Russian River

Soulful Travel: Russian River

Share this story

Make your vacation days meaningful and memorable. Whether you’re traveling to a new destination or revisiting a favorite spot, when you’re able to slow down, unplug and appreciate even the smallest of details, a day off can lead to a fulfilling and sometimes life-changing experience. 

Here, we help you take that trip along the Russian River.

Old Man River

Russian River

The Great American Songbook — that library of popular songs spanning from the 1920s to 1960s — is filled to the levee with songs about rivers. Sometimes they’re slow or lazy, while other times they’re moody, or blue, or reflect the light of the night sky, as Audrey Hepburn plaintively sings “Moon River” from her windowsill in the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

But surely the most potent paean to rivers comes from the classic 1936 musical “Show Boat,” in which Paul Robeson makes movie history lending his powerful African American baritone to “Old Man River,” the personification of rolling waters who, as the lyrics tease, must know somethin’ but don’t say nothin.’ He just keeps rolling. He keeps on rolling along. 

Clearly the river occupies a deep place in the human imagination, a potent symbol of primordial nature that represents a key teaching in earthly life, a teaching songwriters speak of endlessly without ever telling you precisely what it means. It’s in the nature of poetry to be suggestive rather than literal, but it’s also true that Old Man River signifies something obvious and ubiquitous, and trying to explain the obvious is like trying to teach the concept of water to a fish. 

So let’s venture into the wild and track down this taciturn hermit and see if we can coax out his secret. Fortunately, Sonoma County has just the spot. 

Russian River

The Russian River takes its name from the Russian-American Company, which explored the region in the early part of the 19th century and founded Fort Ross. At 115 miles long, it flows southward from Mendocino through Sonoma County, reaching its final destination in the mouth of the Pacific Ocean. It is prized by locals as a spot for summertime fun — swimming, kayaking, and, if you’re lucky enough to find one, cannonballing from a tree-mounted rope swing — and for its strict adherence to the dictates of Mother Nature, which means sometimes it’s little more than a dried-up creek, while other times it can flood local towns.  

If you spend the afternoon wine-tasting along River Road, with lunch and shopping at the quirky stores in the resort community of Guerneville, make sure to stop and visit the mythological “old man” of the river. Sunset Beach River Park, part of Sonoma County Regional Parks, is the perfect spot to enter a state of mind ripe for illumination. Located in Forestville just past the picturesque bridge that spans the Russian River, the lush park contains a small but captivating network of trails half-overgrown in the winter, providing an instant escape into the beauty of nature that takes you to the river’s edge, where Old Man River rolls along with his timeless sound of his flowing waters.

Russian River

In ancient teachings around the world, the symbolism of rivers was quite clear, even if the water visibility wasn’t. A river’s most salient feature was its currents, the energy below the surface that drives the river along. As nature was viewed as mankind’s great textbook, the river lodged itself in the human psyche as the perfect metaphor for the incessant change that characterizes reality, for there is not one thing — from the trillions of stars in a galaxy to the trillions of cells in your body — that is ever completely at rest. All is change; everything is in motion; things break down in order to be reborn as something else. All things are subject to the currents of becoming. 

It sounds like Old Man River — the forest hermit who “must know something but don’t say nothing” – is finally ready to speak and elaborate on the great secret he keeps. 

Russian River

Fall into the Russian River during flood season, he whispers into your consciousness, and you’ll be fighting for your life. Or so it would seem — in truth, life will be fighting for you. “For you do not have a life,” the old man says. “It is life that has you.”

Deep in contemplation, you receive the lesson. Beyond the involuntary actions of your heart, lungs and digestive system; beyond even your survival instinct; you can detect at the root of your being a blind impersonal force holding you in its grip, animating you with a field of dynamic energy emanating from your physical body. In a moment of powerful internal insight, intuitive reason forces you to conclude that there is no way you can call this awesome energy “mine.” It does not belong to “me,” but rather I belong to it. 

You leap up from your spot on the riverbank in a state of epiphany. “Is that what you are? Life itself? Carrying us all along on your eternal currents?” But Old Man River has gone silent, returned to his ceaseless roll. It’s OK, however, because you’ve learned the lesson, and understand now why those old songs about rivers are always about struggle and strain, love and loss, twists of fate and appointments with destiny. 

But if life is a flowing river that has you in the grip of its currents, what is the proper attitude to assume? Do we paddle furiously, smashing everything in our way? What do we do when the current is too strong? When we don’t like where we’re going? When we don’t know what lies downstream, and are filled with fear of the unknown? 

Russian River

One year after Paul Robeson belted “Old Man River” into cinematic immortality, another film soundtrack carried a song filled with simple, timeless wisdom. Life may be a blind energy force sweeping us along, but the terror we feel at this revelation has a silver lining, for it’s also like having a guardian angel built right into us. This realization brings a smile to our face and makes us want to pass the journey while humming a tune. For with a smile and a song, Snow White informs us in the 1937 Disney classic, the world seems to awaken anew, everything falls into tune, and life just flows along. 

Other Soulful Adventures

This trip to the Russian River is just one of a series on soulful travel. For other experiences, visit our Soulful Travel page.

Remember the Leave No Trace Principles 

Experiencing our destination through the Sonoma County Leave No Trace Seven Principles gives travelers an opportunity to make a difference. Together, we can protect and preserve this special corner of the world for generations to come. Find more info about sustainable travel in Sonoma County here

For a list of local businesses helping promote the important message of Leave No Trace, click here.  


Written by Christian Chensvold