The summer retreat that Herbert Hoover called "the greatest men's party on Earth" is under way in Monte Rio, and the guest list is as eclectic as ever.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the CEO of Bechtel Corp., former Grateful Dead bandmates and vintner Robert Mondavi are all scheduled to attend the Midsummer Encampment of the Bohemian Club of San Francisco.
So, too, is conservative author William F. Buckley Jr., liberal TV personality Chris Matthews and gay porn star Chad Savage.
'Roughing it' Boho-style
While cabins range from rustic to posh, amenities all first-class at Grove
It begins with the Cremation of Care, a ceremonial bonfire beneath a giant statue of an owl that is meant to symbolize the release of burden.
The robed men gathered at the edge of the lake include world leaders, captains of industry and celebrities, as well as lesser-known businessmen, academics and even a musician or two.
They are drawn every July to a pristine forest of redwoods along the Russian River, where access is strictly limited to invited members and guests.
Bizarre ritual and secrecy aside, the real attraction of the Midsummer Encampment at Bohemian Grove is escape from worldly concerns.
At least, that's how one observer views this year's gathering. His account, given on condition of anonymity, provides a rare inside look at the Grove, which has been alternately described as a sinister meeting of the rich and powerful and a silly camp for grown men.
The Bohemian Club was founded in 1872 by five San Francisco newspapermen, a Shakespearean actor, a winemaker and two successful merchants, with the goal of connecting "gentlemen" to the finer pursuits of literature, art, music and drama.
Bohemians, who have been holding annual gatherings at the Russian River since 1882, insist the club's focus is still artistic. But many people associate it with more capitalistic pursuits.
The source who spoke to The Press Democrat, a multiyear seasonal employee, said some of the camps have fire rings or a fireplace, a patio for lounging and listening to music, a bar, a kitchen, sitting rooms, bathrooms and sleeping quarters. Many are decorated with photos of past and present camp leaders, and a few have pinups.
Others are as rustic as any to be found in a state park. In the older, simpler camps, men sleep under canvas tents on wooden platforms.
The more modern camps are well-furnished homes, where the term "roughing it" does not apply. These are reserved for ex-presidents, Cabinet members and celebrities.
At night, dots of light illuminate all the camps that line the roads and the steep hillsides. Men sit inside, drinking alcohol, talking, smoking cigars and listening to music. Most camps have at least a piano.
There are field trips to Fort Ross, fly-casting demonstrations, hikes and daily skeet shooting. The Museum Talks are typically at 12:30 p.m. The Lakeside Talks, which are held around the artificial lake where the Cremation of Care occurs, are usually at 4:30.
Campgoers also participate in extravagant plays called Low Jinks and High Jinks. At the Grove Theater, the only building is an air-conditioned structure that houses the club's giant pipe organ.
But the most popular pastime seems to be kicking back and socializing with the same group of men who come year after year, the observer said.
Many of the camps post come-all invitations for cocktails or meals. Others join the crowd at a picturesque dining area ringed by redwoods. A small army of waiters and waitresses, mostly young people, take fastidious care of diners seated at long, hefty picnic tables with gas-fed candelabra.
Open-air trucks with benches in the back provide transportation around the Grove 24 hours a day. And because the encampment is really an enclosed city, it includes a library, a camp store, a museum, a barber shop, an emergency health clinic and a fire station.
For 17 days, this is the home of the Bohos.
Actually, Savage is working the event as a valet, according to the New York Post, which quoted another, unidentified employee despite confidentiality agreements that employees sign when they are hired.
The point is, Bohemians and the cast of hundreds who help put on this summer camp for grown men really are an "unconventional" lot, as the word is technically defined by Webster's.
The 125th gathering of "Bohos" is no exception, according to an official guest list distributed to club members. More than 2,500 men are scheduled to go to the club's 2,800-acre redwood grove just east of Monte Rio. This is the busiest weekend of the 17-day event, which means everybody who's anybody should be there.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a perennial camper, arrived Thursday by private plane at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. Fifty to 100 private jets have landed at the airport daily in the past two weeks, about average for this time of year, said Walt Smith, regional coordinator for the Federal Aviation Administration.
But as of Friday, the Secret Service hadn't alerted airport officials to any special arrivals, despite the fact that Powell is on the guest list and scheduled to stay in Mandalay, the same camp as Kissinger and Riley Bechtel, the CEO of the engineering firm whose projects include the reconstruction of Iraq.
Mandalay is one of 119 separate camps that dot the floor and walls of the steep canyon and is so far up the fern-covered bank that it has an incline railway to haul firewood and supplies.
Mandalay is the traditional seat of power in Bohemian Grove. Its guest list this year includes George Schultz, a former secretary of state; David O'Reilly, chairman of ChevronTexaco; H.B. Atwater Jr., chief executive officer of General Mills; and Edgar Kaiser Jr., founder of the Kaiser Foundation.
In all, about 30 prominent businessmen and current and former government officials are scheduled to stay in Mandalay.
Rumsfeld and former President George Bush are members of the Hill Billies camp, although it's unclear whether either is actually going.
Former President Gerald Ford, however, apparently won't be in attendance, as his name does not appear on the guest list. Former President Ronald Reagan also appears on the list despite his June 5 death.
The associations of powerful men made possible by the Bohemian Club encampment have raised the ire of protesters, who charge that captains of industry and government officials discuss business in secret despite the grove's official motto: "Weaving spiders come not here."
Of particular interest are the "Lakeside Talks," which this year include:
An untitled talk by David Gergen, commentator and former adviser to both Republican and Democratic presidents.
"The Landscape of American Politics," by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist.
"College Athletics: Serious Business or Toy Department?" by Ted Leland, Stanford University's athletic director.
"Flight," by Chuck Yeager.
"The Long War of the 20th Century," by James Woolsey, a former CIA director.
"Bohemia," by author Herman Wouk.
"Exploring Mars and Searching for Life in the Universe," by Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
"The Coming Virtual Soldier," by Roger McCarthy, principal and engineer of Exponent Inc.
Local notables scheduled to attend include Victor Trione, son of financier and philanthropist Henry Trione; winemakers Jim Bundschu, Daniel Duckhorn and Wente brothers Eric and Phil; and car dealer Henry Hansel.
Occidental resident Mickey Hart will join fellow Grateful Dead member Bob Weir. The musicians, along with rocker Steve Miller, are part of an effort to bring a younger vibe to the grove, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Not everyone who attends is rich and famous, however.
Peter Phillips, a professor at Sonoma State University who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Grove, estimated one in five members actually fits that criterion, and the rest are either the ordinary rich or just plain ordinary.
"There's associate members, maybe a high school teacher from Palo Alto, who plays tuba in the band," he said.
© Copyright 2004 Canadian Press