Last Monday, as intermittent heavy squalls drenched the grassy lowlands and forested hills around Orick, slicked down the town's main thoroughfare -- Highway 101 -- and whipped up whitecaps on Redwood Creek as it meandered north of town toward the sea, the Van Genderens, on spring break from Helena, Mt., were just finishing their meal inside the Palms Cafe, in the center of Orick.
The Van Genderens -- Liz, Chas and daughter Emily -- had been hiking all morning in the redwoods, in the rain. Now they were heading for Arcata so that Emily, a high school junior, could check out Humboldt State University as a place to study marine biology. Orick, however, had not been officially on their agenda. They'd just stumbled upon it when they got hungry. They knew about the ocean. And Emily had read the National Geographic spread that came out last year about the redwoods and really wanted to visit them. But Orick?
"When we looked at the map, this place wasn't even on it," said Chas. "It didn't strike us as a 'location.'"
"I didn't seen any signs coming in for food or anything," said Emily.
"The town doesn't have a tagline, a sign that says ... you know, 'Land of the Big Trees,' or something that says what makes this town different from all the other little towns," said Chas. [The south entrance to town actually does have such a tagline, but the north entrance, through which the Van Genderens traveled, does not.]
Over at the counter, Mike and Beth Lariviere were eating lunch with their kids, David, 12, and Nikki, 10. They'd left home in Washington state to tour some national parks on spring break.
"We only stopped here because we were starving," said Beth.
They looked outside the window at the rainy street, at the practically non-existent town. They walked out, got in their car and headed south.
And that, dear readers, is a typical scene in Orick these days. Not many people stop in it, and those who do don't linger. And it's not for lack of highway traffic: According to a Humboldt State transportation study, about 700,000 people drive past Orick per year on Highway 101. But only 2 percent of them stop. Residents complain that the rest of them just use the long turn lane through town as a passing lane, and speed up.
Who can blame them? At the south end of the former timber town there's a little garden and a pretty "Welcome to Orick" sign that mentions the rodeo. But on the north end of town there's nothing but a green highway sign with the town's name and (exaggerated) population. And in between, amid a lot of empty buildings and a couple of churches and a shrinking school, are three restaurants (La Hacienda, the Palms and Hawg Wild), five burl shops and two markets, one with the only gas pumps in town. Other than some of the cheerily landscaped and be-beared storefronts, it doesn't look that inviting.
But Orick's 300-some residents, at least some of them, are not going down without a fight. Last week, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors agreed to help Orick vie for an "environmental justice grant" from Caltrans. The $70,000 grant, intended for a small, poor community with a highway running through it, would help fund a series of town workshops in which residents would develop a spiffy streetscape plan that would improve their "sense of place" with sidewalks, crosswalks, landscaping, traffic-calming devices, signs and other things to make their town look like a fun, safe, happening place. Willow Creek got the same kind of grant a few years ago, and has since spruced up the stretch of Highway 299 that cuts through it. The Hoopa Valley also got the grant, in 2005, and has slowly begun to improve its bedraggled highway-centric town along Highway 96.
Orick Community Services District's Project Director Karla Youngblood helped push for the grant effort. "Lately I have been describing Orick as the best of the best and the worst of the worst," she said last week in an e-mail. "The best is the landscape and the core community here, many of whom have been here for generations. As far as the worst of the worst ... it's run-down homes with garbage in the yard. It seems that hard times and poverty can cause people to lose a lot of self-respect. I think there are a lot of people here in survival mode. Of course, that is everywhere, but because Orick is small, it's more visible."
Back in Orick on Monday, inside La Hacienda restaurant, Joe Hufford was eating burgers with his son-in-law, Hank Combs. At another table sat an older couple from Washington state, on their way to visit family in Arizona, and nearby were two men from Del Norte County who were on their way to the defunct Orick sawmill -- the town's last mill, which shut down several months ago -- to load up a forklift and a big building they'd bought at the mill's auction last week.
Hufford said Orick's been through this sprucing-up business before. Back in the 1990s, he said, the town got a grant and they cooked up a plan to underground the PG&E powerlines, put in a pretty streetscape and prettify the storefronts. It died on the vine.
"Nobody wanted to change," Hufford said. "They wanted to keep their little storefronts the way they are."
Hufford, whose family's been in the area since 1862, said it would have made a huge difference, and he's for this latest effort to fix up the main drag. The idea is that if more tourists stop, then there'll be a need for more services and shops, and so the jobs, and the town, will grow.
Over at the Palms, just before they left, the Lariviere's said they live near a former timber town in Washington that fixed its identity crisis by transforming into a western-themed town. "It's like crazy with tourists now," said Beth.
"What this town needs," she added jokingly, "is to be in a famous book -- like Forks, Wash."
Forks, which stars as the small town in the popular Twilight series of vampire books, has shamelessly and profitably incorporated numerous Twilight themes into its new identity. Funny she should mention it. According to the Hollywood buzz, a forthcoming movie starring Miley Cyrus is based on the book Wings, which has been compared to Twilight and is about a girl from, yep, Orick.
So if Caltrans can't save Orick, maybe Miley can.