There was no mistaking who he was that morning of June 13, 2005, when I turned my car into the Sweetwater River overlook off Interstate 8 in the wilds of eastern San Diego County. He had on his signature California-style, tropical shirt and sunglasses along with that classic smile that brought warmth to all those who knew him. Huell Howser. When I walked over to him, he grabbed my hand and I experienced one of those handshakes you’ll never forget. It was one of those US Marine, best friend, I’ve got your back, this is the guy I want to know for the rest of my life type handshakes. He then turned and introduced his assistant Cameron with a wry smile as, “Cameron the Camera Man.” The two worked together seamlessly.
Our purpose was to film an episode about the chaparral for Huell’s popular public television show, California’s Green. I’d been bugging him to do it for months.
We visited four different locations for the show: the overlook, chaparral recovering from the 2003 Cedar Fire in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, beautiful, old-growth chaparral in Guatay, and the outskirts of Pine Valley. Each time Huell would tell Cameron to roll it and without any rehearsal Huell asked exactly the right questions, constructing the entire shot in-process. It was an incredible experience to witness. Before I knew it, Huell would declare, “That’s enough,” and we’d move on to the next location. He never re-shot a scene. When each is perfect, there’s no need to complicate the process with more film to edit. This man was clearly a master of his craft.
We had lunch together at the Descanso Junction Restaurant and talked about Huell’s shows, the chaparral, and the importance of making meaningful connections wherever you go. His grasp of culture and history was phenomenal. When we discovered we both had connections in Tennessee, he was from there and my father’s family called it home in the 1800’s, we talked about the importance of family and how we are shaped by the people who raised us. Huell was one of those people who instantly made you feel that you were a long time friend who had been away far too long.
As he did with many of those he met while doing his show, we stayed connected by phone. We’d call each other when the mood struck or news events reminded us of what we had shared together. Two conversations will forever stick in my mind.
A few months after we finished our episode for California’s Green, Huell called me up and said, “Rick, I just wanted to let you know that as I’ve been filming my show up and down California over the past several months, you know what I’ve found? Well, it’s chaparral! It’s everywhere! I had no idea!” Another time he called me up when the Los Angeles Times ran a story on the front page about the Chaparral Institute and the work we were doing. “Rick, I saw your picture, your big spread in the LA Times this morning! Why, I had no idea you were so famous! You’re a big star!”
That’s just the way Huell was. When you were with him, you felt like you were the most famous person alive. He let you know what an incredible honor it was to be with you. That was his magic. That was why he was so loved, and will continue to be so. He made people feel valuable, special, important. Always.
I’ll miss you my friend.
Besides the wonderful video of Huell singing below, we’ve also included a link to today’s LA Times’ tribute to him:
Video California Here I Come!