In November of last year, I got an email from Ross Borden. He wanted the Matador Trips team to publish this article:
"Where to Find the Largest Redwoods on Earth"
and this photo essay:
"The Oldest, Most Massive Living Things on Our Planet -- Seeing the GIANT Redwoods"
I ran with the prompts and started research. I exchanged emails with Mario Vaden, a tree enthusiast and professional horticulturalist from Oregon, and did a lot of Internet digging. The pieces I later produced were the funnest I've written for Matador, and both got some decent pageviewage:
Guide to the Redwood Groves: Where to Find the Tallest Trees on Earth
Photo Essay: GIANT Redwoods, the Tallest Living Things on Our Planet
But that wasn't the end of the story. Or the beginning.
I've always been a climber. Rocks, walls, roofs, trees. I'm not sure what appealed to me more as a kid, the actual act of climbing or that feeling of getting to a place that lets you see things from unusual angles. Probably the second, since I also spent a lot of time squeezing through drainage grates. Suburban safari.
Sam and I used to walk the streets--Parklane, Stanford, Luther, Belvidere, El Prado--scoping for a good-looking magnolia or oak or pecan, hop the chainlink and start up it. The neighborhood wasn't a 1930s, upper-crust subdivision. It was a forest.
In high school, I remember being pretty fumed when Jon's neighbors butchered the limbs off their 65-year-old oak. I thought I might make them an unmixed tape that played only one song--Jefferson Airplane's "Eskimo Blue Day." The refrain is "doesn't mean shit to a tree." I guess I was a treehugger back then.
But I forgot about trees in New England. It's hard to climb trees up there. They're sappy and snowed on. I forgot how it felt to see things from unusual, secret angles.
In my digging for the Matador pieces, I found an NPR interview with Richard Preston, author of The Wild Trees. The interview was intense and interesting, and I used this quote in my article:
"…the truth of the matter is that redwood rainforest is exceedingly difficult to move through, physically. You get out in there, and it takes a physically fit person up to 12 hours to move two miles. You’re belly crawling, you’re crawling through thorns, your skin gets all bloody, you can’t see anything. It’s absolutely thick.
And then you come across these piles of redwood trunks that have fallen down like pick-up-sticks. These are trunks that are anywhere from eight to 12 feet in diameter piled up, and…you get a wall of wood that may be 30 feet tall. And as you climb over it, if you slip down into a crack, you can fall into the pile — 30 feet — and break your leg and never be heard from again."
My eyes didn't catch just on Preston's words, but also the familiar title of his book. My wife and I had bought it on Amazon a couple years earlier to give to her father for his birthday. The Wild Trees.
I also started to remember why my father-in-law had wanted that book. About his discovery of technical tree climbing, the skill set traditionally used by arborists to gain access to tall trees that had become something of an underground sport, with periodic competitions. Kinda like those lumberjack tournaments you see on ESPN2, only climbing trees instead of cutting them.
And then I remembered just last Christmas we'd set him up with a technical tree climbing course, run by the South Georgia Tree Climbing Association outside of Atlanta. I'd watched a video from them that covered the basics: how to hook a line over a limb using a weighted sack, how to belay a climber, like in rock climbing.
I thought it was a little weak. I thought climbing a tree with ropes wasn't really climbing a tree.
But things were coming together. The Matador stuff, the redwoods, the technical climbing. It felt like the right time to read Preston's book. I borrowed my father-in-law's birthday gift and dug in. I loved it.
We're going to a wedding in San Francisco in July. I'm psyched for the family time, to see the city, and to celebrate with the bride and groom. But as soon as I heard the location, I knew I'd be taking a week after the ceremony and heading north.
Up Highway 101 through that huge chunk of California that it's easy to forget about. Up about 5 hours to Humboldt Redwoods State Park and the Avenue of the Giants. Then farther, through Eureka and Arcata and into Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Way up to Crescent City and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.
I don't want to belly crawl through thorns and poison oak, or fall through a pile of dead redwood pick-up-sticks. I don't want to search for Hyperion. I don't want to hang from a rope 30 stories off the ground. Not this trip anyway. I just want to see them.