Welcome to Monte Rio – Vacation Wonderland

The Quonset hut at the bend in the river just before the bridge was enough to convince me that I could spend the year in this erstwhile vacation resort in the shadow of the redwood forest. Set just below the great arc of the sign evoking Monte Rio’s past glories, the corrugated half-domed structure of the Rio Theatre loomed low and unpromising at the entrance to the town. In Europe we’d call this town a village, but villages here were only to be found in theme parks and shopping malls. Monte Rio boasted a post office, general store, bar, co-op and the Rio Theatre. Programme changes at the Theatre were frequent and unpredictable, with a repertoire of what city dwellers would proudly have categorised as arthouse cinema, but for the hippies of the Russian River the offerings were simply cool films. Fellini, Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Kubrick were common fare, showings of Woodstock a regular feature. It often happened that films were shown with the reels in the wrong order, an inevitable consequence of the projectionist’s enjoyment of the local weed, but linear chronology was hardly in vogue at the time and the audience didn’t always notice until it was too late to complain.

I went back to Monte Rio recently, on a nostalgic journey to Northern California. Now the hills and valleys of Sonoma County are clothed in vineyards, sleek-coated cattle fatten themselves in lush pastures, and well-dressed San Franciscans disport themselves, dreaming of the day when their name will join the ever-burgeoning roster of family-owned wineries. But back then, wine mania had not yet struck. The logging industry had moved further north, the boom years when vacationers arrived in droves were long gone, and the damp summer cabins hidden among the towering redwoods had new occupants. In the deep shade of those dense woodlands, gay couples fleeing the frenetic hedonism of San Francisco found a new haven alongside a growing colony of loners, artists and gentle hippies, benign spaced-out souls too sensitive for the rigours of the Haight. Further into the forest where sunlight hardly ever penetrated, religious cults and hard-core property-spurning communes flourished, but here on the river, you could still keep one foot in the busy world beyond the valley.

We found the ad for our cabin on the housing notice-board of the local State University. Our unruly dog was delighted with the arrangements and we took up residence as the summer waned and the dry earth prepared itself for the winter torrents. The river ran along the bottom of our road, the post office (where we collected our mail) was only a hundred yards away with the co-op, general store and Rio Theatre not far beyond. Opening hours at the co-op were as vague as the progamme at the the cinema, but so long as there was someone to sit at the till by the door, you could go in and fill your bags with whole grains and wheat germ, mung beans and lecithin. All the wares were displayed in open sacks and shelves. You helped yourself, scooping the organic wonder foods into your brown bag, weighing and pricing the bounty in an orgy of trust and idealism. Our neighbour in the cabin at the back of our alley of trees was an Irish Jewish lawyer from New York who’d sought refuge in Monte Rio with his dog, a cheerful beagle-style mutt by the name of Moonbeam. Signing himself up on arrival to advise and manage the co-op, he would spend his days urging the array of co-op board volunteers to tighten up the accounting procedures and accept that not all customers were immune to the urge to fudge the prices in their own favour. But to no avail. There were no good vibes in his message and the co-op continued its inevitable decline.

On the way to the cinema we would walk past the Pink Elephant, the bar that proudly announced on several occasions that it was “broadcasting to Mars tonight”. The old pink pachyderm still flaps forlornly in the breeze above the now boarded-up building, the bar having finally succumbed to the murky reputation it was building for itself even then. Bikers and peace-loving hippies made an odd marriage and Altamont cast a long shadow that reached into the bar and sent the hippies scurrying back to their teepees. I never saw any of the biker gangs that favoured the Pink Elephant in the years after we left, but I would sometimes hear the roar of motorbikes in the dead of night, setting all the dogs of Monte Rio yelping and howling in a chorus that lasted long after the bikes had disappeared deep into the forest.

Our cabin was mercifully cool in the summer, when the scorched hills turned yellow and the heat throbbed through the valleys. But once the sun slipped lower in the sky and retreated further up beyond the redwoods, a damp chill crept up from the forest floor and rotted anything kept in the cloakroom between the living room and the bathroom. The heat from the oil-burning furnace didn’t reach beyond the living room, and the mould was left to flourish, eating through our boots and shoes and coating the walls of the bathroom. I baked loaf after loaf of whole-grain bread, hoping the warmth from the kitchen would somehow seep into the far corners of our tiny cabin, but it was hopeless. More rain fell, the river rose, and the damp clung on, retreating only for a week or two when the sun was at its highest in the summer.

The cabins have been modernised, a terrace added to create a sun porch where we used to lay a blanket in the dirt. The mould has had its day, along with the co-op and the Pink Elephant. But the Rio Theatre still stands, the old Quonset hut still home to an eclectic mix of films. And even if the projectionist is among the many Californians enjoying the current vogue for medical marijuana, the audience need have no fear. With no more film reels to show in the wrong order it’s not so easy to subvert linear chronology.


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