In the summer of 1982 I had just finished fifth grade, and Ma moved us back to the Russian River to live on a nude beach for the school break. Not go to one, but live on one.
Three years of living in Guerneville ended just as I started my fourth grade year. We had always been frequent visitors to nude beaches those years, and had favorites all up and down the Russian River. Oddfellows Road, across from Korbel Winery, had a nice little beach when wanting some quiet time alone. A very popular one with a mud hole where people would besmear themselves with clay to dry in the sun was Wohler Beach. It was closer to Santa Rosa and reportedly on property owned by Hugh Hefner, though that had nothing to do with the nudity there. The best one, though, was Sunset Beach.
During the Guerneville years Ma was always at-the-ready for a nude beach. A loose red flowing skirt and halter top were all she wore. Much to her chagrin, for a time I had a habit of “pantsing” her in public, thanks to the elastic waistband. Grocery stores, sidewalks, doctors’ offices – all was fair in my game, and it irritated her to no end. If businesses didn’t require shoes, she would never have worn any. That’s fairly common in summertime among the River Rats (local nickname for the Guerneville beach-going populace) though. A friend who was a leathersmith made her a special pair of shoes that she called her “Feet”, and they were so minimal that she still got stopped in stores for presumption of being barefooted. They were just a piece of sole leather cut to the shape of her feet, with a thin leather strap to tie them on. They were the only shoes she wore for those years.
Sunset Beach is a few miles upstream from Guerneville just before the Hacienda Bridge. It’s currently a big touristy beach, with its own road and parking lot with lots of signage, but at the time it was a discreet little nude beach with a regular following. I imagine the current setup was how the de-nuding of the beach was handled, because it was a contentious issue in the day – but more on that later. It’s called Sunset because a tiny little street named Sunset Boulevard turns off of River Road just before the bridge. Back then you had to park on the shoulder of River Road and walk down a long path from Sunset. The path was wide and smooth, and wound through the woods until it came out at the top of a steep and sandy bank over the river. The nudists would hang out just downstream on the wide, flat, gravelly portion of the beach.
The whole time we lived in Guerneville, this was the favorite spot. There was a crowd of regulars who all knew each other by name, and Ma was among them. She would go out pretty much every day while I was in school, and we’d both go out on weekends. Oddly, despite being a hippie kid, I was shy about nudity myself and usually wore shorts. There were other regular kids and we’d go off and entertain ourselves with swimming, exploring, catching tadpoles. A terrific rope swing hung from the Hacienda Bridge, and we would sometimes go the extra distance to swing away the day.
One of the summer regulars had a movie camera and would film events on the beach every year. He would host an end-of-summer barbecue party at his house deep in the woods of Rio Nido, and all the regulars would come to watch the movies, reminisce about the funniest events of that summer, and vote on darkest tan of the year. It was a hoot. Aside from swimming and sunbathing, the most popular activity on the beach was volleyball. Some of the regulars had cleared space for a court up on the sandy bank , removing all the grass and rocks, and building berms around it to serve as arena-style seating and volleyball containment. Quite the endeavor, really. Back then people wore coconut oil to tan better. Others wore Coppertone SPF 2 if they were “afraid of getting a little Vitamin D”, as the hardcore tanners would say. Visions of leathery, overly-tanned naked people playing volleyball, their jiggly parts flailing and bouncing in all directions, will forever be burned into my memory.
Moving out of Guerneville was a tough decision for Ma, because it’s always been the place she felt was home. She was working towards her BA at Sonoma State University, and wanted to be closer to school. The commute was wearing on her. We moved that year to Penngrove, and went back to Guerneville every chance we could that first summer. When summer break came the following year she wanted more than just weekends on the river, so we packed up just the bare necessities and went to live on Sunset Beach, returning only twice to pay rent and take care of bills.
What an adventurous summer that was! At the top of the sandy embankment, just as you came off the path, was a little clearing in the woods in what is now the parking lot. It was just large enough to lay out a tarp as a foundation for our sleeping bags. I thought sleeping on a “tarp” was funny, because I had a friend by that name back in Penngrove. The clearing was to become our home for nearly three months, and we slept in the open air. We had a little cooler, and a hibachi to cook food with firewood collected from the woods around us. We were only a couple of miles from town, so it was easy enough to stay supplied throughout the summer. Just up on River Road from the beach was a restaurant where we went for breakfast every day at 10:30 so I could watch Wheel of Fortune. (It was a morning program in the early days.) Wheel was my favorite show, since we liked to play hangman almost obsessively.
We actually weren’t the only people living on the beach that summer. A gang of bikers called the Nomads had taken up camp in another clearing, and were a large and rowdy bunch of upwards of 20 people at times. They looked after Ma and me, and made sure no one harassed us or messed with our camp. They drank lots of beer, and there was always grunting and groaning coming from within their tents at all hours that all summer.
That Fourth of July I was the ring-bearer in a biker wedding on the beach. Mouse was the bride, the groom was Rebel, and presiding over the ceremony was the gang’s leader, Frenchy. Of course, it was a nude wedding, except for most of the bikers wearing their leather vests. What a sight. The ceremony ended with everybody running screaming down the sandy embankment and jumping in the river. Then the newlyweds went to a tent to make grunts and squeals for the rest of the day. You could still hear them that night, even over the fireworks people had bought to shoot off over the river.
Other kids were usually around on the weekends, and sometimes we would amuse ourselves by trying to peep in the biker tents. During the week I most often had to entertain myself, though. Ma got me a set of colorful markers and a sketch book, but I quickly tired of drawing in the book. Encouraged by compliments of my little rudimentary drawings, I turned instead to offering “temporary tattoos” to people. I stationed myself at the foot of the path and made a colorful sign with samples of my drawings. I offered my work for $1 a piece. No takers. Then I tried 25 cents. Eventually, I just walked around among the sunbathers and offered them for free. My first taker wanted a big iris on her leg. The coconut oil slathered on her skin ruined the green, purple, and blue pens and, well, that was the end of Temporary Tattoos by Zann. The bulk of my alone-time was spent reading or reflecting. I got through The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy that summer.
Having a bit of an identity crisis the following school year as I came into my teen years, I decided I wanted to change my name. “Zann” wasn’t working for me. Too androgynous, and I was always having to spell it and explain it to people. Ma said I could change my name if I wanted once I turned 18, but she wasn’t going to pay for the paperwork or sign anything allowing it before then. That was a good thing, in hindsight, because I had settled on a one-word name, like my idol Cher. I practiced signing it over and over in my sketchbook. Gandalf.
One of my favorite activities that summer was going out with Ma’s musical friend, Marc. He never came out to sunbathe, but he and Ma were good friends and he came to visit us at the beach as if it were our normal home. He took me to the movies that summer to see Tron, and I played this brand new video game called Pac-Man that was just starting to get popular. He also took both of us out to dinner and music a few times at the Blue Heron Inn in Duncan’s Mills, which is a tiny coastal town that had no businesses except for that inn. It had walls made of driftwood and big burl tables mounted on stumps of trees that came up through the floor. I loved to drink my Shirley Temple and crawl around under the tables, fantasizing I was somewhere in Tolkien’s hobbit land. It was a hotbed for entertainment in that part of the county, and Marc would often perform there. A highlight for me was a friend of his who could play two piccolos with his nostrils. Another regular performance was a roving troupe of belly dancers, for whom Marc played guitar. Once he asked me to play tambourine for their performance. I did, but I was shy and hid behind the piano to play without being seen, timidly peeking out to make sure my tambourine playing was being appreciated but that nobody was looking at me.
The dynamics of the river at the beach were fabulous. The river is wide, deep, and slow along much of the beach, and is the perfect swimming-hole. Then, just at the downstream edge where most of the sunbathers were out on the gravel, the river narrows and turns into a shallow rapids. Right at the transition is (was?) this fantastic tree that grew out of a small island near the opposite bank, with it’s trunk arching over the water and dipping into the center of the rapids. Someone had hung a rope from the tree, and you could swim downstream to it and grab hold. The current was strong enough that you would almost be horizontal on the water’s surface. I would spend hours just dangling there, suspended in my little tree arch, separate from the rest of the world with the sound of the water rushing past my ears and the sunlight dappled on my face through the tree.
The Russian River is extremely popular for canoeing. It’s generally a slow-moving river, easily navigable even for novices. The sudden descent on a nude beach was awe-inspiring for many a tourist, and they would inevitably pull out their cameras and get distracted from the river ahead. The rapids at the beach are one of the most challenging stretches of the whole river, and the ogling tourists were almost always caught unaware. As much as we were a tourist attraction for them, they provided endless entertainment for us. As they pulled out their cameras and pointed and laughed and stared in amazement, they would stop paddling. Their canoes would start to drift perpendicular to the flow as they neared the rapids. That’s usually about the time one of them would spot the rapids and start yelling. Panic would set in, but it was too late to do anything about it. The sunbathers would sit up and get ready for the show, if they hadn’t already been up and betting on who was going to go down. Some even pulled out cameras to take pictures of the tourists as they lost control.
The tree with the dangling rope touched the surface of the water at a perfect angle. The sideways canoes would hit this tree dead center, and the strong current would slowly roll the boat under. It was a delight to see their faces as they realized it was all over. Water would start to fill the boat on the upstream side and it would capsize, sending the boaters and their belongings into the water. We’d point and laugh and take pictures as they all scrambled along the rapids in their fluorescent orange life vests, canoe tagging along behind, and disappear around the bend. At the end of the summer, when the water was lowest, we could hold the tree and feel around the bottom of the river for the summer’s treasures. We’d find sunglasses, coins, wallets, cameras… Anything heavy enough to have sunk to the bottom and gotten stuck on a rock. The rewards for being a tourist attraction.
That summer of living on the river Ma was on the rocks from sunup til sundown, and earned the title of the Tan of the Year. This despite the changing climate about the nude beach. Someone bought a house up the hill across the river and decided they didn’t like the naked scenery below them. They called the police frequently to have the beach cleared. They disliked the view of naked people so much that they even had all the trees cut down that were blocking their view of the beach, so that they “could tell if people were naked on the beach.” Nudity was technically illegal, after all, but no harm was being done and the police had a live-and-let-live approach to it. The police would be called and would come slowly waddling down to the beach and give everyone a bullhorn warning that nudity was a misdemeanor and they would have to cite anyone who wasn’t dressed in five minutes. Four minutes later everyone would pull on a swimsuit. The police would leave. The swimsuits would come off. Rinse and repeat. A tiresome effort on everybody’s part, but the scenes going on behind the officers’ backs in the end-of-summer movies that year were quite amusing.
Ma and I didn’t go home alone that summer. We waited until the Saturday before school started to head home, but Frenchy and his gang had packed up and left a week or two earlier. One of their crew had “collected” a puppy from the Safeway parking lot in Guerneville earlier that summer, supposedly being given away. When they left on their motorcycles, they deserted the puppy at the beach. By the time we were ready to head home, he was scavenging for dead frogs and eating pebbles to feel full. They had named him Zephyr, and we already had a thing for “Z” names, so we brought him home with us. He was a great dog, with us for several years…
It was a pivotal summer for me, spawning my own interest and comprehension of the natural world. I spent a lot of time looking at the nature around me, and that was the first time I was acutely aware of the great variety of green in the world. Crayola didn’t even come close to covering the options, I distinctly remember thinking. I became conscious of water flow and erosion, of forest and riparian habitats, of temperatures and sun patterns. It shaped a lot of what interests me to this day.
As summer came to a close we felt a sadness at its ending. I think we both knew we wouldn’t be back again. It was changing, we were changing. I finished off one last year of school back in Penngrove before we moved up to Mendocino County, the nude beach days behind us. We sure finished them off with a bang, though. A new chapter in our lives was emerging.