Humboldt County—location of Arcata CA--and adjacent Mendocino County together mark the epicenter of illegal marijuana cultivation in the United States.
Nevertheless, although the region experiences significant marijuana tourism, most travelers still come primarily to be awed by the sublime beauty of the redwood groves and coastline.
These travelers arrive at a very special place. The Arcata CA area provides a fascinating glimpse into the countercultural movement of the 1960s and 70s. Nowhere else in the United States do “hippie values” impact so profoundly.
Understanding the culture, economies, and politics of Humboldt and Mendocino will immensely enrich your trip. These topics can ignite much passion. I've tried my best to be impartial.
Image above: © Simone Werner-Ney / Fotolia
"Well I'm going where the water tastes like wine" — Going Up the Country, Canned Heat
While traveling in Humboldt and Mendocino, you cannot help but notice their vibrant countercultural influence.
"We are stardust, we are golden. And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden"
— Woodstock, Joni Mitchell
Disillusioned with the bleakness of urban life and with in their view increasingly negative national political scene during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the gentle hippies of the "Love Generation" poured into Humboldt and Medocino.
They, their children, and grandchildren have set the tone ever since.
With the timber industry already in steep decline, land was plentiful and cheap. Although newcomers found rich soil for small farms and communes, the rugged terrain did not attract corporate agribusiness to drive up prices.
© oksix / Fotolia
A mild climate with ample rainfall proved exceptionally favorable for farming—both for regular crops and for the preferred recreational one.
As an example, Arcata enjoys fresh organic local produce from its wonderful farmers market from early April though late November.
© Pavlo Vakhrushev / Fotolia
The sense of community built by the large numbers who came, extraordinary beauty and gentle climate of the region, and relative closeness to the San Francisco Bay Area all played a part in attracting and keeping new people.
Today, green politics and a ban on genetically engineered farm production in Mendocino County are just two legacies of hippies who came here in such large numbers years ago. In Humboldt, a “Genetic Contamination Prevention Ordinance” goes on ballot November 2014.
In Arcata, eco sewage treatment fills a marsh with wildlife and birdwatchers. Near downtown, Arcata maintains a large and sustainable redwood forest.
Nothing better epitomizes the creative spirit of the people who came than the absolutely wild 3-day Triathlon of the Art World that starts in Arcata each May.
Watch the following using a full screen!
Astonishing human-powered all-terrain kinetic sculptures race 42 miles over land and water via an extremely grueling route.
Although new settlers spread out throughout the area—you notice their influence in every town—Arcata with its progressive Humboldt State University became the larger city most impacted.
Even today, journalists know that Arcata provides a colorful story, still often at odds with so-called “Middle America” mores.
(You may have to click above twice to have video with music)
During 1996, Arcata elected the first Green Party government in the United States. In 2014, a "Green" outlook still characterizes Arcata politics.
Want a challenge? Find a Republican in Arcata. MSNBC viewers die and then go to heaven here.
On the other hand, in this incestuous political setting Arcata lacks an opposition to test coherence of its majority and to offer alternative solutions.
Nuclear weapons are banned in Arcata CA. Remember that as you pack for your trip.
An Arcata Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Commission monitors the situation and sponsors various peace initiatives.
During the Bush Administration, Arcata judged the Iraq War illegal and directed police not to round up deserters. When war continued, the city symbolically impeached President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
Concerned about military recruiters in its schools, Arcata outlawed recruiting of minors.
“You will find that establishing trust and credibility with students—even seventh- and eighth-graders—can positively impact high school and postsecondary school recruiting efforts” -- U.S. Army Recruiting Command Manual 3-01
The federal government sued and won.
“The Congress shall have the power . . . To raise and support Armies . . . To provide and maintain a Navy . . .” -- Section 8, U.S. Constitution
Image above: © blue67 / Fotolia
© Tolchik / Fotolia
Looking for a Walmart?
National chains are banned in Arcata, with a few exceptions.
One has to wonder about the size of the Arcata tax drain due to nonbelievers seeking bargains out of town.
On the other hand, Arcata enjoys a lively small business community that harkens back to the days when Americans enjoyed close personal relationships with their merchants.
You’ll find Arcata’s independent restaurant selection outstanding for a city of its size. Join its eco-glitterati at outstanding places like Renata’s Creperie.
© cmeree / Fotolia
“What an environmentally sensitive place!” I thought. All those drivers not exceeding speed limits on a freeway near Arcata CA.
Then it dawned that traffic violations give law officers the right to search vehicles.
In Humboldt and Mendocino, you notice evidence of marijuana production seemingly everywhere. Up to two-thirds of income in Mendocino County may come from marijuana, according to CNBC.
Virtual supermarkets of pot production paraphernalia line highways.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, marijuana tourism has not been fully welcomed by many of those who came in the 60s and 70s.
Especially resented are young travelers who do not share a reverence for nature. Locals recoil at piles of garbage and even human waste left at unauthorized campsites.
We’ve strayed far from the mellow days when hippies grew a few pot plants mostly for personal consumption.
Cultivation has become big business and an all too often malevolent one.
Proponents argue legalize pot usage to prevent problems. Monitoring what happens since use became legal at the state level in Colorado, etc. may determine that.
The Humboldt Sheriff Department's Drug Enforcement Unit at one point believed 50% of the outdoor grow sites raided were cartel operations, according to the Times-Standard of Eureka CA.
At one location, law enforcement seized 134,082 plants already 1 to 3 feet tall. This scale of production hidden in a forest seriously negatively impacts a natural environment.
Although that seizure occurred outdoors, large-scale operations have largely moved indoors due to aerial surveillance.
“Law enforcement officials estimate that as many as 1,000 of the 7,500 homes in [Arcata] are being used to cultivate marijuana, slashing into the housing stock, spreading building-safety problems, and sowing neighborhood discord.” – LA Times, May 30, 2008.
You find increasing concern about these facilities, where a highly armed “grow house,” with Pit Bulls and Rottweilers at the ready, may exist next to family homes with children.
Arcata now taxes at 45% "excessive" electricity use as a way to inhibit these operations. This may garner Arcata some $1,000,000 in revenue per year. Think about that.
Weak legal economies in Humboldt and Mendocino counties continue to drive entry into illegal behavior.
After more than a century of not replacing redwoods cut, chickens have come home to roost. Greed decimated the lawful economic prospects of the current generation. Shuttered lumber mills stand testament.
Adjacent to the remaining coastal redwood groves, you view heart wrenching giant fields of huge stumps never replanted.
These celestial trees once thrived from near Santa Barbara all the way into Oregon. According to the Save the Redwoods League, just 5% of the original old-growth forests remains. This equates to approximately the land area of San Jose CA.
The local fishing industry, traditionally strong, also faces serious issues of depletion.
The usually minimal income jobs generated by increased tourism do not make up for higher income job losses.
Image above: © surpasspro / Fotolia
Some point to an anti-business climate--exemplified they say by overzealous regulations, oppressive taxes, and permit processes unfriendly to business--that smothers opportunities for high paying labor union-type employment in the region.
For example, both Arcata and adjacent Eureka front the only large harbor still available for development in California. This could easily be restricted to non dangerous cargos.
However, local distaste for the big box stores that would use the harbor to bring in Asian shipments could doom permit approval for jobs being created by any port project.
Image above: © Tolchik / Fotolia
© Tolchik / Fotolia
Two factors bring hope for a better economy:
Adjacent to Humboldt County, Del Norte County largely lacks the countercultural influences described here.
You have to wonder if the “hippie invasion” that occupied Humboldt and Mendocino counties was made to feel especially unwelcome upon reaching Del Norte.
In terms of per capital personal income in 2006, Del Norte ranked 56th out of 58 counties in California. Meanwhile, in spite of their generally rural, weak, and often not reported to IRS economies, Humboldt ranked 34th and Mendocino 31st.
Since the 1960's, Mendocino and Humboldt have enjoyed the advantages of new people. Like them or not, these settlers brought new ways of thinking and an upsurge in creativity.
One thing that everyone can agree on: This part of northwestern California continues to be one of the most fascinating regions to visit in the United States.
Their redwoods and stunning seashores certainly make Humboldt and Mendocino two of the most beautiful places in the world. I highly recommend them both.
I leave you with Heart of Gold. Neil Young didn’t settle in Arcata CA--his home sits among redwoods further south--but he fits the type. Enjoy.
A special shout-out goes to former publisher Kevin Hoover of the Arcata Eye, what may have been America’s finest small town newspaper. Among his talents, Kevin took police logs to an entirely new level. I am proud to have been a subscriber.
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