Saturday, September 4, 2010

The California Red Woods

September 1st, 2010. A day that shall be known for the most terrifying driving of my year-long trip. That and the insanely large trees we saw.

Insanely, while not being an adjective I'd normally use, seemed perfectly rational when coupled with the lack of sleep these last few entries had been churned out under. Now, with a slightly more rested mind, I will begin once more the tale of this fate filled day of, you know, large tree things. Trees. Very. Large. Trees.

We left driving down the scenic By-way, Highway 36. This was a twisting turning road that lifted us up into the hills, looking down on the outstretched forests below. It was a lovely drive, a beautiful drive, but a slow drive. A very slow drive.

The shortest route between two points is not a straight line when topography enters the mix. I would say mistakes were made, but really – the journey was a beautiful, and halfway to the Redwoods we ended up passing a ranger station.

Mad River Ranger Station lies in the middle of the 36. We had passed a few of these already, but never pulled in to see just what they were. In my mind the ranger station is that thing you passed five miles back, just before your car over heated. Hiking towards it one member of your party disappears, only to be found dead a mile later. When night falls the rangers turn out to be the true killers, and in the end there is not a sole survivor to be found – all killed in a forest fire started to end the madness. The only winner? The forest which will grow back newer and stronger under the somewhat controlled blaze.

As life would have it, this is not quite what a ranger station is. Not to my knowledge – we never broke down, or stayed past dark, so I can't speak to those ends, but in my experience a ranger station is this:

A place where you can get free comics and colouring books about Smokey the Bear. Ohh! His origin issue! What a snag! So many exclamation marks can only point to the fantastic experience that was had here.

There were also pamphlets about snakes, and bears, and other things that want to eat you from the inside out. Like ticks. For the most part a Ranger Station is a rest stop way out in the bush. And there are helpful people there who love the outdoors – have made it their life. They know all the tips and tricks.

In fact they might tell you to take one road out to the 101 to see the Redwoods, and even though that road ends north of where you want to be, you should probably listen and then backtrack later. You may think since you're going to be going north on the 101, it's best to take the road that leaves you south of the forest. But in this assumption you would be wrong.

Listen to the rangers, otherwise you end up travelling far more terrifying roads that wind higher through the hills, and place you seventy miles from the nearest service station. This may not seem bad, as you're well fueled – driving through the desert having taught you to fill up at every chance, not wait until you're near dry – but the roads... they'll become full of potholes, they'll rock you from one side to the other. There will be no railing. There will be nothing but absolute terror for the next hour (twenty miles, one hour.) You will pass no one, except on the few moments where a one lane squeeze meets a blind curve. Then a truck will barrel towards you.

I have not been this nervous in a vehicle – for years. Not since 2006 when I travelled similar roads in British Columbia, Canada (actually those were far worse, but I summoned the fear for this journey.) Katherine drove, stoic, calm, and in control. Good for her. Because as for me? I was thinking of all the worst case scenarios.

A pot could dislodge our oil pan. But would that be all that bad, I mean we hadn't changed our oil in 17 000 KM. We probably didn't have any left, as it was. Wait – we hadn't changed our oil in that long? What's that smell? Burning. Katherine noticed it. Just tell her it's the tires – no sense worrying her when we're still 45 minutes from the nearest service station. She bought it. Now only I needed to worry, and check the engine temp meter, and hope that we did not die out here.

A terrifying hour past – we still weren't out. Thirty more minutes to go. No matter how much Johnny Cash we played, I still worried. Then we were out. Then I told Katherine the smell was the oil, thinking we could change it straight away in town. But no – this town had one auto shop which was booked until next week. Unacceptable!

For the next few miles Katherine was worried, until we reached the first mile of Avenue of the Giants. Right at that moment, she would later say, she forgot all about the oil. This was excellent for me. I let it go too – there was nothing to be one until 60 miles north on the highway.

Avenue of the Giants. That's when we could relax. We had made it to the Red Woods state park. And what a place it was:

Our first stop put us on a one mile hike through the woods where sound shut off from all around us. Outside the forest it was blazing hot, inside – nice and cool. The sunlight never lingers long in this spot.

Trees grew, reaching up over three hundred feet into the air. That's a thirty storey building. All around you. This is a very big tree. And there are hundreds of them all growing clumped together. The root system of the fallen giants dwarf even the tallest person. These are things of beauty.

I thought I would be jaded, after all I had just seen big trees yesterday, but then these ones weren't just big – they were tall as well.

After finishing the trail we hit the car and moved on to the next station where road signs told us to stop. More forest, more trees, more beauty. I envied the people who would hike eight miles in to set up camp, alone in the wilderness. But at this stage, an eight mile hike, even over flat land – that seemed like far too much, just to see some trees. Some trees I was seeing here.

Now if I had a week to camp, rather than just one night that would be different.

There were trees to climb on, trees to crawl inside and make a club house within, trees to simply crane your neck back and look at. Trees, trees, trees. And there were even hidden gems.

A free auto-tour pamphlet is available from boxes at the side of the road, but it wasn't until stop three – the visitor centre – that I overheard a ranger give out secret advice. He drew new lines on the map, and added stops. I had him modify my light blue pamphlet the same way. We now had opened up the Giant Tree achievement, and Founders Tree – which included an informational booklet.

Founders tree stood 346 feet tall, and was on the cover of the book. On the cover was a cartoon man looking up. Clearly we had to re-create this image for pictures.

While 345 may seem tall, it was still but a baby after seeing Giant Tree – accessible by a quick hike after taking a seven mile road which diverged from Avenue of the Giants. Giant Tree was 363 feet tall. A thirty six storey building. If this tree fell in the forest and no one was around to hear it, it wouldn't matter – shocks would be felt all the way to Portland. Maybe. Probably not. It wouldn't make a sound. Final answer.

These are the roads of car commercials, twisting and turning through blind curves, walled by the behemoths. It was hard to think that this was still California. It seems as if we'd seen almost everything in this state. There's been the deserts of Death Valley, the art of Salvation Mountain, the beaches of Los Angeles, the cliffs of Yosemite, and now these trees. We'd spent a week and a half here, and it was barely enough.

Just after five we rolled into town to get our oil changed – the car not smelling all that hot. The oil change had closed minutes before. Great. But ten miles up the road we hit on another quick change place which still had room for us. We were lucky, as it turned out the oil had nearly run dry. After our complementary hot drinks, and a few times telling the staff that – no – we didn't want the extra products, we were good to go. Back on the road, sans terrible burning smell.

Now we just had to find a place to sleep for the night. This would come in the form of Crescent City – a northern town on the ocean. A beautiful sunset was presented to us – the last we would see in this state. And as if saying good bye, the gentle beeping of the light house would lull us to sleep.

And by lull us to sleep, I mean imagine you had left your phone off the hook on the bedside table. Yeah, it was like that, but rather than just you hearing it – it's a blessing for the whole town.

Good night California; it's been real.

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