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Humboldt Redwoods State Park
Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

The 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 and Cocklebur.

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 sprung.

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 hrsp@northcoast.com.


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