Humboldt Pie

For the next two nights, we had accommodations in Eureka at the Carter House, an enclave of three Victorians near downtown and the bay. Our sumptuous suite on the third floor of the hotel had rustic, unfinished wood furnishings, overstuffed chairs in front of a gas fireplace, a curtained, four-poster king-sized bed, and the best part -- a two-person Jacuzzi. I never wanted to leave.

Bathed in natural light, with starched white tablecloths and a massive hearth, one of Eureka's best eateries, Restaurant 301, is located on the first floor of Hotel Carter. Chef Robert Szolnoki gathers fresh produce and herbs from the hotel's gardens. Kumamoto oysters from Humboldt Bay star on the menu, and proprietor Mark Carter claims to have "the best wine list in Northern California." While I know a few San Francisco restaurateurs who might challenge that, the list is encyclopedic. Wine Spectator Awards abound, and there's a wine shop in the lobby.

After checking in, we headed off to experience Humboldt's natural treasures, the ancient, awe-inspiring redwoods. The intention was to hike Headwaters Forest, the old-growth reserve where Julia Butterfly Hill homesteaded in a tree for two years, but we got lost and cruised down the 31-mile Avenue of the Giants instead. Dodging the depressing drive-through tree and tacky shops selling chainsaw-carved bears and Indians, we pulled off south of Pepperwood.

The magnificence and enormity of these trees -- the tallest living things on Earth -- cannot be overstated. We padded over a soft cushion of rust-colored needles, the forest above dwarfing us into characters from a Grimm's fairy tale. In the silence, I felt like I was part of something bigger and wiser, compassionate and balanced.

Dinner on Saturday night was at Arcata's Jambalaya where, for the second time in two days, I was treated to one of the freshest, most ethereal pieces of fish I've ever tasted -- this time salmon.

I turned in early that night to do some work and read by the fire while Dan sought out the "encampment" where the racers spent the night in tents. We had been told it was a killer party. He didn't find them, but he hooked up with some local service-industry types for beers at the Lost Coast Brewery and the Shanty.

In the morning, we convened with a mob of hundreds at the boat-launch ramp. It was sunny and warm. With royal consort Rodney at her side, Mo Better proudly displayed her sash and crown. She handed me two packages of sparkling body-gem tattoos.

"Eureka is a wacky, wonderful, eccentric little town," she told me. Then she turned to address her public on a radio broadcast, urging, "Just go out there and love the town, and use your body kinetically."

As June Moxon and her fuchsia-haired crew eased their sculpture into the water, Rodney shook his head and laughed. "This is Humboldt County," he said, gesturing toward the scene before him, "where Freedom is a flying pink elephant."

Lisa Crovo is a writer and editor in San Francisco.

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