In late summer of 1997 I was living and working in a small permaculture community in the Black Mountains of Western North Carolina. One afternoon, a group of visitors arrived and it fell on me to give them a tour and prepare dinner. One member of this group was a young woman whom I quickly developed a crush on. Over the next couple of days, we spent much time together and as she was getting ready to leave, she asked me to come visit her in Humboldt County, where she was headed.
“Where’s that”? I asked.
“You don’t know Northern California? Oh, you’ll love it. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth. There’s giant trees, mountains, coastline and beautiful people!”
A month later I flew to San Francisco and then got on a Greyhound bus to travel north. Disembarking from the bus in the tiny town of Garberville, I met my girlfriend and she drove me in a pickup truck up a windy mountain road. The drive took one hour and we had to stop a handful of times to rest as I was getting nauseated from all the curves and switchbacks. As I looked around me, all I could see were endless vistas of dense forests, mountain ranges, and rolling hills. We passed only two or three vehicles on the drive up. ‘What is this place? ‘ I wondered . I thought I was only going to spend a month there. That month turned into nine years.
Humboldt County, California is a large rural county located in far Northern California. Lying approximately 200 miles north of San Francisco along the Pacific Coast, Humboldt has a population of only 134,623 people who live scattered over an area of 4,000 square miles. It is mountainous and densely forested and contains the last remaining groves of ancient old-growth coastal Redwood trees (Sequoia Sempervirens).
Before settlement by white Europeans in the 1700s and 1800s, Humboldt was the home to numerous Native American tribes, including the Wiyot, Yurok, Hupa, and Karuk. Today, Humboldt is home to eight Indian reservations.
Until the 1970s, Humboldt was populated mostly by small communities of loggers, dairy farmers and fishermen. Isolated and far from any urban centers, it was unknown to most Americans, even though the groves of Redwood trees were known to be one of the wonders of the natural world.
During the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of hippies made their way north from San Francisco and other hippie enclaves, searching for a quieter, simpler life. With no jobs or income, most of this pioneering group learned how to grow and farm high quality and high potency marijuana (cannabis sativa) and within a short period of time, the term “Humboldt Bud” and “Humboldt Grown” came to signify some of the best marijuana grown anywhere.
The influx of hippies into Humboldt was not welcomed by all. Local, state and national law enforcement took notice of all the marijuana poring out of the county and set up a vigorous and aggressive eradication campaign. Law enforcement, consisting mostly of specialized ‘drug enforcement’ units of local agencies using state and national funds, conducted raids on grow sites. Using helicopters, fleets of SUVs and dozens of officers with assault rifles , the raids were often over-the-top affairs, a sort of ‘shock-and-awe’ campaign against the locals. Breaking numerous FAA codes with low flyovers and crashing onto properties with flimsy warrants, the cops grabbed everything in sight, including cash, marijuana, cars, tools, 3-wheeled motorbikes and guns. Claiming authority under Federal drug laws which allow forfeiture of property of drug dealers, law enforcement simply took the loot , without a trial ever taking place, let alone a prosecution. It was (and is) nothing less than legalized theft, but because all the craziness was happening in a forgotten corner of rural America, nobody paid much attention.
Many of the left-leaning hippies also were environmentalists, and it wasn’t long before clashes developed between them and loggers. By this time, 90% of the ancient Redwood trees had already been cut down, and now the young activists were determined to save the final remaining 10%. Things really heated up in the late 1980s after the loathsome scumbag Charles Hurwitz and his Maxxam Corporation bought the Pacific Lumber Company and began an aggressive clear cutting campaign. Judi Bari, Darryl Cherney, Earth First and others ramped up the battle which culminated in the 1990 Redwood Summer campaign.
By the time I arrived in Humboldt in the late 1990s, Judi Bari had died of breast cancer and the protests had quieted down. But then a new wave of protests started, led by a new idealistic young group, some of them Earth Firsters and others just committed environmentalists. In 1998 David ‘Gypsy’ Chain, a young activist, became a martyr when a logger felled a tree in his direction. In 1997, a young woman named Julia Butterfly Hill ascended a giant Redwood tree where she lived for two years to attempt to save it from Hurwitz’s PALCO.
Although most of the remaining Redwood trees are now placed under protective status, logging and even clear cutting continues in Humboldt forests.
Humboldt boasts an impressive variety of annual musical festivals including Reggae on the River, The Trinity Tribal Stomp, Summer Arts and Music Festival, Earth Dance, and many others. Arcata, the small college town located near Humboldt Bay hosts an annual oyster festival and the one-of-a-kind Kinetic Sculpture Race.
A couple of years ago when I was living in the Southern Andean part of Ecuador, I got the chance to hang out with some former Humboldt residents. Reflecting on his time spent there, the gentleman remarked to me, “I think Humboldt County is the most beautiful place on planet Earth. Truly. It has everything: mountains, rugged coastline, beaches, Redwood trees, sunshine, fog, unspoiled rivers, wildlife, marshes- you name it.” I later reflected on what he said. I think he makes a strong case. Humboldt is home to the Eel, Klamath, Trinity, and Mad Rivers, all unique and beautiful in their own way. The King Range, Lost Coast, National Wildlife Refuge, Redwood National Park, and Headwaters Forest are world class natural destinations. Patrick’s Point, Prairie Creek, Clam Beach, Moonstone Beach and countless other natural parks are what make Humboldt so special.
Living in Humboldt for eight years changed me in profound ways and I will always carry the memory of it inside of me. I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to live in the countryside and connect more deeply with nature. After living there for a few years, it used to amuse me greatly to watch city slickers from San Francisco come up and wander the streets of Arcata and Eureka. They all looked so uptight, angry, suspicious, and nervous. I wanted to give them a big hippie bear hug and say, “Relax, you can chill now.” The relaxed pace of life in small towns and rural communities allows you to develop deeper friendships and relationships. So many of the ‘airs’ that we have to carry around in big city life can be dropped and you can just ‘be.’ Of course, small town living has its downsides as well. People tend to become insular, provincial, cut off from the bigger world and often become gossipy and even cliquish.
When I tell my students I don’t watch tv, they often ask incredulously, “Well what do you do in the evening”? I remember so many nights lying on the grass in Southern Humboldt with my girlfriend and watching shooting stars and the Milky Way, or huddling by the wood stove trying to stay warm and reading books while sipping tea. We never for a moment thought we were missing out on something by not living in the city.