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Willits, Minus Traffic & Exhaust

I hadn’t been to Willits in a year or more, and when I drove through it a week ago it slowly dawned that the city looked different, and better. Way better. It’s gotten better than anyone could reasonably expect a semi-rundown town to achieve in so short a span. Willits looks great. (NOTE: “Willits looks great” is not a sentence I ever imagined would come popping off a page I wrote.)

But it’s true. Willits has somehow emerged from both 2020’s economic Pandemicide and decades of self-induced doldrums brought on by the absence of the timber industry (think taxes) and the advent of the marijuana industry (think zero taxes).

Before expanding on the virtues of Willits II, let’s recall How Things Were. Raise your hand if you remember when the city was staggered, poor and moribund.

The essence of Willits was one lane each direction, and traffic, traffic and more traffic, with hundreds of motor vehicles crawling each direction. It was common to spend 20 minutes on the clogged main drag, adrift in an endless sea of cars, trucks, RVs and more trucks, including big-rig 18-wheelers chugging, polluting and downshifting their way to the next stoplight.

Summer weekends produced millions of bikers, some sober, in long parades of muffler-free roarings. Bikers from exotic lands like Bakersfield, San Jose and Folsom Prison arrived on northbound tidal waves of noise. Two days later they washed back south. We mourn their absence.

For pedestrians, downtown Willits offered thrills on every block. Running shoes and a deep breath were needed to sprint to the other side, dodging slow big-rigs and quick pickups. Daunting? Not every time. Just 99 out of 100.

All the noise and pollution was unavoidable. Willits was saddled, much like Ukiah, with the burden of being several miles long and half a block wide. That’s how all towns grew up on Highway 101. Consider Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Novato and any number of other California cities once bisected by 101.

Willits was wall-to-wall motels, gas stations and diners at the south end, followed by half a dozen downtown blocks, a few more motels and gas stations, then back to 55 highway miles an hour. Next stop Eureka.

No longer. Visit Willits now and prepare to be impressed. What had once and forever been downtown 101 is now just Main Street, USA. It seems wider, cleaner, with people moseying along sidewalks. And the people doing the mosey are a different breed from the sidewalk stragglers in recent memory. You know: Backpack, vacant stare, dog, nowhere to go until someone offers a job trimming.

The improvements are just the beginning. Willits has a fresh scrubbed look, new shops and businesses blooming on every block, and not just a Subway outlet here and a cannabis joint over there.

Try these: Flying Dog Pizza featuring beer, cider, CDs and Vinyl records?!? (Top that, Round Table!) Across the street: Moon Lady & Moon Man clothing, plus a shop called MonkeyWrench selling men and women’s garb. Plus Cafe 77 and, soon to launch a grand opening, Smokey’s BBQ.

There may be more dining spots in Willits than Ukiah. Mexican restaurants are a plurality, but don’t miss Irish pub Shanachie, the Bangkok Cafe, Buster’s Burgers, Vassar’s Pizza and more at the south end of town.

Willits has always had a train depot in the heart of downtown with daily runs to the coast and back. (Top that, Healdsburg!) Two of the county’s finest used bookstores call Willits home. The Book Juggler has the advantage of actually being open when you visit, whereas Used & Rare Books & Antiques entertains guests infrequently. It’s a gem anyway, and worth rattling its door when you’re in town.

Today, Willits is better because the 101 bypass diverts traffic along its eastern edge. But let’s not forget those who tried and tried to keep the bypass from being built.

For CalTrans it was always just a narrow band of concrete a few miles long, the tiniest speck in the teeniest fraction of roadway in California, but local Dirtfirsters erupted (as always) into spasms of uncontrolled anger and fury. They guaranteed the world the bypass would devastate the environment and destroy the local economy. For months they showed up to chant, sing, yell at workers, sit in trees, sabotage equipment, get interviewed on KZYX and throw (their own) feces at cops. 

Classy folks. At least none had to take time off work.

What do they think now? Do they miss the congestion and pollution? Do they long for the days it took nine times as long to get from one end of Willits to the other? Do they have happy memories of wasted fossil fuels caused by endless traffic jams? Do they hope to inhale diesel truck exhaust one last time?

If they were honorable people they’d forever boycott Willits to demonstrate their integrity and commitment to a still-righteous cause.

Or are they embarrassed by their childish antics? Will they admit they were wrong? Will they apologize to CalTrans workers, cops and truck drivers for all the hate-filled, dishonest harassment?

In the meantime, we note a lack of outrage in the face of true environmental degradation, right here and right now, at outlaw marijuana grows in Covelo. Suddenly there’s no interest in defending Mother Earth?


  1. izzy July 26, 2021

    The Main Street traffic is gone, though how well Willits is doing is a subject of concern with those actually living there.

    Hard to get a clear statement about the status (a sign of the times), but it would appear that the Skunk Train has not run all the way from Willits to Fort Bragg since the tunnel collapse back in 2013. Current tickets are only available for half-way trips from either town. You can even rent a rail bike at the Fort Bragg end and do your own pedaling for a cool $495. It’s now just another over-priced opportunity for tourists to lighten their wallets.

    Tommy might want to take another ride to Willits and have a closer look.
    Healdsburg can relax.

    from wikipedia, which probably has no reason to fudge on this:

    The California Western Railroad (reporting mark CWR), popularly called the Skunk Train, is a freight and heritage railroad in Mendocino County, California, United States, running from the railroad’s headquarters in the coastal town of Fort Bragg to a collapsed tunnel midway between Fort Bragg and Willits.
    The CWR runs steam and diesel-powered trains and rail motor cars 40 miles (64 km) through Redwood forests along Pudding Creek and the Noyo River. Along the way, the tracks cross some 30 bridges and trestles and pass through two deep mountain tunnels. The halfway point of Northspur is a popular meal and beverage spot for the railroad’s passengers when locomotives turn around before returning trains to their respective terminals.

  2. Dan July 26, 2021

    Yes, the town is better without all the traffic that traffic will bear. All the rest being equal

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