then the dotcom crash happened and more recently the 2008 economic downturn. In conjunction with the inevitable floods you get from being perched on the banks of a river, former gay resorts took a major battering.
Certainly any gay business owner in Guerneville with an ounce of acumen, and many are still gay run, target the waves of tech entrepreneurs that emanate from San Francisco. Most resorts now cater to the spa break or wine country enthusiast. San Francisco's demographics are changing rapidly (it's as expensive as Manhattan to live there now) so the getaways in its vicinity are changing accordingly.
Dawn Ranch is a case in point: locals say that when Fife's owner turned his back on the gay customer it ripped the gay soul out of Guerneville. But the truth is that how gay men fraternize has changed. There is no 'gay beach' on The River, as featured in “Looking”. Believe me, I looked, and in fact I went to that very patch of beach where the canoe scene took place. I was the only gayer. That will change at big gay gatherings like Lazy Bear Weekend: this Aug 3-8 marks its 20th anniversary (lazybearweekend.com) which sounds like a lot of fun.
Service is notoriously patchy on The River so this might force people off Grindr and Scruff momentarily, or at least until they find wifi, but apps in general have had a major impact on the mating rituals and travelling patterns of homosexualists. Somehow the idea of us all congregating in one spot and dancing together till dawn seems like quite a retro concept these days. The R3 (Russian River Resort) Bar and Hotel’s pool seems to qualify as the main gay hub but there were no “Promised Land” style discos in the redwoods on the July weekend I visited. That was for TV optics.
Another factor is Airbnb: smaller groups of gay men come up from San Francisco (glued to their phones) to party together in the confines of their rental cabin (and then post on Snapchat to legitimize the experience). The only exclusively gay resorts are R3 and Highlands, which is clothing optional. The chequered history of some of The River’s gay resorts is worth a documentary in itself. At the height of its gay renaissance in the mid 70s, The Woods resort would host 10,000 patrons on a holiday weekend. Then there was a mysterious kitchen fire and it burned to the ground.
Boon Hotel + Spa, which used to be a cruisy gay hotel called Paradise Cove, is one of the best lodging options. Crista Luedtke was among the first gay business owners to plant her flag in Guerneville. The result is a chic, minimalist hotel that marries old and new elements, including reclaimed-redwood furniture, cork floors, and the option of summer glamping in tents. Dogs are welcome.
Dawn Ranch has totally removed same sex couples from its website/marketing material and does not participate in Lazy Bear. They've followed the money: (straight) weddings and wine tourists. It makes me smile to think that bridezillas staying here will be sleeping above what was once a dark room. If walls (or trees) could talk. It's just so weird (and a little sad) to think that hundreds of gay men used to congregate around this pool and trot off to the bunkhouse for sex and now it’s for sanitized hen parties. This used to be the flagship gay resort but apparently it was flooded badly in ’95 and the owners didn’t have insurance, or something. The orgiastic legacy of Guerneville is long-gone and the air has rather gone out of the “Gay Riviera” moniker. But for a slice of LGBTQ history, Russian River is the real deal. And the giant redwoods, as indifferent today to what goes on underneath their branches as they were thousands of years ago, are a reminder of how tiny humans are compared to the majesty of nature.
Where to eat:
Boon owner Luedtke’s ventures also extend to the dining realm with Boon Eat + Drink, where seasonal menus take full advantage of the region’s abundance of great produce. A few doors down Main Street, her café and gourmet grocery Big Bottom Market is a hit for its biscuits and brunch/lunch fare. And we love anything with the name bottom in it, although, it turns out Guerneville was first settled in 1860 on an alluvial flat known as Big Bottom.
By day, David Blomster runs Pat’s Restaurant & Bar, Guerneville’s combo diner and old-school bar. Come 5 p.m., however, Pat’s Restaurant switches from club sandwiches and patty melts to soba noodles and kimchi, as the restaurant reimagines itself as Dick Blomster’s, a Korean-inspired dinner spot. Blomster's nightly alter ego has earned him a steady fan base for everything from Korean Fried Crack (authentic and addictive spicy fried chicken), kimchi pierogis, and other comfort foods with Korean flair.