Along California’s Beaten Paths with Huell Howser

When I first arrived in California from upstate New York nine years ago, I had many first impressions.  These impressions included the rough condition of Highway 99 in the Valley, the abundance of vegetables and fruits available at local restaurants, and the frenzy of the real estate market in those pre-recession days.

Other impressions of California came through my television screen from the California’s Gold program hosted by Huell Howser who passed away earlier this month.

During our first years living in the Central Valley and not knowing much about what to see and do in the state, my wife and I watched Huell take us on the road to practically every corner of California.  His visits would consume the entire half-hour of the program, unlike the minute-and-a-half features I was accustomed to seeing from local television news.

He wasn’t much for the so-called rules of producing video stories.  His segments were essentially shot in a rambling style with the host inviting the videographer to follow him as he walked through museums, nature settings, and iconic California sites.  He’d even have the camera roll while inside the vehicle he drove as they would tour all over the state.  There wasn’t a lot of editing to the shows.  Most of the segments were shot “freestyle” with the host telling his videographer to “pan over there” or to “zoom in on this”.  

A friend of mine who is in the television news business says Huell probably broke over ten-thousand rules of television story construction.  That may be an exaggeration, and it misses the point.  California’s Gold was off-the-cuff television.  It was heartfelt, and thanks to the homespun narration, it was entertaining.

Over the years, I saw Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Chico, and other places first on California’s Gold, then later on my own.  Huell Howser made the introduction; I did the rest.Good friends saw to it that I take in Yosemite, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Hollywood when I first arrived in California in 2004.  But it was Huell Howser and his California’s Gold program that made me anxious to tour the Missions along the coast, and curious to explore the geographical center of the state at North Fork in Madera County.  His program fed my desire to find the places off the beaten path.  I shared some of those places in my book 9 From 99, Experiences in California’s Central Valley, in 2010.

Since my first impressions California some nine years ago, some changes have taken place.  Highway 99, while still not the greatest travel thoroughfare in the state, has gone under some improvements that include more six-lane stretches of roadway.  The real estate market is making some recovery after those very lean years when the recession hit the region the hardest.  But many things have stayed the same.  And thanks to Huell Howser, many Californians were able to see and learn more about the history of the place we call home.  

We can thank Huell Howser, for taking many of us off the beaten path all these years.  

Steve Newvine is a former television journalist and author of 9 From 99, Experiences in California’s Central Valley.  He lives in Merced.