Excerpted from the short story “Where the Ocean meets the Redwoods” by Patrick Westfall
A large billboard had been placed on the southern end of town that read, Trees of Mystery, 14 miles. On the last day of my visit, a rainy Wednesday, we decided to tour them. We drove south on highway 101 and were immediately engulfed by the innumerable trees that flank the perilous narrow highway.
This part of California is known to be part of the stomping grounds of the Sasquatch, and as I looked out of the window at the seemingly neverending forest of straight, tall trees, I hoped to catch a glimpse of the hairy figure myself.
We passed some beautiful, craggy beaches and I was surprised to see most of the campgrounds were closed for the winter season, which I had presumed was everyone’s favorite time of year for camping.
We couldn’t help but notice the seventy-foot tall Paul Bunyan and accompanying Blue, his forty-foot ox. We pulled into the parking lot and obtained the obligatory photograph of myself standing underneath these larger-than-life statues. We then entered the gift shop to purchase our tickets to the Trees of Mystery and its world-famous gondola ride called the Sky Trail.
The gift shop and accompanying museum, The End of the Trail, were stocked with all of the gift-shop paraphernalia that one might expect, but they also carried many other souveniers that were not so cliche as the giant foam slippers that read Bigfoot on the side. They sold tiny pieces of living redwood bark that would one day grow into a 300-foot redwood as well as freshly-made fudge.
There was also a museum with maps of the Native American tribes who had once populated the region and artifacts that reflected their way of life. I learned that Chief Seattle (sic) had once been offered over twenty-million dollars by a U.S. President to buy his land, but the chief had replied, How can you buy or sell the Earth? I’m pretty sure the U.S. felt they got a steal on that transaction after they took it for free!
After much perusal, I purchased a refrigerator magnet for $3.00 that featured an inspired poem about the redwoods from , the fella who built the Golden Gate Bridge. The clerks offered us complimentary raincoats for the gondola ride, which we gratefully accepted but never donned.
The rain slowed to a drizzle as we began the .4 mile walk through the fabled Trees of Mystery that had been featured in Guiness’ Book of World’s Records and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The ascending paved path wound its way through the underbrush of lush ferns and our attention was directed to several anomalous redwoods by the subtle handmade signage.
There was the Lightning Tree, which drew its name from the forked shape that its efforts to penetrate the umbrage toward sunlight had created. There was the Cathedral Tree, that featured several full-sized trees growing from a single stump. The location was very quaint and relatively popular for small wedding ceremonies.
We passed the Towering Inferno, a noble redwood that had been hit by lightning and had burned from within. Although the path led us past several notable ancients, the oldest living things on the planet, I found that merely passing through the presence of so many tall, straight Coast Redwoods was the most thrilling aspect of the experience. It is with good reason that the civilizations who dwelt here referred to the forest as a place of spirits.
While the paved path might be challenging for some sightseers, there is also a second path that is designated for experienced hikers only. This path, the Wilderness Trail, seemed to be extremely adventurous and appeared to be comprised of billions of redwood steps that had been laid into the mountain all the way up to the top of the Sky Trail.
At the top of the paved path, we were greeted by the friendly staff-member who explained how to board the gondola. He explained that gondolas were powered by a 300-horsepower engine that was built in the early part of the 21st century. He also explained that they don’t stop for you to board them! Ha ha, why waste time having your sky vehicle stop for you to get in and out, right?
The doors opened automatically as the four-seat carriage arrived and my parents, who are in their sixties but in good shape, had no difficulty stepping onto the moving gondola. I could easily envision, however, a few folks I know who might have trouble boarding the entire family fast enough.
The attendant told us that the windows would fog up from the moisture in our breath so he opened the windows for us. This let the rain inside but increased the visibility dramatically. The nearly all-glass gondola rose up the mountain at a 35 degree angle at a speed that would disappoint the thrill-seeker but unnerve those who are not comfortable with roller-coasters or heights.
I found myself looking down on hundreds of 300-foot trees and loving every moment of it. The gondola paused at intervals and allowed us the time to take many breathtaking photographs and to contemplate the consequences of a fall. The platform at the top held several picnic tables and more stunning views but we didn’t linger long as the rain had increased.
We took the thrilling gondola ride down rather than avail ourselves of the thousands of redwood steps reserved of the Wilderness Trail. Walking sticks with bright fabric tied to them were available for those experienced hikers who elected this path. I figured the brightly-colored fabric would help the rescue teams find the lost and terrified experienced hikers much faster and strongly recommend taking one with you. In case they couldn’t find you, the walking stick would also serve as a fashionable gravemarker.
We began the descent on the paved trail in moderate rain and were grateful for the grip-tape the proprietors had provided which helped us keep our footing on the otherwise slick pavement. This was known as the Trail of Tall-Tales, and was dedicated to the folklore of Paul Bunyan and his adventures. The path had many chainsaw carvings depicting the prodigious youth in various larger-than-life exploits.
An enormous fallen tree met us at the end of the trail. Plagues had been places near some of its rings that depicted what its age. I think the oldest one denoted the birth of Mohammed around 1500 years ago, and covered more recent events such as the signing of the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence, too. I returned the unused raincoats to the employees at the gift shop and asked directions for a good place for lunch.
Throughout the experience, the owners (for I understand that this is private land) and operators displayed a quiet attentiveness to the needs of their customers and this care was subtle but ever-present.
First of all, they built a seventy-foot tall mythical woodsman in the parking lot; that’s pretty cool. They offered us raincoats and walking sticks. They had developed the land to provide people with a destination but did not attempt to guide the experience toward commercialism. It seems to me that the owners and employees understood the value of sacred silence and that the ideal Trees of Mystery experience was truly an intimate one between the silent trees themselves and the individual human soul who was visiting them.