E07: Redwoods I

DAY 82. 1,110 MI. TO GO

13 min read

Slamming the van door shut, I waded through the puddle outside of Mark’s van, putting an end to thirty blissful minutes in a dry pair of socks. Beyond the parking lot, the wide, flat path led a quarter-mile through the woods, back to Fern Canyon. I hurried through the rain, still tasting the weed on my sticky lips, enchanted by the sound of the downpour.

All around me, a symphony of water…

My backpack was right where I had left it—lying just beyond the swelling creek that was bubbling out of the fertile chasm. I peered in, snapping a few pictures, totally oblivious to any danger.

Mark, the Kiwi conspiracy theorist, was totally right. I had no business being in the wilderness during this downpour. Temperatures were in the low-40s, and it felt like a year’s worth of rain was falling at once. At worst, I should have found some shelter and maintained the warmth as long as I could; at best, I should have accepted Mark’s offer for a shuttle to safety.

Instead, I felt unhurried, even at peace with the majesty of the natural landscape. The pot helped.

Throwing my backpack over my shoulder, I buckled it once at my hips and a second time at my waist. Then I turned toward the wooden stairs that climbed out of Fern Canyon.

I had no idea I was heading for the most significant moment of my entire life.

In Fern Canyon. Notice the look in my eyes.

Halfway up the wooden stairs, I reached into the pocket of my rain jacket, expecting to find my wool gloves. Only one was there. “Fuck,” I cursed, already knowing that I wasn’t going to turn back. Where did I lose it? In Mark’s van, on the trail between Fern Canyon and the parking lot?

There was no use turning back—I didn’t want to waste time, I knew it was probably already drenched.

This remaining glove was no better. I bought it from a vendor at some Oregon farmer’s market—it was stylish, in a quaint and hippie way, but totally ineffectual against the cold, driving rain. With a spark of stoned creativity, I decided that the most MacGyvered solution was to slip both hands into the same glove. I adopted this position as I approached the top of the fifty-foot staircase. Then, I quickly noticed that the wet wool actually felt colder than the temperature of the heavy, moist air, so I ditched the glove but resumed the gesture.

With hands clasped, head bowed against the downpour, I must have looked a little like a monk as I stumbled down the forest path.

First, the trail passed through spruce forest—typical of the Pacific Northwest.

I didn’t have far to go. It was just over four miles from Fern Canyon to the State Park Visitor Center, along a well-trodden path through moderate, rolling terrain. Under normal circumstances, I could have covered that distance in two hours—maybe ninety minutes had I been motivated. But the moisture had worked its way into every square inch of my skin, and the weed was collecting tolls on every bridge in my neural network. Physically, psychologically, I was slowing down.

I distracted myself from the cold by paying acute attention to the surrounding woods. For the first half-mile or so, the trail was crowded by Sitka spruce trees—the ones in the picture above. Moss clung to their potato chip-like bark, the lichens hanging from their short, stubby branches glowed electric neon. A pair of hikers approached from ahead. They were two college students who attended Humboldt State University in Arcata (Ar-KAY-ta), a college town near Eureka—two pretty girls who stopped to talk beneath the downpour.

“Isn’t this, like, amazing…” “Like, it’s incredible…” I got the sense that the girls were also stoned, and I kicked myself, as they headed off, for not having the courage to ask for their number.

I had heard about Arcata frequently in the previous weeks—it was the cultural capital of Northern California’s Humboldt County. I knew that, along with adjacent Mendocino and Trinity Counties, Humboldt was famously a part of the “Emerald Triangle,” which had led the nation in black and grey-market marijuana production since the late-60s. Many hitchhikers had raved about Arcata—travelers descended on the town every fall, enjoying the bars, the girls, and looking for work trimming weed into saleable quantities. “Bro,” one had told me, “Arcata’s like the Promised Land.”

I peeked over my shoulder, hoping that fate would bring me to them again.

The first old-growth redwoods began to appear.

Then, I spotted the first impressive redwood tree. Wow! The scale dwarfed the still substantial Sitka spruce. Unlike those trees, with their low, lichen-heavy branches, coast redwood trees cluster all their foliage near the top, like a 300+ ft tall, 20+ ft wide Q-tip. I stood at ground level, craning my neck to follow the shooting vertical lines up, up, up into the forest canopy.

“WOW!” I exclaimed again.

Condensation had worked its way inside my camera’s lens. The camera struggled to attain focus as I swung it around the grove, trying and failing to capture the immensity of what I was seeing and feeling. Landscape? Portrait? It was all bigger than my camera, bigger than my perspective.

My hands were aching now. I was regretting not searching for my lost glove, but that was now a mile, maybe a light year, behind me.


I struggled for language as I willed my body up the trail.

The camera was blurry, I was blurry too. I thought about my sleepless night, my close call the day before… A fucking selfie! My thoughts returned to the near-death experience, though—aided by the pot—I felt like I was floating above myself.

Why, I began to wonder again, was I still alive? No, seriously. (I considered this question genuinely.) What had I done to earn life? Had I used it appropriately? Was I really committed to change?

As I walked, I found myself considering the whole sweep of my existence. Childhood, my parents’ divorce, those teenage years, and then the death trap of my twenties. There were highs! Sure, there were. I traveled the world, got a degree, found work, got a grander sense of my capability and potential. But so many lows! I thought for the first time in a long time about my other significant relationship—the girl I dated for six years through the first half of my twenties. A beautiful, intelligent girl. A figure skater from small-town Ontario who would go on to become a lawyer for the government. I had loved her intensely, clinging to her, defining my whole identity through our relationship. That was liberating and vivifying until it suddenly wasn’t, and I was left picking up the pieces, wondering how the most passionate love of my life had suddenly become a shell. Who would I be if I wasn’t with her?

I knew that the relationship needed to end. We were heading in different directions, it had nothing to do with the lack of love. We were kids. We barely knew anything about the world. She was just the second girl I had ever slept with—though I didn’t let myself count the first, nor did I let myself tally my handful of infidelities. Mistakes. Only when I was drunk. I hated myself for how I had treated her, I could barely understand how I could hurt someone that I loved so much. I realized suddenly that the shame was still hanging over me.

Three months after the relationship ended I was in India for the first time—free, finally, to do what I wanted, to sleep with who I pleased, to let myself dream up a life that was wholly generated by me. But I had underestimated the quieter aspects of love—the safety, security, sense of self that came in the lulls between coming. I clung desperately to the fantasy that I was “getting it out of my system.” I would return home from my six months abroad and find her waiting with open arms so we could pick up where we left off, the rest of my life ready to be signed, sealed, delivered—marriage, house, kids, career, retirement, etc., etc., etc.

I didn’t want any of it though I felt like I should.

That didn’t happen. In all that time I had been pretending to move on, she had actually done it. The love had come to a close, and that had wounded me most of all. It stuck a pin in my narcissism. I sought solace in my coping mechanisms—pot, other women, and, eventually, India. I went there a second time, only this time I put the backpacker girls to the side so I could work as a volunteer, teaching kids in slums how to play Ultimate Frisbee.

Peace and love through plastic! I shook my head and snorted as I marveled at the sensational trees. There were more of them now, edging out the Sitka spruce, slowly coming to dominate the forest. Yes—peace, love, sportsmanship, fair play, based in the western city of Ahmedabad, where no less than Mahatma Gandhi had kept an ashram for more than fifteen years.

I used to go to that ashram on my days off. I would sit under the banyan tree and look out over the river, trying and failing to find what was Gandhian inside of me. Be the change you wish to see, I constantly reminded myself, like I was trying to transform into a walking motivational quote.

I snorted again. How boring I was. What a stereotype, how predictable. Just another lazy stoner trying to convince himself that he was changing the world by tossing a Frisbee. As if India didn’t have enough problems…

I had lost sensation in my hands. My fingers could barely contort enough to depress the camera’s shutter button. I was shaking my head, recalling the earnestness with which I pursued the thing that I dared not name to myself. God? I didn’t believe in God. At best, I would begrudgingly concede that I was spiritual, but that was only at best. Once, in the Himalayas, I had had a three-day love affair with a Canadian woman who lived in Vancouver. But when I came back home and flew across the country to visit her—no strings attached, a few days together, an easy way to get drunk on sex—we ended up in a vitriolic fight about the existence of God—she believed, I didn’t—that the love affair ended on the very first night. I couldn’t help myself from turning up my nose at her, from treating her like she was an idiot.

Put another entry into the Book of Judgements as well.

Five months teaching frisbee, back home to Canada for a wedding. Then a third trip to India in two years. Another visit, another identity.

This time, I was a travel researcher. A plum gig, something like writing reviews for the Lonely Planet—only on behalf of a private travel agency instead. They covered my costs, arranging for a car and driver to shepherd me around the country, visiting luxury restaurants and hotels. Dream job.

In the meantime, I had made a connection with a girl back home in Toronto—gorgeous, awesome in bed—but she wasn’t the it I was looking for. I had treated her callously, too—not meanly, not like the first girl or Sally—but not exactly honestly. I left her behind and headed back to the motherland again. A few days after I arrived, I had a hot love affair with an Israeli divorcée who had only arrived in India that very morning. I met her at the hostel while she was checking in. I invited her for lunch and then spent the better part of the afternoon inside of her, interrupting our coitus intermittently so we could roll another joint. Hot, hot sex—meaning passionate, emotionless fucking. She was heading into the desert, and we made loose plans to reconnect. I ended up detouring six hours out of my way to go see her again, royally pissing off my driver, only to discover that when I showed up to the aforementioned hotel at the aforementioned time that she had checked out the day earlier. I was enraged, I was heartbroken, I was humiliated. I ended up bumping into her again, a few weeks later, but by then she had moved on, she had met another guy, and the way he smiled at me made me shrink about seven inches.

Just a few days after that, I met Sally.

“WOW!” I exclaimed again. Suddenly, I had been surrounded by magnificent redwoods. The character of the forest had completely transformed since the path passed through the dense Sitka spruce. Suddenly, it was spacious and airy, like I had entered into some grand, holy architecture—a temple, a cathedral, the Taj Mahal. Still stoned, I began obsessively noticing the various characteristics of the redwood trees—the tallest, one of the most massive, and one of the oldest species of trees on Earth. Ronald Reagan famously said that, once you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen ’em all. But I wouldn’t have concurred. I noticed the way these trees were clustered together, the way these ones stood apart. I noticed root structures and bark texture. I noticed the way mushrooms sprouted from the deadwood and the light fell through the crowded canopy. Most significantly, I noticed the way it felt to be among these soaring trees, to be among giants that had been growing for nearly two millennium, to be in old-growth forest that had been constantly living and dying and recycling biological energy since the beginning of time. I was lucky Reagan wasn’t there, because I would have been too stoned to debate him. I was lucky the girl from Vancouver wasn’t there, because I would have dropped the fight.

In the shadow of the redwoods, I felt the divine.

My thoughts turned, I knew where they were heading… Finally, Sally. I had loved her so much, but that didn’t count all the ways that I hadn’t loved her—all the ways that I was mean or hurtful or judgemental or snobbish without being able to stop myself. Really, I loved her. I had tried so hard to improve, to be better than I had been the first time around. I wanted to prove to her—to myself—that I could actually be a boyfriend and not a cheating cad. I had wanted that desperately. And, surely, I had improved. I was more mature than the first time around. But Sally was a handful. I was wiser, but I wasn’t wise enough to be with her. The panic attacks, the self-pity, the cheating, the suicide attempts. I had tried and I had failed.

I loved her. I had truly loved her.

A group of other hikers passed by. I tried to exchange friendly greetings, but I was shuddering against the extreme cold. My breath was labored. My heart was racing. There was so much pain in my hands that all I could do was clutch them together in my half-hearted gesture of prayer.

When they passed, I decided I needed a break. I looked around for shelter—the best I could find was a chasm inside one of the big redwood trees. Redwood bark is highly fire-retardant, so when a forest fire rips through a grove, it has the tendency to hollow out some of the biggest trees. I felt proud of myself as I slipped into the shelter. I could hardly summon the strength to tear open an energy bar. I had to use my teeth. I was fading, I was getting woozy. It occurred to me that if I went to sleep there, it could be days before someone found me. I wondered if this was an appropriate place to die, whether I would go in peace. I wondered if the whole point of surviving the selfie was so I could choose to die here.

I considered this question abstractly, not really having a strong preference either way.

Sally. Finally, we come to Sally. So many errors, so many mistakes, so much that I wished that I could take back. It was hard for me to differentiate the mistakes that anyone makes in a relationship, and the mistakes that I had made. I thought that mine were unforgivable. Maybe they were. It was hard to tell. In some ways, it’s still hard to know.

I had loved her insanely, so perhaps it made sense that I went insane too.

It was so easy to dwell on the bad times. There were so many, so it seemed. But there were good times too, the trouble was that I didn’t know how to square my circle, I didn’t know how to love her and hate her at once. What was I going to do with all of those feelings? Where were they supposed to go? What should you do with them? How was I supposed to feel?

As I chewed on my energy, I tried to take stock of my whole stupid life. I had achieved nothing of import. I wasn’t the millionaire I hoped I’d be when I was thirty, I was just another guy still searching for himself, still lost four years into his Quarter Life Crisis. A punchline—that was the best I could do. Nothing but a punchline, nothing but a waste of a perfectly good privileged life. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I could go on for days, and I would if you’d allowed me.

A selfie. A fucking selfie.

I spent a half-hour in that cave inside a redwood trunk. I was freezing, my destination felt two hundred miles away. It felt like a miracle to finally get to my feet, to will myself back out into the deluge.

I was still thinking about Sally when I suddenly remembered the monarch butterfly.

That was it! That’s what made the whole thing worth it. From one girlfriend to another, from one trip in India to another, my whole strange, pitiable song had been raised to a different octave by what had happened to me on that newspaper box in Toronto, when a monarch butterfly landed on my chest.

I felt a sudden rush of euphoria that I couldn’t quite attribute to the waning effects of the weed.

Just then, l rounded a corner of the trail and suddenly caught view of a particularly immense giant. It was magnificent—350+ ft high, 25+ ft thick, growing in this muck since the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire. I ran my eyes over it like I would a beautiful woman, noticing its distinguished features, its remarkable burls. It was beautiful because it was ugly, because it was imperfect.

Inspired, I threw myself against its trunk, breathing in its fragrance, feeling the coarse bark against my cheek. I wasn’t “treehuggging”—the trunk was far too broad; it was more like pressing myself against a living wall.

Then, suddenly, I heard the tree talk to me.

What a ridiculous thing—a talking tree! Of course, it didn’t really talk to me, of course, it was just a figment of my imagination. But in the same beat, the things that the tree said were so profound, so true that I felt tears rolling down my frigid cheek, running into the raindrops hanging on the end of my beard.

What did the tree say? That it loved me. That it had been calling me here, that the whole purpose of my walk was to get here, to see this. Absurd! Yet in the moment I felt it intensely, I knew it to be true.

More than just the walk—the purpose of my whole life was culminating in this moment. Everything had conspired together to get me here.

Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I watched my life roll by again. It was like a film, the action paused in certain pivotal moments, the tree was commenting like it was a Director’s Cut. “That was us. Yup, we were there for that too. Every time you’ve needed us, we’ve been there to help you.”

How could I believe it? And yet how could I ignore it? It didn’t make any sense, it was outside of my imagination. And yet in that moment, as I embraced that tree, I knew that I was experiencing the most significant event of my life.

How could I explain it?

What was I going to do about it?

“Are you God? Is God talking to me?”

“We’re like God. But different.”

“Am I a prophet? What are my responsibilities?

“We’ll help you answer those questions. Not right now. There’s time. But we’re here with you…we’ll always be here with you. You can be safe, you can be happy. Don’t forget us…”

I clung to that tree and I wept.

Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…

My body was in extreme pain, my foot speed had dropped to less than a mile an hour. I was losing light, and for the first time, I realized that there was a real chance that I could die. But I felt renewed! I wanted to live!

Finally, I caught sight of the Visitor Center parking lot in the clearing past the final redwoods.

I stumbled out of the woods and went straight to the Visitor Center. The lights were off, the doors were locked. My heart fell. I knew there was a nearby campground, but I couldn’t bear the thought of a night in my tent. I wouldn’t sleep, I would be up all night trying to stay warm. The concept felt agonizing. But what other option did I have?

Just then, two hikers emerged from the forest. I called out to them in a voice that sounded surprisingly frail. They were a newlywed couple from Norway, and they agreed to shuttle me to a nearby motel.

I didn’t say a word in the back of their vehicle. I gazed out the window. I felt spooked.

Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…

It was just a short drive to Orick, a tiny town with a couple small motels. Inside the office, my hands were so frozen that I couldn’t grip the pen when signing the credit card receipt—I made a ransom note’s X. Up in the anonymous room, I turned the shower on warm but the water felt scalding. I settled for a lukewarm bath instead.

Switching off all the lights, I settled into the warm water, closed my eyes, listened to the pounding rain.

What was I going to do about this?

How was I going to explain?

How was I going to make it make sense?

Was I just stoned, was it a hallucination, was it my imagination, was it…

Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…Don’t forget us…

Spooked, the day after the redwoods. Look at my eyes.