E08: Fern Canyon

DAY 82. 1,110 MI. TO GO

14 min read
Deep in the redwood forest

The very next day after my near-death by selfie, I arrived at a spot in the redwoods called Fern Canyon. Fern Canyon was exactly that—a crevice in the bluffs with walls fifty feet high that were completely wallpapered with lush greenery. It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Northern California; Steven Spielberg filmed part of Jurassic Park II there. But it was the off-season and it had been raining off-and-on all morning. When I arrived there was exactly one other tourist: a guy about my age from New Zealand called Mark.

I told Mark that it was remarkable to meet a Kiwi at a place called Fern Canyon. What I didn’t say was that I’d nearly just died and spent the better part of the night trying to make sense of everything that had happened in my entire life.

Mark said something queer. He said, “your eyes look remarkably clear.”

I told him that I thought that was strange because I felt more lost than ever.

We stood at the mouth of the fecund canyon and chit-chatted about America for a while, both of us enjoying the smugness that came from coming from a pair of liberal countries besooted with self-esteem issues. Mark had spent the past few years working with a biotech start-up in Southern California. He spoke about it in hushed tones, as if he were working on the solution to perpetual energy. For all I knew, he was. Things had gotten hot, he said, in a way that implied the involvement of a Bond villain. Mark had taken leave of his job and bought a van, so he could drift up the California coast and take some time to process and think.

The conversation turned to other conspiracies: 9/11, the relationship between the Bushes and the Saudis. I was so happy to be talking to another human being that he could have told me he thought the Earth was flat and I would have stayed with him all day.

We decided to explore together into the canyon. I left my pack lying at the entrance to the crevice and joined Mark, venturing inside. A stream flowed out from deeper into the forest, covering almost all of the rocky bed—I had to leap back and forth over the water in a futile attempt to keep my shoes from getting wet. It hardly mattered; my running shoes were tattered and worn through, and my feet were already soaked. Mark was dressed much more appropriately in a good pair of rain boots. We clambered over fallen logs and splashed on the edge of the creek. The rain slowed, then started again with force. Pretty soon, it was pouring—it always seemed to be pouring in those days. Mark thought that we were better off escaping the canyon lest we get trapped by a flash flood. I didn’t argue—after the near-miss with the ocean the day before, I thought that I had learned my lesson. I didn’t yet know how naive I was still being.

Mark in Fern Canyon

By the time we returned to the canyon’s mouth, the creek had swelled enough that my backpack was under threat. I scooped it up when it was just inches from the water. There had been a considerable increase in the force of the rain.

“Can I give you some money to buy yourself some proper shoes?” said Mark. I dismissed his offer politely. “Then let me at least give you a dry pair of socks.” This offer was harder to refuse. A flat walking path led south a quarter-mile to the Fern Canyon parking lot, which was accessed by a long drive over a bumpy dirt road. The parking lot had already become a pond; Mark’s van was the only vehicle. The sheets of grey were obscuring the views over the beach to the beach, just a few hundred yards away. My body temperature had been low all day, but by now my hands were frigid, and my wool gloves were already soaked. I needed much more warmth than just a pair of dry socks.

Mark opened the side door to his van, and immediately I caught the unmistakable whiff of weed. Suddenly—there’s no other way to say this—I needed to get high, with a ferocity that terrified me. This was not a question of want; it was a reality of need.

“Sure, I got a little weed,” said Mark. “Hop in.”

I got into the passenger seat. When Mark turned on the engine, cold air poured out of the vents with such intensity that it hurt my freezing hands. I agonized for a couple moments until the engine had warmed. So much water was pouring down the windshield that it seemed like we were in the belly of a car wash.

Mark dug through the console until he found a pipe that was made out of a corn cob. He loaded it up with a bit of weed, took a hit, and then handed it over to me.

I knew what I wanted to wash away: the memories of the sleepless night, the terror, the humiliation of my near-death by selfie, the emerging rush of shame. I was feeling everything, I was feelng too much, I was “overly sensitive”—anyway, that’s the way that everyone always put it. Even in high school, I already knew that I felt too much—I used to be the guy that the girls would call after they said good night to their boyfriends, so I could help them translate from one language to another. The blessings of being a child of divorce, I guess: a trained mediator, a born therapist. I hated this skill. I would have traded it in an instant for flatter abs or a bigger dick.

But Paul was also emotionally intelligent, and when I first met Paul, I was shocked to see that a man who was so in touch with his feelings could also be financially and creatively successful, could be so good at sleeping with girls. I asked him once how many women he’d slept with. Three hundred, he’d replied.

“You slept with three hundred women?”

“It was the Sixties.” We were at a café; he was using a toothpick to clean between his teeth. “But they were all very loving.” Knowing Paul, I didn’t doubt that he was telling me the truth—he was an open book, no holds barred. He had an Emmy and lived in a mansion overlooking Lake Ontario. I was ashamed to be “overly sensitive”. For Paul, it was a badge of pride.

I had gone into my relationship with Sally trying to emulate Paul. I set out to prove—to myself, to the world!—that it was possible to be both sexual and loving. But Sally had undermined my thesis right from the start. When we moved to Vancouver just a week after my father’s heart attack and were welcomed by twenty-six straight days of rain, I tried to put a positive spin on our situation. We were together, after all. It could be just like the beginning again, when we were in India, when we fell in love. Sally wasn’t optimistic. She’d risked everything to move to a strange city with a man who was still basically a stranger—a stranger to her, a stranger to himself.

Those first twenty-six days were an exercise in agony. Every day, our whole lives seemed to balance on a pinnacle: would we stay or would we go, would we break up, what was our new vision? By December, it felt like a miracle that we were together, and all I could think about was keeping up the fight. One night, we went to the theatre to see a film festival. The Banff Mountain Film Festival, it was called. It was a collection of adventure-themed documentaries: rock climbing, big mountain skiing, those insane guys BASE jumping in squirrel suits. You could smell the adrenaline in the packed theatre. It was a respite from our melodrama. Even Sally looked like she was having fun.

Then, a different kind of film interrupted the festival’s flow. The film told the story of a young Englishman who had traveled way, way up to northernmost Alaska with seventy pounds of camping gear and a two-seated tandem bicycle. His ambition—to ride his tandem bike the length of the Americas, down to the very tip of Argentina. And he was alone, so why a tandem? So he could pick up strangers along the way and invite them to be a part of his journey! The film was touching and heart-warming. It reminded me of some of the experiences we’d had together in India.

“We should do something like that!” Sally exclaimed. This was outside the theatre, after the show, with the neon lights from the theatre marquee reflected in the roadside puddles. I played along—anything to make Sally happy. Did she want to ride a tandem bike to Mexico too? “No! We’re walkers, not cyclists. Let’s walk to Mexico!”

“Mexico? Why Mexico?”

“Because it’s far enough to be hard and close enough to be achievable.”

Sally had many flights of fancy, but for reasons I don’t think I’ll ever understand, this one stuck.

We talked about it all winter. Argued over things like tents and hiking shoes the way other couples fight over the toilet seat. Walking to Mexico always felt fantastical, like riding a rocket to the moon, but it was our dream, so I tended to it. I never really thought it would happen, I thought instead that Sally’s interests would shift—she’d find a proper job, we’d make proper friends, we’d lay down roots in Vancouver, or otherwise we’d return to India, our adopted motherland. Mexico and the West Coast of America were never part of the vision. But by the spring, there was an air of inevitability. It wasn’t whether we were going to walk, it was when we were going to leave. I’d already given up everything for her: my Master’s, my home, my family. What more did she want? What more did I have to give?

Mark was blabbering on about the moon landing. NPR played faintly in the background. Rain was still rushing down the windshield, and everything outside of the van felt like a blur. Suddenly, I started to feel intensely claustrophobic. My panic was heightened by the weed. I needed to get out of there.

“You’re going out there?” Mark was incredulous. “Mate, are you munted? It’s freezing out there. Mate, let me drive you to a motel. You can always come back to walk this section tomorrow.

I don’t know what had come over me, but my mind was already made up. “Sorry, man,” I said. “I’ve got to go. Thanks for the socks.” I stepped out into the pouring rain.

Heading through spurce forest toward the big redwoods

As I left the parking lot and hurried back to Fern Canyon—I’d left my backpack there, lying on higher ground—I formulated a rough plan that made complete sense to my stoned mind. There was a hiking trail that led inland from Fern Canyon. It was a little less than five miles to a Visitor Center near the highway. There was a campground there. I could stay there for the night. The trail was renowned as one of the best in the entire redwoods. It would be scenic. I guessed I could make it to the Visitor Center in a couple hours. There was plenty of time to accomplish all of this before dark.

But by the time I reached Fern Canyon, I realized that Mark had been right—I had substantially underestimated the downpour. I was already soaked, my hands were freezing, and somewhere along the way, I had lost one of my wool gloves. Shit. Was it in the van? Did I drop it on the trail from the parking lot? It didn’t make sense to go back and search for it—I was now in a race to get to the Visitor Center before I froze. So how was I going to keep my appendages warm? The best idea I could think of was to slip both of my hands into the same glove and hold my hands pressed together at my chest, penitently, like a monk.

This was the position I assumed as I climbed the stairs out of Fern Canyon and headed into the heart of the redwood forest.

Let me say briefly that, before this day, I never would have thought myself romantic about nature. Sure, I liked being outdoors, I loved dramatic landscapes, but my attempts to be Thorueavian were always hamstrung by the fact that I liked but didn’t love.

My first encounters with the redwood trees, though, had bordered on the transcendent. They’re just so goddamn impressive: 350+ feet high, 15+ feet in diameter, 1500+ years old. The feeling is like walking through the narrow streets of Paris and suddenly emerging to a view of the Eiffel Tower.

I’d seen many forests by then, of course. Throughout the Pacific Northwest, there were soaring redcedars, Sitka spruce, and Douglas fir. But one of the things that make redwood trees different is that all the foliage clusters near the top—in a way, a coast redwood tree kind of resembles a one-sided Q-tip. This makes evolutionary sense because all the competition for light happens up at the top; hardly any sunlight makes it past the canopy and down to the forest floor. At ground level, as a hiker, the experience of being in the redwoods is soaring—all vertical lines like Manhattan skyscrapers, with more than two hundred feet of headroom before the lowest branch. The trees felt like immense and imposing columns; you could imagine yourself walking through some astonishing natural Acropolis.

At least, that’s how I was experiencing it—deeply stoned, hands pressed namaste-style to my chest. My internal temperature gauge was starting to approach the danger zone, and as my body chilled, my steps slowed with them. My spirits, though, were soaring—overwhelmed with the awe of being in such lush and transcendent woods. Aided by the pot, I couldn’t help fixating on the tiniest of details: a unique burl on a massive trunk, the curvaceous arch of a tree root, the way a tiny sapling fought for life. To think that this forest had been untouched for thousands upon thousands of years—the idea was unfathomable. I couldn’t make sense of it, but I could feel it. I felt impossibly full of life.

And yet at the same moment, I felt myself plummeting towards death. The thought crossed my mind that if I went into the ferns and lay down, it might be days before someone found me. My body could decompose; I could become a part of that ancient forest. Was that how it would end? I had survived a selfie, but wouldn’t make it through this dark and deeply enchanted forest. I was stumbling now, walking like an old man, barely capable of putting one foot in front of the other. Everything was in pain, my frozen fingers were twisted and arthritic, I could barely summon the strength to depress the shutter release on my camera, and anyway the lens had already fogged up. I was living, I was dying, I was somewhere in between. I felt freer than ever.

Up ahead, I spotted a particularly impressive redwood tree with a cavern at its base. This was common with old redwoods: the bark is fire-resistant, so when a forest fire rushes through a grove, it often hollows out the heartwood at the center. The cavernous tree was just off the trail—the edges of the cave were bulbous like a pair of inflamed lips. I thought a lot of stoned thoughts about the integration between the masculine and the feminine—the soaring phallus, the receptive womb—as I slipped inside and took shelter. My motor skills were so compromised that I couldn’t tear open the wrapper of an energy bar; I struggled with it for five minutes. I feasted, I rested, I breathed. I was somewhere in between.

More memories rushed over me: memories of the traumatizing climax of our relationship. I remembered the way the arguments increased as a decision point loomed. Were we really going to do this? Was I Man enough? And quieter—could I support her while we were on the road? Did I really want to be stuck in a tent with her for two thousand miles? But what else? Who else? If not Sally, would anyone else ever love me?

I thought, too, about the day it all changed—the day I lost control, the day I hit her. And how everything else had tumbled out of that with frightening momentum. Next thing I knew, she’d met another man. “Just a friend,” she’d assured me at first. (It dawned on me that she’d probably said the same thing about me to her ex-boyfriend.) Then, soon, he was more than a friend—he was a safe harbor as our arguments increased, as we began an arms race that escalated so quickly that it was hard to remember, just weeks earlier, that we had loved one another. And lingering in the foreground as the relationship was falling apart was this absurd, fantastical idea that we were going to walk to Mexico. Why Mexico? Because it was far enough to be hard and close enough to be achievable. Somewhere in there was a metaphor for our entire relationship, but I was too blind or dumb or naive to see it. I was still taking her at face value. It dawned on me that the only way we were going to stay together was if I committed to walking with her to Mexico.

It didn’t dawn quickly enough—one more fight, the worst we’d ever had, where I said things and did things that I still thought were unforgivable. The next day, I returned home to find her hand-written note on our kitchen table. It wasn’t hard for her to leave: we’d arrived in Vancouver with nothing more than a suitcase and a backpack. The whole intention was to be able to leave quickly.

I was apoplectic; I called Paul late in the night. “Jordan, I think this is perfect.” It’s perfect that my ex-girlfriend has just left me for another man? It’s perfect that I’ve dedicated my whole life to this girl for a year and a half and she’s left me with nothing? It’s perfect that I’ve been telling my friends, my family, everyone who’ll ask that we were planning to walk to Mexico together for no better reason than it’s far enough to be hard and close enough to be achievable? That’s perfect? What the hell am I supposed to do with my life now? Paul spoke slowly like the answer was obvious: “now you get to do it yourself.”

I thought of all of this and more as I sheltered in the womb of a redwood tree. I was drying, I was coming to life, I had survived near-death once, I could do it again. I didn’t want to die! I wanted to live! I wanted life hungrily, desperately, with an intensity of passion unlike anything I had ever felt.

Struggling to rise to my feet, I hefted up my backpack and kept going, one tiny step at a time. By now, it felt like hours had passed. The redwood forest was dark and foreboding. I’d probably walked no more than two miles. But I was going! I was still limping forward. The trail wound around a hill, and I couldn’t contain my awe at spotting what seemed like the most impressive redwood tree yet. This was a tree that had been around since Jesus. Inspired, romantic, stoned, I threw myself against its massive trunk—I couldn’t possibly have wrapped my arms around it to hug it. Suddenly, I heard a voice. “We called you here. We’ve been calling you here your entire life. The whole purpose of your trip has been to come here, to meet us.

As unbelievable as it might sound, in that moment I didn’t doubt that this was true.

I had been called. And I had so many questions:

Why me?

Did I deserve it?

Why had it been so hard?

Why had I struggled? Why had I suffered?

I couldn’t tell whether the moisture on my cheeks was tears of joy or tears of desperation, or just the insistent, freezing downpour.

“You don’t need to know all that now. There’s plenty of time. We’re just getting to know one another. But yes, we’ve called you. We’ve been calling you your whole life. Every step has been arranged to get you here.”

I removed myself from the tree trunk and limped over to another ancient giant, and I threw myself against this trunk as well. This tree had a similar message: “We love you, we’ve always loved you, we’ll always be with you.” Now I was really crying—it was too much to take in, too much to make sense of, for fuck’s sake, I was an atheist. I had no space in my life for talking redwood trees. I was making it up, I thought. I’m hallucinating. I’m stoned. But I couldn’t deny the feeling. It was immense, it was expansive, it was alive, and it was real.

“We love you. We’ve always loved you. We’ll always be with you. Don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us

It was dusk by the time I reached the Visitor Center. I was exhausted in every sense of the word—physically, emotionally, spiritually. I was also freezing. I couldn’t move my fingers. I knew it would be a struggle to spend the night in my sleeping bag.

I limped over to the Visitor Center but the doors were locked. There were just a couple of cars in the adjacent parking lot, and I began to panic as I searched frantically for other solutions. Just then, a young couple emerged on one of the other trails from the forest, and I called out to them weakly. They were tourists from Norway and they were heading south—yes, they could give me a lift to a nearby motel.

I tossed my pack in the trunk and sat silently in the backseat, unable to make even the most casual conversation. What had just happened back there? Did I imagine all of that?

What if what the trees said was real?

The nearest motel was six miles south. When I went into the office, I could barely grip the pen to sign the credit card receipt—I suffered through an X instead. Safely in a room, I stripped off my wet clothes and immediately headed to the shower. I turned the water on hot; it scorched my fingers. I settled on lukewarm instead. Out the window, I could still hear the downpour on the asphalt.

I showered for a long time—water pounding on my back, forehead pressed against the bathroom wall. Later, I returned to bathe again. I sat there in the tub, lights off, listening to the downpour, struggling and failing to make any sense.

Don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us

Don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us

Don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us don’t forget us

I knew I never would.

That night, I didn’t sleep a wink.

Spooked, the day after the redwoods.