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August 15-21, 2007

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Bohemian Grove

On the bus: Chutzpah and timing were the key to getting seamlessly into the Bohemian Grove.

I Sneaked In

The Bohemian Grove is famous for its security and secrecy. So how come one man can just hop a bus right in? Oh yeah--because he's middle-aged and white

By Terry Mulgannon


My heart beats at a fast pace, the familiar taste of metal at the back of my throat accompanying the adrenaline rush that would provide victory or defeat any second now. Do not blow it, says that inarticulated voice somewhere, an instinctive, subconscious mantra. Do not blow it. 

Seldom have fast research, perfect timing and a predatory sense of opportunity placed me in such a dilemma. The next move will demand an effortless self-assurance, an easy air of tranquility. This I know; now if I can pull it off. The open-air shuttle is filling. I have just another 10 or 15 seconds to make a move. I take a last drag of my cigarette and get on the bus. 

As a former Green Beret, veteran journalist and freelance intelligence operative, weaseling into places where I am not invited is second nature. I crashed every major event during the 1993 Superbowl in Los Angeles, including the game itself and the Dallas Cowboys' very private victory celebration afterward. Some months later, I not only cracked the televised end-of-series bash for the sitcom Cheers, I spent a couple of hours at the real party afterwards, tossing back beers with Sam, Norm, Cliff and Carla. Just days after that it was the VIP section at the Naval Academy graduation at Annapolis, having passed myself off as John McCain's aide. Right this way, sir. Got by the Secret Service more than once and spent an hour talking baseball with Richard Nixon over coffee and dessert.

I've done Champagne with Barry Bonds, Willie Mays and the guy who owns the Giants. I have partied with the prime minister of the Bahamas. I even crashed the Elvis Suite at the old Las Vegas Hilton only to find myself standing in the foyer, confronted by Paris' mom, dad, aunt and uncle. Turns out there was no party, and who the hell was I? Must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. 

The Bohemian Grove is different.

This is hallowed ground to San Francisco natives of a certain sort, San Franciscans like me. Although I never expected to be a member, I revere the place, love everything I've come to know of it. A club founded by artists and writers, paid for by the patrons they brought in--Mammon meets the Muses, vintage 1872. I've always wanted to crash the Grove. It's some kind of ultimate test. As the summer camp approached, a good friend who frequents my morning round table in a Napa cafe began to regale us with stories of the place that he heard from a friend who managed it. 

That's how I find myself at the backstage entrance to the Monte Rio Amphitheater on the last Thursday of July. Turns out the club puts on a fundraiser for the town. It is starting any minute. As I ride my bike over the bridge toward the festivities, "The Star-Spangled Banner" wafts over the river, signaling the beginning of the show.

I turn toward the Grove entrance instead, ride up to the sheriff's deputies at the gate. So, what is this place? Get a friendly briefing, gauge their attitudes, and then bike every little road and lane around the place, ditch the ride and go to the show. But before I pay my 20 bucks to get in, I find the backstage entrance where they admit the club members to their private seating, befriend the security guard and note the shuttles coming and going--note that the guard did not stop anyone who appears to get off the shuttle. Safety in numbers. Walk with the Bohos, talk with the Bohos. I might have a chance. 

I stand on one of the steps waiting to ascend to a seat when the guy in front of me stops to talk, and in my fevered earnestness to get on the bus--the bus to the Bohemian Grove--I slide by him just as you would getting on any bus, my butt ever so gently grazing his own posterior. Before I clear his ass, he straightens up, turns around and looks down at me--a big man, forty-something. Ever so politely, he says, "Excuse me," and makes an elaborate production of standing aside. I have been rebuked. I am an outsider. Everyone on the shuttle at that moment knows this, and they wait with a studied lack of concern to see how I will respond.  One does not try to get ahead at the Bohemian Grove. 

I turn to him and gravely say, "Oh, I'm sorry. That was very rude of me." He smiles, nods, turns away. I continue to the back of the bus. There are no seats, so I squat in the aisle. The bus is on its way to the Grove, everyone's settled, and the very man I bumped looks back to me and says, "Hey, friend, there's a seat up here." Oh, shit, I'm going to have to talk to these people. I take a front seat next to a guy who looks just like a senator, all pink, poreless cheeks, jutting jaw, silver hair. Everyone's looking at me again; they take me for a guest or a new member. I can work with this: be careful, pay attention, think before talking and don't ask what anyone does for a living.

I get into a rhythm here. I relax into a heady euphoria, and my natural confidence rides high. Some people find me insufferably arrogant, but as a white man clad in khakis, I'm projecting just the right vibe for this place. I'm the picture--the reality--of contentment, baking an internal glow of alcohol and combustibles, backlit by the redwood-filtered moon. I have a few minutes to wallow in satisfaction. This does not seem real anymore. I'm one of the Bohos! 

We approach the main gate I'd scrutinized a couple of hours earlier, slow down, drive through without stopping, and my new friend starts yelling, joking, "Hey, wait a minute, you didn't check our papers, you didn't check for illegals!" Har-dee-har-har. Now we're inside, I'm inside, and I want to start yelling myself. I did it!

Time to pay attention again. This place is stunning: long, narrow canyon and giant redwoods everywhere, all dark, just a flicker of light here and there between the great trunks. The shuttle meanders the blacktop, headlights illuminating contrived, rustic entrances into clusters of trees. These must be the camps I've heard about. Everyone's assigned to one. God help me if someone should ask about mine; I don't know any of the names. 

Cigar smoke suffuses the air. Glowing ends bobbing in the dark suggest slow, obese fireflies. Everyone seems to carry a drink, and at each stop, those disembarking pee upon alighting, the image of man watering tree an iconic Grove commonplace. The shuttle travels a half-mile or so. We're somewhere in the middle of the place, and I'm alone again.

I know some camp names now. I decide to belong to Fore-Peak, a nautical theme. I'm a guest of Bob Weir's, met him 40 years ago in a first foray as a journalist, dropped in on him and Jerry back in '67 at the house on Ashbury, killed an hour together. Yeah, Bob and I go way back. But I do not want to have that conversation just yet. Maybe Bob doesn't hang at Fore-Peak. A short walk into the dark reveals a dim clearing ringed by big logs turned into benches. Above the benches--one named Old Guard; the benches actually have names--hovers a backlit poster of this year's daily skits: a Sammy Davis Jr. revival; a George Gershwin review.

I hear music. It sounds like a Broadway play. I follow the sound, pass through a column of more trees. An orchestra plays, tenors and basses sing, Irish ballads in brogue. I emerge open-mouthed into yet another clearing. In the near distance, I look up to see leprechauns emerging from a dark, misty sky, a cast of dozens singing, a 50-man orchestra, rich costumes and colors, a chorus singing. I start to weep. I've died and gone to Darby O'Gill and the Little People.  A dress rehearsal of the annual play, and even the faux women are convincing. And just after watching the mean old duchess get her comeuppance, they call a break and a great, rangy man--the duchess--comes striding by, arms swinging, a day's growth of heavy beard.

I retreat back to the benches in the trees and join a young man who expresses his reverence for the place, had always wanted to attend the Grove camp. His grandfather, a great fortune connected to a great brand, brought him as a guest. A twenty-something attending college back east--business major, of course--he laps up my wisdom, the career advice I offer.

Getting out will be the hard part, I think, but wandering down the canyon as instinct directs takes me by the security folk who make sure to ask if I have the card which would get me back in when I return from the Pink Elephant, my ostensible destination. I stop and talk.

We all become fast friends. 


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