Exactly one year ago today, I boarded an American Airlines flight from Paris to Chicago, having spent glorious two weeks visiting my friend Nina. While waiting to clear customs at O’Hare, I turned on my cell phone only to immediately wish I hadn’t.
You see, in high school, I developed a curious addiction to California’s Gold, a public television show hosted by local television personality Huell Howser. I don’t remember how or when I started watching … I just remember loving it. The premise of the show was simple, Huell traveled the state of California visiting lesser-known towns, landmarks, etc. He had a knack for making even the most boring of places seem interesting and his enthusiasm was truly genuine, as illustrated by his signature catchphrase, “That’s ah-may-zing!”
I never missed an episode and soon, my family became fans of the show too. Shortly after I graduated from USC, my dad and sister had the opportunity to meet Huell while waiting for a flight at the Sacramento airport. He couldn’t have been nicer and even autographed a business card for me (which resides in a frame in my office to this day).
A few years later, I was asked to organize a local conference in Palm Springs, where Huell lived, and decided to see if he would serve as our opening keynote speaker. Like a true southern gentleman, he was more than happy to do so and stayed well after to sign autographs and pose for pictures.
I will admit, I was nervous to meet him. Would he be as genuine in person as he was on the show? The answer was yes, and more. Huell was someone who truly and deeply loved what he did for a living. He knew people made fun of him – imitating his goofy Tennessee drawl, but he didn’t care. He loved California, the people he met on his travels, and every second of his job.
I digress. On Monday, January 7, 2013, when I turned on my cell phone, I discovered Huell had passed away that morning at the age of 67. I was crushed. But thankfully, I wasn’t alone. For the next few days, local, state, and even some national news outlets were flooded with tributes for our “friend.”
While I was home for the holidays, my family and I spent a lazy, unseasonably warm Sunday visiting some of Huell’s favorite spots. As we drove up windy Highway 49 along the Yuba River, I couldn’t help but smile and be thankful for Huell. He taught me to appreciate the beauty that exists in your own backyard. I am fortunate enough to have traveled throughout the United States, to Asia and Europe, the Carribean and Central America, but last week, I was struck by the the landscape only a short drive away from my childhood home.
So here’s to you Huell … my most favorite piece of California’s gold.