Since the invention of feeling good, humans have been looking for new ways/excuses to drink. This time, seven stumbly Humboltians had a mission: Over the course of a three-night weekend, soak up the soul of Humboldt's most far flung watering holes -- specifically, every stinkin' bar in the county in communities with populations less than 10,000. Apologies to Eureka, Arcata, Fortuna and McKinleyville but, for this project anyway, you're too metro. Our good time destinations would be places like Rio Dell, Willow Creek and Myer's Flat. That's just how we roll.
To make sure we didn't miss anybody, we accessed the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control records, which list every active license to sell liquor. There aren't as many small town bars as you'd think in Humboldt and, in fact, our assignment would have been much more difficult just a few years ago when bars in Orick, Shelter Cove and Carlotta were still serving. We didn't have to make those treks in 2012. Thanks, economy. And we dodged a trip out to Petrolia by unintentionally scheduling our crawl a week before the opening of the Yellow Rose. Sorry, Lost Coast.
Did I make all the excuses required? K, good. Now let's drink.
Or skip to a specific bar:
1. Mingo's Sports Bar, Rio Dell
2. The Palace, Ferndale
3. Hotel Ivanhoe, Ferndale
4. Scotia Inn, Scotia
5. Trading Post Saloon, Myers Flat
6. Riverwood Inn, Phillipsville
7. Benbow Inn, Benbow
8. Branding Iron, Garberville
9. The Blue Room, Garberville
10. Brass Rail Inn, Redway
11. E&O Lanes, Glendale
12. Logger Bar, Blue Lake
13. P&J Billiards, Willow Creek
14. Simon Legree's, Hawkins Bar
15. The Forks, Willow Creek
16. Clam Beach Inn, Clam Beach
17. Ocean Grove, Trinidad
Mingo's Sports Bar, Rio Dell, Thursday, 7 p.m.
A bottle's throw from the north end of the Eagle Prairie Bridge, which connects the once timber-supported towns of Rio Dell and Scotia, you'll find Mingo's Sports Bar. Inside were previews of the upcoming staples of our sudsy safari: You've got yer pool table, you've got yer jukebox, you've got plenty of NASCAR, NFL and corporate beer memorabilia littering every square inch of wall space. Unique to Mingo's was the sign where the curve had been smudged out of the "P" so it read "Any Fucker Vodka drink $4.50."
In our crawl pre-planning, concerns had been raised that the vibrancy of establishments visited on Thursday might not be fairly represented. But even though it was barely evening, Mingo's was full of all the yelled profanity and general rowdiness you'd want. The boisterous star of the show, a woman with pulled back red hair sporting a gray West Coast Choppers sweatshirt, was making a point to engage everyone who entered the bar.
"Dee Bass," she introduced herself before yelling a clarification, "like the fish!"
"So what are you guys doin' with that camera?" asked Connie, the bartender in the shirt that read "Do not start with me, you will not win."
"We're doing an art project," I replied, then explained our Journal sojourn. Dee wasn't through with us. "I've got my name tattooed on my arm! Wanna see?" She quickly peeled off her sweatshirt to reveal a monocolor widemouth bass tattoo on her forearm. Nice.
Next Bar: The Palace, Ferndale
The Palace, Ferndale, Thursday, 9 p.m.
With daylight to spare, the crawl crew journeyed across Fernbridge and down Ferndale's Main Street to find ample curbside parking in front of the bright red Victorian facade of The Palace saloon -- the only bar from the Cream City on our official list. Once inside, we were treated to no shortage of complimentary amenities: free popcorn, shuffleboard, a bug zapper and a menagerie of decapitated beasts of the field adorning the walls.
"I see you taking pictures of this stuff," a man who'd later introduce himself as "Lou" said to me. He motioned towards a wall featuring four bighorn sheep donated to the bar by "Rich Lewis" of Fortuna he thought I should document. "That's the grand slam of the rams! These are from four different continents." (According to the cards pinned underneath them they were all from North America. But who you gonna trust?) Back at the bar crawlers were getting getting wet and playful.
After a long philosophical discussion with the bartender Danny on what does and does not constitute a sport -- "Anything that a person who could possibly get a 4.0 grade point average can do: not a sport," according to Danny -- conversation turned to possible tension in the room between some of the Palace regulars and one of our crew members, KSLG DJ John Matthews. Apparently, feelings were still a bit raw after the John had brought attention to the allegations of hurled racial epithets last year at a Ferndale High School football game.
"You kinda shit where you eat, John," Danny opined. John brushed off the assertion. Asked for his personal feelings, Danny said, "I tend to like him. But there are people here who would rather see him skidding across the pavement."
Eventually we went back to the sports debate.
"We're gonna head on up the street," Larry Trask signaled.
Next Bar: Hotel Ivanhoe, Ferndale
Hotel Ivanhoe, Ferndale, Thursday, 10:30 p.m.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on. Up the street? According to our thus-far-sacred itinerary we were only supposed to go to two bars on Thursday. Really? The crawl crew could not even get through Day One without the purity of the mission being sullied? I had a nice, clean list of twelve bars on the list with a working title in mind of "12 Bar Blues" -- get it?! But DJ and fellow crawler Larry Trask, Ferndale sympathizer that he is, insisted on a short jaunt down the block to Ferndale's Hotel Ivanhoe. I had specifically tried to stay out of establishments whose main focus was not getting you drunk. I wanted "bar" bars, without exactly knowing what that meant.
Inside the Ivanhoe, a generally older but vibrant room was singing along to the house band's version of "Goodnight Irene." Lack of legitimate dance space did not hinder older couples wedged between the dinner tables and the band from swaying adorably together. The place retains the same historic-but-cozy spirit of much of Ferndale. The walls are cluttered with old photos of notable Ferndaleans of yesteryear. And, admittedly, there's a physical, fully stocked bar.
We gathered around a table in the middle of the room to hammer out our venue selection criteria, since the dozen bar list was proving controversial. The upshot -- it had feel like a bar. And so, on Day One, our crawl would no longer be based on science but on a religion we constructed as we went. This new course meant we now had to walk across the street to the Victorian Inn. It felt like a bar, for sure. Everyone in?
Alas, it was closed. Ugh. Things were falling apart. Breathalyzer readings were taken, rides were arranged and the crew made plans to meet for Day Two's trip to SoHum.
Next Bar: Scotia Inn, Scotia
Scotia Inn, Scotia, Friday, 5:30 p.m.
Our more inclusive itinerary almost doubled the number of Day Two establishments we had to visit. Bring it. Down an abridged flight of stairs, the Scotia Inn Pub is intentionally less lavish than the rest of the Inn. Its low light and low ceilings make it feel like a cozy converted basement. Historic photos of the once bustling timber company town line the walls.
The crew ordered drinks and then took up pens and started filling out bar review forms we'd created, hoping that at the end of our voyage we'd have some quantifiable way to rank the watering holes. We'd tried to make it fun, from obvious categories like "Amenities" and "Drink Quality," to the more probing "Sketchiness" and "Patron Hotness." After being somewhat lax the first day, I really wanted to get observations, praises and gripes on paper.
Down at the end of the bar, a sign on the wall read "Wisdom Corner?" Conveniently, the man sitting on the actual bar corner, Roby Agnew, claimed to be Wisdom Corner?'s creator, while speaking in riddles of its significance. (It's really just where he and the boys hang out).
"You notice the question mark?," Agnew asked. "We're not really sure how wise it is to sit down here because we're usually all fucked up by the time we leave."
While we were talking, one of the waitresses placed a thick, juicy steak in front of Agnew. Maybe it was a wise place to sit after all.
Next Bar: Trading Post Saloon, Myers Flat
Trading Post Saloon, Myers Flat, Friday, 6:30 p.m.
The huge sign in the front window: "We Love God, the American Constitution, & the Tea Party. And we'll die for all of them."
Sweet! This felt like exactly what we were looking for. Once eyes adjusted from the SoHum sun to the dark interior, we took in the Trading Post's charm. Formerly an antique store, it had no shortage of mismatched artifacts -- stone Buddhas, ancient cameras, a burl bear. Stacks upon stacks of alcohol cases seeped out from one corner into the rest of the bar.
While a few presumed patrons basked in the sun out front, the bar was empty except for us and Kim, the young, talkative raven-haired bartender who was loving her still fairly new Humboldt experience.
"I came here for three months. That was a year ago," Kim said of her migration from New Orleans to the middle of nowhere to work on a farm in Briceland. She'd tended bar previously and eventually got sucked into the Trading Post world.
She let us take drinks outside, and after we explained our mission, she let us lie on the bar for an impromptu photo shoot. Kim just requested we remove our shoes.
"This place could be a destination," Larry said. Reluctantly, we said goodbye to Kim, breathalyzed and pressed on.
Next Bar: Riverwood Inn, Phillipsville
Riverwood Inn, Phillipsville, Friday, 8:30 p.m.
After miles of nothing except Avenue of the Giants' asphalt and humongous foliage, the Riverwood Inn is an impressive sight. A favorite biker stop, the well-maintained roadhouse has always seemed to overachieve, with a steady stream of out of town, accomplished bands. And the Mexican food is decent. With rooms available, the mythology I'd heard always included late night rockin', drinkin' and safely crashin'.
Unfortunately, none of that was happening tonight. The crawl crew entered the main room and moseyed up to the bar where an older bartender served us mostly margaritas. She wasn't much for conversation, and we ended up transfixed by the televised London Olympics opening ceremonies.
I mean, the place looks great. With the exception of the Benbow Inn, there probably wasn't a classier joint on our list. The floors are ludicrously shiny and many of the walls have beautiful redwood paneling. Some are lined with framed, signed concert posters and pictures of the bands that have played here. We shoulda waited for a band. This felt like being at Disneyland when none of the rides were running.
Next Bar: Benbow Inn, Benbow
Benbow Inn, Benbow, Friday, 9:30 p.m.
Sticking out like a sore but finely manicured thumb on our predominantly dive bar weekend was the only Tudor-style establishment on our revised list: the historic Benbow Inn. Just how historic, we were about to find out.
Making our way through the hotel lobby's summertime traveler bustle, we found the Benbow Inn's inviting piano bar. A few of us fanned out to take in the architecture. Lots of leather to sit on. We got all misty eyed watching fellow crew members and lovebirds Andy Powell and Alanna Goldsmith wander around the expansive, romantically lit terrace. Did I mention it was Alanna's birthday? It was.
Back in the bar, I asked one of the waitresses if she could give me some trivia about the building. She was pretty sure it had been built by German woodworkers in the 1920s and, oh by the way, there's a Nazi symbol up there.
"Where?" I asked.
"Right ... there," she said, pointing right above my head. It was dark, but I shined a light on my camera up to a nook in a pillar adjacent to the bar. Sure enough, centered in the woodwork was a deliberate, raised unmistakable swastika. If you didn't know it was there, there was little to no chance you'd notice it.
Judging by a slight difference in the shading of the wood, we theorized that it had been scratched at and fussed with some over the years, but that the establishment had not tried to remove it.
John was outraged. "If there was a swastika on the side of the station, I'd be the first person out there to shave that shit off."
"But the swastika meant something else before the Nazis took it over," Alanna said. John wasn't having it.
Consensus on the Benbow Inn swastika could not be reached.
Next Bar: Branding Iron, Garberville
Branding Iron, Garberville, Friday, 10:30 p.m.
"Wow! G-ville be hoppin'!"
Separate pods of done-up women and collared-shirt, flat-billed-hat-wearing gentlemen roamed the street. Some were coming from a burlesque benefit show at the Garberville Theater, which had provided an extra shot of life to the scene.
The pounding beats of Peaches' "Fuck the Pain Away" took residency in our ears as we made our way into the Branding Iron, where we were instantly confronted with the bar's main attraction.
Stripper pole. Right in the center of the room. I climbed to the top. Crew member Katie Hennessy spun around a few times giggling, never leaving her feet. We were soon put to shame by "Rhonda," a young, blonde regular in sandals and plaid shorts who, among other things, performed a mid-air splits and descended head down from the pole using only her legs to hold on. We were impressed.
The rest of the bar seemed to fit the rural bar mode: taxidermied animal noggin, corporate beer signs, pool tables, soulless digital jukebox with exactly the same music selection in every location. (Remember when you had no choice but to grow to love the Garth Brooks live album? Simpler times.) An electronic boxing machine in the corner took our dollars but wasn't giving coherent readings. We still don't know if Larry or Alana punches harder.
Next Bar: The Blue Room, Garberville
The Blue Room, Garberville, 11:30 p.m.
Oh joy! -- there was another bar in Garberville I hadn't allotted time for: The Blue Room. Great. (I studied that liquor license list from the state later, and realized I missed The Blue Room because its name wasn't listed -- just its address.)
The Blue Room's "blue" is produced by some blue plastic covered rope lights strung above the bar, bathing the room in the desired hue. The most notable feature was its liquor case, where you can buy an off sale bottle of Jose Cuervo to take home if you want to keep goin' after they kick you out at 2 a.m. I guess that's kinda cool.
Andy and his lady friend decided to part ways one bar early, and no amount of protesting could sway him.
Andy blew: ".00". Alanna blew: ".15". We made our way to our final destination.
Next Bar: Brass Rail Inn, Redway
Brass Rail Inn, Redway, Friday, 12:45 a.m.
Our ranks depleted, the remaining crawlers braved Redwood Drive and turned into the jam-packed Brass Rail Inn parking lot, where an unmistakable sound from inside filled the night air.
"Oh, it's karaoke night," Larry said. "Perfect."
We made our way inside toward the most out of key rendition ever of "Killing Me Softly." The bar's main room was full of frenetic drunken belligerence. People running into each other. People yelling at each other. Aggressive karaoke being sung. The exaggerated swaying of the gentleman with the devil horns strapped to his head led to a collision as I made my way to the bar -- my fault, really. The wall-to-wall carpet and grandma's house wallpaper made it feel like a fraternity living room.
At the bar a woman named "Molly" approached Larry with a plastic jar and told him he hadn't paid to get in.
"For karaoke night?" Larry asked.
"C'mon, just three dollars!" she insisted.
"Do you even work here?" he asked. The price dropped slightly after it was revealed that she did not. Larry declined to pay.
The guy who screamed while sitting on the floor, without any discernable cadence or tone, through a karaoke version of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" that, while entertaining seemed like an omen and I asked the others if they were ready to go.
Not really trusting their drunken assessments, I pulled the plug.
Next Bar: E&O Lanes, Glendale
E&O Lanes, Glendale, Saturday, 4 p.m.
By now I was herding weary, hungover cats. Our Day Three meet time was marred by delays and even some reluctance to continue (you know who you are). But we were scheduled to visit Humboldt's extreme east and north. Defying our bodies, the seven of us pulled it together in front of E&O Lanes in mid-afternoon.
This place is famous as the bowling alley where you have to know how to correctly score bowling via pencil and paper, but we resisted the temptation to throw strikes and gutters. Instead, we ventured into the D&L Lounge (Glendale is out of ampersands).
Maybe the only memorable aspect of D&L is the floor. It's green. Like, waaay bright green. Like, someone skinned a hundred Kermit the Frogs and said, "Let's walk on these." Green.
"What are you taking pictures for?" the bartender asked suspiciously. When I told her the Journal she went on to tell me how she'd been none too pleased by a picture of her being "drunk and stupid" at the Redwood Run some years back. I didn't take her picture.
After a few dog hairs and pool games, the crew 299'd it east.
Next Bar: Logger Bar, Blue Lake
Logger Bar, Blue Lake, Saturday, 5 p.m.
The Logger Bar in Blue Lake has seen better days and yet clings to enough scraps of soul that make it more endearing than most bars on our list. Rock shows still occasionally draw the cool kids out to pack the place. Over the years, the Logger had been able to resist much of the Budweiser and NASCAR signage that make many bars look identical. It covers its walls with antique timber industry memorabilia -- rusty saws, uncomfortable-looking hard hats, badass pick axes. I was saddened to find out that it had sold the piano.
We were the only customers. After serving us drinks, longtime Logger Bar tender Brenda came around and sat in a chair, tilting back while she did needlepoint and watched Law and Order on an old full-depth TV.
We were soon joined by Alana's sister and a few other friends, and the dancing began. A middle-aged man with a thick mustache and an orange shirt that read "Too Many Freaks, Too Few Circuses" looked on.
Next Bar: P&J Billiards, Willow Creek
P&J Billiards, Willow Creek, Saturday, 6:45 p.m.
After a windy, uphill Highway 299 climb, P&J Billiards was the first of two bars on our list on Willow Creek's main drag. Sure, it has four well-maintained pool tables and darts. But the big discoverand a wall packed with framed and embossed articles and awards from cuemaker publications and organizations (they exist). This place be makin' its own sticks! Turns out Pete Tonkin -- the "P" in "P&J" -- and Tonkin Custom Cues are kind of a big deal in the industry.
A Humboldtian his whole life, Tonkin had been a machinist on the coast for years before a love of pool led him to try his hand at full-time cue-making about 12 years ago. He has a back-room workshop with elaborate woodworking machinery and row after row of unfinished pool cues. And he ain't doing too shabby. He's sold pieces for as much as $20,000 to avid cue collectors (they exist!). And truly, the pieces are pretty extraordinary, decorated with intricate designs in silver, snakewood and pre-ban ivory. His work earned him the "Cue of the Year" Award in 2010 from the American Cuemakers Association.
"I'm one of the top three cuemakers in the world right now," Tonkin said. Seems plausible.
While P&J's stocks world class pool ball-propelling art, take note future crawlers: no grub.
Next Bar: Simon Legree's, Hawkins Bar
Simon Legree's, Hawkins Bar, Saturday, 9 p.m.
There was one geographic exception on our rural Humboldt bar crawl. About 10 miles east of Willow Creek on Highway 299, just over the Trinity County line in the small community of Hawkins Bar, is Simon Legree's.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, "Simon Legree" is the slave owner who buys, torments and eventually kills Tom, the anti-slavery novel's black protagonist. Not a good guy. The fact that someone would name a business out in the hills after this character had always astonished me, and our crawl crew had agreed upfront to this rule bending. With a name like that, we were surely guaranteed some jaw-dropping display of overt racism, right? Oh boy!
Inside the uninspiring brown boxy building, the natural wood walls and vaulted ceilings were actually pretty inviting. A quick scan of the room revealed no declarations of Aryan superiority. Two white gentlemen sat at the bar where a black woman in her early thirties was running the show. "Oh, that's funny," Larry said smiling and shaking his head as he sat.
We asked Victoria, the bartender, how the bar came to have such a dubious moniker. "You'd have to ask the previous owner," she said. "Maybe he was an asshole. Who knows?"
Next Bar: The Forks, Willow Creek
The Forks, Willow Creek, Saturday, 9:45 p.m.
Earlier that evening, we'd gotten a tip from Steven Streufert of Bigfoot Books. Seems he was a consultant of sorts for a Bigfoot-themed film, and if we timed it right, we could scratch The Forks off our list while hanging with the film crew. And oh, by the way, the film's director will be there: Bobcat Goldthwait.
Are you kidding? For those of you who aren't instantly like "whoa"d by that name, Goldthwait was a pretty big deal in the ‘80s as a stand-up comedian. And he was the loud, hyperactive gang leader-later-to-become-officer Zed McGlunk in a string of Police Academy movies. Sure, sure. In recent years, though, he's reinvented himself as a dark comedic screenwriter/film director of such films as World's Greatest Dad and God Bless America. Oh, and some Bigfoot movie divinely scheduled to collide with our bar crawl.
We pulled up to The Forks to find an unmistakable short, stout man in golf hat and thick-rimmed glasses, standing with others outside.
"That's him!" fanboy Will Startare said excitedly. Before we even had a chance to play it cool, Bobcat must have sensed that we were there with purpose and asked us what we were up to.
"We're doing an art project too," I said, explaining that we were documenting all the local rural bars for the Journal.
"Oh, can we have our picture taken?" he asked. Yeah, that would be cool.
"We're gonna have a guy from our crew do a song about Bigfoot," Bobcat went on. "Perhaps we can use your bar crawl people?"
Are you kidding? The crawl crew, along with other bar patrons, gleefully signed release forms and gathered in a corner of the bar -- oh right, the bar. Uh, The Forks looked a lot like the other ones. A cast member with a ukulele played a song he'd written that day about the Pattison-Gimlin film shot in Orleans in 1966. Apparently, we were a bit too reverent in take one.
"It's OK to smile and stuff!" Bobcat directed us. "Just think about how you really would react to this. He's also playing a ukulele."
Take two was sufficient, filming wrapped for the night and drinking and photo taking commenced.
Next Bar: Clam Beach Inn, Clam Beach
Clam Beach Inn, Clam Beach, Saturday, 11:45 p.m.
Are we done yet? The combination of the long trip out to the coast and the 15 bars that stretched behind us colored our of the Clam Beach Inn. While "The Digger" as it is known, was easily one of the livelier bars of the weekend, we huddled apathetically at the bar. We were done meeting people.
But the camera around my neck again gave us away. One giant, aggressive bearded guy in a Slayer shirt kept demanding I take his picture until I showed him one he was happy with. Another gentleman invited me to photograph him as he spun a quarter on the bar and attempted to stop it standing on its edge with his index finger.
Everyone in the crew seemed to agree that The Digger was nicer than the last time they were there, though in each case they could not cite when said "last time" was. The bar did offer another chance at shuffleboard -- the first since the Palace. Yet another Rendezvous digital jukebox offered the exact same music as every other similar machine. Jukeboxes, it seems, are lacking soul these days.
Next Bar: Ocean Grove, Trinidad
Ocean Grove, Trinidad, Saturday, 1 a.m.
Sure, the Grove has had more aesthetically pleasing eras. These days it's aging, rusting furniture, paint-challenged floors and stained ceilings. But recently the Grove has overachieved by hosting DJ'd dance nights in the alcove next to the bar. Despite ceilings low enough to scrape your knuckles if you're not cautious with your fist pumps, the dance nights are pretty popular.
On this night, young members of the Humboldt Free Radio Alliance were undeterred by an empty room. Flanked by an aloof, beer-sipping posse and using a tarp covered pool table shoved in the corner to hold his gear, DJ Shell Shock enthusiastically bobbed his head as he filled the room with old skool hip-hop for no one. During a break he approached us.
"You're from the Journal?" he said. "So you're here to cover me? OK! Take all the pictures you want!"
After logging a solid half hour of Grove-age, Andy signaled the end of the journey. "I think we're gonna take off," he said motioning for the breathalyzer. He passed. So did I, driver of our second car. Our tail lights glowed in night drizzle. Dragon slayed. Time for bed. The next day we would all have to rise from the crawl position and stand again as real humans.