Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March, 2004)
A Slow, Strange and Grueling Thing
Writer-photographer Daniel Chamberlin ventures behind California’s Redwood Curtain to experience the three-day triathlon of the arts that is the Great Arcata-to-Ferndale Kinetic Sculpture Race
In the late 1930s frustrated residents of Northern California declared their intention to wage “patriotic rebellion” against California and Oregon. Tired of dealing with state governments that seemed more concerned with distant population centers—and not with repairing the decrepit bridges and mud-choked roads leading to their sparsely populated mining, fishing and timber communities—the people of Northern California and Southern Oregon took steps to secede from their respective states. The new state would be called Jefferson—a name arrived at by way of a newspaper contest—in honor of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the U.S. and patron saint of Libertarians and states’ rights crusaders. On December 4, 1941, Jefferson State’s residents set up barricades on the highway and elected Judge John L. Childs governor. At his inauguration he was photographed with a bear on a chain that appears to have a severed human hand in its jaws. Three days after Childs’ inauguration Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor and the Jefferson State movement was swept aside as the United States entered World War II. Though small in number, benign Jefferson State secessionists still hold meetings, run a Web site and paint slogans on their barn roofs. Recently, they tried to use the California’s gubernatorial recall fiasco to drum up support for their cause.
The Jefferson State movement points to a spirit of individualism that thrives in Northern California, especially in Humboldt County. People who live up in northernmost California like being away from it all: there’s time to develop interesting ideas, and enough of a community for those ideas to take root. Hobart Brown, a tiny, impish, 69-year-old man who lives in Humboldt, at the southern end of what could’ve been Jefferson State, is one of those people. He’s an aircraft mechanic, astrologer and wild pig hunter. He’s also the self-styled “Glorious Founder” of an event called The Great Arcata-to-Ferndale Kinetic Sculpture Race (KSR), an event has run every year since 1969.
The KSR is a vigorous all-terrain art parade held over the course of Memorial Day Weekend. Participants take three days to travel 38 miles in vehicles known as kinetic sculptures—usually recumbent bicycles frames mounted with some sort of sculptural art that’s often conspicuously wacky: poop-filled toilet, braying donkey, KISS Army Camaro, etc. For the 2003 race, the least noteworthy of the entries appearing on the starting line in Arcata is a gray-haired, bearded guy wearing a suit and riding a bicycle. The most imposing sculpture-vehicle is the 2,000-pound “Surf & Turf,” a dramatically psychedelic Day-Glo lobster. A bull’s head that bears a close resemblance to the distressed animal in Picasso’s “Guernica” is grafted on to the back of its abdomen. Six pilots sit inside dressed as chefs, complete with poofy white hats.
In order to complete the full race course in accordance with all of the rules—to “Ace” the course, in KSR terminology—the machines must maneuver over city streets and sand dunes, navigate across a mile of open water in Humboldt Bay and slog through the murky depths of a backwoods bog. They do all of this at an average speed somewhere around 2-3 mph, meaning the race never gets much faster than the wheelchair-bound vets in the Memorial Day Parade that precedes them at the finish line in Ferndale. The KSR combines the tedious pace and muddy wallowing of a tractor pull with the budget-minded engineering of a demolition derby and the physical punishment of an Iron Man triathlon. Dozens of participants return every year. Some have two decades of consecutive races behind them. The race means many things to many people, but as far as Hobart is concerned its primary purpose is to serve as a weapon against suicide.
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You have to be seeking Humboldt County in order to get there. Garberville, the largest town in southern Humboldt, is 200 miles from San Francisco. The two largest towns in Humboldt—Eureka and Arcata—are over 70 miles further north. Though Jefferson State is now mostly history, it is a given with locals that Northern California, particularly Humboldt, is separate from the rest of California. This is attributed to a phenomena known as “the Redwood Curtain.” Thousands of people do make the trip to Humboldt though; tourism is one of the area’s trademark industries along with timber, fishing, folk art and marijuana cultivation. For his part, Hobart Brown subscribes to the theory that, along with Hawaii, Humboldt is one of the last outposts of Mu, a mythical lost civilization akin to Atlantis.
The best road to Humboldt from the rest of California is U.S. 101, though what is an eight-lane river of traffic down in Los Angeles is a two-lane trickle 500 miles up the coast in Hopland. The same freeway serves as a 25 mph main street further north in Willits and Laytonville. The towns stay charming, but as you move north there are fewer high-priced bistros and more stores selling generators, solar panels and livestock supplies. Outside towns, the road is flanked on either side by acres of farmland and deep forests. Country lanes open up throughout Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, lined by roadside invitations to join the landed gentry in their wine tasting rooms from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Once you’re in Humboldt, the grape arbors are mostly gone, replaced by what local drug folklore suggests is the scent of local marijuana crops wafting over the highway. The Eel River rides alongside the 101, and in the summer it’s not uncommon to see people pulled off to the side of the road and going for a dip. “Bigfoot Country” coin purses and redwood burl carvings are readily available, and there are several opportunities to drive your car through hollowed-out redwood trees. Local highway cleanup projects are sponsored by the Harley Riders Association, the Humboldt Area Pagan Network and a store called The Blessed Thistle. Logging trucks hauling gargantuan pieces of timber, farmers driving tractors between their fields and rusted VW buses filled with vintage hippies discourage speedy drivers. The archetypal Humboldt vehicle is a mud-spattered 4WD pickup truck with a Grateful Dead sticker and a National Rifle Association decal sharing the same bumper.
In Denis Johnson’s metaphysical California noir, Already Dead, the suicidal philosopher Carl Van Ness wanders this stretch of highway and describes these remote towns as “like little naps you might never wake up from—you might throw a tire and hike to a gas station and stumble unexpectedly onto the rest of your life, the people who would finally mean something to you, a woman, an immortal friend, a saving fellowship in the religion of some obscure church.” I didn’t begin to understand the Kinetic Sculpture Race until I was drunk, stoned and stumbling with a party of veteran racers spewing history and KSR gospel in equal measure as they camped on an isolated, driftwood-strewn beach. You don’t call yourself a local up here until you’ve been dug in for at least a generation, but there’s no better description of the appeal of Humboldt life to an outsider—or a more dead-on assessment of the cult that has risen up around the race that Hobart Brown started in 1969—than that of Johnson’s troubled pilgrim.
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Hobart Brown claims the title of Glorious Founder of the Kinetic Sculpture Race, but race director Bill Croft runs the thing. Croft is a sewing machine repairman who moved to Humboldt County with his wife when he retired from the Coast Guard ten years ago. Although the racers are following an arcane set of rules that Hobart and others have developed over the last three decades, it’s up to Croft to make sure the race follows the rules in terms of city permits, traffic safety, insurance and crowd control. In a phone interview a week before the race he tells me that he knows a lot about Porta-Potties, that Hobart is “the worst businessman ever,” and that without his organizational assistance it was only a matter of time before the race was going be shut down.Continue reading