He moved to LA two years before I was born. I didn’t know him, personally. These were the days when televisions were still large, cumbersome, 200 pound boxes of tubes with no interface and just a clicker. If you didn’t have cable growing up, PBS was always on. I did have cable growing up and PBS was always on. And that’s when the joyful Tennessean came into our lives. Foolishly one could say he looked younger, more youthful in the 1980s. But I grew up watching California’s Gold, and even after fighting debilitating illness for years, Huell Howser looked exactly the same.
He could have explained it better than I will. There was no LA I’m Yours back then. No LAist, Yelp, Discover LA, what have you. People bought and trusted travel books, took guided tours, and followed simple paths when they visited California. Zagat was the best way to find food, Fodor’s the only way to find attractions. This state will always be a destination, but the hidden gems stayed hidden. When Huell left Nashville to “Go West, young man,” the world was his oyster, the whole state a sandbox. It didn’t matter if it was my backyard he visited. Huell would always say “Look at this. This is amazing.” And “Wow.” And “Wow” again.
He was right. We had to say “Wow” more often.
Huell Howser had more than an affable personality and zealous wonder. Something about his Southern drawl, heavy-handed American charm, and immutable smile made him relatable to any Californian. The child-like enthusiasm, even for the mundane, reminded us of ourselves the first time we saw the sun set over the Pacific. He stood on top of the Golden Gate Bridge. Climbed Half Dome. Dug up clams in Pismo Beach. Waited in line at the Apple Pan. Went to Musso and Franks to interview every waiter and stir the pots in the back. Hung out with the Donut Man. Ate at Phillipe’s. Awed over Wisteria Vines. Cavorted in the jacarandas. Chilled in Mono Lake. Explored Fort Ross. Flew an F-18 with the Blue Angels. Visited the See’s Candy Factory. Drank sodas at Galcos. Prayed at every mission. Frolicked in fields of golden poppies. Huell did everything he could in California. It was all gold.
It’s not that he wasn’t loved by Californians, from Eureka to Ensenada. He was adored. 18 seasons. 440 episodes. No where near enough. No mayor, governor, or president did more to get people not just into their cars to travel but out of them to stare at the vistas, flora, and fauna of a magnificent state.
People say there is more to life than money or happiness. A human desire, however faint, to believe life exists with a purpose. Human bodies, a complex composition of carbon and hydrogen, eventually cycle back into the earth from where we were once fashioned. But purpose doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel, curing cancer, or winning a war. In revealing California’s natural wonders, highlighting the indomitable spirit of the Californian, Huell gave viewers another chance to be in awe of the world around them. Like the 49ers of yore, Huell Howser dug for gold. And found it everywhere, right under my feet.