River Rat

Submitted into Contest #124 in response to: End your story with someone finding themselves.... view prompt


Creative Nonfiction Contemporary Friendship

What is a River Rat?  Realistically, it is a four legged rodent that lives near waterways and is one of God's ickiest creatures.  Being known as a rat is not very complimentary, but it does carry a connotation for fierceness of a beast that would never back down from a confrontation even in the face of certain death.  After living a life where compliance was expected and predictability was the payoff, I knew it had come time to find myself.  Fear of the unknown had frozen me in place for over ten years, time had come to break free from the chains of fear that held me in place.

And so, I became a River Rat in autumn of 1992, because I had no other choice as strangers as that may sound.  After my second divorce and Desert Storm, my life was at a crossroads and I knew it was time to travel the road less traveled while I had the chance.  So I packed up my Dodge Ram truck, Two cats and my beloved lab name Jordan and traveled west into Sonoma County to Canyon Two in Rio Nick on the Russian River where I would become a full fledged River Rat.

It did not require a lot to become a card carrying River Rat, because it was more about lifestyle than a philosophical approach which was the difference between my journey to that of David Thoreau on Walden and Odysseus whose hero's Journey was fraught with peril. 

There were two main communities who lived along this river which dissects the last remaining redwood forest in the country, the gay and hippie community, neither of which I had any ties or direct attachment to.  My close friend Kenn had talked me into checking out a cabin that was vacant and was reasonable for rent. Despite the fact I could put the front door knob in one hand and the back door knob in the other, the tiny cabin built right up against Canyon Two, was just what I needed at that juncture in my life.

 Sonoma County is north of Marin County and the Bay Area, with Santa Rosa as the big city in the county. The western edge ends at the Pacific Ocean with the last trickle of the Russian River near Jenner By the Sea which hosts one of the largest seal colonies I have ever seen.  Seals are large  and loud legless creatures that do not even pretend to have a recognizable shape.

My first night in my cabin, both cats, Whiskers and Bandit curled up in my warm comforter as Jordan made herself at home leaving me about two square feet to squeeze in my six foot two inch frame Into what remained.  We were as close as close could be, but while cramped, it was our new  home.  

In the morning, I lit the propane stove to cook some eggs and then turned to face the sink.  In the two by one foot basin was a rather large scorpion who took up most of the basin (Author's Note, I have been known to exaggerate in places). He had no intention of vacating the basin without a fight, so I covered the beast with a large glass and turned the hot water on.  The water got very hot and one released from his confinement was instantly scalded to death and went down the drain in a river of hot water.  I had survived my first encounter with savage Nature and won.  There would be more challenges to come, but I was earning my stripes as a River Rat.

Nature was not always cruel or scary.  I got myself an inflated tire tube, put Jordan on her leash and walked about a half mile to the river landing located at the end of a tunnel under River Road (Let me make this clear, once past the city limits of Santa Rosa, there is no such thing as a straight road in the county).  Once at the landing, I put the tube in the water, got myself situated, Jordan, a water dog to the core, waded in whereupon, grabbing her collar, let her take me to the other side of the river where there was a sandy shore.  I was earning more River Rat points.  When the sun starts to set in the steep river canyons, the temperature begins to drop considerably and it's time to go home.  Since the sun does not make an appearance Until three in the afternoon in the sequoias, time becomes a factor.  Since I arrived at the end of October, I only had about two weeks of beach time before the winter, in all its dampness ended any further river excursions.  Our last venture was capped by a single canoe traveling down river as we prepared to go back to the cabin.  From the shore, I waved to the man in the canoe and he raised his paddle with both hands.  I felt at that moment I had become a full fledged member of the River Rat society.

Winter rain starts on November First and does not stop until Easter the next year. There was a Quonset hut up near Heroin Hill that had been flooded by the overflowing river and displayed on the marque was " River Runs Through It.'' Sometimes irony is too obvious to miss.

Jordan and I liked to stand on an old bridge abutment.  On this rainy March day, the river was four feet higher, lapping at the top near where we were standing. Used to wading in from that point, Jordan put her feet casually into the rushing water without realizing the hazard. In one swift motion she went toppling in head first. A moment later she came to the surface, eyes wide in surprise and horror. I was able to reach her collar and pull her safely to shore.  More River Rat points were earned as I could not stop laughing until we got home.    

Two miles from Rio Nido on the serpentine River Road, was Guerneville known to the locals as Hippie Central where incense was always burning and tie-dye was standard wear. In the center of town was an Albertsons that would become my grocery store.  The entire town was no more than storefronts on River Road with the Russian River in the background.  On the River banks was a trailer park that offered a scenic view of the turgid waters.

There were some well known watering holes along the road, The Ziggurat which was a bar for female impersonators with a country and western bar right next door where all patrons wore Wrangler jeans and Stetson cowboy hats and carried chalked pool cues as Country and Western music played loudly on a Wurlitzer jukebox.  Somehow these neighbors were able to peacefully coexist, which served as the perfect metaphor for this place.

Armstrong Woods Road branched off at the west end of River Road in town.  At the end of the road were the redwoods of the same name with a two mile trail which would become Jordan and my favorite running path.  

As much as I would like to paint myself as a hermit, Kenn, who lived just around the corner from me, took me to Costco in Santa Rosa where I purchased my first personal computer.  Costing over a grand, the IBM 386 was even better than his 286 computer, but he told me I could use his jet printer to publish college papers.

Using my Montgomery GI Bill, Chapter 30, I enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College which was right next door to the high school where they filmed Peggy Sue Got Married.  I must admit returning to college was one of the hardest things I would ever attempt, but once I began attending classes, I found that my hibernating brain suddenly came to life. Even if most of the students in my classes I attended were half my age, I felt as though I fit right in.  

I immediately fell in love with anthropology, because the instructor was excited about Jurassic Park and the theory behind the movie.  Finding a book in the library about Lucy written by Donald Johansson, the anthropologist who discovered her skeleton,  I was enthralled.  Surrounded by the largest living things on the planet, I would sit in my cabin and hack out the research paper on Lucy, the famous Australopithecus Afarensis species.  

One of the features about Rio Nido is that most of the residents were gay men living in the area during the height of the AIDS epidemic.  Many had moved into the area after becoming infected with HIV including Randy Shilts, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who wrote The Band Played On which described the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome which would devastate the gay community.  The local papers carried the names of those who had succumbed to HIV and AIDS and the list kept getting longer.  Most people had known someone who had fallen to the disease.  Names of the victims were put on a quilt in remembrance and there was a reading of those names in a special community gathering where one of my classmates heard her father’s name being read when she walked in.  

When summer returned after a long wet winter when the river rose over twelve feet and the trailers on the shore had to be moved up to River Road to keep them from floating away, I got out my inner tube and began to take my books to the opposite shore to study.  Kenn warned me not to go into town during the weekend if I had a Y chromosome since it was Women’s Power Weekend in celebration of gay pride.  As I studied on the shore with Jordan splashing around in the water, a woman and her partner in a canoe came around the river’s bend.  Sitting in the bow, she had no top on.  When catcalls erupted from the other shore on seeing her topless, she raised her paddle in both hands in defiance. Self preservation told me I’d better keep my mouth shut since I was within paddle striking distance. 

Working for the City of Santa Rosa, Kenn introduced me to a woman he worked with.  Her name was DeAnna and we managed to get one date.  Even though we had a nice time, we both knew that romance between us was not in the cards, but friendship was something that would come in time.  Discovering that I was living the life of a hermit, she decided I needed to discover Sonoma County where she had grown up.  As a result, we went on adventures on my day off from work.  We went to Bodega where Alfred Hitchcock had filmed The Birds.  The old church when the birds attacked was still there as if it had come right off the black and white celluloid of the masterpiece.  We went to small places that served great coffee.  

DeAnna lived on Heroin Hill where the twisted road that led to her cabin was a single lane with a severe drop off.  Each time I went to visit, I feared I would end up rolling down the hill, but by some miracle, this never happened. DeAnna, on the other hand, was a lead footed driver and she took the hairpin curves at speeds that defied gravity or centrifugal force.  Once she took me up through Cazadero (where Jerry Garcia graduated from high school) into the coastal mountains near the coast to see a friend.  

Besides the amazing scenery of cliffs with switchback turns, DeAnna pointed out a tree that had several dents in it.  The tree was in the middle of a switchback and she told me that when the guys were on the motorcycles, they would hit the tree with their helmets.  I closed my eyes and swallowed hard.  I do not like heights.  

DeAnna was also the one who told me about what it meant to be a River Rat.  She explained there was no shame in being broke and struggling as long as you got up every morning ready to face the world on your own terms.  She bragged that she had been one for a few years, but had lived in Sonoma all her life.  

She told me about her parents and how her grandmother had come west to start a new life.  The Russian River had once been populated by Russian fur trappers and built Fort Ross along the coast.  This was as far west as you could go.  This was Jenner by the Sea overlooking Goat Rock and the final trickle of the Russian River where a colony of seals lounged in the warm sands and rocks at the water’s edge.  This was where I had come to find myself and while I had many more trials and challenges, I felt I had earned my River Rat status.  I was free to be the person I knew I could be, my hair was long and curly and I felt part of a vital community.  Yes, I could now proudly claim without reservations that I was a River Rat.   

December 13, 2021 01:22

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Amanda Lieser
21:31 Dec 22, 2021

Hi George, I really loved this piece’s intense imagery and descriptions. It was an interesting time period for me because I was born in ‘99 so I don’t know much about the early 90s. This story captured a time that I was almost aware of. I really appreciated how you called back to the concept of River Rat throughout the piece. One thing I might have done if I was you is add in a bit of dialogue to break up the exposition. You did a great job on this piece. Thank you for writing it and I look forward to your comments on mine!


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Bruce Friedman
19:20 Dec 13, 2021

Great sense of place and time, George. Enjoyed reading it.


03:01 Dec 18, 2021

Really glad you enjoyed it


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Unknown User
23:41 Dec 22, 2021

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