Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea.
— Nelson Algren, Walk on the Wild Side (1956)
There are places, especially those visited as a child, long vanished and recollected only through vague referents, that haunt you until you rediscover them. I remember having lunch in a Swiss restaurant with my aunt and uncle when I was four, in a modern glass building that I associate with the Phil Collins song playing there. The song remains, even if the rest has disappeared.
I had the same experience with Guerneville, a small town on the Russian River that I first visited by bike at 16 and remember only foggily: a spooky pizza parlor, the neon pink elephant sign in Monte Rio, the smell of the woods—fragments like those left from a fire.
Each time I revisit, something has changed. As the town has revived, been rediscovered, my initial memory has further dimmed. There is nothing new to learn about the memory in going back—you’re no longer the same person, and that place no longer exists. Besides, these seem like the kind of towns that know how to keep a secret.
Maybe that’s just how forests feel—old growth redwoods, families from before time, survive on secrecy. The Bohemian Club, that curiously eclectic group of powerful men, gathers yearly in a grove somewhere in Monte Rio. It’s strange to think that such an inconsequential place might have left footprints on minds that ruled the world. Monte Rio’s only other claim to fame, in the opening bars of a Tom Waits’ song, is more dubious:
They hung a sign up in our town / “If you live it up, you won’t live it down” / So she left Monte Rio, son / Just like a bullet leaves a gun.