The Russian River Weekend, or Guerneville Overnighter used to take place every summer, usually mid-July to mid-August depending on the availability of camp sites and rooms. The last time we held a Russian River Weekend was in 2010. For the counting impaired that’s ten years ago. Ten. Years. However that’s not because we haven’t tried. In 2012 as part of the 30th Anniversary Ride series I tried to put together a Guerneville weekend but ran into the problem that has been a headache ever since: we no longer have a suitable venue to host the weekend. Finding the right lodging is like that conundrum about bikes—’cheap, light, or strong: pick any two’—except for Guerneville lodging it’s ‘cheap, cozy, or convenient: pick any two’. But more on that later.
The Russian River Weekend goes back to the very first year of the club’s existence, 1983. It wasn’t the first Different Spokes trip—that honor goes to the ‘Thanksgiving On The Road’ (later called the Pigeon Point Overnighter), which was, astonishingly, the very first official club ride. (No, Tib loop was not the first club ride!) There actually were other rides before the inaugural ride but they were when the club was nascent; Thankgiving On The Road was the first one announced to the public. The RRW was ‘only’ the third overnight trip we offered. You may not know that the club offered many overnight trips through the early years with the majority of them requiring camping. Keep in mind that the club was formed by recreational cyclists with a touring bent although that interest in touring was soon to diminish as the club grew and the prospect of sleeping on anything other than 600-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets evoked shrieks of dismay by the newer members. All of those trips have long faded away and only two survived into the 21st century, the Lake Tahoe Spectacular (also now moribund) and the RRW.
The Russian River Weekend came from the fertile mind of Michael John, who long ago moved to the East Coast where he still resides. Although not a founder, Michael John was an early mover in the club, serving as the ChainLetter newsletter editor, all-around cheerleader, and later President. MJ also led several big tours for the club including one in the San Juan Islands, New England, and from Seattle to SF. His first RRW set the template for subsequent iterations: ride up to Guerneville on Friday, do rides in the Russian River basin (or not!) on Saturday, and then return to San Francisco on Sunday. The first trip was the full monty: ride up, ride more, and ride back.
Shortly thereafter some bright mind–probably MJ–realized that riding back Sunday could be cut comfortably shorter by riding just to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal and catching the boat back to SF. But the shorter ride had a cost: you had to keep a steady (read: fast) pace and not dally in order to catch that mid-afternoon ferry to SF. No shopping adventures! If you missed that ferry, you had to wait a couple more hours for the next one, in which case you might as well just pedal back to SF.
Although copious bike riding was perhaps the centerpiece of the weekend, it needn’t be. Most participants couldn’t do the Friday ride so they came up after work or early on Saturday. And if cycling wasn’t your boy/girlfriend’s thing or you needed Saturday to recover, there were plenty of other things to keep you occupied including wine tasting or lounging in the river on an inner tube or by the pool at Fife’s to, uh, take in the sights. If you drove up, you could skip riding on Sunday altogether for more lounging or join the return riders partway before heading back to Guerneville to pack up and drive back. There were also several bars and dance/music venues where you could do exactly what you did in SF: hang out and try to pick someone up.
The Guerneville Overnighter was not just an indulgence in cycling excess; it was by design a subversive social event as well. Instead of having riders decamp to whatever lodging they might have scrounged up on their own, MJ had booked a group of campsites at Fife’s not just to keep the weekend cheap but to keep the group together. Fife’s as well as the very idea of gay men and women camping was perhaps a vestige—nay signature!—of the era, sort of back-to-the-land, granola hippie lifestyle crossed with Dynasty. However if sleeping in a tent just was too louche, you could rent a cabana at Fife’s for the weekend instead. The price for the weekend if you camped? About $20!
Fife’s has long given up the ghost having been replaced by the Dawn Ranch Lodge. It was/is right at the west entrance of downtown Guerneville and had a mix of inexpensive (read: down market) cabanas and camp sites along with a restaurant, swimming pool and outside bar with plenty of seating where one could take in the fabulous sights.
Oh, and its dance hall, Drums, was just across the street where you could boogie down to the latest disco.
Fife’s had a large camping area towards the river, which was good for a couple of reasons. It was far enough away from the road, Drums, and Fife’s own noisy bar that the racket didn’t keep us awake all night. However the noise in some of the adjacent tents might (did!) as well as the inebriated partyers wandering back to their tents in the dark after last call. It also afforded the club some privacy and allowed us to take over a big area for our own ‘Camp DSSF’.
About the ride up. The route up on Friday has changed over the years. Initially it was taking Highway 1 to Valley Ford and then cutting up the Bohemian Highway to River Road and thence to Guerneville. That route was about 88 miles. Sometime in the ‘90s or so, maybe even later—I’m not sure of the year—the coast route was deemed too grueling and some riders shifted to riding inland through Fairfax and Nicasio in order to skip the two big-ass hills out of Sausalito and Muir Beach.
Either way there was usually a headwind at some point so character building was a feature of the ride. Incidentally the Friday route for the Guerneville Overnighter was used as the basis of the first AIDS Bike-A-Thon route in 1985. Both MJ and Bob Humason, the two DSSF prime movers of that first BAT, designed the route (well, it was mostly MJ–he even drew the map) and made it a hundred miles by staying on Highway 1 to River Road instead of cutting up the Bohemian Highway to Monte Rio. (In all later BATs the routes were loops out of the Castro rather than a point-to-point to Guerneville.)
That ride up wasn’t a classic tour however: the fortuitous arrangement of a sag wagon to haul camping gear, all manner of cosmetics, multiple changes of clothing, and food set the bar low enough that non-tourers could prance their way up to Guerneville sans panniers and enjoy slogging up the hills without 30 extra pounds of crap on their bikes. From that point on a sag wagon for Guerneville wasn’t just a luxury, it was a necessity!
Strangely, after the first Guerneville Overnighter in July 1983 it took only a month for the second Guerneville to take place courtesy of Peter Renteria, who was one of the founders of the club. This time however was ‘Guerneville lite’ as there was no ride up or back. His GO was definitely a different animal as eleven participants carpooled up on Friday and did short rides on Saturday and Sunday (if they rode at all). This time they stayed at the Highlands Resort. But this GO was the exception as it wasn’t a tour at all but more in line with what we now know as a ‘getaway weekend’.
Saturday rides were optional and for those who rode up having the day off and lounging by the river was a welcome break. Two popular rides were the wineries route up Westside to Healdsburg and back on Eastside and a jaunt to Cazadero and/or Duncan Mills and back. Those looking for a bigger ride would continue west of Cazadero out Fort Ross Road and Meyers Grade with a return along River Road. The Sunday ride was the return to SF (or the Larkspur Ferry Terminal).
In later years most if not all riders didn’t ride back at all, and the Sunday ride became a short roll out to Occidental to get brunch at Howard’s Station and then return to Guerneville to drive home.
The highlight of those early GOs was the Saturday night dinner. When we camped at Fife’s, coming up with a group dinner took a bit of ingenuity. The ‘kitchen’ consisted of picnic tables, a grotty barbecue grill, perhaps a propane stove, and ice chests. Oh, and a big portion of the meal consisted of hastily purchased deli items from the Safeway down the street. (Hmm, does that sound familiar?) Early Guernevilles were, to my recollection, somewhat haphazard in meal preparation but folks always seemed eager to pitch in. As was expected it was hardly ‘haute’ (unless you consider ‘haute’ dogs to be debonair food) but at least it was filling, ‘home’ prepared, and not bad given the primitive circumstances, being just one step above true camp cooking. It’s hard to ruin hamburgers and hot dogs. I don’t recall exactly what MJ made for dessert, a literal pièce de resistance, but it was always the highlight: an easy-to-whip-up cake made of Twinkies©, Cool Whip©, and some other gastronomic atrocities. A sort of campy white trash (or stoner) tiramisu. [9/10 update: Ah, MJ’s dessert was the “Cosmo Girl Dream Cake”: 1 box Hostess Twinkies, 1 large package Cool Whip, and maraschino cherries. “Place five Twinkies (holes down) side by side in a row on a small serving plate. Top with layer of Cool Whip, then another layer of five Twinkies. Cover entire cake with one-inch layer of Cool Whip. Chill for three hours. Before serving, arrange several maraschino cherries on top.”]
After dinner folks trotted off to the bars such as the Rainbow Cattle Company or the Woods or Drums to dance and party on. However diehard Spokers hung around the campsite to chat, gossip, and play…Bingo.
As time went on we eventually moved over the Willows and the meals got considerably upscaled since we now had a full kitchen at our disposal to prepare the dinner. It became possible to prepare pasta dishes (do you know how long it takes to get a big pot of water to boil on a propane stove??) as well as keep things chilled (like ice cream). I don’t recall the exact motivation for moving to the Willows. But it was probably a combination of Fife’s rates going up, the difficulty in getting reservations there, and the noise and commotion in contrast to the relative peace and quiet at the Willows.
The Willows was at the opposite end of town. The atmosphere there was completely different than Fife’s, which was party central. The Willows had a beautiful lawn that sloped down to the Russian River with plentiful camp sites. Like Fife’s if you didn’t want to camp you could get a room but instead of cabanas it had individual rooms in the main building.
There wasn’t a swimming pool but in lieu you had the hot tub on the back deck and easy access to the river. It was a lot more pleasant place to spend a weekend. In later years even though we were still going to the Willows the hassle of preparing a dinner for larger and larger groups led to hiring a caterer to prepare the Saturday dinner especially since the number of Spokers increased; I believe one year it was 50 people. The loss of the camaraderie in preparing a meal together was replaced with the meal being a restful happy hour for all rather than a source of consternation and anxiety for some (and usually delay for everyone).
During the late Oughts the Willows shut down and underwent an ownership change. Fife’s was out of the picture having morphed into the Dawn Ranch Lodge also after a period of having been shut down. Russian River Weekends took place but with people having to scrounge up lodging on their own and the Saturday dinner became a restaurant meal. The new owners of the Willows welcomed us back but eventually they too succumbed to the stress of running an inn and the Willows became less amenable to having us there.
Which led to a quandary: was there still an economical lodge on the River that would welcome a cycling club and allow us to host the Russian River Weekend in the traditional way?