The True Heart of California’s Bay Area Is in the Russian River Valley

The gods of climate change made some of their first displays of power in this slice of rural California, where there’s much to love and much to protect.

The True Heart of California’s Bay Area Is in the Russian River Valley

From left: Carr’s Drive In, an iconic diner in Forestville; the glorious Russian River.

Photos by Jake Stangel

The Bay Area is still lovable in its fleece-wearing Tesla millionaire kind of way, but—local secret here—the region’s faded old river towns have long been the heart of our most quintessential Northern California-ness. The addled trappings of modern life fall away at the first quake of the aspens. What remains is a refreshingly purer iteration of the human spirit, miles from the venture-funded sleekness of San Francisco. Here, at a lazy bend in the shimmering Russian River, a wiry man in a milk jug raft drifts past singing Puccini. Explore farther and you’ll discover a five-and-dime on Main Street in Guerneville. Join a barbecue at the Monte Rio firehouse. Feel the gentle purling of the river under your butt as your inner tube floats vaguely west, not a care in the world except not spilling that beer someone tossed you. The Lower Russian River Valley has long inhabited a slower, more analog era that’s left room for funky charms to take root. The passage of time seemed to just sort of overlook this region—at least until now.

Over the last couple years, a dramatic transformation has ripped through these once-serene parts, forced not by the Silicon Valley climate but by the actual climate. Historic flooding in 2019 gave way to historic wildfires in 2020. California’s drought has only grown more droughty, sapping snowmelt and parching watersheds. For the first time, the Russian River feels not like an embrace of the past, but like a preview of the future.

No need to dwell on the direness; we know the deal. Instead I’ve come to share a different take: There’s never been a better time to visit this corner of the planet. Certainly the wonderful stuff is as wonderful as ever—a float down the river, a trek to the misty coast near the town of Jenner, a stroll through the redwoods. But look closer and you’ll see something new—neighbors helping each other clear underbrush, establish phone trees, step up river maintenance. At a bar not long ago, I heard two burly local dudes parsing the nuances of fuel moisture content.

The future will soon test us all. But maybe it’ll reacquaint us, too, with what we love about the world, so we can go about saving it.

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Chris Colin is a contributing writer for AFAR, the author of What Really Happened to the Class of ’93 and Blindsight, and bassist for Baby and the Luvies. He was once in a film shot by chimps and teaches writing at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
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