ARCATA If you really want to have a mind-blowing experience when visiting this funky, friendly and slightly freaky North Coast college town, have I got the place for you.
No, not the hippie-saturated, groovy-vibe-infused Arcata Plaza, where a bluegrass band warbles "Wagon Wheel" at head-nodding Saturday market habitues. Not the long, strange trip on the trails at the Arcata Community Forest, where primeval morning fog hugs the redwoods. Not the quirky cafe-and-Finnish hot tub and sauna, or even the Grateful Dead movie night at a brew pub, where hemp ale is liberally quaffed.
The place to go for total sensory immersion and the quintessential Arcata experience is the wastewater treatment plant.
Dude, it's, like, so much more than some mere sewage sump. It's an intricate ecosystem where sludge is composted to fertilize city grounds, the water chills out for a spell in oxidation ponds, becomes purified by micro-organisms and then goes to a marsh where plants and animals feed on it.
And, get this: Except for a couple of pale-green tanks off to the side, none of the equipment is visible. Nearly all the 307 acres of freshwater marshes and tidal sloughs, mud flats and tall grasses have been cleverly repurposed as an ecologically stunning sanctuary, migratory home to 270 bird species as well as otters, foxes, red-legged frogs and the occasional rough-skinned newt.
It's environmental nirvana, for sure.
"I'm not an expert of water treatment, but I know we're very, very lucky to have it," said birder Pat Bitton, setting telescope on tripod to espy cormorants alighting on a log. "I'm here most Saturdays. It's a fabulous place for birding, particularly in the winter with all the shorebirds."
In a town seemingly saturated with olfactory overload patchouli oil and marijuana smoke; fresh bracken ferns among the redwoods; briny coastal tides the heralded Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary is oddly odorless. It smells like, well, nature, nothing at all unsanitary.
As a group of high school cross country runners loped by along the crushed granite paths, Linda Hirsch marveled at the beauty all around.
"Just gorgeous," she said. "I come to take pictures. There's one place down there where there's a bridge that goes out to the bay. I've taken pictures of that bridge the past five years, all times of day, tide in or tide out. You see something different each time."
A town of many identities
The same can be said of Arcata, writ large.
It's a little bit of everything: a college town (Humboldt State University), a neo-hippie enclave, a haven for environmentalists and activists, a nature lover's paradise, a crash pad for the homeless, and a close-knit community of families in stately Victorians and quaint bungalows with tree-lined sidewalks more Eisenhower-esque than Kerouacian.
Yet, to outsiders, Arcata and the rest of Humboldt County is primarily known for what locals euphemistically call "The Underground Economy" marijuana.
"You get known for one thing, and even if it's kind of accurate, you get tired of it after a while," longtime resident Carilyn Goldammer said. "The clichés about Arcata is what I mean. But what can you do?"
Goldammer and friend Kathie Kelly shared a knowing look, perhaps conveying in a glance the fact that they are somewhat complicitous in the perpetuation of the clichéd Arcata image.
They were, after all, relaxing on the patio of Cafe Mokka, a coffeehouse with a Finnish country sauna and tub retreat. They had just polished off two steaming mugs of hot chocolate ("They pile on the whipped cream and it absolutely oozes down the side," Goldammer said) and watched couples come and go from hot tubs discreetly hidden behind redwood doors and partitions.
"Feel free to walk around and explore," the barista instructed while handing me a cup of yerba mate tea. "Just don't open any closed doors."
Mokka is a fine example of Arcata's eclecticism. You cannot pigeonhole this place as hippyish or New Age-y or drug-addled or hipster-drenched or Yuppified because, really, it's all and none of those things.
"It's always quiet in the tubs, and people are respectful," Kelly said. "You have total privacy. You think you're the only people here. But when (Mokka) really fills up, it's great. There's live Celtic music, people reading all the foreign magazines they have here and playing board games. Or you can just come and sit and read a book and no one bugs you. It's nice."
Arcatans are mellow folk, known for tolerance regarding everything except maybe intolerance. Even the muckraking Arcata Eye calls itself the "mildly objectional weekly newspaper."
Outsiders often dub the town the "Berkeley of the North," but it lacks Berkeley's haughtiness and righteous indignation. If Arcata had an unofficial civic gesture, it would be the shrug.
How to handle homeless?
That's not to say it's some Vahalla. Lately, the police have made headlines for trying to roust out the homeless from the Plaza, Arcata's commercial hub. Panhandling, smoking, spitting, bongo playing, drinking, skateboarding and possession of canines have all been prohibited in the thatch of green surrounding the statue of President William McKinley looming as the Plaza's centerpiece.
Enforcement, though, has been hit and miss. Mark and Ann Beauchamp, visitors from Ukiah, sat at Cafe Brio with their schnauzer, Roxie, at their feet. Earlier that morning, they had been expelled from the Plaza for having Roxie trotting beside them.
"We didn't know that was a law," Ann said.
"The cops were working it pretty good," Mark added. "They came and ran the homeless off, too. Looks like they're back now."
The homeless, not the cops. Near lunchtime, pockets of huddled homeless people re-emerged and stretched out on a rare non-foggy day. Three 20-somethings from Quebec, using their backpacks to rest their dreadlocked heads, had arrived the day before.
"We were in San Francisco, and they said this was the place to be," said Jane Pommier, who did not elaborate on who "they" were.
Another homeless group passed around a smoldering blunt and mused on their plight. Andrea McAvoy and Tim Felch said they had been booted out of Spokane, Wash., by authorities, then caught a ride to Santa Cruz, but found that city inhospitable as well.
"People look at us like we aren't even people," McAvoy said. "But people here are nice. I just wish it was a bigger town so I could get a job."
Felch added: "We've been to a few places that treated us like crap. We might stay (in Arcata)."
Aggressive panhandling, however, has been the main police target. And, due to enforcement, several merchants say there have been fewer "incidents" in the past year, incidents such as this one reported in the Arcata Eye: "5:02 p.m. A woman on the Plaza was reported drunk, yelling and spitting at passersby. She was compelled to salivate elsewhere."
Steve Lovett, owner of People's Republic Records on the Plaza, expressed the conflicted feelings many merchants harbor.
"The big thing is, how can our city be a liberal, caring, compassionate city but at the same time tell someone they can't sit on the corner with a sign?" Lovett asked. "It is tough. It was just the appearance that the town was getting taken over by people who don't live here, people of begging. It creates a bad vibe. I know people who still avoid that side of the (Plaza) because of it."
A few doors down at All Under Heaven, a boutique specializing in Eastern spirituality, customer Jan Johansson, a Buddhist, said understanding and compassion is what's needed.
"They are very gentle, the homeless people," he said. "They are lost souls looking for something."
What would Jerry do?
Back on the Plaza, Rabbi Eliyahu Cowen closed his Hebrew prayer book and reflected on the homeless dilemma.
"They are people," he said. "Why should we look down on them? We're trying to help them as much as we can. Some don't want to be helped. They don't want to get a job and get on their feet, which is their choice. You help them with what they want to be helped with."
Cowen and his wife recently moved to Arcata from New York City, trading a hip urban milieu for a hip semi-small town.
"We came down here a few months ago to run a Purim party and got such a great response that we decided to move here," he said. "The people are warm and friendly. The whole place is chill."
Slang-spouting rabbis? That's Arcata, all right.
It's hard not to fall back on clichés that cling to the city like barnacles. But, face it, some are spot-on.
On a Friday afternoon run in the Community Forest just above Humboldt State's campus, I came upon a cabal of shirtless young men in a drumming circle, a fire smoldering in the center and smoke from other pungent sources making its presence felt.
The disc golfers and the hacky sackers across the way paid them little mind, because this is a town that loves to party. Loves to do it in style, too, which keeps artist and shop owner Nancy Tobin in business.
Tobin owns Vintage Avenger, ostensibly a vintage clothing store but also chock full of objets d'art (including her own piece, "Mother Load," a full-length gown made entirely from 86 stuffed bras) and out- rageous costumes.
"We sell everything from petticoats to sparkly bootie shorts, which the guys love, to chicken costumes and hats, lots of hats, and spandex, which the guys really love," she said last month. "This is a busy week with Burning Man coming up. I think the whole town will bail and go to Burning Man."
As a primer for that yearly bacchanal, perhaps, a heady band of heathens congregated at the Humboldt Brewery for the joint's monthly Grateful Dead movie night. Most eschewed chairs and booths and sprawled on the ground in front of the big screen.
The feature was a 1991 concert film of the Jerry Garcia Band (featuring Bruce Hornsby on keyboards). But as a warm-up, the bar cued up a 1969 Dead appearance on the old TV show "Playboy After Dark."
Garcia, donning a knee-length double-woven Navajo poncho, strumming an acoustic guitar and exuding an beatific air, was midway through "Mountains of the Moon" when the screen froze.
"Help, we lost Jerry!" a guy lying on the floor yelled to the projection booth.
"We're trying to bring Jerry back," the projectionist yelled back.
To which the bartender, not missing a beat, quipped, "Yeah, for, like, 17 years."
Directions: Take Interstate 5 north to the Highway 299 West exit in Redding. Take 299 to Highway 101 and turn south. Exit at Samoa Boulevard and turn right on G Street.
Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary: 569 South G St.; (707) 826-2359, http://arcata-marshfriends.org. A 307-acre wetlands project on the north end of Humboldt Bay at the site of the city's wastewater treatment plant. Every Saturday at 2 p.m., there is a guided walk by the Friends of the Arcata Marsh. The Redwood Region Audubon Society hosts birding exhibitions at 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays.
Saturday Farmers Market: On the Plaza, G and Eighth streets. 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Vintage Avenger: 1101 H St.; (707) 822-3300. Vintage clothes, retro accessories, costumes and wearable art.
Arcata Artisans: 883 H St.; (707) 825-9133, arcataartisans.com. Local artist co-op featuring ceramics, jewelry, painting, photography and mixed-media art.
People's Republic Records: 725 Eighth St.; (707) 822-7625. New and used records and videos, specialty vinyl records.
Tin Can Mailman Books: 1000 H St.; www.tincan-books.com. Two stories crammed with new, used and rare books.
All Under Heaven: 735 Eighth St.; (707) 825-7760. A boutique featuring Tibetan art and items with an Eastern spirituality theme.
Hotel Arcata: 708 Ninth St.; (707) 826-0217, www.hotelarcata.com. A tastefully renovated 1914 hotel. Rates: $98-$108. $10 for a dog.
Wildflower Cafe & Bakery: 1604 G St.; (707) 822-0360, wildflowercafearcata.com. Vegetarian restaurant.
Golden Harvest Cafe: 1062 G St.; (707) 822-8962, www.goldenharvestcafe.com. Vegetarian and whole-grain fare.
Humboldt Brews: 856 10th St.; www.humboldtbrews.com. Brewpub fare.
Folie Douce: 1551 G St.; www.foliedoucearcata.com. Pizza and grilled entrees
Jambalaya: 915 H St.; www.jambalayaarcata.com. Fresh seafood, live music.
Finnish Country Sauna and Tubs, and Cafe Mokka: 495 J St.; (707) 822-2228, cafemokkaarcata.com. Care for an espresso while you marinate in the hot tub?
Arcata Community Forest: Several trailheads. Closest to downtown is 14th Street. Take G Street from downtown, turn right on 14th over Highway 101, entering the Community Forest. Park at trail sign two-tenths of a mile in, before a sharp right turn.