Huell Howser, who died Sunday of natural causes at the age of 67, found travelogue gold in our county over a 35-year period. As such, he regularly peppered his television show, KCET’s “California’s Gold,” with all of the various natural wonders and quirky characters the Central Coast has to offer.
I first met Howser in the late 1970s while editing The Cambrian for Ralph “Scoop” Morgan (an incredible character in his own right). Howser had stopped by the office, asking if I knew of an eccentric fellow who had built a home out of society’s castoffs, if not virtual trash by anybody else’s sensibilities.
Ah, I replied, you can only mean Art Beal (aka Capt. Nit Wit, aka Der Tinkerpaw because “I tinker with my paws”).
“Goll-ly, that must be the place,” he said with puppy-dog enthusiasm in a Tennessee drawl. So with cameraman in tow, we headed to Beal’s Nit Wit Ridge and were graciously greeted by the captain himself, who stood on one of the sprawling balconies created out of the detritus of paint cans, abalone shells, rocks and parts of washing machines. He happily waved us up.
Howser, as was his trademark persona, was transfixed by the experience almost to the point of rapture. He just couldn’t get enough of the rambling structure, nor of the gnomish little man who held his head to one side, peering up at us under heavy brows to accentuate the image that he was a living, breathing leprechaun. Howser was enchanted.
“Goll-ly,” he kept repeating. I heard that exclamation numerous times over the years as he made multiple pilgrimages to our neck of the woods: walking along Morro Bay’s Embarcadero, (it was the most magnificent waterfront and fishing village he’d ever been in); taking in the North Coast and all it has to offer in the natural beauty of its sea-carved coves; the Piedras Blancas and Port San Luis lighthouses; elephant seals; the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County’s Octagon Barn on South Higuera Street and, of course, one of his favorite haunts that he found reason to return to time and again, Hearst Castle, where he swam in the Neptune Pool and emceed fundraising events.
But Howser also mined “California Gold” at Pismo Beach (and attendant Monarch butterfly groves), Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve, Montaña de Oro, our county’s two missions, as well as Cal Poly’s organic agriculture program and Paso Robles’ wine country. He was a virtual one-man band in bringing the wonders of this county to his audience.
Goll-ly, those in the county’s tourism industry should be lighting votive candles in his memory.
But natural and man-made wonders weren’t the only factors in his striking the mother lode that this county offers; he loved a good human-interest story.
Thus, he featured the likes of Howard Louis, eighth son of Ah Louis, several times on his show before Louis died in 2008; and the venerable, late Virginia Miossi of Pismo Beach (who secured her 15 minutes of “Gold” fame when Howser was told she was the sharpest historian in town who could spontaneously answer questions without a script).
He simply loved a good story and just couldn’t hold in his enthusiasm when he found one; his passion was repeatedly piqued as he found a lot of them in our neck of the woods.
Art Beal died in 1992 at the age of 96 after toiling for 50 years on his Nit Wit Ridge. Huell Howser died Sunday at the age of 67, leaving behind a golden legacy and a deep and abiding friendship with all things San Luis Obispo County.
As he told The Tribune in a 2006 interview: “I love the Central Coast. We’ve done a lot of stories on the Central Coast and always have wonderful experiences. I wish I could afford to live up there. It has a different feel from any other place in California.”
Indeed, Huell. Thanks for mining that gold and the memories.