It was Sunday, a clear and warmish fall day, sun sitting low in the sky, with no wind even on the coast — a perfect day for civil disobedience.
It all started some months ago with a letter to the Journal from one Benjamin Garlick. He’s pushing 40 now, but I knew him as a slightly nerdy kid growing up in Fieldbrook. He ended up going to UC Davis before he began making his name and fortune in computer programming in the Silicon Valley. (If his name is familiar, his dad is retired HSU geology prof Don Garlick, who writes the Journal ’s science column.)
Benjamin, who lives in Trinidad part of the year with his own young family, said what we need to get a trail open from Arcata to Eureka is creativity and a little community action. He suggested some Kinetic Sculpture artists create a human-powered trolley, with a bike rack on the back and adorned with a Flatmo-mural, to ferry people back and forth between towns — running on the existing tracks.
Last Friday at a neighborhood potluck in Fieldbrook, a plan of action was hatched: Let’s just start using the trail. It’s a public right-of-way, isn’t it? It belongs to us. Even though my fellow potluckers are “of a certain age” (read: over 60), we are all strong walkers and have even been known to jump on bikes to peddle into Arcata for a Los Bagels breakfast — a 25-mile round trip at least. We could hike to Eureka. What is it anyway? Seven miles?
There were many enthusiasts that evening (after several glasses of wine) who thought it was a great idea, but come Sunday the group dwindled to three — all women, I noticed. No matter. It was a start. We parked down by the Arcata Marsh and set out armed with blackberry clippers and leather gloves. We were determined to walk on the railroad right-of-way itself, not the road and not on the well-maintained marsh trail that was 30 yards to the west of us. We cut and pulled vegetation blocking our path for about 20 minutes as we slowly made our way south. We skirted around a particularly substantial patch of wax myrtle trees that were actually growing up through the rotting railroad ties! We thought we were prepared, but blackberries tore through our lightweight pants and all three of us at one time or another tripped on the snaking berry vines.
More aggravating were the marsh walkers with their dogs who breezed by us on their trail, waving and cheering us on.
“Great idea! We need a trail to Eureka! Way to go! Good luck!”
Easy for them to say. My ankles were bleeding.
After half an hour we headed back to the car defeated. It was already 11:30. Maybe if we got out of Arcata, the tracks would be clear enough for walking. We tried a spot at the intersection of South G and 101. No way. Why didn’t we bring the weed whacker with the blade on it? Or at least a machete! Next we tried the abandoned house on the mudflats south of town. Although it looked promising at first, we didn’t get 100 yards before we were right back into the dense vegetation choking the tracks. We piled back in the car and headed for the Eureka end of the line as a potential starting point.
We cruised through the Target parking lot then past the MAC (homeless? houseless?) Center until we found what we were looking for: a break in the fence. Once through, the tracks were clear and the vista stunning. We were careful to stay on the tracks, but couldn’t help marvel at the beauty of the waterfront property now owned by the Arkley family adjacent to the Eureka slough. Then we crossed the sturdy railroad bridge and were finally headed on our journey to Arcata.
The first thing we encountered was an abandoned homeless camp tucked into the bank of the bay above the mudflats. We called hello, but no answer. There were a couple of tough patches of vegetation further on, and we cut our way though, bending and clipping. We ran across a second homeless camp, one that was particularly sad. Not 20 yards from traffic passing at more than 50 mph was a well concealed tent covered with brush. Inside was an ice chest, two rickety bikes, clothing and debris that indicated a rather permanent home. The clothing and shoes belonged to a woman and a child’s toy was on the bedding. Again, no one was home.
Later, when we finally reached a spot across from Carl Johnson Co., I had an idea: What we needed was a little encouragement, so I picked up my cell phone and called KHUM.
“Who’s on the air this afternoon? We may have a story.”
“Can I speak with her?”
“This IS Lila. What do you think, I have an evil secretary?”
She told me to call back in 20 minutes and when I did, she put me on the air to talk about what we were doing and why. (One of my fellow walkers said she really wants to see a trail between the two cities sometime during her lifetime, and we all agreed how tired we are of excuse-making politicians who keep saying, “All we need is money. Oh, and a return of the railroad!” Way to get re-elected, I guess.)
On the air, we had a brief discussion about trespassing. Lila opined that what we were doing couldn’t be trespassing since it was a public right-of-way. I ended by asking her listeners to honk in support of the trail and in sympathy for our blackberry wounds, and sure enough, we got an immediate honk.
Over the next two hours we made our way north. Every once in a while, when we were most visible from the highway, we’d get a honk and a wave. I waved my clippers back and as we hiked, we kept thinking about how we could continue this effort. One thing for sure is we need more help from both Eureka and Arcata ends of the line, people with a few power tools, more protective clothing, a supply line for gasoline, dumpsters for the trash, maybe some coffee and sandwiches. We all agreed it is entirely doable. With enough volunteers and a little effort the line could be cleared in a weekend.
The next question was the condition of the tracks, what could be done to make them more usable and recreation-friendly. Yes, there are some spots with sound railroad ties — very few. But mostly the ties are rotted and at several spots the railroad base has crumbled away leaving the rails and ties hanging. Surely if a real train is ever to run again, the rails would have to be pulled up, the base fixed and all the ties replaced anyway. What if the rails were pulled up now and stacked to the side or stored, and the ties removed and the right of way bladed smooth? Or, what if the rails were left and crushed road base used to fill in between the rails? Could we not have a good hiking trail that would accommodate mountain bikes for very little money while the railroad fans figure out whatever they are trying to figure out?
The further into the trip, the more the opinions flowed. What we really need — someday, for our children’s children — is light rail to move people between the two cities. Isn’t that a more important goal than a train for tourists to visit a museum out in Samoa? How many other communities already have such a tourist train and aren’t they all sinkholes for money? And freight trains? What freight? What community actually desires massive, slow-moving freight trains moving right through the loveliest part of the city, Eureka’s Old Town and the waterfront, how many times a day? Has anyone asked Eurekans if that’s what they want? How about the merchants?
As we approached Bracut Lumber, we figured we’d had enough rabble-rousing for one day and made the cellphone call to be picked up. While we waited we talked about the new link in the Hammond Trail north of McKinleyville and how crowded it’s been especially since the link opened the trail all the way to Clam Beach. If there is a need or desire for more hiking/biking/recreation trails, especially one linking the two most populous cities, the popularity of the Hammond Trail — even on weekdays — should be more than enough evidence. Where is that demand for freight to be hauled by rail? For a tourist train? (And please don’t be fooled by the same dozen letter writers whenever anyone challenges their logic.)
Eureka to Arcata is a lovely walk, by the way, especially through the shaded eucalyptus grove by Arcata Redwood and farther north, along the mudflats teeming with birds, revealing the sweeping panorama of the north bay toward Arcata. You should try it sometime. Even the billboards look nice from the backside, painted in a quiet, neutral gray disguise.
Journal Publisher Judy Hodgson welcomes ideas on how to advance the Arcata-Eureka trail along the bay. E-mail her at email@example.com.