Humboldt Redwoods State Park
published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian
Avenue of the Giants splits the redwood groves so dramatically
it seems Moses paved the road with a wave of his cane. I imagine
the Sinkyone Indians, who lived here for thousands of years,
hunting and gathering food from these forests. The groves
were so thick then you'd be lucky to travel a mile in a day.
Coastal redwoods are called Seqouia sempervirens
or "ever-living" for their ability to regenerate
and resist fire. The name is ironic. Under 10% of the old-growth
Seqouias seen by the Sinkyones remain, and even less of the
tribe, for that matter. Blame our homes. The Bay's first building
boom fueled the ravenous logging in Humboldt, helped by the
railroad's arrival in 1914.
My stop on the Avenue, a 31-mile section of old Highway 101,
is Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The redwoods in this 51,000-acre
park owe their lives to a group of prominent conservationalists
who had the concern and foresight to rescue them. In 1921,
the Save-the-Redwoods League purchased its first grove of
the fast-falling trees. The League deeded the grove to the
state a few years later, when California set up its park system.
Since then, the League has helped acquire more than 100 memorial
groves in the park.
I have come to Humboldt this April to celebrate my 26th spring
with these precious elders, some as old as 2,000 years. Thankfully,
a childhood friend drives me here, since it's pouring and
my campsite is ten miles from the Visitor's Center. Escaping
the rain, we browse the center's botannical books and elongated
postcards of the tall timbers, chatting with the staff. I've
also come to the woods to escape from words, yet I'm already
lured by local lore and plant names as irresistable as Coffeeberry
The redwoods themselves invite measure and metaphor; how else
to comprehend the tallest living things on Earth? Though their
cones are only the size of an olive, most redwoods are taller
than a football field is long. A hermit once built a three-story
home inside a hollow tree. The park's Dyerville Giant, which
fell in 1991, was over a million pounds and 360 feet tall
-- that's a 30-story building.
A park volunteer protests my plan to camp, hike and hitch
alone. Besides Humboldt's renown green bud, crystal meth apparently
plays into the local economy. Speed freaks and happy campers
don't mix. I assure him I got home safely from Everest, I'll
make it to Eureka's Greyhound okay. I don't disclose that
my daily food rations equal three PB&Js and a Power Bar.
"Just curious -- what would you do if you ran out of
food in the woods?" I ask the park's interpretive specialist.
"I'd suck on dirt, eat plant roots, " she offers,
"and stay away from mushrooms." I head to camp,
my tummy already rumbling.
A recipe for solitude: camp at one of the park's five environmental
sites, mid-week, pre-season. Easily accessible by road but
lacking facilities, these camps strike a balance between the
more developed, crowded campgrounds and the hike-in trail
camps. The environmental camps are right off of Mattole Road,
in the Bull Creek watershed. Bull Creek was added to the park's
acreage after the floods of 1955 and 1964 literally sent the
town up the creek, houses, livestock and all.
In the morning, I poke my head outside the tent. Rain-drop
jewels dangle from tree needles, capturing light. After a
marathon downpour, the redwood sees her shadow. Spring has
I ring in the season with a trek to 3379-foot Grasshopper
Peak. It's 14 miles round-trip on a trail as steep as California
Street and in mid-April, a half-foot of snow on its last mile.
Crowning the windy peak is an old fire lookout tower with
a grande finale of a view.
The park maintains more than 20 trails, many of which are
open to horses and bikes as well as hikers. One trail leads
to the homestead and grave of Addie Johnson, the "first
white woman to die in Bull Creek," as her tombstone reads.
Any trail puts you on the forest's magical stage, under smoky
spotlights nourishing ground-cover plants like trillium, sorrel
and sword fern.
Hikes having pacified the inner Aries, I can just be. I curl
up to the earth, eyes even with bugs and grass. Bluejays and
sunrays wake me up; bullfrogs and stars send me to bed. I
watch hawks soar above the wooden skyscrapers.
God sends gifts on my birthday: two trees shimmering with
hummingbirds and the roadside perfume of sage, fennel and
lemon balm. I recall the years that brought me here and remember
where they are taking me. Hungry and tick-bitten, I visit
a cemetery dedicated to Bull Creek's pioneers. Daffodils and
stone angels, elves and poodles adorn their cheerful graves:
gifts from living to dead.
Redwoods give life in death. A single tree, left to die naturally,
nurtures thousands of plants and animals. I never saw a more
beautiful garden than a toppled redwood. The tree's decay
coaxes ferns and wildflowers to rise from a blanket of moss,
its reincarnation complete.
Call the park at (707) 946-2263 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.