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Dispatches From the Russian River: Pee Wherever You Like

Alexis Coe walks to the edge of Bohemian Grove, the exclusive forest hideout of America's corporate and political ruling class.
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Porter Garnett, George Sterling, and Jack London gather at a tent in Bohemian Grove in the early 1900s. (Photo: Public Domain)

Porter Garnett, George Sterling, and Jack London gather at a tent in Bohemian Grove in the early 1900s. (Photo: Public Domain)

"You know you are inside the Bohemian Grove when you come down a trail in the woods and hear piano music from amid a group of tents and then round a bend to see a man with a beer in one hand and his penis in the other, urinating into the bushes. This is the most gloried-in ritual of the encampment, the freedom of powerful men to pee wherever they like....”
     —Phillip Weiss, Spy magazine, 1989

“Is that for us?” I asked the writer, Manjula Martin, as a red truck came barreling down the hill.

It was. We’d been standing outside the gate of Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio for all of three minutes. That’s long enough for an armed security guard to spot us on one of the many surveillance cameras. There was no way we belonged inside.

To begin with, we’re women. There’ve only been four honorary female members of the Bohemian Club, including the poet Ina Coolbrith. But since her death in 1928, the only women let into the secretive right-wing retreat are paid for their services. Equal opportunity employment was eventually forced on the club by the California Supreme Court, but rumor has it that sex workers have always been welcome.

It’s possible that the head of the Carlyle Group and Henry Kissinger chatted as they casually peed on ancient redwoods, as is the apparent tradition.

Since its founding in 1872, membership to the Bohemian Club has been exclusively open to men, the vast majority of whom are white. All of them are powerful. The group’s motto, “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here,” is meant to imply that business and other worldly concerns are checked at the gate. But the phrase, borrowed from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, bears as little resemblance to what actually happens at the Grove as William Shakespeare’s fairy world itself.

“Do you live around here?” the security guard asked.

“No,” Manjula lied. We walked over from her cabin, a 40-minute bike ride from my own. I was grateful for her knee-jerk deception, though I wasn’t sure it was necessary. A couple of CIA directors are members; the intelligence agency has long addressed my FOIA requests to “Mr. Coe,” however. If they can’t be bothered to determine my gender when I’m soliciting sensitive material on government spies, I should probably continue to expend all my nervous energy on imagined wildlife attacks.

While Manjula tried to make small talk with the guard, I peered through the Bohemian Grove gates. The few nearby structures gave away nothing, and there was no movement between them. A wide path led far beyond what I could see, but the tree-line suggested that a substantial number of Douglas firs and redwoods—some more than 1,000 years old—had been cut down. Between 1984 and 2007, more than 1,000,000 board feet of lumber was removed from the site in the name of forest fire prevention, a contention that is swiftly discredited by experts. “This is clearly a logging project, not a project to reduce fire hazard,” says Phillip Rundel, a biologist at the University of California-Berkeley. What’s left stands tall and still, as if the trees are holding their breath.

During the annual July encampment, 2,500 captains of industry descend on the property, but the event’s origins were comparably modest. In 1878, around 100 self-described “bohemians”—journalists and artists—gathered in Marin County to see off the New York-bound actor Henry “Harry” Edwards. The gathering was repeated the following year, and then again and again. As time passed, its scope and demographics changed. “I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in my life,” Oscar Wilde observed a few years later. By then, the likes of satirist Ambrose Bierce had become outnumbered by businessmen. The powerful cadre began buying up the property, which now spans 1,700 acres.

“The Bohemian Grove, which I attend from time to time ... is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine,” said President Richard Nixon, an honorary member. Every Republican president since Coolidge has paid his respects, and with good reason. There are mayors and governors among the attendees, as well as their top advisers. I imagine that Cabinet members, from the chief of staff to secretary of Defense, drink with Rockefellers and Halliburtons. Fortune 500 executives sit lakeside with members of the Bush dynasty, from W. to Jeb. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Alan Geenspan listened to Walter Cronkite's recorded voiceovers for the group’s mascot, a 40-foot owl. It’s possible that the head of the Carlyle Group and Henry Kissinger chatted as they casually peed on ancient redwoods, as is the apparent tradition.

After Manjula and I dutifully turned around, we wandered through a couple of nearby Inns, which are all popular river-side wedding destinations. Their dining rooms were aged, as is much in the area, but far more refined than anything I’ve seen nearby. I imagined they resembled the kinds of places club members had met in long before they ever received an invitation to join, paid the $30,000 initiation fee, and wrote yearly checks for hefty dues. Members had probably gone to boarding school together, or watched each other get humiliated during Skull & Bones’ rituals at Yale. If they weren’t born into these exclusive ranks, they didn’t stumble into them by chance; they married or bought in. On occasion, the club admits a famous musician or writer—Steve Miller and a couple of the Grateful Dead are members—but for the most part, Bohemian Grove is still the summer hideaway for America’s corporate and political ruling class. But for how much longer?

It seems as if there will always be another Bush heir in attendance, but will he be discussing the moral underpinnings of America’s greatness while peeing next to Mark Zuckerberg? This new generation of tech oligarchs is paying all cash for second homes in the same area, and while they’re definitely interested in leadership and self-selection, they aren’t eager to join the ranks of Bohemian Grove. But patronizing different institutions doesn’t put them at odds with dynastic, generational wealth. No matter how fun and enlightened they seem to be by choosing Silicon Valley and San Francisco over New York and D.C., young techies are holding the same cards in their white, male hands. It doesn’t matter that they abstain from desecrating California’s sacred natural wonders for a pee party. The Japanese toilets that play music to relax their sphincters are really just a different soundtrack in a different setting. Techies rule the world from a plundered San Francisco, having made a city that once actually welcomed generations of bohemians into an inhospitable, invitation-only hub for the entitled and the empowered. All that’s missing is a gate.

As I biked home along a man-made carving through an old-growth forest, I thought about the endangered redwood. John Steinbeck once called them “ambassadors from another time.” They defy description. They can’t be accurately painted or photographed either. “The feeling that they produce,” he wrote, “is not transferable.” When I think about leaving the cabin at the end of the month, I worry about what I’ll forget. How will I remember what it’s like to live among them? What if I return to find the landscape dramatically altered?

When I got home, I stood on my porch, staring at the forest. In a topless redwood, I saw a reflection of San Francisco. The very top of the tree had dried out. Over time, embolisms had formed. In a Eucharistic service, an embolism is the prayer following the final petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, but to a forest ecologist, this means air bubbles. Once the air bubbles form, a redwood can’t restore the flow of water. It hemorrhages. The crown suffocates, and then it falls off.

But a stroke can’t kill a redwood. It’s both male and female, producing its own sperm and eggs. In a few centuries, a new crown will form at the top of this redwood, but, in the meantime, the trunk will continue to host living cells. They’re too thin to see, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Underneath the bark, there’s an ever-changing self.

Filed from a creekside cabin outside an unincorporated hamlet, Alexis Coe's Dispatches From the Russian River is a personal and historical exploration of leaving home and pursuing dreams.