In 2019, my hometown, Arcata, in Humboldt County, California, removed the statue of President William McKinley that had stood in the central plaza since 1906. Arcata has long been an ultraliberal hippie haven, and the eight-and-a-half-foot bronze sculpture had presided over many a drum circle. I’ve seen bras hanging from McKinley’s hand and traffic cones on his head like a dunce cap. More than once, he has been covered by political banners demanding justice.
The vote to take down the statue was part of a nationwide trend to dismantle monuments of controversial figures. It was sent to Canton, Ohio, where the president is buried.
McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901, ran on a campaign to establish U.S. colonies, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and parts of Hawaii. Today his expansionist policies are viewed as racist toward indigenous people. I agree with that, but the removal of the statue doesn’t have the same symbolic power as, say, taking down monuments to Confederate soldiers in the South. McKinley never even visited Arcata. The statue was a sentimental tribute to a recently murdered president. As the years passed, its presence spoke more to Humboldt’s unique nature, as there’s a slight absurdity to an almost-forgotten president standing in the middle of a town full of bead stores and cannabis startups. The statue’s removal felt like losing part of Arcata’s personality, and I wasn’t sure what would be replacing it. It seemed like a tipping point of change that had been building since I left 20 years ago and was now showing itself in concrete ways. I wanted to know what that looked like.
Last summer, I went to Arcata to see the plaza without the statue.
When I tell people I’m from Humboldt, if they’ve heard of it at all, it’s for one of two reasons: redwood trees or the illegal cannabis industry. If the latter, I often get a wink-wink nudge-nudge, like I’m in the know about illicit marijuana farming. For decades, the Emerald Triangle—where Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties meet—produced much of the black-market cannabis in the United States. Marijuana has long been Humboldt’s major industry.
However, since the legalization of recreational weed in 11 states, including California, the Humboldt brand has diminished somewhat. Legalization forced many growers to go legit and pay taxes, get permits, and bring crops up to health and safety standards. After years of dominating the market, they’re now competing with operations run, in some cases, by multinational corporations like Constellation Brands, which owns Corona, and Altria, which makes Marlboro cigarettes. The Humboldt name must now catch the consumer’s eye in a marketplace where celebrities like Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, and Bob Marley (or at least his estate) have brands.
On top of that, large-scale operations are being established in climates more favorable to the plant, which likes sunlight and tends to get bud rot when exposed to cool, moist weather. Santa Barbara will soon be home to the world’s largest pot farm, covering 147 acres, according to the Los Angeles Times. Two miles away will be home to the second-biggest farm, covering 83 acres.
“The reputation [of Humboldt weed] is well-earned, but by and large our advantages only really carried weight in the black market,” says Ryan Burns, a reporter for the Lost Coast Outpost, whom I worked with at McDonald’s during high school in the ’90s. “Especially with huge grows going in Salinas and Santa Barbara and the Bay Area—they have advantages in scale and distribution. One of the problems with Humboldt County is how remote we are and how difficult it is to get in and out of here.”
While Humboldt growers have struggled, for the moment things are going well. In August, Burns wrote an article with the joyful headline “Weed Is Back!,” announcing that “demand is so high [growers] can barely keep up.” The 2019 season saw higher prices, with legal marijuana selling for $300 more, up to a 37 percent increase, per pound than in 2018.
But the future of Humboldt cannabis is by no means secure, which means the county’s future isn’t secure either. And even if legalization works out well for Humboldt, it’s unclear whether that will be enough to ease the homelessness and drug abuse that now seem to dominate my hometown.
When I was growing up, Humboldt was poor. In January 1990, for example, the state unemployment rate was 5.2 percent, while Humboldt’s was 10.1. In high school, I applied to work at every store in town before I was finally hired at McDonald’s. My boss was an out-of-work teacher, and my coworker said she had a master’s in psychology. When the supervisor put out a pack of job applications, they were gone in a day.
Like Detroit or the Rust Belt, Humboldt County’s major industry died and left behind an economic hole. However, when my parents moved there in 1979, timber and fishing were still going strong. A pulp mill spouted smelly pollution over Eureka, the town next to Arcata. Boats filled the harbor, and some of my earliest memories are of logging trucks. I remember sitting at a traffic light, looking at the circular logs stacked on a trailer, and realizing they were the same as the redwoods in our yard.
Humboldt once held untold numbers of old-growth redwoods. These ancient trees, which sprouted during the time of the Roman Empire, can grow nearly 30 feet wide and 320 feet tall. In the 1850s, loggers rushed in to harvest them and turn them into boards and fence posts. The wealth this generated is evidenced by lumber magnate William Carson’s mansion, which sprawls like an elaborate gingerbread house on Eureka’s waterfront. By the 1970s, when hippies and back-to-the-landers began moving up to Humboldt, only 5 percent of the old-growth trees remained. I grew up playing in woods with stumps as big as elephants and dining room tables. Next to them, I found rusted metal ropes that loggers had left behind.
At this time, land started to be protected through various acts, such as the founding of King Range National Conservation Area in 1970, which preserved the 60,000 acres now called the Lost Coast, and the 48,000-acre expansion of Redwood National Park in 1978. Then came the Timber Wars, the conflict between environmentalists and the logging industry that dominated my childhood. Protesters lived in the redwoods for months at a time, a tactic called tree sitting. One couple, Greg King and Jane Cope, built platforms 150 feet up and swung between them on ropes, earning the nicknames Tarzan and Jane. Earth First! encouraged activism like sit-ins, human blockades, and tree spiking—hammering a nail where a logger would cut in the hope of breaking their saw blade. The northern spotted owl became a symbol for species affected by habitat destruction. Lawsuits and environmental lobbying followed. In 1990, the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species and millions of acres of federal forest in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California were designated off-limits for logging.
Most of this needed to be done, but the curtailing of the timber industry (which was also caused by natural market forces) coincided with an economic recession. All of it hit Humboldt hard. Soon cannabis began to fill the gap in the economy. (And the protected forests became home to illegal grows.)
Over time, a crop that started as part of an alternative lifestyle connected to nature and free of consumerism became a product motivated by greed. As the hippies grew elderly, new growers moved into Humboldt. Like the loggers before them, they abused the land for its resources, diverting river water to irrigate, dumping pesticides in streams, and flattening mountaintops. The spotted owl again began to die off, along with the barred owl, this time from the rat poison the growers used.
“In the last 20 years in particular, the marijuana industry got more profitable, and it really blew up in terms of the scale of the farming that was taking place,” says Burns. “A lot of younger, testosterone-fueled men moved here from out of the area to grow marijuana and to make a lot of money. I think that changed the culture of southern Humboldt in particular. There were a lot more of what they call grow dozers, big jacked-up pickup trucks in camo.”
While I wasn’t aware of this, I began to sense the changes during my infrequent visits to the area. In 2017, while camping on the Lost Coast, I’d noticed trashed cars pushed off the road. They weren’t just abandoned; they’d been stripped of doors, seats, and wheels. Portions of the forest were lined with black tarps to keep people out. There was a roughness in the air, the feeling that it might be dangerous to camp in the woods. We cut the trip short and returned to Arcata.
Now, on the drive to see the plaza without the statue, I was struck, as usual, by how beautiful Humboldt was. Lush forests covered the hills in many shades of green: forest, hunter, olive, sacramento, lime. Glimpses of the Eel River appeared between redwood trees, and wildflowers tangled with yellow grass alongside the road. The air felt light and delicate from coastal fog that had burned off that morning.
Near Garberville, I noticed a woman on the side of the freeway staring at the ground as if she’d lost something. Her pack leaned against a street sign. Later I passed hitchhikers with long, tangled hair and a man on a bike strapped with so many possessions, he looked like he might tip over.
Travelers and homeless people have always been part of the community. When I was in high school, Ragman Pete was a whirlwind of shaggy hair and tattered clothes that he piled around his body. Even though he was well-liked and harmless, he sometimes unnerved my friends and me when we walked downtown. That’s why I remember him. I ran all over Humboldt, often barefoot, sometimes hitchhiking, and was never scared for my safety.
I stopped at a fast-food restaurant in Eureka to use the bathroom. In the parking lot, I felt tense, although I didn’t know why. It was instinct, some intuitive sense that perhaps all was not well.
In 2018, Humboldt had the second-highest murder rate per capita of any county in the state. It also had the largest number of missing people—717 per 100,000 go missing every year compared with 384 statewide, although many of them may simply be out of reach in Humboldt’s remote areas. While violent crime has decreased in the United States, it has been increasing in Humboldt. In 2019, the number of violent crime reports in Arcata alone rose by 18 percent.
Some of this is due to an epidemic of hard drugs, including meth and heroin. Humboldt’s rate of opioid-related deaths is five times higher than the state average, according to the New York Times.
On the 11-minute drive between Eureka and Arcata, I recalled the time I’d stayed in a cabin in Humboldt to work on a book. In the evening, I went to the plaza, where I could get a cell signal, and sat in my car talking to a friend and people watching. At sunset, as if by agreement, drug dealers entered the plaza and began exchanging goods for money. I counted six drug deals in a span of 10 minutes.
I did nothing about this because people from Humboldt don’t narc. Also, I figured the police knew about it.
During another visit, a heavily intoxicated man in the plaza began moaning and behaving erratically in front of my son, then two years old. I got so fed up, I marched over to a police officer standing a few feet away and asked why he didn’t do something about the guy scaring children. The officer wouldn’t meet my eyes as he got into his police car.
“There are just so many of them,” he said before driving away.
When I finally arrived in Arcata, I found that the missing McKinley statue didn’t bother me after all. It had been replaced by a planter, and flowers and herbs filled what I’d thought would be a gaping hole. (A flagpole was later erected on the site.)
As I walked up for a closer look, three men in front of the planter eyed me suspiciously. One had a long gray beard, another wore a holey T-shirt, and a third wheeled around on a bike in wide-legged pants and Lennon sunglasses. The way they watched me made me nervous. I told my son, now seven, to stay close.
This was new. I’d never felt like I couldn’t let my son run around in the grass on the plaza before. As I stood there, I realized I was surrounded. It has always been typical for a few homeless people to be on the plaza, but now they outnumbered everyone else. Somehow, taking down the statue seemed to clear the space between us—I could see them, and they could see me. In fact, their eyes followed my every move, like coyotes watching a deer.
I backed away and stood on the sidewalk near my car. The three men by the planter continued to stare me down. Their gazes were menacing and made my spine twinge. The message was to leave. I wasn’t welcome in this place, my childhood home.
Then I thought about the last time I’d visited, when my family drove to Humboldt to escape wildfire smoke that was engulfing the Bay Area. We camped in our van at a vista point above a valley. It was night, and the stars were vibrant. It was the first time I saw the Milky Way.
Less than an hour later, as we were getting ready to go to sleep, someone drove into the parking lot and fired a gun four times. I froze in bed, wondering if bullets were about to tear through the van. After a moment, the person drove away.
The next morning, I saw that the ridge was littered with trash. Wrappers, beer cans, and other garbage lay so thick that I didn’t want to walk to the edge and see the view. Below, fog was moving off the valley, as if the sleeping bag that covered Humboldt was slowly rolling itself up.