FURTHER AFIELD: Humboldt Hash

1. Side street splendor; Ferndale, California.

This Humboldt Hash is the product of a woman with an ever-curious mind wandering around a county called Humboldt with a camera. The sparsely populated northern California county contains dense coniferous forests, open shrublands, wide beaches, sand dunes, wetlands, and a few cities on the coast. Small towns dot a landscape given to dairy farms, livestock rangeland, and impressive Redwood forests. The county is also famous for cannabis. Its world-renowned marijuana business began with countless illegal operations run by hippies who headed for the hills in the 60s. Now, mainstream cannabis businesses struggle with the environmental impact problems and the complex regulations that followed California’s legalization of cannabis sales and cultivation in 2016. (Yes, there’s a double entendre in the title of this post).

But when we’re in Humboldt County our focus is on wide, empty beaches, magnificent Redwood forests, and any serendipity we may encounter. It might be a cowboy on horseback herding cattle across hills overlooking the ocean or something as quotidian as a local cemetery that reveals an offbeat slice of history. Or it might be a spontaneous conversation with someone who introduces us to their dog and recommends a little-known trail.

We stay in Ferndale, a town known for its well-preserved Victorian architecture and comfortable, small-town vibe. We always admire the charming homes and storefronts but this time we noticed a sprawling cemetery while walking through town. “Let’s inspect the gravestones”, we thought. The site climbs a steep hill so we enjoyed a mini-workout punctuated with headstone poems. Graves have always interested me and this cemetery proffered a surprise: a handful of picturesque, weedy gravesites accented with tchotchkes and plastic flowers left in remembrance long ago.

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We intended to explore a back road that winds through the Lost Coast Headlands on this trip – on our last visit, we drove far enough to thirst for more but ran out of time. Maps show Mattole Road looping through uplands, dipping down to empty beaches, passing through a tiny town or two, and terminating in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, where it joins California’s famous US Route 101, aka “the 101.”

We tabled the decision on whether to do the entire, 66-miles plus another 33 miles on 101 to get back to Ferndale. Car-weary from two days of driving 670 miles from our home to Ferndale, we figured we’d see how we felt – we could always turn around. So we set out one morning, planning to at least make it to Petrolia, a town of about 400 souls scattered in the woods. After a tedious, bone-rattling hour on the twisting, rutted road, we reached Petrolia. Gratefully, we got out of the car to peruse its one store. Here, you can supply yourself with coffee, groceries, camping supplies, T-shirts emblazoned with the volunteer fire department logo, organic cookies made by a local man, and beer. Cash only. Outside the store, a bulletin board functions as the ad-hock community center. I hope the Porta-potty fund does well because they were in pretty bad shape (see photo below).

3. Resting, Petrolia.

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We had only covered 30 miles in our hour of tortuous travel. There was no way we were going to subject ourselves to another two hours of Mattole Road followed by a half-hour of highway to get back to Ferndale. But I noticed a road on my phone’s GPS (cell service? No way!). It dead-ended at a beach and looked doable. It was. Mattole Beach is a very remote spot where you can beach-comb, camp, or begin hiking the challenging, 25-mile Lost Coast Trail. There was only one person in the parking lot (who happened to be from Seattle), waiting to meet friends for a camping trip. After exchanging pleasantries we climbed a dune and were alone on the beach. We watched as fog lifted and settled and lifted again. Sensory input was stripped down to the crash and swish of waves, the sweet feeling of cool, damp air on our faces, and the minimalist views that revealed nothing but more fog, more sand, more waves. We reveled in the misty splendor.

I wondered how anyone living near this coast could be anxious or troubled; pounding surf seems to soothe every last twitch of nerves.

5. Fog; Mattole Beach, Lost Coast.

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7. Brown Pelicans; Mattole Beach.
8. The fog lifts; Mattole Beach. (iPhone photo).

The next day we forest-bathed at Rockefeller Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photographs don’t do justice to the sensation of standing among the massive trees whose tops are far out of sight. But we also saw Redwoods from another angle: one hundred feet up in the air. One morning we went to the Sequoia Park Zoo in Eureka to experience the Redwood Sky Walk. The series of platforms built around the tree trunks connected via swinging bridges was a treat. There’s nothing like getting up into the trees!

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9. A hundred feet above the forest floor.

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The zoo’s flock of flamingoes from Chile provided a welcome shock of peach-tinged pink on that foggy day. One afternoon, a handsome butterfly paused on a trail, injecting another dash of color into my photo files. Persistent fog banks only allowed the sun to peek in and out during our stay in Ferndale, which was fine with us. We weren’t there to sunbathe, we were there to experience a place far from home, with all our senses.

One day I saw a road on my cell phone map that led to what appeared to be an uninhabited island in the Eel River delta. We followed Cannibal Island Road (really?), turned left past hay fields, and crossed over a creaky bridge. We didn’t find much that day and I don’t think the fishermen we watched from the bridge had much luck either. A harbor seal kept a sharp eye on them, clearly hoping for a morsel of bait. No luck. The cormorant and egret barely visible through the fog probably did better. On the way back to Ferndale we passed an abandoned dairy in a less prosperous town and wondered aloud why one town did so well and the other faded into oblivion. I like the kind of travel that poses lots of unanswered questions. It keeps the wonder alive.

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11. Fishing on the Eel River.
12. Maybe someone will repurpose the old creamery building and give it new life.

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Back to the beach, the main ingredient in my Humboldt Hash. Artfully arranged strands of kelp, a perfectly intact Sea urchin shell, and skeins of pelicans melting into the fog all manifest the liminal space between land and water. In Humboldt County, the mountains of King Range plunge down to the sea in waves that end in sheltered coves and exposed cliffs. Thrown up on smooth, sand beaches, slammed against hulking, dark rocks, or sent into wide river estuaries, the surf sings and thunders.

Spirits refreshed, we turn back toward town. Evenings find us at the same friendly Mexican restaurant, mornings always begin with a stop at the Mind’s Eye Manufactory and Coffee Lounge, which is much more relaxed than it sounds. Traditional skin-on-frame kayaks are hand-built in the back, and dogs and their people relax in the front. Strolling down Main Street, we find a curious sign. “Go Away” it says, reminding us that soon we’ll have to climb back in the car for the long drive home. But on the other side, it says, “Welcome.”

We’ll be back.

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14. Sea urchin; Black Sand Beach, Lost Coast.
15. Weather-sculpted rock; Black Sand Beach, Lost Coast.
16. Fog, Centerville Beach, Ferndale.

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18. Fog over Black Sand Beach.
19. A Raven in the fog; Luffenholz Beach, Trinidad.

20. Trust me, the other side says “Welcome.”

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31 comments

    • It sounded like an awfully fancy pancake breakfast but I bet it was good. I can’t remember the last time I had pancakes! So glad you enjoyed the post, Ken, and thanks for the good words. (I could photograph tafoni for hours and hours!)

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  1. Testing: WordPress is having so many glitches, that I’ve begun to save copies before I “post comment”: (apologies if this is a repeat – feel free to delete.)

    What joy seeing this neck of the woods through your lens! Such an enchanting mix of familiar and undiscovered treasures.
    [I WANT that sign…. for the likes of us recluses.]

    You’re really diving deep into Lost Coast culture knowing aka “the 101.”
    BTW… driving up the Mattole Road toward Ferndale one time scared the bejesus out of me. It might be another matter heading down away from Ferndale, but driving on the outside edge of that steep and twisty road clinging to vertical cliffs, not being able to see around the next bend with hardly enough room to pass, was a bit too much of a thrill for this soul terrified of heights. Wondering if you climbed back up from the beach?
    Again, the sky walk looks so wonderful, but I’m guessing it might give me a panic attack regardless of the thrill of being up there in the branches of those sacred redwood trees. Thanks for a view I’ll likely never get to enjoy! πŸ’žπŸ™ All of it was much appreciated.

    I suspect that I might be done with those car weary drives of hundreds of miles (or more?) these days. It’s just good to see you enjoying your travels and having you share them with us, your admiring fans!

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    • We went partway on Mattole Road last time so we were prepared. This time, the washboard aspect bothered us both more than the precipitous heights and blind curves. I think the locals know what they’re doing when it comes to driving that road and this time of year, it’s only locals who are on it. We went to Petrolia, then down another road from there to the beach, back up, and then back to Ferndale.
      I’m sorry you wouldn’t feel comfortable on the skywalk – it really is a great experience. Most of it is even wheelchair accessible! It begins gently, with a ramp, so no climbing is entailed. They say they check the structure daily.
      I have more trouble than I used to with long drives now, too – because of back and neck issues. The drive down was miserable this time because of all the smoke. Taking the coast route up to Newport on the way back was so much better. If you’re up that way, check out the restaurant at the Adobe Resort in Yachats – the meal – food, service, and view – was really memorable!

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  2. 11. is my favorite. It seems like it would’ve made a superb b/w; what was your thinking to present it as a color exposure, to share? Simply your preference?

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  3. Ferndale looks just the sort of place we love to stay in so I’ve bookmarked this for future planning for a possible Northern CA trip next year. The beaches too are just the sort I love. I so agree about the sound of the surf!
    Favourite shots? 3, 12 and 19, I think πŸ™‚

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    • That sounds like a good idea. Ferndale is special enough to have been used for several movies but it doesn’t feel spoiled by the attention. The proximity to beaches and redwood forests is another selling point but it isn’t near any major airports – that’s the part you’d have to work out. But I know you’re resourceful. πŸ™‚ I see you’re going for the abandoned look today with those choices. πŸ˜‰ Thanks for the good words!

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      • We would be road-tripping on a circuit starting and finishing in San Francisco, so an airport isn’t necessary! The very vague current thinking is to drive up the coast with stops along the way and return on an as-yet undetermined inland route πŸ™‚

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  4. Looks like a wonderful place to explore for a variety of experiences and photographs. You are lucky that your husband likes to do the same. And if you like cemeteries, it looks like you found a good one with a lot of curiosities to ponder. #16 is a favorite … the sea foam creates and excellent line to lead the eye into the barren but peaceful scene. I appreciate your clever ‘Sand Script’ title and as always your observations are uniquely ‘you’! Great post!

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    • We’re a good team, and he likes driving, too. Or should I say he doesn’t like being a passenger? πŸ˜‰ Thank you for taking the time to make thoughtful comments, Denise, I appreciate it.

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  5. How wonderful to walk these paths suspended between giant trees and full of history!
    Of the remaining photos, I especially like the sets of 3 photos. These are all beautiful details!
    These photos are a privilege for this place that will always want your visit, your interest and your look.
    I wish you a good week!

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  6. Your cemetery triptych is lovely and unexpected and I imagine there’s a shared group of memories as colorful and interesting as those objects. Your arrangement of the three pictures is perfect. Very respectful and interesting group.

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  7. What a fun adventure, Lynn! We’ve been in this area many times, but have not done such a deep dive into these wonderful small towns and off the beaten path spots. Love your opening shot– beautiful and fitting in monochrome. And your detail shots of rural life are excellent. And the Redwood Sky Walk is something I didn’t know existed! Mattole Beach looks like a stunning find and your black and whites of Black Sand Beach and the Raven are fabulous. What an interesting take on this area. πŸ™‚

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    • The zoo that has the sywalk is small. I just happend to see something about it while we were there and thought we should check it out. Usually, I’m not one for zoos but I was very happy we went – and so was Joe. That’s something to keep in mind the next time you’re up there. It’s great to hear your opinion of my take on the area. Not the approved version for the masses but something else. πŸ˜‰

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  8. Ferndale, how nice.Β  The place is also well known to us because of its old-fashioned, pretty house facades and the somewhat stuffy atmosphere.Β  Such places often seem more like an open-air museum than a living place in actual life.Β  Still, of course, Ferndale is beautiful to look at and I imagine life there like in the novels and short stories of Henry James, although the weedy graveyard doesn’t quite want to fit into that tidy, orderly world.
    But as always, this inquisitive woman shows us something more than normal sightseeing, Mattole Beach for example, #5 to 8 and #16,18 give me a glimpse back to a million years ago, a touch of eternity.
    I find Redwood Sky Walk totally impressive.Β  There are such swaying treetop hiking trails in Germany, but of course they are not at all comparable to the dimensions in these gigantic forests with you.Β  Only cormorants seem to occupy long piers the same way all over the world.

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    • Perhaps because it’s in northern California and not on the east coast, Ferndale doesn’t feel stuffy to us. The people are open, friendly, and very relaxed. I know what you mean about similar places that are too perfect to be real but this town doesn’t feel like that. I imagine it would be at the peak of tourist season though. Just around the corner from the beautiful Victorian houses, there are totally normal place, including an old house with a bull cow standing in front of it.
      Mattole Beach was an exciting place, very alive, and as you said, it could have been eons ago. I liked seeing the Redwoods from the ground level one day and from mid-level the next. I only wish I could make a few photos that really show the scale of those trees. Maybe next time! Thanks for your thoughts, Ule, have a good week!

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  9. Nice trip, Lynn! Well documented. The architectural designer in me goes for nr14. Amazing design; very well constructed; way better than the Pantheon in Rome, don’t you think?.. πŸ™‚ The photographer in me goes for nr16; probably the fog; the color of the beach en the white line. See you!

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    • I like the Sea urchin making you think of architecture. Structural integrity, efficiency, beauty, etc. All there, yes! And #16, more minimalism. Thanks Harrie, good to hear from you. πŸ™‚

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