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.

*

*

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.

*

*

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.

*

*

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!

*

9. A hundred feet above the forest floor.

*

*

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.

*

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

*

*

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.

*

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

*

*

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

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

***

WHAT HAPPENED?

What happened was that we packed our bags into a little red car

that we rented from a place called enterprise

and the little red car went south, south past Portland and

down to the sea. Pretty enterprising.

We paused in Newport, but it wasn’t really Newport, it was down a rutted road where

elk browsed unphased by our open mouths and clicking shutters.

The rutted road was back behind everything,

by a slough wet with rain.

After a few days we traveled on, gathering sights and sounds and smells and

the air of places we’d never seen: Cape Perpetua,

Yaquina Head,

Humbug Mountain.

Gold Beach, Beverley Beach, Hiouichi. Stout Grove and

Prairie Creek (now we are in California).

Arcata. Eureka, Ferndale.

Ferndale, the slow, friendly, easy little town we came to love.

Then Willow Creek, Hawkins Bar, and Burnt Ranch as we headed east into the mountains.

Yes, it’s a litany, and there’s more:

Weaverville, Helena. Horse Mountain, Red Crest.

Myers Flat, Briceland, Shelter Cove. Shelter Cove, the place of crashing surf, black sand,

and triumphant hikers emerging from lost days on the Lost Coast.

When it was time to head north again there was Bald Hills, Patrick Creek, and Cave Junction.

We’re back in Oregon now: Corvalis, Portland. Then Washington, a blur of highway,

and home. Home to fat inboxes, piles of snail mail, and thousands of pictures

to take us back

and carry us

onward.

***

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.

12.

13.

14.

15.

16.

17.

18.

19.

The photos (and there will be more!):

  1. The muddy, pot-holed, hairpin-turned, steep and long road to our airbnb on a slough outside Newport, Oregon. A road that held wonders, once you could relax your grip on the steering wheel.
  2. A forest of Port Orford cedar trees on Hunter Creek Road outside Gold beach, Oregon, where fellow blogger Gunta of Movin’ On lives.
  3. This tiny tree frog makes a big noise, but not when he’s in hand; at our Ferndale, California aribnb.
  4. Lovely, spring-blooming Bleeding hearts (Dicentra formosa) along a quiet back road outside Newport, OR.
  5. Looking up into the Redwood trees at Redwood National Forest, California.
  6. The tide’s coming in at Shelter Cove, on California’s Lost Coast. One road in, one road out, and be ready for 45 minutes of winding, steep, rough road.
  7. A local combing the beach, for what, I don’t know. Beverley Beach, Oregon.
  8. At Myers Beach in southern Oregon, a sea stack and the distant headlands are reflected in the shimmering water of low tide.
  9. The black sand at Shelter Cove is mostly smooth black pebbles streaked with white.
  10. A sea squall rushes towards land at Cape Perpetua, Oregon. It got very cold, very fast that morning.
  11. A hiker rests and takes in the view at Shelter Cove. It’s the end of a three-day backpacking trip up California’s Lost Coast for this admirable man.
  12. Shelter Cove residents erected this sign to warn tourists like us about the dangers of their beach. We were careful!
  13. An old, rusted cleat on a pier in Newport, Oregon, with the town’s iconic 1930’s bridge in the background.
  14. California sea lions try to get shut-eye on platforms built just for them on the Newport waterfront. Tourists can stroll out onto a short pier and watch all day.
  15. One of Ferndale’s many pristine Victorian buildings.
  16. Our little red rental car at Myers Beach, on the southern coast of Oregon.
  17. Alder trees and ferns line a section of the road to our Newport airbnb.
  18. The uncommon Brook wakerobin, a diminutive trillium relative, found in southwestern Oregon and northwestern California.
  19. Redwood trees dwarf the cars on the Avenue of the Giants, in northern California.

.