For years, I would have been ashamed to admit that I’d lived the entirety of my adult life — virtually every goddamn day since puberty first walloped me in the head and groin like some kind of venereal disease — in the same small town, roughly three miles square.
Yet this is my story.
Eureka has been the setting for all the great movements in my life after body hair. I came of age here, graduated college, married and multiplied, found a career, lost everything, gained so much more, all of it.
If you’d have told me such was my fate 21 years ago as I finished high school and planned for a life of high adventure, you’d have been served a knuckle sandwich on rye. I felt destined to lay eyes on greatness, to sojourn along the ragged edges of civilization, to go without to find what’s within, to discover great secrets and hidden strengths, all in pursuit of a grand destiny.
The funny thing is, I found all those things. I feel as if I’ve experienced a hundred different cities, a multitude of odd villages and misfit towns, all while still receiving mail in these city limits. What always changed, of course, was me.
Perspective shifts with station. Eureka is one town for the city editor of its daily newspaper, and another for a wastrel junkie crashing on a prostitute’s floor; for a beleaguered child of a mad man, and a proud husband and father just graduating college with grand literary ambitions; for a dope-sick inmate of the Humboldt County jail and the proud director of a shitty little film premiering at Eureka Theater in front of a packed house.
So yes, I’ve undertaken a project in this space to describe several of the cities I’ve called home. Consider this a first installment.
Eureka, when I arrived in 1989 was, for me, a backwater exile forced upon me by confused parents searching for something, anything, to change their fortunes. It didn’t work.
We’d fled Modesto with our tail between our legs, Mom and Dad both desperate to spend time with their young grandchildren, who all lived in and around Eureka. Doing so meant I’d lose everything I had known up to that point, including best friends and hobbies, as well as an oasis library where I’d recently discovered the therapeutic value of fiction.
And what I found hardly made fair compensation: rain, a low ceiling of slate gray sky that seemed to scrape the top of my head, low-rent television commercials starring some outlandish dude named Corky, and forced isolation with my parents after we’d moved in with my adult sister in a broken down cottage that had already half surrendered to the advancing mud and ferns at the base of a redwood green belt off Harris Street.
Everything was different: bleak, scary, cold and indifferent. I started the 7th grade at Zane Middle School with no friends, 30 pounds overweight, and duct-taped glasses. I promptly got in a fight.
Those first months were dark indeed, punctuated near the end with a snowstorm that blanketed Eureka in a foot of powder. The snow still held days later when I finally found my way to the Humboldt County Library, buried under hundreds of tons of concrete in the basement of the county courthouse.
Modesto’s library was a point of civic pride, a modern building in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was several stories tall, and it’s central reading room was as large as a football field. I’d spent whole days there, safe within the the bosom of boyhood fantasy and rapturous escape.
Eureka’s cave-like stacks left me feeling sick and underwhelmed, and for hours I paced the narrow aisles and stared at the cryptic titles as they floated past, meaningless and unwelcoming. Finally, a librarian took an interest and sat me down.
After a brief interview on interest and ability, the woman disappeared into the very same stacks and emerged a few moments later with a pile of books that would change my life.
I checked out several volumes, but the only books I remember from that day were “Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “Return of the King.”
Suddenly, the solemn forests that surrounded our shack on every side became the setting for high adventure, an invitation to seize the world with imagination and make it new, and whole. I did so, climbing up and down the steep, needle-strewn hillsides to traipse along the narrow creek that ran the length of the property. Dead branches became staffs of power, the swords of royalty, and my life became an adventure fueled by the orcs, elves and hobbitses of Middle Earth.
Some days later, I was pulled out of class and threatened with suspension. Distracted with saving the world the previous evening, I’d left my jacket out in the rain overnight. Figuring it would dry quickly, I took it to school the next day and wore the damp denim mass between classes.
Mr. Henshaw, normally a fine enough teacher, caught a whiff as I passed and later pulled me out of class.
“I’ve told you kids before, I’m not messing around,” he barked, his red eyebrows suddenly looming heavily over his blue eyes. “You come in here smelling like cigarettes again, no questions asked — you’re suspended for smoking at school.”
I told him I didn’t smoke, that my parents smoked in the house and puffed tough through two packs a day each. He shook his head and wagged his finger. He wasn’t buying it.
Angry now, I tried to walk away but Henshaw caught me by the upper arm and held me there, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
“I see you walking to school every day, your nose buried in books even as you cross the street,” he said. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“Every day, huh? That’s funny. Ever see me smoking a cigarette?”
I didn’t wait for his answer, but in my now fertile imagination, Henshaw recoiled at my question and suddenly, brutally, understood that I had been telling the truth. Distraught, overcome with guilt, he took an unsteady step in my direction, bracing himself to apologize. The shame, though, proved too much.
Instead, he watched me recede into the crowd, his hand outstretched, his fingers splayed. Finally, regretfully, he turned away.
Eureka for me in those initial months was a dark place of high winds, sideways rain, opaque skies and trees that loomed over me like pallbearers hefting my casket. It was also subsequently mysterious, mood-ridden, exotic and therefore inspiring. I came from a land of expansive horizons, almond orchards, winding cement canals, valley heat, and dirt sidewalks to this Kingdom of Rain, a land as dark as I was becoming.
I would soon learn to love it.
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.