Median Annual Household Income: $26,500
Median Home Price: $146,000
Climate: Cool, foggy, and dampthe redwoods couldn't be happier
A couple of years ago, a USDA economist cooked up a method of quantifying the unquantifiable: how attractive a place is. He created a scale that factored in climate, surface water, and variety of elevation—the hillier, the better—and fed stats into his program from every county in the Lower 48. When his computer burped out the results, the winner had notched a perfect score of 21 for its topography: Humboldt County. Five hours north of San Francisco, this wonderland boasts 110 miles of lonely coastline, thousands of acres of ancient redwoods, several wild rivers, and a 20-to-1 countywide ratio of acres to humans. And no one told the hard drive that Eureka, the county seat, has thousands of redwood-framed Victorians enhancing its Sesame Street grid (A-B-C streets one way, 1-2-3 the other). Or that it has a burgeoning art scene, with gallery-hoppers strolling along F Street through the revived waterfront Old Town and a new art museum in a renovated library. Eureka isn't all spit-shined and polished yet, though. Fishy warehouses and railroad tracks still border Humboldt Bay. Stacks of plywood fill the yards of outlying lumber mills. Jack London would feel right at home.
Then there's Eureka's sidekick five miles up the bay, Arcata. In this aspiring ecotopia, site of Humboldt State University, the wastewater plant is a marshy sanctuary that draws egrets, binocular-toting hikers, and joggers crunching gravel underfoot. The Alliance for a Paving Moratorium calls Arcata home, as do Green Party faithfuls, hippie kids, and zealous recyclers. Order a coffee to go without presenting your travel mug? Unthinkable.
PLAYGROUNDS: A sampler platter: In Redwood National Park, a UN-designated World Heritage Site half an hour north, you can trek among 1,500-year-old trees and ferny canyons. Cyclists choose between foothill climbs and long, rolling rides in the ag-heavy bottomlands near the shore. Of the nearby rivers, the Trinity gets the heaviest traffic, with swimming holes and long, flat drifts punctuated by turbulent stretches up to Class IV and V; head northeast to reach a similar mix on the Klamath and Cal-Salmon. Surfers don wetsuits about ten minutes north of town at Trinidad, and sea kayakers like the sloughs and inlets of Humboldt Bay. An hour or so inland, in the Trinity Alps Wilderness, backpackers find stuff on par with Yosemite, but without the crowds.
WORK: Service jobs predominate—government, health care, teaching at HSU or College of the Redwoods, real estate, tourism—along with a hodgepodge of cottage industries: Yakima racks, cheesemaking, oystering, organic farming. "A lot of people don't make much money here, but they live well," says one Arcatan, "and not always from growing pot."
NEST: A bargain by coastal standards, as plenty of Bay Area refugees will attest. In Eureka, a restored Victorian with woodstove and fish pond, $265,000; modern four-bedroom on an outskirts acre, a bit less; three-bedroom Craftsman, $125,000. In Arcata, add 20 to 30 percent.
NEIGHBORS: Real estate agent/river guide who throws in a raft trip with every home sale; members of the band The Depavers, who recorded the single "Have a Global Warming Day."
HOW TO GO NATIVE: Attend yoga class on the beach; after graduating college, stock produce to avoid leaving town.
WATERING HOLES: The Logger Bar in nearby Blue Lake, close to the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, holds out the possibility of mimes and lumberjacks bonding over brewskis.
THE PRICE OF PARADISE: Some folks are thrilled to live in a foggy, slow-paced, low-paying town 250 miles from almost anywhere—and some folks aren't.