"The Town Dandy" this week brings you the results of a week-long investigation, which involved more than a score of interviews and some 400 man-hours of exhaustive field research. In brief, the results of this unprecedented inquiry is this: The town of Orleans, up there in the upper-right-hand corner of our county, is one seriously cool place.
What makes it so great? The fact that it is maybe the last living embodiment of the ’70s back-to-the-land movement that remade Humboldt County and the North Coast. Better yet, it is that minus the most egregious hippie-dippy aspects of that odd era. Throw a dart at a Humboldt County map and likely as not you will hit some broken-down old road association that once played host to a thriving little subculture with big dreams for the world, but which is now populated exclusively by hyperactive tweakers, paranoid growers -- both classes armed to the teeth -- and nostalgic oldsters who can only sigh at it all.
Orleans (for purposes of this analysis we lump it together with its sister city, Somes Bar) isn't like that. For a community nearly an hour's drive away from even so humble a metropolis as Willow Creek, the community is strangely on the go. It seemed like every person we ran across had imported some of the inland sun into their own bellies. They had tangible goals, and they were out there getting things done. Take that ethic, combine it with the stunning scenery and the near-perfect weather, and what you end up with, it seems, is the happiest and friendliest group of people in Humboldt County.
The sheer number of young families way out there on the slopes and flats around the Klamath and Salmon rivers is astonishing enough in itself. Last Friday morning, downtown Orleans' Panamnik Building, the defacto community center, hosted a children's singalong with a doughty and appealingly comic old-school Greenwich Village folksinger, apparently a friend of Pete Seeger. Something like 30 tykes showed out to bellow along to "This Land is Your Land," their parents in tow -- an attendance rate that would have been difficult to equal in Eureka. The parents, mostly in their 20s and 30s, hung around and feasted on snacks after the show, chatting it up and exchanging their news while the kids played together. Afterwards, they headed home for their afternoon chores, or out to the river.
Even for we city dwellers, the idea of Humboldt County -- the thing that makes it unique, the thing that it stands for -- is somehow tied deeply to the deep boondocks: the mountains, the rivers, the wilderness. But where else in those boondocks is it possible to witness such an old-time, all-ages community gathering like that Friday morning singalong? It seems just barely imaginable in Petrolia or Honeydew. After that, the list gets pretty thin pretty quickly.
What helped Orleans escape the cultural decay of the Humboldt County backwoods over the last 30 years? One informant -- a full-time builder with more work than he could handle -- theorized that the area's many organic farms and vineyards have had a lot to do with it. The area seems able to grow just about anything -- we saw kiwis, figs, grapes, olives, pistachios, citrus fruits, stone fruits, every conceivable variety of berry and all the usual kitchen vegetables -- and several entrepreneurs have turned their little patches of land into biodynamic powerhouses that pump out an extraordinary amount of produce. Young people come from around the country to intern at these farms. Young people -- scientists, mainly -- also come to work for the Karuk Tribe or the Forest Service, both of which have facilities in the region.
Humboldt County's principal cash crop is almost certainly grown out there in them thar hills, and no doubt it has supplemented many household incomes and helped many above-board business ventures find their footing. Our investigators are not naïve. But there was the sense, somehow, that the real joy and purpose of the community lay elsewhere -- in restoring the Klamath River, protecting the wild Salmon River, raising children, succeeding at one's own individual enterprise and doing some sort of good in the world. In the Klamath Mountains, we posit, weed money is still seen as a means to an end, rather than an all-encompassing end in itself.
Thumbs up to you, Orleans. If you haven't been, as we hadn't, you owe it to yourself to get out there.