Standing on the river bar, Debra Garnes squints in the sun, a pair of triangle abalone earrings glint at her neck. She waves her left arm to indicate the white bluffs and their stark contrast to all the greenery around us and across the Eel River. The water below glitters jade green at a distance but is clear enough to see the bottom. The current is slow now, compared to its high, dangerous rush in winter, but still moving enough to prevent the algae blooms that keep dog owners away other times of the year. It feels remote here, though we only drove two minutes off the main drag to get here.

Despite the cloudless day, we're the only ones in sight until a truck rolls onto the rocky river bar with a kayak. The driver steps out and makes quick work of untying the craft and hoisting it a few yards to the river's edge.

"Look at that. He's already putting in the water," Garnes says with a smile and a hand on her hip. She wonders aloud if today would be a good day to come back with an innertube and float away the afternoon.

In 2014, Garnes won a seat on the Rio Dell City Council and this year her fellow council members voted her the tiny city's first African American mayor. It's an un-salaried position but one Garnes loves like she loves this town that's small enough to drive through before the song on the radio finishes.

Ask Garnes, born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, what brought her to Rio Dell and she'll say, "The temperature," and laugh. "Between here and Trinidad we have the best weather. ... We have early morning fog and then sunshine."

click to enlarge AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler

She's tried other climates. After leaving Northern Michigan University in the wake of her father's death and joining the U.S. Navy, Garnes was stationed in Hawaii for four years, as a gunner's mate, maintaining weapons — skills she says she hasn't made use of since. She moved on to Sacramento, supervising removal of hazardous materials like lead and asbestos from the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.

Then, at 34, she found a lump in her breast and underwent a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, the latter taking the greater toll on her overall health and leading her to retire early. It was around the time of her diagnosis that she met her wife, Elizabeth Warren (no, not that one). The two quickly began spending time every day, getting through the stress of diagnosis and treatment together. "We both want to be happy people," says Garnes, who appreciates their shared positivity. "We want to keep it light and keep it uplifting." And after 25 years together, 11 of them married, they're still that couple — grinning and sitting side by side at restaurant tables.

A radical change from Sacramento, they spent a year off the grid — relying on generators and water from a spring — in Zenia, a remote part of Trinity County, while looking for the home they eventually found in Rio Dell. It was a challenge for self-proclaimed "city girl" Garnes. "I was proud of myself," she says, adding she was also pleasantly surprised at the acceptance she and Warren found there. "You'd think you drop an interracial lesbian couple in this place in the mountains," she trails off laughing. Rio Dell showed her the same warm welcome as both a resident and a mayor. "There was a time, apparently, when I would not have been welcome here but I have not had a single incident. I give mad props to the citizens of Rio Dell."

click to enlarge AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler

Small as it is, Rio Dell, population 3,400, has seen big changes. Starting in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, the town formerly known as Wildwood was dominated by rough and tumble Pacific Lumber Co. workers from Scotia, the company town just across the bridge. The now quiet main drag brimmed with bars and brothels, earning the "wild" in the old name that remains on Wildwood Avenue. It was a need for law enforcement that pushed Rio Dell toward incorporation in 1965, though you'd hardly guess it now. Standing on the street in the morning, birdsong is often louder than traffic.

The lumber company is long gone and Rio Dell is looking for other economic opportunities. A trio of operations are setting up in a cannabis-friendly business park just outside the city proper and three dispensaries are coming to town. Still, it's more than a stretch to imagine Rio Dell losing its rural, small-town character.

That suits Garnes, who's clearly abandoned her city ways. "When I go to the city, I'm offended by the noise, I'm offended by the traffic. ... I just really like the quiet." Nor can she imagine leaving or changing the natural beauty here. Her home, she says, "has an absolutely clear view of the bluffs. ... I've watched a lunar eclipse, the entire thing, from my front window." It's her hope that more people will visit Rio Dell and discover the things that charm those who live there, like the quiet, the river access and the chance to slow down.

click to enlarge AMY KUMLER
  • Amy Kumler

A fine day in Rio Dell:

Have you had breakfast? Doesn’t matter. Stop at Wildwood Waffles (770 Wildwood Ave.) for a made-to-order waffle stuffed with cream cheese and local jam. Head down Wildwood Avenue almost to the end of town and turn left onto Edwards Drive, bearing right where the pavement gives way to bumpy dirt road, and find yourself right on the river bar. Soak up the sun and splash in the river to your heart’s content. (Note: Rivers in Humboldt can run cold and currents can be surprisingly strong. Take care, especially with young swimmers.) There are a few choice spots along the river for fossil hunting, so keep a keen eye out. When it’s time for a late lunch, head back up to town for old-fashioned burgers and milkshakes on the patio at DJ’s Burger Bar (509 Wildwood Ave). Not ready to leave? Get in a little more river time and pop into the Patron for a dinner of street tacos. Nobody’s going to rush you.

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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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