Isolated by mountains, forests and the sea, Humboldt County, California, USA, is difficult to define, though it's a simple task to say what it is not. Humboldt County is not like the rest of California: there are no warm and sunny beaches, no rolling hills, no rich and famous people. Yet, it is also not part of the vast Pacific Northwest region: there are no orcas playing in the seas, no vast volcanic mountains looming overhead and no Starbucks Coffee Shops1. Humboldt County, or Humboldt as it is called by those who live there, is in-between.
Humboldt's 'in-betweenness' reaches farther than mere geography. It is noticeable in the people and the culture. Indeed, the culture is quite distinct from any of its relatives along the Pacific Rim. It is a blend of past and present, north and south, liberal and conservative. It is here where the battle between established lumber companies and Earth First activists rages over the preservation and exploitation of the ancient redwood forests. Volkswagen vans with peace signs emblazoned on their psychedelic sides ride next to mud-splattered pickup trucks with bumper stickers praising country music, logging and the NRA2.
Humboldt certainly does not fit the stereotype of California. There is no urban sprawl, no suburban jungle stretching endlessly over the landscape. In fact, the total population consists of hardly more than 100,000 people spread out over an area that constitutes one of California's largest coastal counties. Yet the lack of population does not mean a lack of culture.
Almost midway between Portland and San Francisco, Humboldt serves as the cultural centre for the rural areas of Southern Oregon and Northern California. Two colleges, Humboldt State University (part of the California State University system) and the College of the Redwoods bring bands, performing artists, theatre and endless other cultural events to the area. The Greater Eureka Metropolitan Area, encircling Humboldt Bay, is the epicentre of this activity. The cities of Arcata, Eureka and Fortuna are the three largest, with smaller towns of equal cultural interest hidden in the gentle coastal valleys.
Tall Trees and 'High' People
Humboldt County is a place of controversy. The controversy surrounds the things that grow there: Redwoods and marijuana. Humboldt County is the only place in the world where Sequoia sepervirens, the Coastal Redwood, thrives. The tallest and some of the oldest trees in the world live in the ancient fog-shrouded forests confined to a narrow strip of land between the sea and the mountains. Humboldt County is also home to some of the most highly sought after marijuana in the world. In the less populated and warmer southern regions of the county, marijuana is cultivated despite a constant battle with the authorities. The smoke of marijuana mixes with Humboldt's dense coastal fog to contribute to an amazingly Bohemian culture.
Arcata and Eureka
The twin cities of Arcata and Eureka (the county seat) reside on either side of Humboldt Bay. Both are full of cultural attractions, especially for those travellers with a liberal mind. Arcata is the smaller of the two, but also the more exciting. Well known artists frequently perform in small venues in the city, drawn to the relaxed atmosphere, liberal attitudes and beautiful surroundings. Café Tomo, the Van Duzer Theatre, and Sacred Grounds are a few of the 'hipper' hangouts in the city. However, any visitor can choose to stand in the Arcata Town Square and merely follow the noise and smells to whatever event best suits his or her likes.
Eureka is home to more conservative fun. The city's Old Town, full of beautiful 19th Century architecture, is a wonderful draw. Eureka also is home to fine restaurants, such as Wine Spectator's favourite, Restaurant 301 at the Hotel Carter, and the venerable Eureka Inn. Hungrier travellers might like the Samoa Cookhouse, an old-fashioned logger's eatery, where the portions are large enough to satiate the hungriest of people. Eureka has many art galleries in the Old Town area, as well as wonderful museums, such as the Morris Graves Museum of Art. To simplify the choice between which city would best suite a traveller's likes, he need only know his philosophies; if he is liberal, he would most likely love Arcata's Bohemian flavour; if he is less than liberal, Eureka might be more to his tastes. However, both cities offer treats that should not be missed, and they are only minutes apart.
Nature in Humboldt
While cultural attractions are many in Humboldt County, the natural attractions are at least as impressive. Redwood National and State Park is the jewel of Humboldt. Here one can find the largest trees in the world, towering hundreds of feet into the moist sea air. Parks, trails and campgrounds are common in Humboldt County. World famous sights like the Avenue of the Giants and the Headwaters Forest are within easy drives from the larger cities. Rivers and beaches are enough to support large populations of rafters and surfers who, in conjunction with hikers, bikers and climbers, have established many resources for the athletically-inclined.