“…you discover that home is not a person or place but a feeling you can’t get back…”
-Noah Gundersen, First Defeat
While driving and hiking among the giant Redwoods we listened to:
Perth and Beth/Rest by Bon Iver
Codex by Radiohead
The Autumn Tree by Milo Greene
Brothers on a Hotel Bed by Death Cab for Cutie
Do yourself a favor and click the links above to listen to these songs while reading along!
The 101 heaves itself over hill after hill, tawny hued, interspersed with islands of farmland or thickets of low brush and California Oak, arcing up over hilltops and down through the subsequent troughs as aggressively as it pitches itself left and right. The warm weather has accompanied us north from Sonoma and abundant sunshine paints the pastoral landscape, keeping the fog at bay. With our windows down we feel the chill breath of the Pacific, recurrent to our left through breaks in the treed slopes. The road is, at this point, a throwback, just a few lanes wide without the gentler bends and easy grades of an interstate, not swelled by a current of automobiles too great for its design. The streets of the few towns we pass through are lined with cars from an earlier era: old Volkswagen Vanagons and Westies, Volvo station wagons from the 1960s with curvy fenders and rounded hoods, nothing flashy per-se, like muscle cars, but well-kept autos saved from the corroding rust that plagues their east-coast cousins.
The northernmost counties of California are less conspicuous than their southern counterparts and, at times, are downright rural. Through much of our drive up the California coast we could feel the subtle crush of humanity–perhaps because we had just come from several weeks in the relatively empty mountain west–and even in wilder places like Big Sur and Joshua Tree, we felt sandwiched between the behemoth cities looming nearby. On the one hand, it’s a testament to the grandeur of the country’s most populous state that there is so much natural wonder easily accessible from huge cities, but on the other hand, the west coast felt, in many ways, as crowded as the east. We were looking forward to reaching Eureka and Arcata, archetypal northern California surf towns lashed by the pounding Pacific and smothered in fog, and the abundant Redwood groves that would begin to fill in the map as we progressed north towards the Oregon border. But our first night on this leg found us at Humboldt Redwoods State park, a half-open campground along a stretch of the highway that pinches down to two lanes between dense forests of massive trees that appear seemingly out of nowhere. The South Fork of the Eel River trickles nearby as we pull off a scenic extension of the 101, the Avenue of the Giants, and find a site at the base of a tree as wide as the Jeep. A wary sleep finds us as a gentle breeze rustling through the trees around us brings to mind a sign we’d read warning of “widowmakers,” or huge Redwood branches, basically trees in their own right, that are shaken loose by the wind and sent plummeting hundreds of feet to the forest floor below.
Early the next morning we pass through Arcata and into Eureka, a busy town with a bit of a vagabond spirit, hosting hitchhikers and surfers and rubber tramps, with a smattering of industry clearly supporting a low-key lifestyle. The Redwood State and National Parks lie in a cluster beginning just a few miles north of Eureka in a sleepy conglomeration of inns and shops called Orick. We’re greeted by a giant plaster Paul Bunyan, axe in hand, attended by Babe, his trusty blue ox, towering 50 feet above a near-empty parking lot and signs for the “Trees of Mystery,” a tourist trap where visitors are educated in the history surrounding the area–and Bunyan’s legendary part in it– via exhibits of chainsaw-carved burl. It’s a kitschy spectacle that warrants little attention, certainly not the gimmicky, played-out kind given it by what seemed like hundreds of billboards advertising its impending arrival.
I’d been to the Redwoods once before, remembering not just the corny Bunyan on the roadside, but much more a feeling of awe as I rode beside my friend Jon, on tour with our band, seeing the first of the gigantic trees lining the highway as we made our way south on Route 199 past Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. We could only see the stumps illuminated in the headlights, but they were as wide as our tour bus and seemed to crowd the road, jumping out into our path at each bend. I remember the feeling of insignificance when, in the foggy gloom the next day, a semi rig was dwarfed by the huge canopy towering overhead, looking like a toy a truck, my perspective altered. This was Kelly’s first time seeing them in person, however, and I was excited for her to experience the true majesty of the Redwoods.
Past Orick we found our way onto the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, a two-lane road that parallels much of the 101 through the parks before rejoining it just south of Crescent City. The forest cleared into a few expansive meadows where giant herds of elk grazed. Across the fields a wall of greenery shot 300 feet into the sky along the tiny road leading into our home base for the next few days, Prairie Creek Campground. We found a site surrounded by lush ferns and low brush directly on the edge of the serene Prairie Creek. The perpetual wetness of the area, deep greens fueled by incessant fog and rainfall and an all-encompassing forest were not lost on us; we’d reached the Pacific Northwest. We wasted no time starting to explore. There were a number of shorter hikes to magnificent old-growth groves including the Big Tree Wayside and Cathedral Trees (where a short trail takes hikers around a tree so large the original owner of the land thought to cut it down and use the stump as a dance floor) and the Lady Bird Johnson Grove (named after Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson, former First Lady of the United States) which rambled on a loop through a section of beautiful upland forest.
The most impressive hike, however, was the Redwood Creek Trail, a route that brought us down into a river basin and required us to spend much of our day wading up the namesake creek towards the Tall Trees Grove to our north. Shortly after arriving at the river and situating ourselves with water shoes and walking sticks for stability on the five requisite river fords, we looked down at our feet to find a perfectly preserved cougar print in the sandy bank, it’s span nearly the size of my hand. Normally, wading waist-deep in the Redwood Creek would be numbing, but the warm weather continued to follow us north and the 85-degree heat almost unheard of in northern California in early May made the water more than inviting. Moreover, our vantage point from the river provided us an exceptional perspective, one where we could see how tall the trees around us actually were (generally, when in the woods, it’s very difficult to see the tops of the 350-foot trees). We had the trail entirely to ourselves and took advantage of a few deep, cold eddies, swimming off the heat to our hearts’ content. And the Tall Trees Grove at the end of the creek trail held some of the largest trees we’d see in the area. We snapped a few photos of ourselves, tiny against massive trunks and standing chest deep in giant ferns and oversized Redwood Oxalis, then wound our way back up the trail to the Jeep.
Most of us have been exposed to the Redwoods while growing up from the Star Wars movies, particularly Return of the Jedi and the two Ewok spinoffs. Filmed in the Redwood parks, Endor–the forest moon– is a place on such a grand scale that it piques our imaginations. Dense fog rolls off the Pacific, thick and low in the summer, thinner and high in the winter, keeping temperatures generally in the 50s and 60s and creating an aura of true mystery. Plying the paths through the many ancient groves, we can see leviathan trunks but never their lush crowns. Some of the trees were saplings in the time of the Roman empire and when Jesus Christ walked the earth–a lifespan that’s basically unfathomable. The few trees we see today, some 5% of the coastal redwood population 150 years ago, are sole survivors of an arboreal slaughter. A majority of the most impressive trees are long gone, probably having been milled into pieces of furniture for some big-city law offices or New York lofts. Standing at the base of one of these marvels, we found it very hard to believe someone could look upon the redwoods and simply see dollar signs. Seeing clearcuts generally depresses me, but standing on a high hilltop looking down at hundred-acre swaths of redwood forest that were leveled in the late 19th century took me to a whole new level. Many, many generations will pass before prolific forests of astounding redwoods grow again like they did before, over the period of just a few decades, mankind brought most of them down–and that’s if we manage to properly protect them for a few millennia more.
Kelly and I decided we’d spend the last few days of our trip a few miles north at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, a particularly well-preserved section of woods sporting the supposed “most massive” tree in the world. Online research doesn’t disclose much detail about the exact location of this tree, but, I read, it was somewhere off the Boy Scout Tree Trail along the Smith River, near the site of much of the filming for the Return of the Jedi Endor scenes. It just so happened that we visited this section of the park on May 4 (May the 4th be with you). We followed a narrow, pothole-pocked road to the Boy Scout Tree Trail where we quickly hiked along the rolling path to its terminus, a picturesque waterfall rushing over a fallen tree into a still, clear pool. The trail was littered with yellow Banana Slugs inching their way across the dusty walkway to damper pastures. On our way back we took a side trip to Boy Scout Tree, one of the most gargantuan trees we’d see in the entire Redwood Park system. No luck on the largest tree in the world, though.
We ended our Redwood hikes in Stout Grove, an overcrowded lowland forest along the river that provided some of the best photo opportunities. In lowland forests, the understory tends to be less dense, allowing for better views of the trunks of the Redwoods. We dallied around the loop and then headed back to our campsite for an afternoon of lazing along the Smith River. We wanted to take full advantage of the perfectly azure skies and near-90-degree heat. We set our chairs up in the shallows and kicked off our sandals, only looking up from our books long enough to dive into a 15-foot-deep pool of aquamarine water when we got too sweaty. The water was brisk to say the least, but compared to the steamy air it was supremely refreshing.
Kelly and I spent our last few days in a strange sort of limbo. We knew our trip was all but over–our budget didn’t allow us to take any time in Oregon or southern Washington, so we knew as soon as we turned out north onto Rt. 199 and crossed over the border into Oregon, our trip would be over. Campfires would no longer be a nightly guarantee. We’d switch over to sleeping under a roof, using a bathroom with indoor plumbing, having to find work all over again. Our liberation was drawing to an end, but the excitement of a new life in a new place began to set in as a reality as well. Kelly was more vocal about her excitement than I, perhaps because deep down I’m content with being a vagabond. Even the moderate simplicity of our life over the last 10 weeks dug deep into my soul as necessary and beneficial and even the “right way to live.” I loved waking up in a different place every few days, seeing the earth bend lithely over the horizon, waking with the sun, drifting off to sleep with a fire-heated face in a dumpy camp chair. The smell of pine or oaks or juniper and sage through the windows of our camper evoked the sense of cabin living, but the permanence of such living was now at an end.
The next afternoon we turned out of the last campground we’d stay in, a right onto 199 and up the hill towards Oregon, a lush green paradise to the north (like Vermont on steroids), but didn’t get far before we pulled over at a bridge overlooking the Smith River; one last summery dip in the icy snowmelt before the long slog to Washington was in order. The road curved and bent around hills and river banks, the cobalt sky drifting into roses and tangerines with the setting sun along I-5. Mt. Hood silhouetted in the distance as we neared Portland and pulled over for the night at a rest stop. The next day was clear and bright and the sentinel volcanoes of the Cascades stood at rapt attention to our east, first Hood, then St. Helens and Adams, and finally the crown peak, Rainier. This would be the beauty on our horizon in Seattle, a city ringed by snowy peaks and emerald forests. We unhooked the vibe on a shady street in front of our friends’ house and were greeted by Nate and Amanda, our gracious hosts for our first few weeks in town, and stepped across their threshold, feeling the life we’d lived throughout the spring, our life in tandem, coming to an end…
…at least for now…
Here are a few more photos from the Redwoods: