Most people outside of California probably haven’t heard of Huell Howser. A fixture in public television in Los Angeles for 25 years, Huell hosted and produced the ubiquitous “California’s Gold” series, in which he traversed the state in search of the cool, amazing and little-known. Much of the time he didn’t run into the cool and amazing (the episode chronicling his trip to In ‘N’ Out’s headquarters potentially the exception), but he did run into the left-behind, tedious and even sad. It was how he reacted to all of it that was remarkable.
He died Monday at the age of 67. The outpouring of sadness in this state has been really beautiful.
As far as I know, Huell had no surviving family members. He wasn’t married, had no children. I think there is a general consensus that he was gay, but I don’t know if that’s relevant.
I first found out about Huell in 2009, a result of a conversation with my then-boyfriend Greg. Greg had just seen Mr. Howser at the grocery store, and Greg called me afterward with an urgent energy I couldn’t understand. Who is this Huell Howser? This guy must be something special, to make a grown man at the grocery store excited.
My relationship with Huell was cemented later that year when Greg got sick and had to take six weeks off of work. I wasn’t working at the time, and Greg and I spent our stolen, lazy days lying on the couch watching public television. (Greg didn’t and still doesn’t have cable.) We made fun of Huell’s Southern drawl – Kaliforneeya’s Gawld – and were constantly in awe of his awe. He was excited by everything – the butterfly that got into the shot, the people who walked by, the Socal woman who furnished a room using only lint! I remember one episode where Huell interviewed the employees and management of a plant that manufactured grass, as in on-the-ground GRASS, for corporate clients. And there was Huell, in his yellow button-down and shades, the epitome of the invisible protagonist in Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now, grateful for the experience and excited by everything he heard.
Huell stayed with me as my life circumstances changed. As Greg and I started dating other people. As life threw its inevitable wrenches. I kept episodes of the spin-off Visiting with Huell Howser on my DVR, probably just so I could listen to Huell’s voice anytime I wanted to. I made it a goal to meet and interview him one day.
I didn’t know Huell was sick. I don’t think anyone really did. He was such a fixture and larger-than-life figure that it didn’t seem like he would ever be gone. Right now it seems like nothing has happened, with his show, seemingly asynchronous, still airing in re-runs. But over time his absence will seem more profound – especially the absence of his joyful voice, which once upon a time narrated my life.