Hiking the Northern California Redwood Forests.
The things we fear are almost always things which needn't be feared at all.
They are creatures of our imagination.
― Louise Dickinson Rich, We Took to the Woods
It’s been 2.2 miles since we started. I know this because we hit the first marker on the trail. Only 10 more to go on this particular hike. So far its been a steady incline and I’m already soaked through. I’m not at my best physically, due to a stress fracture from climbing rocks a few months before. I’ve over packed my Everlane backpack - not the best choice for long hikes. And I’ve spent the first two miles frantically searching the woods for the bear that the entry warning sign mentioned. I figure it's better if I see him before he sees me. With my heavy backpack sticking to my soaked t-shirt, I reluctantly decide to trudge on. That and my hiking partner is way ahead of me.
It’s been awhile since I’ve done a series of long hikes and never in Northern California. My idea of landscape is mostly informed by the East Coast. Hiking Glacier National Park in Montana and in El Calafate, Argentina, I had experienced wide open spaces before. I just never realized that north of San Francisco was laden with treeless green rolling mountain sides that drop off into the pacific.
All that changes though, upon entering the Redwood Forest 300 miles north of San Francisco. Walking into a forest of giant Redwoods is an ominous experience. On the outskirts of these forests are woods consisting of a variety of trees, animals and plants. There are the usual noises you find in the woods: birds chirping, the rustling of leaves, etc. Upon entering the Redwoods, the first thing you notice is the dark. The second thing you notice is the quiet. It's a bit unnerving. It didn’t help to pass hikers carrying handguns either. Better safe than sorry when a bear is around I guess. This is why I spent the first 2 miles with eyes darting frantically this way and that.
My love of hiking began when I was about twelve years old and hiked portions of the southern Appalachian Trail, sleeping on the trail and learning basic rock climbing. As an adult, I hiked northern parts of the trail, mostly in the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine. This is where I discovered the book, We took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich. Since I was hiking this region it made sense to read about it. The book did so much more than describe an experience. It defined for me a perfect way of living simply and truly. One that I wanted to achieve in my one life and in my own terms. I read that book every few years to remind me of what’s really necessary - and what really isn’t.
As we pass the 2.2 mile marker I decide I must push through hoping we reach a peak soon. I am reminded of my running days in New York. I would get up about 4 am and do a 6-7 mile loop to Atlantic Beach just off Far Rockaway. It was always the first mile that was the most difficult. Once I got through it, the other 5 or 6 were easy. And so I continued on, getting further into the Redwoods. Deep in the Redwoods, the massive trunks insulate the forest rendering it soundless. The plants are different here. My guess is that the only plants that can thrive under the Redwoods are those that can support them such as ferns and clover. The trunks on these trees are enveloped by bark that can be a foot thick. Each tree’s root system forms a giant lump of knotted wood, bark, dirt and plant systems. All in service to the 800 year old tree.
All ordinary people like us, everywhere, are trying to find the same things. It makes no difference whether they are New Englanders or Texans or Malayans or Finns. They all want to be left alone to conduct their own private search for a personal peace, a reasonable security, a little love, a chance to attain happiness through achievement.
― Louise Dickinson Rich, We Took to the Woods
It is hard to photograph these trees and get a true sense of their scale. They are simply all encompassing; something to be experienced in person. This particular forest has been protected from cutting and so the trees have thrived untouched by humans. It is a forest for giants, a vestige of a younger earth, a reminder of how things used to be before we knew what they would end up being. I understand that I am a visitor here and have been given the privilege of passing through.
A few miles in, the light has changed to deep blues and rich greens. My eyes struggle to adjust to the intensity of the colors. Little light makes its way down to the forest floor and yet the colors are so vibrant. It changes how you see things. My perspective is skewed. All of these rich, brilliant tones of color, dulls the senses and lulls me into a rhythm only known to this landscape of giants. I feel a bit dizzy from taking it all in.
Five miles into the hike, I’m beyond my feet hurting and in a good rhythm. Now, I remember why I love to hike. When you’re hiking there is nothing but that exact moment that you are in. I am fully present in each step. The exhaustion is cleansing and the air is clean. I know if I stop moving, I won’t be able to start again. Here, surrounded by these 800 or so year old trees, the silence deafens. It feels like walking in a house made for giants and constructed out of enormous wood columns that insulates and encloses. I sense these woods have witnessed many years but not too much change.
The quiet is utterly complete. No birds. No leaves rustling. Nothing but the sound of my own footsteps on the forest floor. Even the wind is a distant whoosh unable to penetrate these dense woodlands. Here, in this stillness, sweating and heart pounding, feet soaked and dirty from walking through a creek, I suddenly have total clarity. About everything. The clarity is as definitive as the silence. And I relish it. It is why I am here. Deep in the woods of Northern California, I find myself, my truest self. It’s the best gift of all.
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