Adventures Among The Redwood Trees

Trip Start Sep 13, 2006
Trip End Mar 27, 2007

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Flag of United States  , California
Friday, December 15, 2006

In the early hours of the morning a sudden burst of light - from a vehicle-mounted spotlight - roused me from a deep slumber. Somewhere outside a radio crackled; then a voice commanded me to open up. I unzipped the door of my tent to be met by the blinding beam of a flashlight. The voice demanded to see some identification. I fumbled around; then offered up my passport. After radioing my details back to base the silhouette behind the torch informed me that camping on university grounds was illegal. I pleaded that I'd arrived in town late and hadn't been able to find anyplace else to camp; then promised to leave with the light of day. The cop said me that he would come back then; and made it clear that he didn't expect to see me.

Thus I was to be found eating breakfast, bleary-eyed, shortly after seven o'clock. While I sipped a mug of strong coffee my student server gave me the low-down on Arcata (pop. 16,651). I learned that the Arcata lay on the front-line of the on-going battle between environmentalists and the logging industry; that it was a stronghold of the Green Party; and that the city council had prevented the large corporations that were ubiquitous elsewhere in Main Street America from establishing local outlets.

Run-ins with the authorities aside, I'd have liked to stay in Arcata a while longer. As I'd wandered around the previous evening I'd found the streets full of people and the bars full of music - it seemed a pity to be leaving so soon. But for the first time since I'd hit Portland three weeks before the long-range weather forecast was good - it seemed foolish not to make the most of it.

I was sitting outside a bicycle-store waiting for it to open when a cyclist pulled up alongside to ask if I was bound for 'Frisco'. Small in stature, with pale blue eyes and a wispy ginger beard, Nick talked and dressed like a beatnik. A bright bandana that covered his head-full of bright-carrot hair lent his appearance somewhat of a piratical bent. For a man still in his early twenties Nick spoke in a very self-assured manner; and he seemed to know a lot more about bicycles than I did.

I joined Nick and two fellow beatnik-types for coffee at a nearby café while a bike-mechanic replaced my gear cabling. The conversation, which was full of cycling jargon, moved to a nearby alley where the three cats shared an early morning bowl of green bud. While the other two headed off, stoned, to catch a bus, Nick and I pedalled south. As I followed Nick towards Eureka on the shoulder of the freeway I took note of a line of miniature Tibetan prayer-flags that he'd strung between his pannier-bags. Making full use of my newly repaired gears, I passed Nick and surged ahead in the bright morning light. Pausing for a breather a few miles further along, I realised that Nick was no longer behind me.

Beyond Eureka Interstate 101 continues inland along a broad valley bounded by ranges of low wooded hills. By mid-afternoon I'd reached the northern end of the Avenue of the Giants, a narrow two-lane highway that winds its way south for thirty miles through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, which is home to a significant portion of California's remaining old-growth redwood forest.

I left the freeway and shortly thereafter entered nature's cathedral once more. Great chiselled pillars of dark timber soared upwards to black vaults above. I scurried insect-like across the forest floor weaving a course between towering leviathans. Emerging into the brightness of a clearing on the banks of the Eel River I paused to contemplate the green wooded landscape that was reflected in the still waters below. I felt very fortunate to be on such a peaceful route through the ancient forest on a clear crisp day.

Later that evening, at a campground deep in the forest, I joined a group of cyclists around the dying embers of a campfire. Among the shadowy figures standing there, I found Nick, who'd returned to Arcata earlier to collect something that he'd left something behind. The others were students from Humboldt State University who were on their way to San Francisco for Thanksgiving Break. I listened disinterestedly as the students carried on a discussion on the meaning of the forthcoming festival. Nick's contribution to the debate was a rambling monologue, most of which was conducted in Sanskrit. It transpired that he'd spent several months in India learning to recite mantras at an ashram. We shared a bottle of wine together; then I went off to commune with the trees.

I dawdled awhile next morning amid the weak but warming rays of sunshine that filtered down through the forest canopy; before setting off again along the Avenue of the Giants. The route alternated between the cool splendour of the ancient groves and the open vistas of the riverbank. As the morning wore on the sun's gathering heat burnt off the last of the silvery swathes of mist that clung to the highest treetops. Along the water's edge deciduous species, now devoid of foliage, prevailed. Bright sunlight streaming down between naked limbs of timber turned the thick bed of compost that covered the forest floor aglow with fiery colour.

By midday I'd arrived at the southern terminus of the Avenue of the Giants and rejoined the Interstate. My route for the afternoon carried me over a series of steep wooded spurs that looked out over the narrow valley of the Eel River's South Fork. Long steady climbs alternated with smooth speedy descents as I made slow but steady progress.

Late in the day as I neared the summit of a long steep climb, I came upon some familiar-looking bicycles in a roadside turnout. Nick and the students were busy scouring the hillside below. I ditched my bike and raced down to find out what was up.

One of the female students had while been answering a call of nature when she'd spotted a dollar-bill lying in the undergrowth On closer investigation she'd found a second bill then a third and then a whole trail of bills. Thinking that she was rich, the girl had whooped with joy, thus alerting the rest of the party. Together they'd followed the trail across the hillside picking-up dozens of banknotes in the process. The money-trail ended with the discovery of a million-dollar bill impaled on a twig - it turned out to be a religious tract.

Altogether the students - Nick too had showed up too late - netted seventy-dollars from the great evangelical giveaway. Most of this sum was invested in beer shortly after arrival at the hillside forest-park north of Legget where we were to spend the night. After picking-up a few bottles myself I joined the rest of the group around a blazing campfire for a meal. As we ate and drank I learned that most of the students, who were eight in number, were studying environmental science and that they planned to take part in a Critical Mass bicycle-ride scheduled for San Francisco the day after Thanksgiving.

Not long after dinner the three girls in the group declared that they were tired and withdrew to their tents. Meanwhile, one of the guys produced a German boardgame and began explaining the rules, which seemed excessively complex to me. As the others competed to achieve global domination I drank up my beer amid the warm glow of crackling logs.

Sunlight streamed in through the trees moderating the bite of the early morning chill. Looking around the campground I noted that the students had already departed but that Nick's bivouac was still there. By the time I returned from the wash-hut, the man himself had emerged, looking somewhat groggy. We decamped slowly, breaking to enjoy a warming cup of tea. Nick had started out in Portland and was making his way south - to nowhere in particular. Farm-work would fund his peregrination; and trimming marijuana was what paid best. But there'd been a hitch: Nick's last employer had been unable to pay cash and consequently he was broke. Since leaving Oregon he'd had to barter to survive. Then, as if to illustrate his point, from some secret pocket he produced a large bag of grass. Naturally, I felt myself obliged to buy the poor fellow breakfast.

From the little town of Leggett, California Highway 1 climbs its way west into the hills. On a bright Sunday morning we had the two-lane stretch of road largely to ourselves. Over the course of half-a-dozen miles we climbed up through the forest, switchback after switchback, with the lukewarm heat of the sun on our backs. Birdsong resounded across the hillside while the scent of pine filled the air. I selected my lowest gear and dug in.

An hour of hard-graft led to the head of a pass. As I paused to catch my breath I looked back across the kingdom of treetops from whence I'd emerged: an uneven sea of forest-green ridges extended to the eastern horizon. A short while later Nick joined me at the summit. He took out his pipe, fingered in a bright-green bud and sparked it up. Having marked our achievement he led off the descent.

The highway dropped sharply as it followed a twisting and turning course across a precipitous wooded hillside. As I picked up momentum I felt glad of my helmet, grateful for my recently tightened brakes. Adrenalin surged through my body as bend gave way to straight and straight culminated in bend. Only the steepness of the slopes below the highway tempered my lust for speed. I felt acutely aware of my own vulnerability, the consequences of even the slightest mistake - and my hand hovered close to the brake.

At the foot of the mountain I paused to relax, to take on some water and to wait for Nick. After what seemed like a long time he rolled into view, looking somewhat dishevelled. As he drew closer I could see that, although his clothes were torn and he himself was bleeding, Nick was otherwise buoyant. It transpired that he'd misjudged a bend, skidded off the road and been thrown headlong down the hillside beyond. But he'd gotten off lightly and so we could afford to laugh about it.

A second mountain, equally steep but not quite as high, barred our path. We climbed once more through the forest, winding our way up, bend after bend, until at last we gained the summit. Across the treetops below a blue-grey expanse of ocean stretched off towards a far horizon. We raced down across the thickly wooded slopes to emerge at the mouth of a ravine that disgorged into the ocean. Rounding a shoulder of hillside the coastline opened up before us. Between a bare range of hills and the ocean swell crashing onto the rocks beneath, a narrow shelf of land carried the thin black ribbon of highway south. Seabirds swirled overhead while spray, blown ashore on the breeze, prickled our faces.

For the remainder of the afternoon we skirted the coast: passing sea-stacks and sandy strands; ducking into wooded gullies where streams emerged from the hills; and whizzing through avenues of gnarled hemlock. As darkness fell we pedalled into Fort Bragg (pop. 7,026).

While I picked up some food at a grocery store, Nick phoned his friend who lived locally. A few minutes late a car containing a slovenly-looking character called Jeff pulled up. We followed it back to the squalid two-roomed apartment that Jeff shared with his hyperactive pit-bull terrier, Kaiser. After dinner, which was somewhat marred when the dog ran off with the main ingredients, we got down to sampling some of Jeff's potent home-brew. After a couple of bottles I felt well and truly wasted. While Nick sat cross-legged on the floor chanting mantras Jeff sullenly typed away at his computer. Meantime my eyes frantically scanned the room looking for any sign that would disprove my theory that Jeff was a serial killer. I ended the night welded to his sofa wishing that Kaiser would stop licking my face.

I declined the bong that was offered to at breakfast the following morning while Nick and Jeff continued where they'd left off the night before. When Jeff mentioned that he'd been experiencing health problems of late I was at last able to feel some empathy for him - he was certainly no murderer!

It was noon by the time Nick and I managed to extricate ourselves from the fug of smoke that hung over Jeff's living-room. Beneath a dark-grey blanket of rain-bearing cloud we set forth for Mendecino, a dozen miles to the south. Nick was intent on finding a job there before the day was out. Not being inclined to cycle in the inclement conditions, I decided to tag along.

An hour or so later we pedalled into Mendecino (pop. 824). Cafés, galleries and organic food stores lined the main drag while a mist of drizzle hung over the town's rocky tree-fringed bay. Outside a coffee shop we bumped into a couple of beatnik-types who'd waved to us from the back of a passing pick-up the previous day. Clark and Jackson, a pair of east-coast musicians, had been hitchhiking around the country in search of adventure. Jackson strummed a tune on his banjo and then it was Nick's turn. With great gusto he struck up in the bluegrass style and played quite tunefully. Two old ladies walked by and, abruptly, Nick stopped playing. Still cradling the banjo in his arms he launched into what came over like a well-honed sales pitch. Presenting himself as a master bicycle-mechanic - in a town without a bicycle store - Nick offered his expertise to the bemused senior citizens who responded 'Thanks but no thanks' and went off chuckling. Unfazed by his initial failure, Nick decided to target a younger demographic. Two gorgeous female students listened politely as Nick went through his bike-mechanic spiel; then asked if we knew where they could buy some pot. I took this as my cue to go grocery shopping.

On my return I found Nick deep in conversation with a tall bony man. Carter was sure that a friend of his had just the type of work we were looking for. I agreed to keep an eye on our stuff while Carter drove Nick out to meet his contact. Half an hour later they arrived back with good news - we had jobs! We loaded our bikes onto the back of Carter's pick-up and headed out of town. As we climbed up into the hills Nick celebrated his coup by singing an aria from a Wagner opera.

Darkness had fallen by the time we arrived at an isolated farmhouse deep in the woods. On entering the one-storey wooden building, I found myself in a well-laid out rectangular main room, open to the eaves with a kitchen at one end and a seating area at the other. A wooden dining table and chairs occupied the centre of the room. In the kitchen area a tall man with a mop of silver hair and a floppy moustache was in the midst of preparing a meal. Above the waist he was bare; a brightly inked tribal-design tattoo enveloped his left shoulder. The chef turned to acknowledge Nick and Carter; then strode towards me with his hand extended. I wondered how many pornographic movies Kent had directed before he'd turned to organic farming.

Over a superb meal accompanied by wine from Kent's vineyard Kent and Nick discussed the work to be done next day. Kent talked in a world-weary manner which suggested that farming was no more than a distraction for him while Nick, keen to impress, spoke of the wine that was in his blood: his father, the scion of a European family of vintners, had planted his own vineyard in Oregon. Meanwhile I kept schtum, not wishing to display my ignorance of rural matters.

Conversation continued awhile after dinner and then we took our leave of Carter who was returning to Mendocino. Nick and myself transferred our belongings to the structure of a three-storey house that was nearing completion a short distance away. Among neat stacks of timber we laid out sleeping mats and made beds for ourselves.

Beneath an ominous-looking morning sky we caught our first sight of the vineyard. Long woody vines straggled along a score of espaliers; our first assignment would be to prune them back. Nick was to be the teacher and I was to be his student.

As we worked our way along the espaliers, last season's growth piling up at our feet, Nick talked at length about his upbringing: his wealthy bohemian parents; the exclusive schools he'd attended; and the extended overseas trip that had broken his family apart. He told me that his real education had begun at the age of fifteen when he'd absconded from a plush New England boarding school. He'd hitchhiked three thousand miles back to Oregon to participate in an anti-logging protest. Living amid the treetops with the eco-warriors had stimulated Nick's spiritual being. On his sixteenth birthday while in a drug-induced trance, he'd walked barefoot along a path of red-hot coals. From there, he blazed a trail to India where he'd studied at the ashrams of various holy men. A year later he'd returned to the U.S. clad in saffron robes and with his head shaved. Although he was no longer now a Hare Krishna Nick still regarded India as his spiritual home.

As the wet weather continued over the next couple of days Nick and I seemed to spend almost as much time at the farmhouse with Kent as we did in the vineyard. Lunch was invariably a long drawn-out affair - the food was simple and delicious and came straight from the garden.

Kent would hold forth on themes as diverse as sex and politics, pharmaceuticals and love, employing amusing anecdotes and colourful turns of phrase to accentuate whatever point he was trying to make. He was always intelligent; frequently humorous; occasionally paranoid; and I greatly enjoyed listening to him. Kent was especially concerned with the machinations of the 'U.S. military-industrial complex' and spoke, a number of times, of fleeing the country by boat - though he never said to where he would go. Nick had his own well-advanced plans to escape such monstrous servitude. In the event of any future military draft he would tell the medicos about the amount of LSD he'd done in the past, reasoning that no responsible person would dream of letting him near a gun.

At lunchtime on our third day at the farm the phone rang; a conversation ensued and it transpired that Kent's girlfriend was on her way up for Thanksgiving. Kent looked apologetic; he needed us to get offside. Some sort of festival was taking place at a local campground; he suggested that we go over and check it out. We cleaned ourselves up and got our affairs together. As we took our leave of Kent he thanked us for our troubles and presented us each with a very-welcome bundle of greenbacks.

Later, as we cycled through the rain towards Mendocino I reflected that, despite my ineptitude in the field of pruning vines, I'd thoroughly enjoyed my time at the farm.

Darkness had fallen by the time we made it into town. After making some enquiries as to the location of Kent's campground we headed to the grocery store to pick up some food and liquor. Nick was in a flap; there could be no question of being stranded at Thanksgiving - we had to do something! So we pedalled back up into the hills again.

The night was inky black and cars were few and far between. The weak beams of our headlamps picked out a never-ending curtain of trees. The further we progressed into the woods, the more convinced I became that we were engaged in a wild-goose chase but Nick would not countenance failure - if there was a party out there he was going to find it.

After half a dozen miles the paved road came to an end and we began to descend along a winding dirt track. Our bikes shuddered and jolted almost without respite as we rode over a countless succession of ruts and potholes. By now there was not a car on the road let alone any sign of a festival. But there could be no turning back now.

Finally, to my immense relief, a light appeared ahead and a sign welcomed us to the campground. We passed what we surmised was the ranger's house and continued around the access track. I'd half-expected that a host of hippies and creatures of the forest would emerge from the trees to receive us as their brothers but it was not to be; indeed the whole place seemed eerily deserted. So we found an empty cabin and bunked down inside for the night.

We lay low next morning, peering out through the cabin windows for any signs of approaching park rangers. At one point a car drove past but we remained undetected. We finally broke cover around noon and pedalled around the main access loop trying to appear as if we'd just arrived. Bright sunlight streamed down between the redwood trees; peace reigned across the valley bottom. Otherwise it appeared that there wasn't a soul around; all our subterfuge had been unnecessary.

We were on the brink of heading back into Mendocino when a car appeared. Its occupants directed us to a complex of low wooden buildings a couple of hundred metres away where a small group of people, among them the festival organisers, had just commenced setting up. Upon introducing ourselves we were extended a warm welcome from all present. Things were beginning to look up.

The main building consisted of two long banqueting halls, which extended from a central hub, where food was being prepared in the kitchen. In one of the halls we found Tania, who had just finished arranging a wooden altar containing incense, flowers and statues of the Buddha. Tania was a devotee of the 'Hugging Guru', who had just visited San Francisco, and she exuded an aura of earth-mother calmness. We set to work lighting a fire while Tania began hanging richly coloured cotton prints from the walls.

After reclaiming our cabin and depositing our belongings, Nick returned to the nascent festival while I set off walking along a forest trail. I got lost with my thoughts, caught up in the beauty and tranquillity of the forest; and it was sundown by the time I got back to the festival complex. Outside the building I joined a hundred or so guests who had assembled. We made a circle and joined hands. At the centre of the circle was Tania, who was holding aloft a large loaf of freshly baked bread. Declaring the festival open, she blessed the bread and summoned us forward to touch the loaf. Hands were unlinked and the circle surged inward. Somebody handed me a chunk of warm moist bread.

I joined a queue in the kitchen where volunteers were serving up a smorgasbord of Thanksgiving delicacies. Somebody asked me if I was one of the guys who was cycling to Argentina! I smiled at Nick's embellishment. I found the man himself in a banqueting hall cradling a bottle of Kent's Pinot Noir. Spirits were high and chatter filled the room to the accompaniment of clinking glasses. Both food and wine were excellent and I both ate and drank my fill. As the meal drew to a close the strong sweet scent of marijuana began to fill the air.

Half a dozen drummers created a space in the middle of the hall and started laying down some rhythms. They made for a motley crew, all male with generous amounts of facial hair and a diverse selection of headwear, ranging from trashy cowboy hats to hemp monkey hats, from ball-caps to a set of detachable rabbit ears. The drumming would follow a pattern in which one drummer would lay down the rhythm and the others would follow. When the lead drummer tired and lost the rhythm one of the other drummers would step in to lay down a new rhythm that the others would follow and so the cycle would continue. An impromptu troupe of female dancers rose around the drummers. They wore long brightly coloured dresses and adorned themselves with beads. Eyes glazed, minds half-addled, their bodies swayed to the rhythm.

The sound of the drums was deafening, the rhythms mesmerising and the setting of the forest primal. I watched transfixed, pausing only to sip some wine as the tribe continued its performance. By now Nick was one of their number. Wreathed in sweat, his hands a blur and his face deep in concentration he pounded out a succession of complex rhythms that the others followed but never attempted to supplant. By the time that the servers appeared with dessert sometime later, Nick had established himself as the undisputed Alpha-male of the drum circle.

The drum circle melted away and a trio of musicians: a guitarist, a flautist and an accompanying drummer - took centre stage. I sat transfixed by the fire that we'd lit earlier as the trio played sweet soulful sounds that were the antithesis of the primitivism that I'd witnessed earlier. After sometime I drifted across to the other hall to see what was going on over there. A group of female singers, accompanied by the ubiquitous Nick on mandolin, sang haunting gypsy songs in the language of the Romany people. I'd heard him chant in Sanskrit; I'd heard him sing in German; but when Nick began singing in Romany I began to believe that he possessed demonic powers. Fortunately, as I was to learn, he didn't.

The sounds kept coming but eventually, mercifully, the wine ran dry. I stumbled blindly across the darkened campground to my cabin and fell immediately into a deep sleep full of strange dreams featuring human sacrifice.

The next day dawned: bright, beautiful and perfect for cycling. Though the festival continued I immediately decided that I would not be at it; the time had come for me to take my journey back, to take my head out of my ass. Besides, becoming a hippie was not a viable option: it required some form of intrinsic musical ability that I just didn't possess.

Meanwhile Nick was intensely frustrated because he hadn't managed to get laid the night before. Part of me felt for him because I could see how much of an effort he'd made to impress the ladies; but in the main I was immensely relieved not to have been woken in the midst of some Tantric sex-rite involving a man with carrot-coloured hair.

'There's always tonight' I consoled Nick as I bequeathed him sole occupancy of the cabin. For his part, Nick offered me protection against the evil eye - an Om Symbol sticker for my pannier-bag - and told me rather grandiosely that I would always be welcome at his family vineyards. He would return to work with Kent once the festival was over. As I pedalled off up the hill after shaking hands with my West Coast Guru for the last time, I knew that life on the road could never be the same again.

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