Baseball cards, like a fresh and peculiar brand of summer snowfall, littered the highway crossing, mingling dully with bright shards of safety glass, filaments of automotive fluid, paint specks and the eviscerated bits of an exploded tire.
It was June, and the daylight lingered on a long, low curb of dark clouds, fringed in orange penumbra, that threatened rain. It would fail to scour this recent violence away.
I’d come to collect the details, vacuum up the names and makes, ages and gender profiles of three, soon to be four, dead human beings, then translate this information into snappy syllables fit for print in the region’s daily paper.
What I knew: A sedan ran the stop sign into traffic on U.S. Highway 101, presenting a fat and unavoidable target for an oncoming truck, whose owner collected baseball cards.
The mission thus assigned, I was soon disabused of my professional detachment. I’d only ever seen one dead body — that of my father, looking pale yet composed in sport coat and slacks some ten years prior — so it startled me to now stand a few feet from several people so suddenly excised, their expressions frozen in an instant of brutality.
I felt a voyeur privy to private scenes, and hated that sensation. Yet it was to be my first front page story, one my ex-marine editor was even now slavering over, so I scribbled madly away in my notebook even as my coworker, a photographer well past such sentimentality, prattled on about cell phone rates and the tight purse of corporate media.
We had to sit for more than half an hour while the CHP’s public information officer changed from his uniform into a suit appropriate for the television cameras.
“They’re like bloodsuckers,” my photographer said, referring to his cellular service provider.
For almost a decade, this routine became my career. I’d play witness to various brands of conflict and resolution, struggle and denouement, as defined by its participants, and write it down as best I could given the burdens of self-doubt, short-sighted supervision, scant time, laughable pay, and snappy ledes.
Almost every story was a version of that initial crash on what would become the safety corridor.
Two or more forces hurtling through space, each oblivious to the danger they faced, then colliding in an explosion of shards and blood, blast waves and noise, hot air escaping from the suddenly freed — and quickly dying — engine as it cowered crookedly in a litter-strewn center divider.
One side headed north, the other south — headlines blossom where the two collide.
Put simply, fault lines define Humboldt County’s political geography.
For the last thirty years, give or take, Humboldt County has been riven by what might be framed as roughly two sides of a culture war, a kind of furious identity crisis that put the future of the community and its surroundings in question. It remains unresolved.
What kind of Humboldt County do we want?
I’m only as wise as my years, so maybe it started in Arcata with the building of the freeway through the center of town? The age-old, town-and-gown dispute that pitted university students, faculty and culture against what at the time was considered the old guard, residents who had long worked in the extractive trades and viewed the foundling arrivals as lazy invaders?
Or, maybe the real genesis was later, with the arrival of greedy corporate pirates and their small-minded mafias, who sought to liquidate the forest and the trees, then print money on the leftovers?
Through an illusory process of evolution, adaptation, accommodation, and revenge, this battle and its subtler proxies have played out on stages far and wide: Maxxam v. Earth First!, Gallegos v. Pacific Lumber Co., Baykeeper v. the Marina Project, The Times-Standard v. The Eureka Reporter, Wal-Mart v. The People, Rob Arkley v. Everybody in the Way, Rails v. Trails, Developers v. The Process, Bohn v. Kerrigan, Kerrigan v. Bass, Everybody v. The General Plan — the list is long and camouflaged in the dress of every type of civic debate.
While the debate has been exhaustive, it’s also paralytic: People my age who have stayed here do so knowing full well that they are likely to never find a good-paying job, unless they grow dope.
Industry keeps a distance, shipping flirts yet never scores, tourism sputters along and mostly keeps Old Town’s gazebo flushing, and that’s about it. There are some bright spots — oysters and artisans, beer and fromage, state jobs and non-profits — but on the whole, it’s an economic wasteland.
At the Times-Standard, we’d write editorials decrying the county’s condition, and put forward this or that pet idea or pet candidate, pretending and maybe — at times — actually believing that solutions were out there for the finding.
They’re out there, alright — under that bank of bleak clouds off the highway, soon to be sunk while clumsily crossing the bar.
One becomes jaded.
The same players, the same game, virtually the same words in identical press releases, even the same money pushed around and around and around in ever tighter circles while our family car breaks down, our daughter needs braces, our son looks for work, and the dog just vomited in the mud room.
In my group of friends, and at my house, paying bills is a process of triage: What gets paid is a balance of risk and need: power versus gasoline, food versus medicine, books versus cable, family versus the goddamn world.
To shamelessly extend the overwrought metaphor above, in that grisly death scene on the highway, I’m merely one of the sodden, blood-spattered baseball cards, bearing now the bootprint of distracted passers-by.
My wife is a baseball card. The kids are prospect cards, and despite all the promises on the packaging, there’s no gum to be had.
Trust me on this, at least: For a low-budget family who chooses to keep one parent at home for the sake of the kids, Eureka is a goddamn hellhole.
With loads of outdoor recreational opportunities.
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.