Arcata, California: Marching to the Beat of Its Own DrumUSA MAINLAND — By Judy Clement Wall on August 26, 2011 at 01:11
Story by staff writer Judy Clement Wall. Photos Copyright © Judy Clement Wall.
I’VE BEEN PUZZLING over what to say about Arcata, California, which is where I’ve stayed both times I visited Humboldt County, about 300 miles north of San Francisco.
I could call it a university town and that would be true, but also, somehow, a mischaracterization. I could call it a mountain town and that would be true too, but definitely not the whole story. I could accurately call it quaint, rustic, rugged, gorgeous, ramshackle. It’s artsy in a fine-gallery-meets-sidewalk-artist sort of way. It’s a counter-culture hippie town, full of music and bookstores, rowdy bars, serene coffee shops and wonderful restaurants featuring organic, locally grown food.
It’s a friendly, earthy town that is consciously earth-friendly. I wrote about their unique marshlands. They also have, within their city limits, 2100 acres of forestland, including the Redwood Community Forest which I’ve hiked a few times now. (Hiking Trails of Humboldt, California) It’s beautiful, the trails popular with hikers, joggers, mountain bikers . . . and transients.
That’s another fact about Arcata. It seems to attract an eclectic sort of nomad population. I’m not sure why that is. I looked it up on the internet, and Wikitravel said, “Due to its tolerant residents, Arcata attracts a large transient population.” Fair enough. I can certainly see the attraction.
Everything in Arcata is walking distance from everything else in Arcata. You can easily walk from the marshlands to the forests, from the old Victorian houses (many of them Bed & Breakfasts now), to the university dorms, from the coastal outskirts of town to the plaza at Arcata’s center.
Both times I’ve stayed there, the plaza buzzed with life. Students and families sit on benches or lay out on the grass. Musicians play and sing, sometimes as part of an actual show and sometimes, it seems, gathering spontaneously, bringing the air itself to life.
I believe the magic of Arcata lies in the fact that it defies my attempts to define it. Everything I’ve said about it is accurate, and none of it quite captures the town’s spirit, its essential nature. If a town can be thought of as “indie,” Arcata is that. It is arrestingly beautiful, surprising, sleepy and kinetic. It’s an entire town, it seems to me, marching to the beat of its own drum.
I’m smitten, no doubt about it. There’s such a strong sense of place there, a sort of music that resonates in me. And that march?
It’s really much more of a dance.
Judy Clement Wall (aka j) is a freelance writer who lives, works and plays in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s in love with the California coast; everything from combing the beaches of San Diego to hiking the coastal trails of Humboldt County. You can read and link to more of her work through her blog, Zebra Sounds.