I learned about Johnson’s Beach years ago located in Napa Sonoma’s wine country. Johnson’s is a small secluded rocky beach with water as warm as a cozy bath with surreal trees that look as if you were staring at a painting. I remember this beach had a wooden shack on it that served food and played old jazz music that made you feel as if you were in the 1940s.
Early one morning, my mom, sister, my nephew and his girlfriend, and I left to go to Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville, California. It had been a trip that had been planned for weeks and I was fuming upset that my brother wasn’t able to go at the last minute. We left about an hour later than our planned time to be on the road because of getting gas, getting last minute groceries, getting cash for the toll bridge. Then we set the Waze GPS and we were off on our roadtrip.
During our drive, we were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on California Highway 37 going through a salt marsh. ‘That’s salt!’ my mom said determinedly at the vast white parched dirt (I didn’t believe her, but after the trip when I researched it, we really did drive on a highway that stretched across a salt marsh). As our truck moved sluggishly through traffic, I watched as fishermen held their poles along the shore and watched as a heron delicately stepped through the marsh. We passed the racetracks and went down Lakeville Highway, going through a huge boulevard lined on each side with giant eucalyptus that look as if they could fall at any minute and crush our car. Soon we reached wide-open farm land and saw a troop of boy scouts disembark from their bus onto a cattle farm. Soon we reached wavy hills of green grapevines.
We got onto US-101 North and got caught up again in slow moving traffic again but the bottleneck lifted and we continued on and got off our exit and went down River Road passing familiar names of wineries like Martinelli and Korbel until we got caught in our last Saturday morning bumper-to-bumper traffic heading into the small downtown of Guerneville. As we waited with the windows rolled down, a man was hunched over off to the side of the road picking wild blackberries, and I rolled down the window and looked out the window and imagined sitting in the cool shade of towering redwood trees that surrounded a medieval looking inn.
To get to Johnson’s beach it’s a quick turn or you’ll miss it down into a street that looks more like an empty alley way. Soon you’ll pull up to a canopy of trees with a sign welcoming you to Johnson’s Beach as your car makes dust trails from the dirt road.
A ranger greeted us at the entrance of the parking lot and flashed a laminated sign up and asked if we had any of these in our possession. ‘Yeah, I know,’ I sighed, ‘I can’t bring the alcohol.’ and looked at the list of banned items and responded, ‘Nope.’ He allowed us through and we got there by 10:40 am. The beach had opened at 10 am. Not bad. There were already a few people there. The dirt parking lot was half empty. I was able to park where the boats could dock. As soon as we parked, we hurried to the restrooms which were the most uncomfortable three stalls there ever were. Your knees and face would slam into the front door as you went if you didn’t maneuver yourself. There was no running faucet water. To wash your hands, there was foam sanitizer to pump from a dispenser on the wall.
I went straight to the shack and ordered a beach umbrella and some inner tubes. A cheerful teenage employee let me direct him across the beach as he held a mallet, a stake, and a lage beach umbrella. I wanted to be near the right side end of the beach. The young boy dropped the umbrellas on the beach and hammered the stake with a ferocious beating into the graveled ground. I decided to get an extra umbrella to create more shade. After he staked the umbrellas close together, we unloaded our stuff back and forth to our site.
The beach was rocky so it would be very uncomfortable to sit with just a towel on it. My sister was smart enough to bring a huge polypropylene mat and my nephew and I laid it flat and then my sister had us roll out the thickest cotton mat, soft and cushiony that we were delighted stepping on it. My sister is ready for everything, she brought her REI adjustable table. We set the table at knee length so that we could have a view of the water as we laid on pillows and blankets. I made a pitcher of peach tea by mixing a jug of water and a packet of peach tea powder and it was delicious. Everyone was hungry from the ride so I ordered burgers from the shack but after eating it, it was unremarkable, plain, as if it were just sponge and meat paste. I wished we had brought a huge meal but we only had snacks. We brought out the creamy brie wedge, the sesame crackers, and Spanish deli meats and enjoyed the appetizers.
My sister took out some fresh blueberries and sliced peaches and ice and put them into the pitcher and we enjoyed the cool refreshing drink. My nephew and his girlfriend enjoyed the water on the inner tubes we rented. I kept a close eye because my Driver License was held as collateral.
We relaxed and listened to the eighties rock music being played from the shack but I was sad that they didn’t play old classical jazz music. It was windy and everyone got a towel, a coat, or scarf to cover themselves but soon as the sun rose higher it heated the entire beach up that we didn’t mind the wind. We people-watched, wishing that we should have moved closer to the water. A family happened to squeeze in front of us and eventually blocked a clear view of the river and put up a huge high-tech looking baby stroller. I was disappointed until I saw the couple next to us who had a family in front of them set up a huge table in front draped with a solid table cloth, totally blocking their view. (So note to self: get as close to the water’s edge as possible next time.)
As my sister dozed off on piles of pillows and blankets, my mom sat on the camping chair in the shade delicately tapping on her phone and taking photos. My nephew and his girlfriend stayed in the water. When the sun started its slow descent and the boats were coming out of the water being pulled by trucks, my sister and mom, and I stood in a long line to get some ice cream in a cone for the teenagers. After the kids took one last swim and dried off, around three-thirty in the afternoon we decided to pack up and head home to beat traffic and have dinner together.
As we headed home on the freeway, passing Santa Rosa, I switched the channel on the radio and smiled when I heard Frank Sinatra singing. I begged my mom to text my sister’s car so they can tune in and listen to it in their car. We listened to ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’. Johnson’s Beach and jazz…The day ended being perfect for us.
We make an annual pilgrimage to Guerneville for canoeing and kayaking every year. Such a fun and funky place. You captured it so well! Check out and follow our wine country blog: http://www.topochinesvino.com
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