Hoping to make enough money to keep working on a book project, I reluctantly accepted a job in the redwood forests of California last summer, knowing only that it would pay well and it meant working at a private club.
I traveled 14 hours to Guerneville, California, in Sonoma County, which has perfect weather in July. I was a little bothered by the secretiveness under which I was hired. I felt like I was working on a Mission: Impossible television segment where I would receive information on a need-to-know basis.
Following the directions, I worked my way down a redwood-lined road. I knew I had arrived after I found the "No Trespassing" signs posted everywhere. At the employee sign-in station I was greeted by a jovial woman who was happy to tell me where I would be working.
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"Oh, girl, you are at the Bohemian Grove. Don't you know about it?"
Embarrassed by my ignorance, I smiled and asked her to give me the lowdown on this Bohemian Grove, called the "the Grove" or "Boho." According to my new friend, the private Bohemian Club is more than 120 years old and it was founded by a group of San Francisco journalists, although the press is now banned from attending its annual retreats.
It has evolved into an elite for-men-only club, a retreat President Herbert Hoover once called "the greatest men's party on Earth," banning women as members or guests. There are 110 encampments, and previous guests have included former president George Bush, current President George W. Bush, General Colin Powell and a countless cast of other high-profile entertainers and politicians.
The usual "encampment" is two weeks long and there is a weeklong "Spring Jinx" in June. Other than those three weeks, the property remains closed and off-limits to the public.
Up to this point, I thought I could deal with the "no women" policy. As my motor-mouth friend continued, the story got more interesting.
"You will have fun with these old farts," she said.
"I highly doubt it," I thought, and smiled.
She then painted a picture that made my heart drop into my stomach.
Smiling and looking around for "them," she whispered stories of CEOs and high-ranking government officials, people who get drunk and pee on the beautiful redwoods while burning the club's mascot in effigy, in a ceremony called the "Cremation of Care." The members supposedly wear white hoods during the ceremony and have their pick of prostitutes from the "Boho Madam."
During the four-mile ride back to my campsite, I ran through a gamut of emotions. My dilemma was that I already had committed myself to the chef and spent a considerable amount of money to get there.
Begrudgingly, I showed up for work the next day.
The chef told me that a well-known, high-tech company donated $4 million to remodel the kitchen a few years ago.
Employees, who mostly come from Seattle, Sacramento and Phoenix, aren't allowed to walk around freely on the grounds and must ride in red vans featuring dark-tinted windows.
I began work each day at 5 a.m. and took the early afternoons off, returning later for the dinner shift. In my entire career of food service at many large facilities and some of the nation's best restaurants, I had never seen lobster for breakfast on an almost daily basis.
The food was incredible. The produce walk-in was filled with every vegetable and fruit imaginable, and the selection of cheese left my mouth watering every time I walked by. The members and guests were fed breakfast and dinner. Lunch was served by private chefs at the encampments.
A typical dinner menu would read like something out of a 1960s fine-dining menu.
Lobster and filet mignon would be offered one night and New York strip and sea bass the next. Beautiful young college women were hired to serve the men their food. Many of the women were repeat employees and excitable when they saw a famous person they recognized.
During my long days at Boho, I kept hearing rumors about this so-called madam. I would ask, "Who is the madam?" and someone would say, "You know, the blond one." Everybody seemed to know her, even the dishwashers who hardly spoke English.
While there, I constantly heard bizarre rumors about a 40-foot statue of an owl (the Bohemian Grove logo); the symbolic ritual where the men throw away their cares; the nation's wealthiest and most powerful politicians running around drinking like college frat boys singing songs of "old Bohemia"; and the infamous madam. I did see the men act and drink like frat boys and I saw them make the sign to Bohemia, but I still hadn't met the madam.
On my last Sunday at the Grove, I ran into a middle-aged, attractive local woman who I knew was a schoolteacher. She organized the annual picnic for the staff and asked if I would be there. I politely declined. As I walked over to a group of cooks, I heard them mention the madam again and I wanted to know who she was.
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"You just talked to her," said one of the cooks. The schoolteacher.
Being a woman, the only thing I got to see of this beautiful property was the backs of men peeing on trees as our little bus rode past them every night. One night, I thought I saw a man with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair that reminded me of a politician who used to be Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Bohemian Club, with 2,700 acres of some of California's most beautiful redwood forest, is a playground for members who want to get away from their daily grind of running the country. They play GI Joe in the forest, burn their cares away, have big-name performing artists and musicians perform for them, and have service staff and personal chefs at their disposal 24 hours a day. They go there to eat lobster for breakfast and to allegedly have a madam fulfill their every need.
The Bohemian Grove is not something that I will put on my résumé. My experience there was enjoyable because of the professionalism and knowledge of the people. There are many of us in the hospitality business who have fed important people. But how many can say they watched them pee on redwood trees? I can.