San Francisco to Chicago: Hippies, Yurts and Yaks

For a travel writer who has spent a goodly part of the last 15 years out of the country, there’s something special about driving across my own country. I love the good ol’ US of A. The more I leave and come back, the more I fall in love with it. Yep, I hate the same things you probably do, but I’m choosing to focus on what I love: its people, its welcoming friendliness, its high-brow levels of innovation and creativity, and its lowbrow love of burgers and over-the-top tourism. This is what I wanted to show my Finland-born partner on our 11-day road trip taking us from London to Chicago via a road trip out of San Francisco.

Like the start of any good cross-country trip, we left from our pet-pigeon babysitting gig near the Berkeley hills. I wanted to show him real, down-home Americana. You know it: Dairy Queens and the state fair, strip malls and frozen yogurt shops with Butterfinger and Fruit Loop toppings. Sarah Palin’s America.

Not the devil's crossroads.
Not the devil’s crossroads.

But we had to get through Northern California first. We headed north, towards the redwoods, to our first stop: vegan lunch at the Jyun Kang restaurant in the Chinese Buddhist monastery, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. My ‘thing’ these days in travel writing is travel minimalism. You don’t need to fly to an overwater bungalow in Fiji for a change in perspective. If you live within four hours of Ukiah, California, you can get it here.

After a lunch where my meat-eating boyfriend wanted a second helping of tofu, we trekked over to the Great Hall. Devotees were in the middle of a walking meditation, chanting the Great Compassion Mantra as Buddhist nuns drummed in rhythmic harmony. When a Buddhist nun hands you a cheat sheet and encourages you to get in line, you get in line and meditate the hell out of the Great Compassion Mantra.

Thirty minutes later, we brought our newfound Great Compassion with us as we went about finding America.

A few redwood hikes later, we were in Arcata, California, where I went to undergrad at Humboldt State. You go to Humboldt for one of two reasons: you loved everything about being outdoors and in nature, or you were a pot-smoking hippie. And I do enjoy hiking from time to time.

At first, I wanted to arrange a night in the CCAT (Campus Center for Appropriate Technology) house’s tiny yurt, where you can exchange an hour of work for a slightly curved night of sleep. However, the yurt appeared to be closed due to erosion from the encroaching organic, sustainable gray-water garden (partially fertilized from the house’s own composting toilet). I was a bit disappointed, as one of the last times I was in Arcata — to do a story on sustainability — the CCAT co-director bicycled me a smoothie and the mayor bought my co-reporter a lime cookie at Los Bagels.

Chalk designs by Duane Flatmo
Chalk designs by Duane Flatmo, the Lost Coast Brewery artist

The mayor wasn’t at Los Bagels this time, so we had to buy the lime cookie for ourselves. But at least Food Not Bombs extended an offer for free vegan stir fry dinner on the town square during Pastels on the Plaza (the night Arcatans decorate each sidewalk square with chalk artwork).

Wherever we went, the caricature of Arcata unfolded without our even having to ask. My fresh-off-the-boat Finnish Londoner businessman boyfriend was regaled with tales about the yaksmen — the Arcata dreadlock-and-top-hat-sporting urban farm dwellers who traverse the town with their service yaks — before we shopped for organic alchemical supplies for my salve-and-tincture hobby at Moonrise Herbs. His favorite spot, however, was the entire store on the town square dedicated solely to frisbee golf.

We truly meant to hightail it out of Humboldt County, but I dragged my feet for the last 50 miles, first at the fogged-in ocean views of the beautiful and, to the local Native American tribes, sacred lands of Trinidad Head (and Trinidad’s heavenly Katy’s Smokehouse salmon jerky), and then at the beachfront redwood trees of Patrick’s Point. We stopped at Elk Meadow in Orick but didn’t see the herd of elk, so left after a quick hike. (The hike through Fern Canyon is scenic and ancient enough to have been the filming location for both Jurassic Park II and BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs, but it’s 8 miles in.) A fortuitous quick head-turn left at the Elk Meadows Cabins showed us their backstage lazing grounds. We stayed for an hour, eating the best burritos on Mother Earth we’d picked up from Rico’s Tacos back in Arcata, and watched until we decided to google ‘rutting season.’

Hi. Welcome to rutting season. You might want to close your eyes soon.
Welcome, humans, to rutting season. You might want to close your eyes soon.

I might not live in Arcata anymore and it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve even looked like I halfway belonged at a Dead show, but after living in the redwoods and then the nearby Hoopa Indian Reservation (where I supervised an organic solar dehydrator summer project, as you do) and visiting my mom who moved there, I still hold that the world would be a better place if everyone had to live there for six months to a year.

Dreadlocks not required.

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