The Life and Times of Hayfork
Oct 04, 2019 12:48PM
● By Nora Mounce
Photographer Brian Gossman isn’t your typical Trinity County farmer, but he’ll be the first to explain there’s no such thing. An East Coast transplant, Gossman was first exposed to the Emerald Triangle when a friend’s parents purchased the legendary Northern Delights coffee shop in Hayfork. Years later, Gossman and his wife, Heather, were living in Baltimore with successful careers but found themselves overwhelmed by the rat race. Gossman remembers not sleeping at night and saying to Heather, “Let’s just see how we feel in a cabin on the West Coast.”
Fifteen years later, the Gossmans are inextricably woven into the life and times of Hayfork, a tiny town in the middle of the expansive mountain country between Redding and Eureka.
“It’s rough. Unlike Mendocino and Humboldt, we don’t have roads and infrastructure… no incorporated areas. There’s not one traffic light in the entirety of Trinity County,” explains Gossman.
When the couple first relocated to a “shack” on a cheap piece of land, Gossman imported his professional world, firing up a generator to power his laptop each morning. For years, Gossman worked as a production assistant for the famous artist and filmmaker John Waters, credited with the 1988 box office hit Hairspray. An early adopter of the digital medium, Gossman’s role was to scan the negatives that Waters shipped via FedEx to their cabin in Hayfork. Gossman was also a frequent collaborator with Greg Gorman, the “male Annie Leibovitz of the 1980s,” frequently traveling to Hollywood to assist on shoots.
All the while, Brian and Heather got married and wanted to start a family. “We left everything behind to settle in Hayfork,” explains Gossman. “It hasn’t been easy.” Today, the couple is raising their 9-year-old and 16-month old baby together, and Heather is an active firefighter and EMT. Gossman, whose first studio was a room at Northern Delights, “the heart of the community,” now runs his own print gallery, Gossman Photographics, downtown.
“As a photographer, it’s hard to live out here and not take photos. It was like candy for an artist,” says Gossman. But in the early days, he remembers pointing his lens carefully. “I definitely didn’t want to be sticking a camera in people’s faces,” knowing that nearly everyone in Hayfork grew to get by. As time passed, Gossman fell in step with local culture and “started growing a little bit of weed in our backyard,” adding cultivator to his résumé along with artist, father, photojournalist, and the official (volunteer) photographer for the Hayfork Fire Department.
“People always ask me about where I live,” says Gossman. “My friends think Trinity County looks so beautiful, but the scenery is only a visual summation of life here.” Hayfork sits just under 2,500 feet in elevation and endures harsh, cold winters with regular snowstorms and road closures. “I’m my own plumber, my own carpenter…” says Gossman “It’s taken a huge toll on my body.”
Gossman’s fascination with the realities of rural life inform much of his work as a photographer. Like anyone, he’s enamored with Trinity County’s topography, which he calls “shockingly beautiful,” but his landscape shots are footnotes to the real focus of his Hayfork portfolio the people.
“Coming from a big city and landing here, there’s so much flavor,” explains Gossman. “It’s a one-of a kind show that I’d buy a ticket to… but in the best way.” Clicking through Gossman’s portfolio, images of dirt track racing, the county fair, and the local characters of Hayfork whom Gossman calls celebrities: “There’s Slow-Hand, Hippy Chuck, the unofficial Mayor of Hayfork, and Earthquake America he actually changed his name in the phonebook! They’re all real people living in this place that’s so special,” says Gossman. In both his images and words, Gossman’s deep appreciation for the raw grit of Trinity County is always on display.
For such a small remote community, the life and times of Hayfork are rapidly changing in 2019. Gossman certainly doesn’t claim to know what the future holds for his community, but he’s passionate about putting his energy into the future of Hayfork. Along with a partner, Gossman has launched the Mountain Cannabis Co., which sells branded medical flower at licensed dispensaries throughout the state. “It’s been interesting to see how people have had to accept” legalization, says Gossman. “It’s a very gray area for people in town. But they’re trying to put their best foot forward and legitimize it.”
As a photographer, Gossman’s captivation with Hayfork the people, the mountains, the music, the fire, the cannabis, and the evolution of all seems boundless. Currently, he is working on a documentary about Trinity County, collaborating with professional filmmakers to profile families going through the process of compliance. With the documentary, Gossman hopes to share the real stories of life in Hayfork, a community built on survival and a culture that’s shifting under their feet.