If we lose wilderness, we lose forever the knowledge of what the world was and what it might, with understanding and loving husbandry, yet become… in these areas it is as though a person were looking backward into the ages and forward untold years. Here are bits of eternity, which have a preciousness beyond all accounting.
The nightmare of LA’s freeway free-for-all is many weeks behind me, although now I’m experiencing mild trepidation and mounting excitement in the face of so many dire warnings about the dangers ahead of me in northern California.
Brazen black bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes hiding out in piles of driftwood, ticks carrying lyme disease and dangerously slippery paths are among the potential hazards, but as always it is humans that are potentially the most scary. I’ve heard horror stories about the multitude of methamphetamine addicts who can be identified by their aberrant behaviour and bad teeth. They sound charming!
I’m in the heart of the sparsely populated Emerald Triangle that produces $1-billion worth of cannabis annually and is the largest region in the US producing marijuana for legal consumption in California. According to the last census there are only 236,250 people in the counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity and it is said that every one of them is directly or indirectly reliant on the plant.
Although pot has been in use for centuries, finding religious, spiritual, medicinal and recreational applications, it really took off in the Sixties as the substance of choice for the Flower Power generation, while small and large entrepreneurs alike grabbed it as an economic lifeline following the collapse of the logging industry.
I encounter growers and sellers and they’re nice ordinary folk like you and me trying to make a living and a life.
At an outdoor store in Fort Bragg, Megan Smithyman, a refugee from down south tells me the Triangle is a great place for lovers of nature. Of her former home, she says: “LA is totally inappropriate and unsustainable. It’s mass delusion.” She sells me a waterproof map of The Lost Coast, a clever device for removing ticks, freeze-dried food and dispenses invaluable advice about the hiking trail I’ll be following through the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park.
Another rugged-looking shopper is surprised I don’t pack a tent and asks if I have a compass. “If you get lost, remember that the creeks flow west towards the sea,” he advises helpfully. “Will you be walking in those?” he questions, eyeing my trainers with obvious suspicion.
He’s been involved in many a rescue along The Lost Coast, which got its name when Highway 1 encountered a landscape so rugged and precipitous it had to detour inland, and clearly imagines we might be meeting again under circumstances embarrassing for me.
Josh Onellion, an ardent hiker from nearby Little River, recommends that I make my first overnight at remote Usal Beach, which used to be a shipping point for the logging industry. It’s beautiful but largely waterlogged, the heavens opening again soon after my arrival. I’m very grateful that I bought a tarpaulin and rope although I still get wet in the storm.
Day two dawns bright and clear and is one of my very best yet. After a couple of hours of energetic up-and-down walking I discover a high viewpoint overlooking spectacular cliffs and strip to my underwear, spreading out my clothes and bedding to dry in the sun. It’s sublime.
Each day is as magnificent as the next as I delight in solo time and fresh insights.
At Wheeler Camp I sit on a log on the beach enjoying a companionable silence with an old bull elk that is missing one of his antlers. I toy with the idea of taking an extra day, instead pushing on to Bear Harbour Camp where I wonder if I should loop a rope over a high branch and tie my food out of reach, as recommended. I don’t meet any bears although late that night San Francisco diesel engineer Mark Armstrong arrives, and in the morning we introduce ourselves and share a hot drink.
He’s done it the easy way and driven to the Needle Rock visitor centre at the end of the trail and walked in to the nearest campsite, a decision I suspect may be life-changing. “I’ve been dreaming of a visit to The Lost Coast for 20 years and decided to come up just for the night,” he says. Already he’s talking of returning with his wife and child for a more extensive adventure.
At the end of the trail I’m welcomed by Ritch Burkart, a charming 70-year-old former mayor of Santa Rosa, who has run the visitor centre as a volunteer each April for the past 15 years. He’s typical of the volunteers supporting the tottering State Parks system and is a mine of enthusiasm and local knowledge. He points out a minor dirt road that’s closed to vehicles during the winter months. It was pioneered a century earlier by Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild.
I marvel that despite all the warnings I haven’t met anything seriously hairy and scary and not even been mugged by a demented methamphetamine addict. My Lost Coast adventure has been peaceful and rejuvenating.
Next up is another soothing experience. I walk slowly, stopping often along the 32-mile Avenue of the Giants as I marvel at my good fortune to be sharing the company of the tallest trees on Earth. I’m told that Hyperion, the loftiest of all, is nearly six stories taller than the Statue of Liberty.
At an RV (recreational vehicle) park I have mixed feelings when meeting Shrine, the drive-thru tree. It’s out of season and there’s little traffic along the famous redwood avenue, although many motorists have their photograph snapped driving through the base of the legendary tree. It seems somehow disrespectful to reduce such an amazing being to a mere curiosity, although this redwood can take satisfaction in knowing that it will probably still be standing many generations after we puny humans have been consigned to the Earth.
Often I wander off the road to look at individual trees or simply to absorb the majesty of their towering presence. It is one of the best days of my life and I think of the familiar lesson of the acorn growing into a giant oak tree. This is an even more dramatic illustration, each tiny redwood cone containing between 50 and 150 seeds the size of a tomato seed, each with the potential to soar higher than any other tree. Throughout their lives they’ll absorb carbon and give off the oxygen we humans depend upon, some living more than 2,000 years. When they do eventually succumb to gravity and old age and collapse, they will support new life and fresh ecosystems on the forest floor.
I figure we can learn from the redwoods if we recognise our incredible potential and reach for the light with the same commitment while gratefully accepting our place in the interconnected, interdependent miracle of life that is Gaia Earth. I feel humbled by the idea that I am kin to these mighty redwoods.