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101 South: A 50-Degree Drop

It was way over 100°F up in Southern Humboldt. Too hot for most any reasonable human, let alone a furry black dog, so we soaked in the Eel River all we could and contemplated heading all the way over to the coast, even though the drive did not sound fun in the heat. When the sun finally hit the tops of the big trees to the West it was safe to get out and head to town. The biggest burg around but it was like a ghost town. Locals told me of the ever-growing ranks of homeless wanderers there, many who came to “trim” during harvest season, sitting on the sidewalk wordlessly holding up their self-explanatory little scissors in lieu of “Will Work For...” signs, and then stayed on even through the soggy cold winters and baking summers. But we did not see them; they must have been hiding from the sun too.

Up the hill to a beautiful hilltop retreat, a gathering of old friends, most of whom were colleagues of long years putting on the fabled Reggae on the River festival, the first weekend of August each year. For almost twenty years, I was one of them, and what a time it was. Hard and long work, yes, but such a feeling of camaraderie and fun backstage, and of meeting so many diverse people, from deep Humboldt hillbilly hippies to musical superstars and should-be stars from all over the planet. On this night things are quiet though, just a few folks, and any talk about this year's revived “Reggae” fest is not so positive, as the musical lineup attracted fewer of the old-timers and the newer problems of violence, even rape, and litter resurfaced as they have in recent years. None of that was an issue “back in the day” - until, it should be said, the latter years in the late 2000s when some “dancehall” - rap-reggae, really - artists were booked to appeal to “the youth.” Then we started to see bad attitude, bad drugs, trash left all over - a noticeable change. Who knows what the causes were and are, but as one of the older reggae legends told me, shaking his head but remaining diplomatic, “You can't wholly blame the youth for what their parents did not teach them.” All that said, the few of us dining on fresh Shelter Cove salmon here tonite all wish the newly-revived festival well (and of course it's not just “Reggae” - the huge Outside Lands festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park had a reported three sexual assaults, and maybe more).

The sun sets and the stars come out. No moon. Massive Milky Way like a huge road across the sky. We're waiting for the Perseid meteor shower to begin and then it does - first one, then another, then many bright streaks through the heavens, most heading West over towards the Lost Coast. A collective wow, and then just awed silence as we stare. People drift inside, and then away down the dirt roads to the paved ones and home, and I am left outside with the dog. For a time, all the venality, hypocrisy, tragedy of the world vanishes under that vast canopy.

I'm tempted to sleep outside under those shooting stars, but am reminded that onetime years ago in this same idyllic spot I did so and was awoken pre-dawn by the eerie and loud sound of a cougar, the mountain lion kind, standing nearby. I'd get no sleep with my big dog nearby, and neither would he, on instinctual watch. Most likely he'd be skunked, not hurt, but that's nasty enough. So in we go.

In the morning, time to head southward. Even early on, it's so warm even in the shade the dog pants away, unhappily. Down the dirt road to the paved one, tempted to turn left towards the big communal swimming hole over the ridge but it would be even hotter over there, so, turned right and down in town. A stop to walk around a bit as the heat rises. Get a few drinks and snacks for the drive at the old health food coop; I love those places, having started at one in Laguna Beach as a schoolkid. Now there are a few more street folks milling around. Not sure how they pass their time, all day, nothing really to do other than try to make it to the free lunch down in Redway, a hot mile walk away, but they do that, all the time, I'm told, even in this heat. I think I'd rather go hungry. And I find myself sympathetic to their dogs - I've been told the humans can get more government assistance if they have a dog, but I don't know - all I do know is the dogs look hot and tired. But they also seem well enough fed, so there's that.

Few cars or trucks on 101 south. The temperature is rising on the dashboard thermometer as we roll down the road, and downhill, out of the big trees and hills into Willitts, the Gateway to something-or-other. It's up over 100. We stop at the fine used bookstore there on the west side of 101 downtown - they carry the AVA - and at the old Rexall drug, which makes and sells its own brand of fudge and chocolate, very tasty. I get an iced coffee, more expensive even than in the city, but good. Then further down towards Ukiah and Cloverdale and the mercury rises (that's just an old saying, no mercury allowed anymore) until it hits 107. I'm generally opposed to air conditioning on a number of counts but hells bells, it's time to give in.

And Dear Lord or whomever, there are people out, in the middle of noplace, walking by the freeway, fully clothed. There goes an old guy in a full sweater. Is this insanity, dementia, the “crazy drifters” recently written about in the AVA? I'm tempted to pull over and talk with them, maybe even offer a ride even though there's really no room in the car, but I resist that urge. With the aircon on in the car, a rarity, as much for the pup as for us, it's hardly imaginable what it's like just on the other side of the glass - but touch it and the heat is shocking. I can hardly imagine being out there in the direct son, at least not for long. We see half a dozen such walkers, some of them miles from any town. And then of course there are the folks out in the planted fields, slaving on vines so that Millionaire Mr. Two Buck Chuck can buy up all the surplus grapes at a penny on the dollar and give the landowners and landlords a tax write-off.

As we make it southward, the temperature keeps dropping. Somehow we beat the dreaded backup on 101 through Santa Rosa, a zone I recall being bucolic and uncrowded when I first started exploring here in the 1970s but now a giant suburb of...somewhere. Petaluma still entices, but we roll on into Marin, cooling down, and by the time we hit the big fabled bridge it is 57F - a full 50 degree drop since we started. By then, even August coastal fog looks like some form of heaven.

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