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December 7, 2006

Wet season escapes

story and photos by BENNETT BARTHELEMY

Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Ides of March -- legions of frenzied Humboldtians embark exodus-style for non-rainy locales. There must be an equation that describes escape velocity in direct disproportion to distance traveled -- it seems the more photo of waterfall and mossdesperate we are to get somewhere the slower we actually reach our destination.

Two years ago it was backing out of our rain-saturated, muddy driveway with a slide into the neighbors' chain-link fence that required dismantling not only the bumper but the fence to get free. Last year it was the hair-raising two-mile per hour detour around the Trees of Mystery slide -- a highly un-recommended white-knuckler on a snowy, single-lane jeep trail to the east. This time it was food poisoning in San Francisco, which required a day in the ER, three liters of i.v. fluids and two more days to recover from the morphine -- three lost days that could have been spent in the glorious desert sun.

If the holiday falls at the beginning of the trip we can impress our Southern California families with Steelhead beer -- once they are happily inebriated we can leave our guilt behind with extra unopened bottles as a peace offering for only staying a few hours so we can find the sun. If the holiday falls at the end of our trip we are given crestfallen looks when we present them with something mass-produced because we already drank the Humboldt ales (a good beer can't be lonely for long). Invariably we will then get chastised for only staying three hours.

Since the first drizzle at home we have been watching the days slowly get X'ed away on the calendar, dreaming of bluer skies and sun. You can always tell fellow Humboldtians on vacation. It could be 65 degrees, but if the sun's out they are scantily clad and anemic-pale but quickly burning. In two hours of sun exposure and the absence of humidity, skin is falling off cracked lips. In Joshua Tree, a favorite haunt of wayward Arcata climbers, it's more common to see them supine on a picnic table rather than strung up vertically on the stone -- storing up all the warmth they can before returning to the gray hinterlands.

Fear is a motivating factor for some to escape when they can in the wet season. I for one can easily picture torrential rains and swelling rivers taking out bridges and the Navy parking off the coast to deliver food to a Northwest California that has been effectively cut off from the world, leaving the Humboldt that wasn't washed away to fester under martial law and splinter into anarchy. I personally can't afford a winter home in Greece, but I can scrape up gas money for a carpool to dry out for a spell in a rain shadow or along the coast of Baja.

photo of cholla in desertBut with travel beyond the North Coast comes inescapable stereotypes. How many times have I been passed on Interstate 5 with someone pretending to smoke a joint because they have seen my alma mater pasted on my bumper? Uncountable how often folks say, "Oh, Arcadia, I know where that is" or "I have family in Northern California too -- Monterey". Stifling the urge to slap sense into them, I internally curse our educational system for allowing so many geographic illiterates to slip through the cracks. High-dollar smoke is no longer exclusive to Humboldt and is found anywhere there is closet space and electricity -- and anything south of Mendocino County is Southern California. And why doesn't anyone learn about (or push for) the State of Jefferson anymore? Sheesh!

When we can't escape Humboldt to combat Seasonal Affectedness Disorder (SAD) -- caused by the hidden sun not supplying vitamin D -- we just plug in our artificial star. My wife's SoCal parents bought it for us to fight the depression that can happen when you see only clouds and rain for a straight month. So when the end of February rolls around and every drugstore from King Salmon to Crescent City is in danger of being robbed so people can cope, we are soaking up healthy light waves from our lamp and grinning happily. Just one hour a day and we have the recommended dosage to fight SAD. Light therapy -- it beats prescription addictions and jail time.

For those that can acclimate the rain can be great -- after more than a decade I am still working on this. I need to supplement our local weather with the lamp and holiday trips to lower latitudes, but for short pre-hypothermic forays it can be incredible up here. There is something very magical about jogging or hiking through forests in subdued light of a rainy afternoon ... only sound the flow of water from redwood needles and streams ... organicy smells of duff rising from the forest floor ... earthy greens and browns everywhere ... very relaxing and humbling, almost meditational.

The North Coast is also very dramatic and dynamic from all the water and wind it receives when it really storms. Rivers and ocean surf are suddenly massive, trees crash through forests and gargantuan redwood logs are tossed up on the beaches. The majority of the population hides indoors, affording a very personal experience with the elements and power that shape the land for those brave enough to stay outside awhile. Adventurous surfers are well cared for with monster swells -- kayakers are too, because a ridiculous number of small feeder creeks suddenly come alive and go from un-runnable trickle to mini-torrent. Much less reason to be driven sunward for those with an aquatic bent.

Siddhartha espoused that we should seek the "middle way." I will engage the extremes of blazing sun and storm every chance I get during the wet season -- the extremes will eventually average out to something middling, leaving me better apt to deal with all the damn drizzle and darkness. And when rays of the setting sun pierce momentarily through gunmetal gray clouds in winter, vividly painting them with color, I will smile and swear there's no better place to be.

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Email Bennett Barthelemy at,
or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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