Humboldt Pie

Mo Better is wearing a scarlet tutu, white tights, and a sailor cap crown, which is fitting, since she's the reining Rutabaga Queen. Beyond her a 20-ft metal rhino is launched into the Humboldt Bay. Incredibly, the thing doesn't sink. The crew inside pedals furiously and the rhino glides across the water. Behind them, a female crew wearing fuchsia wigs prepares Freedom, a massive pink elephant, for launch. At the end of the dock, a giant squid with bulging eyes sits on top of an orange lobster, and a pit crew adjusts the pontoons.

Acid flashback? Burning Man by the Bay? No, this is the Kinetic Sculpture Race, a whimsical, art-meets-transportation competition that's been a Humboldt County tradition for 34 years. Contestants build human-powered apparatuses and drive them from Arcata to Ferndale over muddy slopes, through sand dunes, and across Humboldt Bay.

My fiancé and I arrived in Ferndale on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, a day before the three-day, 38-mile race. We'd borrowed his mom's T-top Camaro and begun weaving our way up north from San Francisco. Opting to take the Pacific Coast Highway for a stretch, we turned off 101 in Cloverdale, leaving behind Airstream trailers, SUVs with kayaks strapped to their roofs, and the occasional lumber truck.

Freedom circles the Arcata Plaza.
Dan Dion
Freedom circles the Arcata Plaza.
Reigning Rutabaga Queen Mo Better and Rodney, her Royal Consort.
Dan Dion
Reigning Rutabaga Queen Mo Better and Rodney, her Royal Consort.
Reigning Rutabaga Queen Mo Better and Rodney, her Royal Consort.
Dan Dion
Reigning Rutabaga Queen Mo Better and Rodney, her Royal Consort.

Five hours later, we checked into our suite at the Gingerbread Mansion Inn. We were jazzed to find two claw-foot bathtubs in our room that faced each other toe-to-toe. The small private deck in back was dappled in late-afternoon sunlight. I put a bottle of Veuve Clicquot on ice, and we set out to explore the best-preserved Victorian town in California.

The town has remained largely unchanged since the late 19th century, and I had to resist the urge to abuse the c-word (cute, that is). It looks like a West Coast Norman Rockwell illustration with the Ferndale Enterprise standing in for the Saturday Evening Post. They even have a soda fountain on Main Street called The Candy Stick. Meticulously restored Stick, Eastlake, and Italianate Victorians with swirls of gingerbread trim, bay windows, turrets, and white picket fences line the streets. Some are painted in dazzling, unexpected color combinations that seemed to be inspired more by the '60s than the late 1800s.

As we turned onto Main Street, a pretty ivory-skinned brunette in overalls jumped out of a red pickup truck and skipped down the sidewalk, her mane of chestnut hair swinging from side to side. I felt like I'd slipped through a portal into a hippie version of Mayberry. Our dinner reservation was at Curly's Grill in the Victorian Inn, and we stopped to peek into the theater that played a starring role in the Jim Carrey movie The Majestic. Another film, Outbreak, was also filmed here.

We stopped at the Golden Gait Mercantile, where the floor dips and creaks and they sell old-fashioned salves and hair creams, penny candy, and tea cozies. Nearby at the Blacksmith Shop, owner Joe Koches forges weathervanes, fire pokers, and wrought-iron wine racks on the premises. I bought a hand-carved redwood mirror at Lemon Tree and a wide-brimmed, straw hat at Abraxas.

Back at the Gingerbread Mansion, champagne and bubble baths beckoned. We returned to the inn, with its dizzying patterns of striped and flowery wallpaper and twisted, murder-mystery theater charm. We fell asleep to old-time piano music piped into the parlor next door.

After a communal breakfast of ricotta-stuffed French toast, fresh fruit, and sublime local cheeses (this is dairy country) from the Loleta cheese factory, we set off to Arcata for the beginning of the race.

The Arcata Plaza is fringed with shops with names like Moonrise Herbs, Heart Bread, and Willow, a liquor store called Libation, and The Alibi, a dive bar. The hemp-and-cotton crowd lined the streets -- flaxen-haired children in baggy cargo shorts, wiry-haired eccentrics, and assorted infidels in dreadlocks and Birkenstocks.

On a platform, emcee Dana Hall, bearded and wearing a top hat, introduced contestants for this year's Rutabaga Queen contest, a zany pageant that was once won by a dog. On stage, Mo Better strutted her stuff and solicited votes.

At noon, the procession began. Contraptions ranging from simple abstractions of bicycles to ingenious works of art and engineering manned by entire crews were paraded around the square, stopping for safety tests -- and to bribe race officials. Cheating and bribery are encouraged; contestants vie for honors like the Most Mediocre Award and the Titanic Award (which goes to the first vehicle that sinks).

Later, we would trek across the sand and resume the action at Dead Man's Drop, the day's biggest challenge, but first we headed to lunch at Hurricane Kate's in Eureka for "world-fusion cuisine." Like the chef herself, the space was cheery and casual. Kate serves an extensive menu of specialty cocktails, like the tasty but potent Flirtini, a vodka/champagne concoction, and an eclectic menu that changes frequently. Lunch was a cup of creamy, spicy tomato soup for me, followed by a truly outstanding grilled halibut filet topped with red onion confit. Dan had the Cubano, one of Kate's signature sandwiches and a vegan's nightmare, stuffed with shaved pork, ham, turkey, and Swiss cheese. We also sampled a fantastic wood-fired pizza topped with basil pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, chèvre cheese, caramelized onions, and pine nuts.

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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