I meant to write this article shortly after we left Arcata, back in November 2011. But life soon thereafter threw me several curveballs, and I’m just now getting back to it. I wrote very little here on “12 Cities, 1 Year” about Arcata, which was the 4th city of our trip. We were there for just about 3 weeks, not a full month, but I think I got a decent sense of the place.
Since leaving, I’ve learned that most people have never heard of Arcata. I even mentioned it to someone from California, and he assumed I meant Arcadia (another California town). Arcata is a small town in the far north part of the state. It seems largely powered by Humboldt State University, a pervasive cannabis growing and processing industry, and a bit of the remains of the timber business. There’s a town square called The Plaza that’s pretty quaint, and has a farmer’s market, concerts, parades, and so on. Being a college town, there are a few coffee shops and more than the average number of mediocre pizza joints.
I got to spend a lot of time with my old friend Chad from high school, who has lived in or around Arcata for over 20 years. He is a videographer who makes TV and web commercials, and records musical jingles for ads. He didn’t have the luxury of making up his schedule every day like I did, and had to finish projects for clients. But when he wasn’t working, we spent some time experimenting with using remote control helicopters for doing low cost aerial video. Ultimately, it’ll become a service he provides to his video clients, but when I was there he was still working out the kinks in the process. I’d never flown an RC helicopter before, but the one he loaned me to use was very stable and I only crashed a couple times. And we often went flying in the redwood forests that northern California are famous for. The scenery is so beautiful, and we had lots of good times in those three weeks.
The thing I remember most about the town itself is the smell. Here in Denver, where I’m writing this now, occasionally when I’m walking around I’ll catch a whiff of smoldering cannabis (marijuana). But in Arcata, it’s everywhere. People smoke pot all day long in the wide open at The Plaza, right in front of the local cop. I have a feeling that so many people in Arcata have medical marijuana cards that it’s just not practical to even try to bust people for smoking illegally. Instead of catching a whiff every few blocks like in Denver, when you walk around Arcata you smell pot smoke coming from about every third house or store. The smell from the houses didn’t surprise me too much, but the fact that people smoke in and around businesses was an eye-opener. Laundromat, hardware store, book store (pot smell). Liquor store, restaurant, tire dealer (pot smell). Art gallery, yoga studio, dentist (pot smell). Unfortunately, unlike Boulder, Colorado (Arcata’s nearest Colorado sibling), the open cannabis culture in Arcata has more of a dark side, in that there are a huge number of stoner bums for such a small town. It made me sad that there were so many people not really doing anything creative or beautiful or “useful” but just sitting around for hours each day in a daze, often panhandling. Chad told me the big difference between Arcata and Eureka (the larger town to the south) is that while Arcata has stoner bums, Eureka is overrun with tweakers (meth addicts, for those who don’t know the term). So I guess given the two choices, pot is a way better choice than meth.
I wrote before that our living arrangements were different than we’d had before. We were sharing a house with the house’s owner (who also shopped and cooked for us) and her one housemate. It was strange, particularly because our landlady was uncomfortably neurotic. I get along with just about everyone I meet in the world, but she just really rubbed me the wrong way. One minute she’d tell us to make ourselves at home, but then the next minute she’d follow behind me in the kitchen, cleaning up after everything I did. One time Beth and I got back home late one evening and found our landlady’s glass pipe and marijuana on the nightstand in our bedroom. At first we didn’t know who it belonged to – the landlady, the housemate, or the landlady’s teen daughter who had been over earlier that day. Later, the landlady confessed it was hers, but claimed to have been so “out of it” that she didn’t remember how it got there. She made up some story about how maybe the dog went into our bedroom and she went in there to get the dog out, but left her pot and didn’t remember any of it (that story never held water because the dog never once came into our bedroom and we always kept the door closed). It’s weird enough to find that your landlady has been creeping around your private bedroom in your absence, but even creepier to find she’s left her drug stash there. So after that experience, I decided that for the rest of our 12 Cities, 1 Year journey, we’d have our own personal place, not a shared living space with someone we didn’t know.
Oh, one last thing I should mention about Arcata is just how liberal it is. It’s not surprising, given they’re home to a liberal arts college and are financially dependent on the drug trade. But I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere that far left. One resident, when he heard about how our next city was going to be San Diego, warned us to not go there because they’re very conservative there – there are actually Republicans in that city!