A fine mist had begun wetting Old Town's streets. It fell on the huge, flattened disc of the world in front of the Fisherman's Terminal. It fell on Old Town Carriage Co.'s Marty L'Herault, who was in the adjacent dirt lot hitching gentle Barney, a dappled-gray draft horse, to the gold-trimmed maroon-and-black carriage with its lover's heart rear window. It was so light, the rain, you could barely feel it, and warm for mid-October.
L'Herault groomed Barney's shoulders and neck, attached the poop bag behind his rump, offered him a carrot, then swung up into the driver's seat. He nudged Barney into the 3 mph pace that, together with L'Herault's history lessons, has lulled many a tourist, no doubt, into a dreamy half-state between Eureka-now and Eureka-then. The eyes and ears disregard the cars and focus instead on the clopping hooves, the stories, the carriage-framed visions of Victorian-era architecture. That structure there? The city's first commercial building. This one on the corner, the restaurant? A saloon, once, with a "single ladies boarding house" on the second floor.
Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, round the corner onto F Street. Nearing the stop sign at Second Street, L'Herault tugged lightly on the reins, nudging the horse into a perfect nose-first parallel-parking maneuver.
Soon, after setting up his sign advertising carriage rides, he would settle inside the dark interior, plinking away on his black ukulele, reading the paper or tapping at his smart phone. In one world and another, all at once.
It's easy to imagine that Marty L'Herault and his horse-drawn carriage would be offering this relatively cheap time travel forever -- sometimes with Barney in the carriage braces, others times with Buster. But come next January, he plans to slip from this North Coast backwater into another world entirely -- New York or maybe Chicago. He's hanging up the harness and dapper driving gear and putting the Old Town Carriage Co. up for sale.
Why, why would he strand us here in modern-day Eureka?
Well, partly, it's because he wants to be closer to his daughter, Kim, who is going to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "And I'm re-starting, after a brief 25-year hiatus, my acting career," he said.
L'Herault, who's 58 and has a theater degree, has had a come-and-go relationship with Humboldt since 1979, when his brother Mitch, a Navy man stationed in Ferndale, lured him here. He managed the old Tomaso's restaurant in Old Town, acted in local plays and sang in a band. Then he moved to New York to launch his starving-artist life, acting, waiting tables and driving a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park.
"I thought that was the coolest thing in the world," L'Herault said. "It was romantic. It was theatrical. It was historical." The work felt like a calling.
"One morning -- it was a Sunday morning, really quiet -- I'm hooking up the horse to the carriage, and it's quiet, really quiet," he said. "And, I don't know, I don't want to sound weird, but this feeling came over me, and it seemed like I'd always done this, forever, almost in another lifetime. I felt, 'This is what I should be doing.'"
Years later, another brother researching family history found their great-great grandfather had owned a horse-and-carriage business in Ireland.
"We all think we make our choices in life, but sometimes you wonder if you're hardwired into what you're going to do," L'Herault said.
After New York, L'Herault and his now ex-wife, Michele (they divorced earlier this year), ran a carriage company in Humboldt from 1989 to 1995, then sold it for another sojourn back East before L'Herault returned in 2009 to set up shop anew.
Now he hopes to sell the business for $32,000 for the whole shebang: horses, trailer, truck, carriage, harness and other gear, plus training and consultation during the transition.
If no one buys it by next January, he'll sell it off piece by piece. He's already auditioned in New York for a Broadway show, and he'll be out of here, pulled by his original calling. Can a man have two callings?
Perhaps, in another time, he also had an ancestor who acted.