E10: The Strangest of Places

DAY 108. 920 MI. TO GO

16 min read

When I left Eureka, I still had Jenn’s advice on my mind: “once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” (Technically, it was Jerry Garcia’s advice, but I didn’t need to split hairs.) Strangely, it was the perfect way to foreshadow the next section of my trip.

South of Eureka, Highway 101 turns inland, following the Eel River Valley into some of the most rugged, most notorious country of anywhere in coastal California. This was a land of contradictions—home to the world’s tallest individual trees and also one of its largest marijuana harvests. At the time, Humboldt County had the ignominious distinction of leading the state in car crashes, accidental deaths, and murders. It would be cold, it would be rainy, and I would be walking right past Jolene’s front door.

“Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

In the strangest of places, I saw the light. It was among the weirdest couple days of my life.


Rain on the Eel River.

The memories from this week come in snapshots. Shot number one: I’m sitting on the side of the road in a tiny town in the redwoods called Redcrest, watching the nearly full moon creep across the starry sky. It was December 17th—three days to the longest night of the year. By coincidence or maybe fate, that year, on the winter solstice, there would also be a total lunar eclipse. It would be the first time those two events had coincided since the 1600s.

A pair of headlights appeared through the darkness. A Honda CR-V. The driver’s name was Shevi—a New York Jew in her forties that I connected with on Couchsurfing.

“When I first signed up for Couchsurfing, I thought it was a hookup app,” Shevi threw out casually once I was safely ensconced in the warmth of her passenger seat. I froze, with all those lovers from Arcata and Eureka still on my mind. “When the first guy came to stay, I slept with him, because that’s how I thought it worked.”

I reached for the door handle. Through the sunroof, there were glimpses of the nearly full moon spilling silvery light over the redwoods.


Snapshot two. I’m sitting on the carpet inside of Shevi’s camping trailer, eating a vegetarian feast out of wooden bowls hewed from redwood. Shevi’s to my left. To my right is her boyfriend, Matthias—a slender German guy with hair closely cropped.

The story goes that, last year, Shevi traveled to a Buddhist monastery in the Midwest for a meditation retreat. Matthias was one of the monks. About six weeks ago, Matthias contacted her: he’d left the monkhood, and was she interested in exploring a relationship?

They were taking it slow, Shevi assured me. Matthias was still meditating four hours a day. Besides, she was a recovering sex addict.

The rain had returned. It was pounding on the plastic roof. Shevi was telling me that the Eel River, just a couple dozen yards away, was notorious for flooding. Back during the Christmas Floods of 1964, the flow through the river system was ten times the average of Niagara Falls. Houses, sawmills, livestock, entire towns had been washed away.

“Around here, everyone lives in a place with wheels, so you can leave quick.”

I looked at Matthias, but he didn’t say anything.


Shevi’s farm in the redwoods

Snapshot three. I’m walking down the yellow line of the Avenue of the Giants, a scenic highway that cuts through the heart of the ancient forest. This is Instagram country. If you’ve seen a picture of cars driving around—or through—a redwood tree, it’s probably taken somewhere near here.

The story goes that the Avenue of the Giants is a 32-mile section of the original Redwood Highway that connected San Francisco to Eureka. The road was built to expedite the logging industry. At the beginning of the 20th century, local logging companies were calculating their yields in the billions of board feet. By the 1940s, lumber production was growing exponentially each year; the biggest contributor to the California budget were taxes from Humboldt County timber. By the ’50s, almost all of the unprotected redwoods were gone. The Avenue of the Giants passed through some of the best-preserved sections of old-growth, letting tourists cling to the mid-century fantasy of viewing the wilderness from the comfort of their vehicles.

There were few tourists that deep into December. Most of the traffic was flying by on the faster freeway bypass.

Because there were hardly any tourists, it was easy to walk right down the center of the dramatic road. Any passing car was much more likely to give me a wave or a peace sign or stop for a conversation, rather than snap at me with an annoyed honk. I’m a little sweaty from the vigorous walking, so I’ve got my wool beanie in my hands, and I’m kind of juggling it back and forth to occupy myself as I walk through the woods. In my breast pocket, I’ve got my phone, and coming out of the tinny speaker is an album by an Icelandic band called Sigur Rós. If you don’t know Sigur Rós, picture the kind of music that Vikings might have made if they had access to electronic instruments—and the creative courage to play an electric guitar with a violin bow. The sound is ethereal, full of pounding drums, high-pitched wailing, and a palpable sense of soul. It felt like the perfect accompaniment to a road called the Avenue of the Giants.

I was elated to be back in the redwoods again. During the three weeks that I had spent between Arcata and Eureka, I felt like I had been caught in quicksand. My momentum had disappeared. But now I was moving again, and that movement gave me the opportunity to reconsider everything that had happened. As I walked, juggling my wool beanie from hand to hand and listening to the strange Icelandic wailing, I thought about Jenn and Jolene. I thought about my near-death by selfie and the near-epiphany of my first time in the redwood forest. In a few days, on the winter solstice, I would mark exactly six months since I found Sally’s note. As I walked, I tried to take stock of nearly four months on the road.

So much weight had piled on my shoulders while I was stuck in quicksand, but now as I walked it all came pouring out. I felt overwhelmed by the ecstasy of being back in the ancient forest—and this time, I thought proudly, I wasn’t high!

But if I wasn’t high and I still felt that ecstasy, then how could I possibly explain that spiritual experience, those talking trees? Had the redwoods really called me? No. Surely, such a thing was impossible. I knew that wasn’t the way the world worked. Trees don’t talk. They certainly don’t call you.

That’s science. Isn’t it?

I don’t speak Icelandic, so the best I could do was to sing along with the melody at the top of my lungs. I sang so loudly and with so much passion that I burst into tears. It was one of the happiest moments of my entire life.


Along the Avenue of the Giants

Snapshot four. Back on Shevi’s farm. Just down the driveway, across the road, there was a small farm shed with a spare bed where Matthias did his meditating. There was yet another big winter storm in the forecast, and I was nervous about sleeping in a structure without wheels. But Shevi and Matthias assured me they’d wake me up if it was necessary.

I’m sitting on the bed, watching raindrops streak the dark window. Lighting flashes, illuminating the forested hills that stretch into the night. I’ve got the phone pressed to my ear. My best friend and mentor, Paul, is on the other line. It’s late where he is, back home in Toronto, but Paul’s a night owl, and he seems to get a strange pleasure from supporting me, for reasons I still can’t really understand.

I’m thirty, but I’m still not at a point where I’m willing to say that I love another man. It just sounds so… well, you know.

There’s so much that I want to tell him. I want to spill out everything I thought about that day on the Avenue of the Giants. I want to tell him how, that afternoon, I sat at the base of an immense, ancient giant and was more forthright with myself than I’d ever been in my life.

“I have some things that I’m not being real with myself about,” I wrote in my journal.

I smoked a lot of pot in Arcata/Eureka, I took advantage of the Jolene situation in a manipulative way. I have become overly concerned with the size of my audience on Facebook and my website stats. I am very concerned whether Sally is looking at the site or not. I am not happy with my relationship with my mom. I am afraid to be alone and cold. I am very concerned about whether what I’m making will be any good. I am intimidated about the road ahead. I have not forgiven myself for the lies I told in the past. I have not forgiven myself for hitting Sally. 

Just writing these words felt like I was unearthing some long-buried secret.

Paul’s advice was patient, thoughtful. I’m doing a great job. He loves the photographs I’m posting online. Already, by walking nearly a thousand miles, I’ve accomplished something amazing.

As for the relationship stuff, it’s natural, as a thirty-year-old man, that I’m shifting my relationship with my parents. It’s natural that I’ve still got some regrets about my ex. The mere fact that I’m thinking about this stuff, that I’m talking about it out loud is evidence of growth. “I wish I started doing this work at your age,” says Paul. “By the time you get to my age, you’ll be glowing.

Another flash of lighting illuminates the foreboding woods.

I smoke a joint as soon as I get off the phone. Then, I walk through the rain to return to Shevi’s trailer. Outside, in a vestibule, she’s rigged up an old clawfoot bath to serve as a hot tub. I watch the tub fill slowly, shuddering with each shock of thunder. What a journey—from ecstasy in the afternoon to chaos in the evening. Is Paul right? What if he’s lying to me? How do I know I can trust him?

My world is falling apart at the seams. Not just my old life: I left job, girlfriend, home so many months ago. Now, it’s my most basic understanding of reality that’s crumbling. What do I think about talking redwoods? What do I think about shifting relationships with my parents? My father is arriving in ten days. Do I even want to see him?

The water is hot. The rain hammers on the corrugated plastic overhead. Through a small window, I can see Uma and Matthias floating around the inside of the illuminated camping trailer.

How much longer? How much longer until I heal? How much longer until I’m glowing? How much longer until I’m enlightened? Is it even okay to want to be enlightened, a privileged guy like me? Isn’t that… you know?


The next day, in the redwoods

Snapshot five. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Shevi’s CR-V. We’re parked at a trailhead in the redwoods, saying our goodbyes. I ask her to tell me her love story, and I sit and listen as heavy rain falls on the windshield. When it’s over, we embrace, and I wish her all the best in her new relationship. I step outside and wave as she drives off.

Another deep connection, another stranger that I’ll never see again. This is my life.

I’m right on the banks of Bull Creek, one of the tributaries of the Eel. A trail leads four miles downstream toward the Rockefeller Forest—one of the most spectacular redwood groves in California. The story goes that John D. Rockefeller had a picnic lunch in those trees and promptly donated a million dollars to a conservationist group. I wonder what they served.

No, I don’t need to wonder what they served. The rain has stopped, and my spirits are soaring again.

I walk down the reddish trail, which winds through the carpet of lime green sorrel scattered with thick ferns. Big redwoods are everywhere. I touch their bark, press my head against their trunk.

We called you here…Don’t forget us.

It seems sacrilegious to spoil the experience by playing music, but something about the Icelandic tunes just make sense. I sing along as I walk, and in a fantastical mood, I start to ask myself, what if what I’m hearing is right?

I know that many other cultures believe that there is an intelligence in the natural world. In India, I’ve visited dozens of hilltop temples dedicated to this deity or that one. But I’m a rationalist, a scientist. I once ended a nascent relationship because we disagreed about the existence of God. There was no proof, I argued. Therefore, I was right. But I can’t deny the feeling of enchantment in this forest, and the Icelandic song picks me up and carries me away…

We called you here…we’ve been calling you here your entire life…the whole purpose of your journey was to get here, to meet us. None of it makes any sense, but the message comes through in a way that’s undeniable.

I have so many questions. Why me? Why like this? Why was it so hard? Why do I deserve to be contacted by the divine? Not after what I’ve done, what I’ve been through. I’ve lied! I’ve cheated! I hit my ex-girlfriend.

The answer is too simple: because we love you.

Love me? When I hear the word emanating from inside of me, I break down and weep.


Snapshot six. It’s later that same day, around four in the afternoon, and I’m starving. Shevi and Matthias fed me a good breakfast, but I overestimated my supplies and now I’ve found myself bereft of calories. After spending the better part of the day singing and dancing in the redwoods, I’m still a couple miles from the nearest town.

It’s called Weott. I hope there’s a general store.

There’s no general store in Weott. Weott’s a dump. The one gas station in town has long since been shuttered, and a rusted motel sign next to the freeway offers barely a sliver of hope. I stumble toward the motel. I haven’t eaten in hours. I tell myself I’ll eat anything.

When I get near to the structure, I can see that there are a couple people sitting on plastic chairs under the awning. By the way they move, I can tell that they’re high on meth.

So much for anything. I stop on a dime and retrace my steps.

Weott

Already, my mind is spinning like wild. The next town, Myers Flat, is eleven miles away. Eleven miles! I’ll never make it there before dark, I’ll never make it without food. What am I going to do, how am I going to survive the long, wet night? Suddenly, the rain picks up.

What a radical transition from the ecstatic bliss in the redwoods, just a few hours earlier.

I decide to make a break for Myers Flat. I can’t think of another option. I start walking down the steep hill that leads out of Weott, back toward the Avenue of the Giants, when I walk past a woman who is unloading something out of a van parked on the side of the road.

“How’s it going?” she asks, in a way that is friendly without being warm.

“Actually, to tell you the truth, I’m starving.”

“Do you want me to make you an egg sandwich?”

It’s a day-before-the-winter-solstice miracle.

The woman slams the tailgate of the van shut and leaves me up the driveway to a ramshackle house. There’s rusted junk scattered everywhere on the porch.

“Wait here,” she says, gesturing at a tattered couch. “I need to ask permission from the Man of the House.”

I sit on the couch as she disappears indoors.

I have no illusions about what’s going on; I’ve been in Humboldt County long enough to know what happens in ramshackle houses out in the middle of the redwoods. Besides, the scent coming from the grow room is so strong that I can smell the pot through the floorboards of the porch.

The front door opens, and out emerges a guy straight out of central casting: scraggly beard, trucker hat, missing tooth.

“You a cop?” snorts the Man of the House.

I nearly burst out laughing, but I’m too hungry to feel anything but panic. “No, I’m not a cop,” I say nervously.

“He’s not a cop,” says the woman from earlier. She’s leaning against the doorframe, cradling a puppy.

“Are you sure you’re not a cop?” growls the Man of the House. “Because if you’re a cop and I ask you if you’re a cop, you have to tell me. It’s in the Constitution.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not in the Constitution, but I’m in no mood to quibble. Fortunately, the woman jumps to my defense. “He’s not a cop. He’s freezing and hungry. Just let him in.”

The Man gives her a pained look. “I swear to God, if we go to jail for this, it’s your fault.”

Inside the Man’s House

I step inside and immediately shuck my raingear. Every inch of me is soaking wet and frigid from the icy temperatures. Two sets of eyes pop out of the kitchen.

“Who the fuck is he?”

“Is he a fucking cop?”

“He’s not a cop,” says the woman with the puppy. She leads me into the kitchen, which is repulsively dirty. There’s a pile of dishes overflowing the sink, and most of the cupboards have doors dangling off of the hinges. She pulls a frying pan off the pile, washes it, and starts to make me an egg sandwich.

The two men in the corner are still glaring at me suspiciously. I can see why; behind them are several bricks of hash about the size of a record album. They’re packaging them with a vacuum sealer so they can transport them down to the Bay Area.

Strangely, I know exactly what to do. Reaching into my backpack, I pull out the pile of my photographs of people from India that I’ve been handing out to just about everyone who will take them. I start into what, by now, has become a very familiar shtick: I’m walking from Canada to Mexico. Before this trip, I spent a lot of time traveling in India where I met these people and took their picture. Now, what I’m doing is taking pictures of Americans with these people’s picture, so I can go back to India, find them, and give them a picture of you together.

It’s an absurd story, which is part of the reason why I like telling it. Immediately, these two drug mules are delighted.

Not only do I take these guys’ pictures, I also record them sharing intimate details about their lives, including their email addresses and phone numbers. One of them is eagerly telling me about the places he’s traveled in his life; the other one is vacuum sealing the hash.

I’m not a cop, but I can’t help feeling like I would have made a good one.

By evening, I’ve made best friends with the Man of the House, who invites me to crash on the couch. We spend the night watching his favorite movie—White Chicks, starring the Wayon Brothers. The Man of the House knows every line, he blurts them out as they’re being delivered, like he’s watching Rocky Horror, but that doesn’t stop him from bursting out in guffaws.

It’s a long, strange, lonely night. I barely sleep, I’m too worried when his meth-addled roommates come home at two o’clock in the morning.


The Man of the House

Snapshot seven. It’s the morning of the winter solstice, the morning of the evening when a total lunar eclipse occurs on the longest night of the year for the first time since the 1600s. I’ve left the Man of the House and Weott behind. I’m hurrying through the downpour toward Myers Flat along the Avenue of the Giants.

Here, through this section, the Giants are younger, narrower. Every stream flowing out of the woods is swollen.

About an hour south of Weott, I reach a State Park campground next to the Visitor Center.

The sign out front advertises free coffee. I go in, fill up a styrofoam cup, and try not to think about my growling stomach. I’m wandering around the dioramas, learning about redwoods, when I get this tap on my shoulder. I turn around; it’s a young guy in his early twenties with blond curly hair and green eyes that are so dark and vacant that I can’t stop myself from shivering. The young man’s name is Greg, and I can tell immediately that Greg is in trouble.

I ask him if I can record his story. Greg agrees, and we go outside to sit underneath the awning.

Christmas lights fringe the edge of the structure. Greg’s wearing a bright green poncho that hangs around him like a cape as he sits cross-legged on the porch. The story goes that Greg has cycled to the redwoods from North Carolina. He’s spent the last three months cycling across the country. Now, it’s nearly Christmas; he’s out of money, and he doesn’t know whether he should try to ride home or whether he should call his parents to ask for help. This dilemma is weighing heavily on him. It’s so existential that the words are barely squeaking out of his throat.

The story gets deeper. A few years ago, at the end of high school, Greg and his classmates rented a house in South Carolina for Spring Break. Greg was the class stoner; one evening, down in Myrtle Beach, he smoked a joint and wandered off by himself, down to the white sand, and stood ankle-deep in the warm water as a full moon reflected on the Atlantic. The reflection mixed and mingled with the surf until Greg was sure that he was seeing images: a dragon, a Lion of Judah. He couldn’t tell anyone about this, he was a good Christian, but he was also a philosopher, a stoner. It was like the structures of his life were crumbling.

Greg talked for an hour, the story went on and on. It was self-indulgent, and it was genuine. As I sat there listening, I couldn’t shake the strange deja vu that I was talking to myself. I had also had an inexplicable spiritual experience while I was stoned, I was also terrified of sharing what had happened with anyone. Wouldn’t people laugh at me? Wouldn’t they say… what? I was foolish, I was incompetent, I was a nincompoop, I was unscientific, I was a New Age hippie. For me, these insults were just about as incisive as I could imagine; I would rather have been insulted for being Jewish than be called unscientific. The same seemed true of Greg. The weight was overwhelming.

What’s overwhelming? I suddenly wondered. The fear of losing who I know myself to be. The fear of falling into chaos.

Suddenly, I got the sense that Greg was on the verge of suicide.

What do I say, how do I talk him off the ledge? I had no idea. Instinctively, I channeled Paul—and I sat there and listened. I didn’t say a word until Greg broke down in tears. He leaned forward to embrace me, his fingernails digging into my shoulders. Had I done it? Had I rekindled his will to live?

I had no idea, but his mood had clearly changed. He was bursting out in laughter.

The last time I saw him, Greg was back on his bike, riding off down the Avenue of the Giants.

The clouds had parted, and for the first time in days, sun was shining onto the redwood trees.


The Eel River—after the rain.

What do you do with something like this? A bunch of snapshots, a bunch of stories, all tied together by time or coincidence or god only knows what else. I didn’t then, and I don’t really know now. All I know is that it all felt important, for reasons I still can’t explain, a series of strangely important, importantly strange moments that led me higher into the mountains, deeper into the redwoods.

Maybe there’s a narrative. Maybe not. It all just kind of happened.

The rain was totally gone when I reached Myers Flat. Thankfully, the town had a general store. MYERS FLAT IS WHERE ITS AT, said the bumper stickers next to the register.

“Yeah,” said the clerk, “Myers Flat is where the meth is at.”

The general store was about as well supplied as a gas station. I bought a chocolate milk, a bag of chips, and a package of M&M’s, and zealously inhaled the calories. It was early in the afternoon, I still had a few hours of daylight before the total lunar eclipse, but I was reluctant to keep walking. Something made me want to find a place to stay in town.

I asked the clerk for advice, but she was non-committal. Her name was Shelby, she told me, and she’d moved to town four years earlier after going to college at Humboldt State.

“The best part of living in Myers Flat?” She furrowed her brow. “I haven’t had to pay for weed in four years.”

Shelby suggested that I talk to a man named Mr. Bill, who owned the town’s lone pub, as well as nearly all of the handful of commercial shops in the tiny town. On cue, Mr. Bill appeared, but I discerned immediately that I should probably drop the Mr.

Bill had a white mustache and a gruff demeanor. “Sure, I got an unheated Airstream trailer where you can sleep.”

Nightime temperatures were forecasted to hit freezing, but I accepted the offer immediately.

Myers Flat

Now, I had time to kill. Bill invited me to hang out in the bar, where Fox News blared from the corner at a handful of shifty-looking characters sitting on the stool. Once again, I pulled out my photographs and began to offer them to the men in exchange for a story. None of them knew what to make of me.

After sunset, Shelby the general store clerk appeared in the bar and told me that her sister was out of town; I was welcome to stay in her sister’s bedroom. The men in the bar were watching Monday Night Football. It was the Vikings against the Bears. An end broke through the line and grabbed the quarterback, Brett Favre, and pounded him to the frozen turf. Favre lay there motionless; it would turn out to be his final play of professional football.

“Get up, you pussy.” “Be a man.”

The men were clustered beneath the bar. Shelby and a few women were over by the pinball machines on the far side of the room.

Everyone made a stink when Shelby and I left together. But my intentions were pure and above the board. As we walked across town, I made half-hearted small talk. Overhead, clouds were drifting over the face of the full moon.

Shelby lived in a trailer just up from the banks of the brown, swollen Eel. The moment we got inside, I receded to the safety of her sister’s bedroom. I turned off all the lights and sat by the window, watching the Earth’s shadow encroach over the face of the moon, darkening the longest night of the year for the first time since the 1600s.

“Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right,” said Jenn. And Jerry.

Through the door, I could hear Shelby from the kitchen, singing along with the country music on the radio, baking up a batch of pot cookies that she planned to give away as Christmas presents.