By Mo Burke*
At the end of a fall quarter at Cal, I packed my feminine feminist best – army pants and plaid flannel shirts – for a road trip with my first boyfriend, known to this day simply as The Bear. The Bear bought a beater with a student loan and we took off for Redwood Country, never having been that far north of San Francisco. Sleeping under those trees was a draw.
December of 1979 displayed the north coast in all its back-to-the-land glory. At autumn’s end, leaves colored and fell. We camped on logging roads and drove through redwoods, along the Smith River swollen with rain. There was one surrealistic dinner – ragged hippie kids dining with Crescent City’s finest, all beehives and chiffon, in the new, swanky Denny’s.
When the rains began in earnest, it was time to head home. As we drove through Eureka’s bent and bifurcated highway, it began to snow. We talked about chains, more to demonstrate our knowledge of the useful and safe than to really contemplate buying chains. We’d spent too much and had only enough money to fill the tank. Berkeley was within a day’s drive.
The snow started as fun, but I’ve ever seen a storm like this since. Chains would have been both useful and safer. The roadside was littered with cars, most with the drivers inside. Smart people were choosing not to keep going. But we’d traded smart for scared some ways back and glommed onto a trucker’s tail lights for what turned out to be a four hour plus drive between Eureka and Garberville, a distance of sixty-five miles.
Redwood Drive was snow-covered, afternoon darkened. The needle rested on E. There were a couple gas stations in Garberville, but we had no money. None. But hey, The Bear still had checks! He also had a dozen sayings spinning the laws of finance into personal economic considerations, including that day’s mantra: “Bounce check fees are short-term high interest loans.”
We found a bank. It was a beautiful old marble bank, decorated for Christmas, customers taking time to talk to the tellers and loan managers, bells, carols and lots of red plaid. I’m sure you could smell more than panic on us inside this branch of the Bank of Loleta. We fit in there as well as we did at the Denny’s.
The name plate for the teller said ‘Betty Phelps” in gold letters. She was a woman in her fifties, apple red cheeks and twinkly eyes. The Bear awkwardly attempted to warm Betty up for the coming con. We talked about the snowy drive and our adventure-filled visit. As The Bear nonchalantly filled out a check for $50 he asked Betty who he should make it out to – himself or CASH?
The exchange didn’t last long. I could hardly look her in the eye. There was no way to check a bank balance on an account at another bank. No, she couldn’t call, Betty answered the Bear’s bluff. With kindly inflection, Betty made it clear without words that she knew we were here to hang bad paper. The gig was up.
“You know, I shouldn’t do this.” her pause hung in the air. “But I sure don’t want you young people missing the holidays at home….” Her eyes crinkled as she turned toward the cash drawer. ”What kind of bills would you like, Mister, um, Bear?”
We both blushed as she counted out five bills.
Betty Phelps became our personal angel. “Praise Betty Phelps!” remains a reference to the warm feeling of another’s faith in me, particularly if such faith is a bit of a stretch.
A dozen years later a different road brought me to Humboldt County. The Phelps, I discovered, are legendary. The rural clinic is named after Betty’s husband, a country doctor, and it’s their son who today goes by ‘Dr. Phelps.’ The Bank of Loleta is no more, absorbed by another bank. I ask after Betty Phelps sometimes when I’m in southern Humboldt County. I honestly don’t know if she is still alive, but last time I asked, she was.
The years have made this less a Christmas story for me than one about our small community, which is often a collage of individual kindnesses like Betty’s. Humboldt County’s primary crop is no longer redwoods. Fishing has dried up. Now farmers grow organic veggies and quality marijuana. The crop may have changed, but the old frontier feel of the place remains. Deals are made with a handshake. Folks respond quickly to a neighbor’s needs. There are countless stories of leaps of faith, time and coincidence that people make to care for each other behind the Redwood Curtain.
My first taste of that particular sweetness was at the hand of Betty Phelps.
*Mo Burke creates radio advertising in Humboldt County for Lost Coast Communications. She moved there in 1990. Aside from raising remarkable children, volunteering and having fun in the nation’s most inaccessibly place is the thing she’s done best and for the longest time.
More wicked cool TYTT stories:
The Cook on a Marijuana Plantation as told to Sam Quinones
Smashing Plates by Rachel Kimbrough
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