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Friday, January 29, 2016

Just me, the rental car, and Big Basin Redwoods State Park

This break in your regularly scheduled updates about the Hannah and my career was brought to you by a schedule snafu which gave me a few extra days to spend in the Bay Area by myself while Matt flew back to snowy Philadelphia to attend to work matters. Although I had a few very kind offers of couches to crash on, I was surprised to find myself craving solitude, and uninterrupted greenness, and frugality. "I just want to drive into a forest," I told Matt. He raised his eyebrows and laughed. "I can't believe how much you hate people."

I mean, pretty much.

So after dropping Matt off at the airport, I picked up two days' worth of supplies at Target (sourdough bread, cream cheese, snap peas, canned coffee, bananas, beef jerky, a lighter, and a $4 pillow), and like some kind of hippy, I pointed my rented red Mazda 2 hatchback at the hills west of San Jose, without even bothering to make a reservation. Basically, a mini solo replay of our nationwide 2012 Roadtrop but without any planning or equipment or a Dodge Magnum.


The first state park I reached, Henry Cowell Redwoods, looked beautiful and green and sunny, but I was turned away by the ranger at the entrance because their campsites had closed for the "winter." LOL IT IS 65 DEGREES. "Yeah, it is nice up here," agreed the ranger, but closed is closed. All I could think of was poor Matt struggling through two feet of snow in our backyard back home, and also that time we camped at Sequoia National Park when it was 18 degrees Fahrenheit and actively snowing. Instead, the ranger directed me to a park with year-round camping less than 20 miles away: Big Basin Redwoods.

I passed through the ludicrously quaint Boulder Creek, which appears to be a frontier-themed town run by granola hippies but still littered with sad alcoholics left over from the Gold Rush. Also Jonathan Franzen apparently lives there, eww. About five miles up the hill, once the road passes the Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Buddhist Monastery, cellphone reception cuts out. And then the old redwoods start appearing.

The closest thing I've ever had to a religious experience was seeing the redwood trees in Sequoia National Park back in 2012, so I was very happy to be in their presence again. If there is such a thing as a soul, I could be convinced by redwood trees that plants have them too (and I would question the hierarchical organization of souls proposed by Jainism as an artificial way to make our human conscience comfortable with the fact that life necessarily feeds on life). I won't say that all my stress and tension disappeared, but I was grinning when I pulled up to the headquarters.

Camping was $35 per night, which is a lot cheaper than any hotel around here, although if you think about it, that's over $1000 per month, or nearly as much rent as our tenant was paying to live in our two-bedroom house in Downingtown. Or twice as much rent as we were paying for a one-bedroom apartment in Harrisburg ten years ago. For sleeping in a tent (or car).

Nice yard, though.


Wrinkle: despite the giant quantities of wood lying around, gathering of any firewood is prohibited at the park because they want to preserve forest floor litter. Bundles of firewood were available at park HQ for the grossly inflated price of $10.50, but I didn't feel like driving 10 miles back to Boulder Creek right away, so I paid out. Second wrinkle: the bundle of firewood I purchased turned out to be slightly damp (I guess it was the rains last weekend) and wouldn't catch easily, and kindling counts as firewood and is covered by the ban. So I ended up having to drive back to Boulder Creek anyway that afternoon to buy fire starters. I also grabbed a few handwarmers because as it turned out, Big Basin was higher up and therefore significantly colder than Henry Cowell, the park that didn't allow winter camping. Camping is always a little more expensive than you expect.

When I returned to my campsite, another car with a trio of campers had pulled into the site next to mine. We did that thing that campers at government parks do, where we ignore each other and pretend that we're each here in complete solitude, and try not to get too annoyed that there are visible people nearby.

Pretty soon, it got so dark under the towering redwoods, it was pretty easy to imagine I was completely alone with my fire and my cheese-and-bread dinner.

Around 6PM, this dark peaceful silence was interrupted very suddenly by terrifying shouts and running sounds coming from my neighbors that scared the everloving shit out of me. My suppositions were, in order:
  1. My neighbors are some kind of thrill-killers, and they are charging at my camp to slice me up with a machete, rape me, and leave me in a shallow grave in the park somewhere.
  2. Blair Witch.
  3. A mountain lion or bear is eating my neighbors, and I am next on the menu.
  4. Raccoons are stealing their food.

Surprise! Number 4 was correct. This did not really help my heart, which was thumping so hard I could hear it in my ears, but at least I wasn't about to die. The raccoons soon appeared in my campsite, and although I lunged at them, they were highly disdainful of my efforts to keep them away. Luckily my dinner was finished and my food all locked up in the bear safe, so they soon went on their way. I tried to take some video of them, but it was SO dark, all you can see is the suggestion of their eyes gleaming in my headlamp.



My neighbors told me they got away with a whole bag of chips. But at least they weren't mountain lions.

I crawled into the back seat of the Mazda not long afterward because I had a serious case of the willies after all the yelling - not an ideal solo campfire demeanor. I had no reading materials on my phone and no reception, so I spent about an hour reorganizing my data (SIX GIGS OF APP CACHE!? No wonder my phone is full. Fixed!) before dropping into a fitful, slightly cold and cramped sleep.

Dawn broke. Hike time! I had picked out the Sequoia Trail from the park map, and after breakfast of snap peas and banana and cream cheese bread rolls, I threw some jerky in my pocket, grabbed some water, and set off. Not far along, the sound of water rushing led me to the Sempervirens Falls:



I continued past Slippery Rock, where rounded holes in the stone were used as mortars by women of the Ohlone tribe, and steam rose constantly wherever the sunlight touched. At some point deep in the woods, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't seen another human being on the entire hike, and without cellphone reception, I was pretty fucked if I accidentally antagonized a rattlesnake or mountain lion, or fell and broke my ankle. But I survived.







The trail took me past the park headquarters, where I took a detour to walk the short Redwood Loop, where you can see many of the oldest trees in the park, like the 2000-year-old Father of the Forest, and Chimney Tree, a redwood that is completely hollow from bottom to top. The living parts of redwoods are in a ring around the dead heartwood, so their insides can completely disintegrate from fire and rot and the tree can continue standing and growing.




After my hike, I drove into Boulder Creek for the last time, to grab some cheaper, better firewood, and a couple of sausages to roast. The campsite next to me was empty, and I finally felt like I was hitting my woman-of-the-woods stride. I stayed up late just staring at the crackling fire, and listening to nighthawks and whip-poor-wills. The sausages were goddamn delicious.


Sadly, the next day I had to return to civilization to wash the stench of campfire and jerky off before the Volti Choral Institute. Still I felt a lot better for my solo forest trip. In another life, I think I would have made a pretty happy park ranger.

I didn't think about my opera or the theater at all.
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