Out On the California Coast

I left Bandon and headed down the coast bound for the California Redwoods. When I was in junior high my family went on a vacation driving down the coast, and I remember stopping to see the strange and massive trees along the way. While I don’t remember exactly where we stopped, I’m fairly certain it was at the Trees of Mystery. The name may have eluded me, but I certainly remember the 49-foot-tall talking Paul Bunyan statue out front, with matching Babe the Blue Ox. I pulled over to take some photos, and an eight-year-old boy was talking to the giant statue.Jaden and the Ox

“What’s your name little boy?”

“Jaden!”

“David?”

“No,” he laughs. What a silly mistake to make. “Jaden! J-A-D-E-N!”

“Jaden, my mistake.”

“Does your bull talk?”

“It’s an ox, and no he doesn’t.”

“Have you ever been to Canada?”

“I did once, but I didn’t much care for it. They talk funny up there.” The adults all laugh.

“What does your bull eat?”

“It’s an ox.”

“Can I ride your bull?”

“It’s an ox. And no you can’t.”

This went on for several more minutes, and included more repetitions of the dry statement “It’s an ox” before Jaden’s mother intervened to suggest to him that perhaps someone else would like to talk to Paul Bunyan for a while.

I went to check out the Trees of Mystery ticket prices. While the idea of reliving my old family trip was intriguing, the prospect of doing it alone wasn’t. Neither was the prospect of being around that many screaming children, or paying $15 to do so. Besides, I didn’t have reservations at the campground I wanted to stay at, and since it would only be my second attempt at camping I wanted to be sure I had a spot in plenty of time.

Big tree towards the sunI got to the Elk Praire Campground around 3PM, and picked out my spot (as it turns out, the spot across from me was never filled, so I could have arrived at any point and still gotten a site). Elk Praire is great, because despite being a fully developed campground, you’re surrounded by huge old trees and all the trappings of the forest. There was even a small, slow-flowing creek right by my tent.

With so much of the day left, I decided to go on a hike through the surrounding trees. There are many hikes around Praire Creek Redwoods State Park, ranging drastically in length and difficulty. I knew I didn’t want to go too far, and I knew that I was most interested in seeing the biggest, oldest trees I could. So I picked a three mile hike called the Cathedral Trees Trail, which seemed to fit my qualifications. I drove over to the trailhead and filled my backpack with some light hiking gear: water, a few snacks, a sweater, camera, small journal for notes, and a whistle. The whistle is for safety, since I’m hiking alone. For those interested in doing anything similar, keep in mind that your whistle should be on your body, not in your bag. The times in which you’ll really need it are the times when you might not be able to reach your bag.

The trailhead for the Cathedral Trees Trail is at the home of what’s known as “Big Tree.” It’s absolutely huge, and anywhere from 1500 to 2000 years old. I overheard the ranger explaining that they can’t know for sure, since tree rings aren’t reliable on very old trees due to breakage, internal rot, and new growth. I snapped a few photos and headed off on the trail.

Me and the Big TreeThe forest was beautiful and serene. You can hear the trees creaking under their own weight. The park is so large and there are so many trails, it doesn’t matter how crowded it is, you still won’t see many people. I was hiking for two hours and only saw four people on the trail.

I got back to camp to find a large high school group had taken up residence not far from me. Nothing makes a person want to have children less than being forced to be around other people’s kids on vacation.  It’s difficult to keep your tranquil reverence for the beauty of the forest over the sound of screaming 16-year-olds. At least my campfire was a success.

Latourell Falls

On the advice of National Geographic, I decided to spend the bulk of my waterfall time with Latourell Falls rather than the much more known (and crowded) Multnomah Falls. Latourell is in a state park right on the Historic Columbia River Highway in Northern Oregon. You can see the falls from the overlook in the parking lot, where I snapped a few photos and took a look at the park map and information.

The lower falls photo spot was listed at 0.3 miles up, and the upper falls at 0.8 miles. I figured I could do 0.8 easy (because I forgot the whole “uphill” aspect), and started up the trail. As I went up, the trail got muddier. At one point a small stream of water was going right across the path and I had to choose my steps carefully to avoid soaking my shoes. The area was idyllic and green. I can’t think of a better time to use the word lush. I could hear the water to my right the whole time, and I could sense the drop off on the side of the trail. I thought there would be a great view soon, once I got to a spot where the trees thinned out.

I let my thoughts wander, I hopped over a downed tree, and I got thirsty. I began to regret not bringing my water, but it seemed like such a short hike and it wasn’t even hot out. After a while I noticed that the rushing water sound was coming from a creek, and I realized I must have passed the top of the falls. I remembered the upper falls having a bridge the went right over the water, so I figured it must go over the creek. I couldn’t be far.

As I kept going my eyes would catch flashes of the creek just 20 or 30 feet below. I started to get tired, and the lushness was losing it’s charm. While the trees were beautiful, they were also thick, and I had no idea how far I’d gone. I hadn’t looked at the time when I set out. Had I been very smart, I would have remembered that my camera tracks the time photos are taken and I could use the pictures I took from the base of the falls to know that I’d been walking for more than half an hour, but that brilliant idea wouldn’t come to me until much later.

There was a small group hiking ahead of me, and sometimes I would look up to see if they appeared to have crossed a bridge yet. I looked up one final time, realized there wasn’t a bridge in the immediate vicinity, and decided to turn back. I was on a schedule, and after all, waterfalls are always more interesting from the bottom than from the top.

As I walked down, I saw a bench I hadn’t noticed on the way up. I must have been too focused on the trail. It was one of those dedication benches, with a long quote from the dearly departed engraved on it. I read the quote, then turned around. Benches usually face something, after all. This one, it turned out, faced a fantastic and clear view of Latourell Falls. It was exactly the view I had hiked up to see, and I had completely missed it. I looked at the trail and saw the small stream of water I’d worked so hard to avoid before. That must have been it. I was so focused on staying dry that I missed both the bench and the view. What an unfortunate coincidence that they would be in the same place. I took a few pictures and kept heading down.

On the left: where I was looking. On the right: what I was looking for.

On the left: where I was looking. On the right: what I was looking for.

And there was the waterfall again. And again. The view continued almost the entire way to the base of the trail. It was intermittent, but it was there more often than not. I had been so focused on the muddy trail and on carefully putting one foot in front of the other, I’d missed the whole thing. In my memory, the trees to my right were too thick to see through the entire way up the trail. Even after I went back down and discovered this to be completely false, I can’t replace those trees with the truth in my memory. Because in reality I was never looking up at all. I was looking at my own feet, and my brain made a picture of the world around me. Because my eyes weren’t looking up far enough to see the falls, my mind invented trees.

When I think about the implications of what I did, I keep remembering the phrase, “That’ll preach.” It’s something I’ve heard said among my fellow young adult Episcopalians when talking about a line of thinking, philosophy, or ideology that one could easily turn into a sermon. I could tell this story and talk about how we get so focused on little things, especially negative things, that we don’t notice the big things. I could talk about the need to slow down and take in your surroundings, or how important it is to be present in the moment. I want to encapsulate the experience into some witty phrase, like “Can’t see the waterfall for the mud.” But something seems forced in all of that. Maybe because I feel like I’ve heard this story before, with any number of morals tagged onto it.

I re-wrote several endings to this post, some hopeful and some depressing. I got a little carried away with myself and had to keep deleting and writing the ending over again. Which might be an indication that the good and meaningful parts of a story sometimes take longer to process.

For now, there’s really only one lesson I’m sure I learned. Focusing on something doesn’t always improve results. I still got mud all over my shoes.

Who Knew the Grand Canyon Was So Popular?

It has occurred to me from time to time that I can’t do this whole thing flying by the seat of my pants. While many who have come before me have encouraged me not to over-plan, even they will admit that sometimes reservations must be made. While different sources will tell you different things, most will agree that making concrete lodging plans about two weeks in advance is usually enough. My guess is that will be the case for most places I want to stay on my trip. Except of course, for the biggest one.

Not long after my blog was public, my sister emailed me asking when I was going to the Grand Canyon, and how important the “solo” part of my solo road trip was.  We quickly hatched a plan for her to take a few days off work to meet me as I pass through Vegas, drive to the Grand Canyon, and hike the length of it as a team. I knew hiking all the way to the bottom and back was no small feat, but I also knew that hundreds of amateur hikers do it every year. I figured as long as we were prepared, we’d be fine.

I asked my sister to look into lodging at the base of the canyon (you can’t go down and up in a single day, so you must either camp or get a room in the Phantom Ranch hostel at the bottom). Meanwhile, I was listening to ranger podcasts and reading up on the “must pack” lists to ensure we wouldn’t get heat stroke or lose all our salt by sweating. The more I navigated the national park’s website, the clearer it became: if you want to hike the full canyon this summer, you should have been planning last spring. Phantom Ranch makes a point of opening reservations no more than 13 months in advance, and tells people to expect the phones to be busy the first few days of every month due to the mass of reservation calls they get when next year’s beds are opening up. So of course, Phantom Ranch was full.

Though the thought of lugging a tent and sleeping bag up a vertical mile sounded abismal, I was willing to try for a camping permit. My sister sent in the request form, and I resigned myself to the thought that it would never happen. I started thinking of alternative plans. A week went by.

Then one day I’m at work and see that I’ve got a voicemail from my sister. I play it and the first thing I hear is her singing, to her own invented tune “We’re hiking the Grand Canyon!” Apparently even the man who booked it was shocked that they still had a spot open. Our camping permit allows us to pitch a tent at the base of the canyon, and now we’ll try to get a reservation for duffle service. Explained to us as “half a mule,” duffle service is a way to get a small amount of luggage down and back up the canyon without strapping it to your own back. If we can swing that as well as a few meal reservations at Phantom Ranch, this whole thing just might work out perfectly.

This may seem strange, but somehow I after hearing such fantastic news, I ended up with the song “Sixteen Bars” stuck in my head. In subject matter it’s from out of left field, but by the end of the song I feel like the sentiment of trying so hard to get something impossible is spot on to how I feel right now. We’re doing this.