There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle. The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed – Albert Einstein
Whiskeytown, was one of Shasta County’s first gold mining settlements during the California Gold Rush of 1849. Over one hundred years later, in 1962, Whiskeytown Dam filled the basin community with water, creating crystal blue Whiskeytown Lake. Now a California Historical Landmark, Whiskeytown still appears on a few maps, but all that remains is a relocated general store and a few homes. However, on clear days, according to The Redding Record Searchlight, “the outlines of buildings that were once Whiskeytown, can be seen at the bottom of the lake.” Cue the Soggy Bottom Boys from ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’
Further west, Highway 299 forces you into dozens of hairpin turns, rarely allowing for speeds exceeding 40 miles per hour. Corners are tight and many times you’re pressed against a wall of hillside earth. In several places, the shoulder suddenly disappears as the narrow road slopes quickly down into the trees. In Weaverville, the snow bonneted Trinity Alps, a miniature Sierra Nevada, look down on an old wooden Weaverville Hotel and Emporium, where a single boastful sentence from their homepage, provides a clear eyed summation for this slice of California. “There is not a single traffic light in the entire county.”
West of Willow Creek and Bigfoot Motel, the pavement beings to straighten, with long sweeping turns through conifers and scattered grasslands of Six Rivers National Forest. Here and there, mobile homes appear to have been arbitrarily dropped from the sky, accompanied by several vehicles released from even higher elevation. Together they sit clumped at odd angles, connected only by a family member’s long forgotten need. Pulling an old red wagon, a young girl in a yellow dress walks from the back of one of these tattered homes. She walks along a well worn path and sits on a small rusted swing. Something rides in the wagon, but I’m unable to make out what it is before the next turn in the road pulls me further west.
Near Arcata, the road meets the ocean. Without exception, I’m surprised when land ends and water begins. Something involuntarily opens in me. Each time I imagine someone seeing this for the first time. What emotions it must have brought forth in an explorer. Or the unfortunate who only late in life finally knew the joy of seeing where the land meets the sea for the first time. There, spread at your feet, the vast Pacific Ocean, North Sea, Bay of Bengal, South China Sea, Saint Lawrence River, Gulf of Mexico, Indian Ocean; incomprehensible, unknowable, mysterious. I hope you’ve had that gasping moment of discovery. I hope each of you have looked straight ahead into nature and saw something that moved you. Something that made your heart race. Something that etched itself into your memory, to be pulled up and cherished for the rest of your life.
Above Trinidad, Highway 101 picks up the name Redwood Highway. Shallow bays between rocky headlands have formed sand bars, separating Big Lagoon and Stone Lagoon from the ocean. Resting areas for migratory waterfowl using the Pacific Flyway between Lake Earl on the Smith River, they sit at the doorstep of the world’s largest trees.
Seamlessly integrated into a series of California State Parks, Redwood National Park hugs the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean to the west and looks toward the Coast Range in the east. Most days, warm inland air, cooled by coastal waters, forms gently rolling fog. Creating a climate that mimics the mild, moist conditions that existed when dinosaurs roamed the earth and species of redwood flourished across North America, it silently skulks up green timbered shoulders, before settling onto giants and into hollows like a shroud.
Kuchel Visitor Center, the color of driftwood, sits tucked above a long stretch of beach. Worn wooden steps lead from the back of the building, through tufts of wildflowers and seagrass, directly onto the grey sand beach. Offshore, ageless boulders stand in the surf, abandoned by a shifting continent, visited only by cormorants, murres and gulls. Gnarled wood lies scattered along the beach, silvered and smoothed by time. Above the visitor center, across Highway 101, layers of deep green forests rise into the early morning fog. I am the only one on the beach. I take off my shoes, roll up my pants and wade into the cold ocean. Other than the sea and the wind, there is no sound, giving an otherworldly feel to the surroundings. As if something happened and I have yet to be informed.
“I know this is a subjective question, but what are the best hikes in the park,” I asked the ranger at the information counter.
“Well. There are several, but one in particular,” she says with a bit of a twinkle in her eye. I’m terrible at guessing someone’s age, but she is probably in her 50’s. Short auburn hair. She leans in a bit and says, “Do you want to see the old growth? It’s a bit of a hike.”
“That would be great. What do you mean by a bit of a hike?”
“First you have to get to the trailhead. It’s off the paved road, past Lady Bird Johnson Grove, which you should also visit. Accessible only by knowing the code on a locked gate and then driving about six miles on a not well kept gravel road. The hike itself is about 3-4 miles, but the first mile or so is straight down. About a thousand feet in the first mile. It’s the coming back up that gets you. I can give you the combination if you like.” She smiles. It’s a gift and a dare. We’ve obviously never met.
“I’m in. What do you mean by old growth?”
“There’s a loop at the bottom the the trail that leads through some of the oldest Coast Redwoods in the park. Many over 350 feet tall and 2,000 years old. It’s amazing.” She hands me a small slip of paper with a 4 digit code and another slim piece of paper on which she has written my name and license plate number. “Put this on your dash and reset the lock after you go through the gate. We try to limit the traffic on this road and through the old growth.”
“Got it. So, if I may ask, why did you give me the code?”
“You look like a guy that needs a visit to the old growth.”
“I am not going to ask what that means. But, thank you.” I turn and walk away before she tells me I have only months to live.
The long heavy metal swinging gate, held in place by a combination padlock, is not easy to move once unlocked. It takes a little oomph, but once moving it glides open. I drive to the other side, get out and repadlock the gate. Pitted with large rocks laying on the surface, the dusty gravel road is narrow, bordered on either side by conifer and fern. Steadily gaining elevation, twisting through shafts of light that somehow penetrate a sliver of impenetrable forest, the sun dances and twinkles in the dust. In places the earth rises sharply from the side of the road. Leafy ferns growing at a ninety degree angle, hang on the hillside, seemingly suspended in air. I pass no one on the way to the trailhead. When I arrive there are two cars and not a soul in sight. I park, pull on my backpack, glance at the sign telling me I am hiking in bear and mountain lion country and start walking.
Descending starts almost from my first stride onto the trail. Not always steep, but steadily leading me down. Where it becomes too steep, the trail serpentines, doubling back on itself in a series of switchbacks. Roots are ever present. Dark edged, rubbed smooth by footsteps, they reach up through the dirt and spread veinlike across the path. Massive trees felled by wind or age, lay scattered across the forest floor, a final resting place. A redwood that has fallen directly across the trail has been cut away, leaving a tunnel-like opening. Small brooks, clear and chattering, snake their way from the hillside, across the trail and continue tumbling downward. In spots the trail is muddy. I look for animal tracks and find only the distinct print of deer.
When the trail levels, the forest encircles you. Douglas fir and big leaf maple play at the hem of coastal redwoods. Rhododendrons and azaleas spread between colossal trunks, filling in the only space left them. Majestic blood brown, broad, rutted and splintered, the tallest trees on earth reach skyward. On older redwoods, branches begin over one hundred feet from the ground, creating rows of uneven sentinels, crowned by soaring green canopies. Sun filters down through the branches to a forest floor where delicate and diamond shaped Lady ferns thrive. Unchanged for thousands of years, the great trees majestically move through time, recording the brief history of man.
Located on a flat plain that borders Redwood Creek, the grove of old growth Coastal redwoods stand surrounded by five foot ferns and a dense underbelly of hazelnut, pine and the fallen. Some have been ravaged and opened by the forces of nature, leaving scars I can easily walk into. Inside, I run my hand over the black and smooth trunk. Outside the bark, with its menacing color and texture, is soft to the touch. Along with my footsteps, the wind clicking in the branches high above is the only sound I hear. The floor is silent and unmoving, wind staying high in the trees. I am alone in this sacred place.
I sit at the base of a giant and lean against its gentle fold. I think of my sons and the awe they would feel. I think of Oliver and wonder if his world is as glorious as this. I want to believe that his world transcends anything earthly. I want to believe that Oliver is in a place where love and beauty exist as one entity, one sense. I want to believe that when I see him again, he will take me by the hand and lead me to places of beauty and peace unlike anything I’ve ever known. I believe he is watching my journey with a smile. Waiting for my arrival so he can dazzle the old man.
Klamath Beach Road leaves Highway 101, just south of the Klamath River and intersects with Alder Camp Road at the Old Douglas Memorial Bridge site. I stopped to visit the small section of bridge that remained after the Great Christmas Flood of 1964, when 24 inches of rain fell on recently accumulated mountain snowpack, causing the Eel and Klamath Rivers to rise, destroying 98% of the riverbank town of Klamath. As I walked back to the van, a young man was sitting on the curb with a backpack and guitar.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Good. You?” He is probably in his mid 20’s. Short hair, glasses, inquisitive eyes. Smiling.
“Never better. Are you hitchhiking?”
“Not really. I’m hiking the coastal trail. I had to walk across the bridge to get over the Klamath River. The trail picks up a few miles up this road.”
“How long have you been on the trail?” I sit down next to him.
“About a week. Not that long. Started north of the park. Heading south to the bay.”
“The bay? As in San Francisco Bay? That’s a hike.” About 350 miles.
“Yep. San Francisco Bay. I have some friends down there.”
“I’m heading up to the high bluff overlook. I don’t know how heavy that backpack is, but if you want a lift for the next few miles to the trail, it’s not a problem.”
“Cool. Thanks.” He is still smiling.
We walked over to the van and he hoisted his pack and guitar into the van before jumping into the front seat.
“So what made you want to hike to the Bay?” I asked.
“A girl. It’s a long story.” He slowly shook his head and looked down at his lap. His smile faded.
“I’ve got nothing but time. My name is Smitty. Let’s hear it.”
“Kyle.” We shook hands and he told me a story as old as time. Jilted by the young woman he loved, he needed to escape and clear his head. He was in pain.
“Give it time Kyle. Life has a way of self correcting many times.”
“I’ve got nothing but time, Smitty.” The smile returned to his face.
I don’t think my words had any effect.
Alder Camp Road dead ends at a small dirt lot, big enough for a half dozen cars. We got out and walked to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Neither of us said anything. We just stood, breathed in the salt air and listened to the waves crash against the rocks below. It was beautiful day, with a few cottony clouds placed on the horizon to give the sky dimension. Both of us were lost in thought about a distant woman.
“Kyle, I’m going to drive the coastal loop so I can visit the World War Two radar station. I’ve been studying the period of 1915 to 1945 most of my life and I’m looking forward to seeing this. Ride along if you want and I’ll drop you at the end of the loop where it joins the trail.”
“Sure. Why not.”
We get back in the van and head up a one way gravel road that follows the ocean’s coastline a few hundred feet below. Not too far from the overlook, a roadside marker appears. We stop, get out and start hiking down a steep sloping path
Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Aleutian Islands, the need to protect the western coastline of America took on urgency. After Japanese submarines shelled an oil refinery north of Santa Barbara, California, on February 23, 1942, the threat became real. One of 62 stations stretching from Canada to Mexico, Klamath River Radar Station B-71, code name “Trinidad”, consisted of three buildings. A power generating building disguised as a farmhouse, an operations building disguised as a barn and a functional wood frame two-stall outhouse. Nestled into the surrounding landscape, from the air it was impossible to discern its true purpose. Today it stands weatherbeaten and grey. A rare, small reminder.
As I was dropping Kyle at the trail, I walked around and pulled his pack out of the van.
“Jesus in a handbasket Kyle. What do you have in here? How much does this weigh?”
“I may have overpacked,” he said with a laugh. “It weighs about 80 pounds.”
I walked over and we shook hands. This is a great kid, I thought. He’s hurting but he’ll be fine. He has character and grit.
“Best of luck Kyle. You’re a good man. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
“Thanks for the lift Smitty. Be careful out there. Good luck with the rest of your journey.”
I got back in the van and waved as he hoisted an 80 pound pack and his heavy cross up onto his shoulders.