All's been quiet on the railroad for a few months. The old Northwestern Pacific line, that dead set of tracks from Humboldt County to the Bay Area, has been as quiet and trainless this summer as it has for the last 10 years. Strangely, though, even debate about the railroad seems to have gone on summer break. No one's been much talking about the grand plans to reopen the 300-mile track, which would surely cure all our economic ills.
Instead, attention, such as it is, has focused on the railroad's kissing cousin and partner in the master plan to revivify our economy -- the Port of Humboldt Bay, supposed future home of an international freight terminal. Since the entrance of investment firm Goldman Sachs into scene, offering to sell off long-term leases on the assets of both the port and the railroad, everyone's been focused on the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. Ask anyone on the sister agency, the North Coast Railroad Authority, about the Goldman Sachs deal and you get the official non-answer -- vee know nossing!
All that is set to change this month, as the railroad steps back into the limelight. In fact, there's a whole three-day extravaganza of port and rail development activities scheduled for next week, in and around Eureka. First up, on Tuesday, the long-dormant Bay Stewards will hold one of their informational fora, this time specifically about the Bay District's plan to develop its marine terminal. (The forum will start at 6:30 p.m., in Eureka's Wharfinger Building.) What, specifically, is the Bay District planning for? How many cruise ships per year? How much military cargo? How many container ships? Has the Goldman Sachs deal gone south, as was recently reported in the Times-Standard? Insofar as anyone has actual numbers, whether imaginary or non-imaginary, they will likely be presented here.
Then, to skip ahead a day, the Bay District itself will have its regular meeting on the evening of the following Thursday, Aug. 14. (Check next week's paper for venue.) This will be the latest in a series of meetings in which the great freight plan will be discussed and debated, and occasional shards of actual information might squeak their way through before the district approves its draft plan at the end of the month, by a vote of 3-2.
Sandwiched between these events, but in no way connected to them, is the monthly meeting of the North Coast Railroad Authority, which generally pops into town every third month. On the agenda will be a plan to finally hand over the future Annie & Mary Trail, a bit of track between Arcata and Blue Lake, to an agency that will put the tracks to use for pedestrians and cyclists. Word is that there's going to be a great deal of movement on the Annie & Mary in the near future, following the smashing success of McKinleyville's Hammond Trail last year.
What most emphatically will not be on the NCRA agenda is anything to do with the great freight plan, which up to now has been the entire rationale for bringing the trains back to Humboldt Bay (and for refusing the entreaties of the trail people, who want to see 100 Hammonds bloom, especially between Eureka and Arcata). Two years ago, when it was seeking bail-out money from the state, the authority confidently forecast that it would be moving 1,000 containers per day out of the Port of Humboldt Bay by the year 2011. Now, it has to do its best to pretend that Humboldt Bay does not exist at all.
That's because of August's main event. On Tuesday, Aug. 26, the city of Novato's big lawsuit against the NCRA, which has been joined by the county of Marinand a multitude of environmental organizations, is set to go to trial. The lawsuit challenges the adequacies of the railroad authority's environmental studies; if the petitioners are successful, the NCRA -- a public agency, mind -- will actually have to make a plan for its entire line, and put that plan on paper. This it desperately wishes not to do. So while the case gears up, the railroad authority has to pretend that it has nothing to do with Humboldt County. Barely heard of the place. To admit otherwise would be to bolster Novato's argument.
So if you go to the NCRA's meeting and want to watch the authority's directors squirm, just go ahead and the most basic of questions. Is reopening the line to Humboldt County on the table, or off? Either answer has immense -- and, for the authority, immensely unpleasant -- consequences.
Word to the wise: Don't break down in Piercy at 10:30 p.m. on Reggae weekend.
All told, I spent several hours on the side of the road last Friday night, driving a couple of miles then pulling over on the side of the road for an hour to let the engine cool. The best stop was at the Patriot gas station there at the entrance to Richardson Grove, right across from the festival. The heads offered me beer and mechanical advice, even though I couldn't help them with contraband tickets. Eventually I made it back to Garberville, where I slept in the car. The streets were empty, as if the entire town had decamped to hear UB40 play the banks of the Eel. It came to me that I have only spent the night in Garberville twice in my life, both times because I had been stranded there.
When I woke in the morning I set about securing the essentials: coffee and a mechanic. The first was no problem; the second, I found, was impossible. There were a few places open, but they all told me that I would have to make an appointment three weeks in advance. And no, I couldn't leave my car there in the meanwhile. It was a sympathetic tow truck driver who eventually sorted me out in time-honored SoHum fashion -- he figured a way for me to scam AAA out of a free tow back to my mechanics in Eureka. It worked beautifully, but it turned out to be all for naught. Blown head gasket.
So it wasn't really worth it in strict financial terms, but I have to say that this little trip back in time to my 20s had its sweet side. I stood on the side of the highway for an hour on a warm moonless night, all alone except for the last strands of a bass line worming their way up the canyon. Since the ATMs and shops were all closed at Avenue of the Giants, I had to spange for quarters to work the air and water machine. Once in town, I had to scope out quiet spots to park my rig for the night. I've all but resolved to do this once a year, every August -- to take off somewhere with no money or prospects, to fight my way there and back and see what I can make of it. Only thing is, I can't tell whether I'm motivated by nostalgia for America's high times or fear of its future collapse.