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Huell: A Long, Long Time Ago

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Huell Howser
KCET legend Huell Howser, who passed away two years ago this week, had a lasting impact on those who knew him. | Photo: Cameron Tucker

When I first met Huell Howser, he was two years into his "California's Gold" adventure, intently watching two brine shrimp mate in his hand.

Huell and his big square frame had just squatted to dip a hand into the water just off the sweltering beach at Mono Lake. When Huell pulled his hand free, we could all see the tiny squirming brine shrimp, like flecks of gold, in his hand. We were cameraman Luis Fuerte, a ranger named Larry, and myself. All of us were sweating liberally, particularly Luis, who carted a boom box-sized camera on his shoulder.

"Look at this," said Huell, which I had quickly learned was Luis' cue to zoom in. "There you go. You got three of them right there. Just swimmin' around."

Larry, like many rangers, was a stoic fellow.

"It's a mated pair," monotoned Larry.

Huell's Tennessee twang rose an octave.

"They're mating?"

"They're mating," said Larry.

"In my hand?"

"In your hand."

"Gosh," said Huell, and the next bit I remember like it was yesterday, although actually it was over 22 years ago.

Huell's laugh was wholly genuine; the man, wholly oblivious of the camera, the stoic ranger and the writer there to document his every move. The laugh was pure joy -- when you lift a grandchild, or share a private moment with a lover -- when all the world is right.

"Just my luck to pick up a pair of mating brine shrimp," Huell said.

I scratched away furiously in the notebook in my hand. Because I need to be better about throwing things away, the notebook rests beside me on the desk as I write this. I look at the notes I took on that bright blue day in 1992. The edges are smeared and furled, perhaps from the sweat that dripped off my forehead, for it was piping hot along the shoreline of Mono Lake that day.

I was writing an article on the up-and-coming Huell Howser for an airline's in-flight magazine. The night before Huell and I had sat outside the motel where we were all staying, the two of us at a picnic table beneath the Sierra stars. I don't know where Luis was. Probably flat on his back. Chasing Huell with a 26-pound camera on your shoulder was not easy work. Later in their career together, Huell would take Luis to some untoward places, like window-washing downtown L.A.'s 73-story First Interstate building or sitting atop the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe now he was resting in anticipation. As these things go, none of us knew that, two decades later, Huell would die.

So Huell and I sat at the weather-scoured picnic table, drinking beer and feeling the cooling night. Huell talked in his easy twang about his early life, the path that brought him here, the path he wanted to take. We were both journalists, but we talked as if we were friends. Huell had a way of accomplishing that. Sitting beneath the stars Huell talked about growing up in Gallatin, Tennessee, his father Harold and his mother Jewel, and how his name was a blend of theirs. He talked about studying history at the University of Tennessee, and good times that included serving as student body president. He spoke of coming to Los Angeles ("Because where else is everything that matters happening?"). He told me he had fallen in love with his new home.

"California is amazing," he said, but he said it very softly, without a whiff of punctuation.

The state, yes, but the people too, and, he told me, it was the people he so desperately wanted to reach.

Huell looked up at the stars. There were a hell of a lot of them.

"I want to open up the door for people to have their own adventures," he said.

If you've had the good fortune to visit Mono Lake at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada mountains, you know it is a strange and starkly beautiful place. Kind of like Mars, but with a little more water and a lot of those signature surreal tufa, like drip castles, made of calcium carbonate. Along with the randy brine shrimp, on this visit Huell took a particular liking to the tufa. From the get go he embraced the strange. One afternoon I walked along the waterline as Huell, Luis and Larry rowed close by, examining the tufa. That we were separated by fifty yards of water was no obstacle. Sound carries easily over water, and Huell's voice carried easier than most.

I heard Huell say, "What does it feel like? Is it slimy?" and then I watched as he leaned out suddenly, while somehow Larry expertly made the necessary counter balancings to keep them all from going into the drink.

I might have heard Larry's sharp intake of breath, but Huell was paying no attention to Larry. He was leaning out, his hand in the water, presumably touching the tops of some submerged tufa.

"Oh yeah. It's got a lot of crystals. It's got a crystal feel to it. I didn't know they had that crystal stuff in there."

Larry started to say something geological, but Huell, absorbed by the water before him, never gave him the chance.

In my notebook I described his tone as a respectful hush, but I could still hear him clearly from shore.

"Look," he said. "It's reflecting in the light."

It didn't matter that I wasn't in the boat. I didn't have to be there to see the beauty. Huell had that gift.

After they dragged the rowboat up on the shore, Huell ambled over to me, uncorked a 12-year-olds happy grin and attempted a whisper.

"That boat was reeaaaaal tippy. Capital T."

Huell would go on to make more than 400 episodes of "California's Gold." According to my furled notebook, Huell wrapped up their (for the invisible Luis was very much a part of the effort) Mono Lake story thus...

Hugh, nattily dressed, ambles up from the lake's edge toward the sweating Luis, conversing genially (okay, I'm making some of this up; my chicken scratch notes are over twenty years old, and still a mess). He drawls, "Well, as we prepare to leave there is absolutely no doubt about it, this has definitely been one of our most enjoyable and educational adventures." Walking closer to the camera he says, "To be completely honest with you, before I got here I knew very little about Mono Lake. But after spending a couple of days here, I am convinced it's one of our state's true treasures."

He was, of course, referring to the lake.

But, in retrospect, he could have been referring to something else.

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