Roots of Sonoma County’s Bohemian Highway centuries old

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The Bohemian Highway runs 10 miles from the hamlet of Freestone to Monte Rio on the Russian River. Considered one of California’s most scenic roads, it was named for the Bohemian Club of San Francisco’s rustic retreat, Bohemian Grove.

Formed in 1872 by a group of journalists and artists, the club’s name referred to people living unconventional lives focused on artistic and literary pursuits.

Founder and author Bret Harte described Bohemia as a place that had “never been located geographically, but any clear day when the sun is going down, if you mount Telegraph Hill, you shall see its pleasant valleys and cloud-capped hills glittering in the West ...”

Bohemia, in fact, actually exists. Once a medieval kingdom with Prague as its capital, it now comprises the western half of the Czech Republic. The modern concept of Bohemia began 1,500 years ago when the Romani people, or Gypsies, were uprooted from their homeland in India and took up a migratory existence that led, eventually, to Europe. As a homeless people, they were almost always unwelcome and constantly forced to move on.

The one exception to this was the kingdom of Bohemia. In 1423, King Sigismund issued a letter requesting that anyone receiving it treat the Romanis as they would any Bohemian citizen and allow them to “live without prejudice.”

When the Romani presented this letter on their arrival in France, the French began referring to them as “les Bohemiens.” Creative people were drawn to the Romani, who made music, storytelling and other arts a central part of their wandering lives. Many artists and musicians took up residence in Romani neighborhoods, where rent was cheap. At its essence, to be Bohemian was to live in poverty for the sake of art.

In the United States, the Bohemian lifestyle first surfaced among New York City journalists just before the Civil War.

When war correspondents began calling themselves “bohemians,” the term became loosely associated with newspapermen. The Bohemian Club was founded by journalists and artists, but others, including family men and respectable pillars of the community, soon joined. Gradually, the membership grew to include art connoisseurs, politicians and the well-to-do.

Reported members have included Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, sugar baron Adolph Spreckels and publisher William Randolph Hearst — hardly a crowd known for living in poverty for the sake of art.

Yet outside the Club, that concept flourished. Millions can claim membership under the Bohemian ethos, from Greenwich Village artists who declared it the “Independent Republic of Bohemia” in 1917, to the Beat Generation, to the hippies of the 1960s, to the crowds at Burning Man.

“There are no roads in all Bohemia!” wrote San Francisco author Gelette Burgess in 1902. “One must choose and find one’s own path, be one’s own self, live one’s own life.”

Nevertheless, the Bohemian Highway is paved with real asphalt and many who live along it can rightfully claim Bohemian citizenship.

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