Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Big Basin Redwood Forest spreads from the summits of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Barely sixty miles south from San Francisco airport, it sits there like a teardrop of quiet on an otherwise crowded California coastline.


Late on this day, 3:15 to be exact, we leave the park headquarters and start the climb toward the highest summit. At 2280 feet it’s no Everest, but it’s been a long day and we are loaded down with water, in addition to the usual provisions. Ed can take in a gallon in a snap if it’s a warm day and we noted that it is hitting the low eighties as we leave the car.

I’m not psyched for this yet. The quiet is disturbing. Initially, we pass a day tripper or two, but soon the path is soulless. Deserted. The air is so still that every snap of a dead twig sends a vibration through the basin.

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But from the beginning, the forest is breathtakingly beautiful. I’d been among the redwoods before, but here, in the dry wild of the Basin, it is so palpably enduring that it makes you feel small, and that’s a good thing. And physically small, too: the trees are so up there in the sky that surely they are higher than most any other growing thing on the planet.

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It takes us nearly four hours to reach the campsite on the summit. The sun dips below the horizon as we threw down our gear. It’s a backwoods campground (mere clearings to pitch a tent, nothing else) and we’d been told we’d have it to ourselves that night.

All I can think of how still and quiet the forest is. Turn on the nature already!

Instead, Ed turns on the portable stove and we set about with our dinner routine.

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By eight, the garbage wis neatly folded and put away and I am close to sleep, relieved at the sound of crickets. For the first hours of the night, they help kick the silence buzz from the head.

But at midnight, I'm alert again to the quiet. Except for an occasional crack and plop. I wake Ed. What’s that? Acorns falling. He’s right. All around us, acorns fall with a regularity that is comforting enough to push me back to sleep.


We wake just before sunrise (6:30 maybe?). This is our ambitious day: hike back down, past headquarters then up again to another summit and then, all the way down to just a mile short of the sea. The rangers are dubious that we can pull it off. I guess our age shows.It’s a lot of up and down miles, and one leg of the trail is so steep that it’s recommended for horses only. But these people don’t know Ed. He’s a great climber and I am a great descender. Together, we sort of muddle through.

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In a stroke of luck, we find a stream with water asking to be poured over the head, the upper body. Bath time. Of sorts. Refreshed, we continue.

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And now it feels toasty warm. We’re walking the mountain ridge and there is little forest shade. We drink insane amounts of water. But it is pretty. The vegetation changes. The soil is different too. Sandy? Limestone? The morning scrub is a thing of the past. We are sweaty hot and our feet kick up dust.

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Below, we see the goal: the coastline, with dense fog.

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The good news is that we make it to the campsite by evening. The bad news is that it’s Saturday night and this place is close to California 1, the coastal road. The campground is full. Of high school aged kids. The chaperone looks at our tired frames and suggests meekly that maybe there’s a spot to pitch our tent around the bend, away from the sqeel of adolescence.

We find a place that’s okay. On a slope. Ed looks doubtful. I’ll roll into you. Let’s switch sides, you’ll squash me. We do. I roll. Never mind, we’re tired. We sleep 11 hours.


We wake up cold. The fog is in from the ocean. The air is at least 30 degrees cooler. The dampness accumulates and drops down on leaves. The plop of acorns is replaced by the plop of fog.

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Another ambitious day: hike down to the ocean, find water, please please find water, so that we don’t have to drink the undesirable stuff flowing past the campsite. Then, back into the mountains toward the falls and onto the next and final summit for an overnight.

The walk to the ocean is like a caress of luck: the fog lifts and drops, lifts and then drops with a final stubborn thump, but by that time we will have left the coast. For now, it is delightfully picturesque.

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The trail runs past private property here and we note that old California superior growing season. I mean, this, at the end of September? And then a fresh bounty in February? Ridiculously spoiled.

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The ocean has enough surf to bring out the men with boards. Like birds who ride the waves, they bob and wait for the big one. There are few big ones and so they spend a lot of time bobbing.

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…while birds stick to the land…

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…and tourists pull up on the road to get a glimpse of a California post card scene. Fog and all.

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There is a horse campground here and we find a faucet outside. Thank you horse campground. We take gallons and gallons of the stuff, even though we are told that our last campground will have ready access to a drinkable stream. (Just fyi, don’t trust the park dudes on the subject of water; assume no water anywhere and you will not be disappointed.)

We climb up to the falls, past those magnificent, monstrously beautiful redwoods. Two thousand years old and going strong. Enduring major fires, and human foibles, they continue to stand tall. So very very tall.

For Ed, the best part of the park is the path next to the falls. Four of them – each delightful, unusual, mesmerizing.

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Oh, but now we are tired. We unpack the tent by five, eat by six and fall asleep before 7. For twelve hours, we sleep. Okay, with interruptions. In the middle of the night, I hear delicate footsteps. Mountain cat? Fox? Wolf? What? Go back to sleep, Ed tells me. The noise stops, I sleep. Until the next one. The utter stillness is shattered. I hear the crash of a bigger mass moving through the dry twigs. Wait, they promised no bears. Ed? What the hell?? Quiet, he tells me. He snaps his fingers once, twice… The noise retreats. Go back to sleep. What was that?? Deer, obviously. Fine, but at night, it sounds like bears.

But we did spot deer. Twice. Black tailed, very people shy. Barely noticeable here, in this photo.

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It’s funny how at night, you forget that deer are people shy. They seem, for once, mightier than you, there in your lightweight tent and your REI sleeping bag.


And now we must hurry. The goal is to meet my mom downtown SF for lunch and then dinner. We have more than three hours of hiking, a two hour car ride, a very much needed half hour for showering and a half hour BART commute to get through.

Our last trail is labeled strenuous, but it seems like a breeze. Our water supplies are depleted, our food bags are near empty. Lighter backpacks! Three hours and we’re done.

The forest remains as beautiful as the day we first walked into its fold. And why shouldn’t it be? I would hope that two thousand years down the road, it will be as lovely as on this day.

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Ed, at the base of Berry Creek falls

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Ocean author, hugging the smaller tree

My mom waits for us at the BART station downtown. We stroll (rather late) for a lunch salad (one misses salads when camping). The hours roll along leisurely now. The rush is done...

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We take a cab down to Fisherman’s Wharf, for an early evening walk along the water’s edge.

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She is almost 85, and she is a character. No, I’m not like her. I am a whisperer. She speaks with authority. I know no one who is like her. If, momentarily, I felt chastised by her formidable presence, it is a thing of the past. Today, she is determined to make this a memorable evening of good food. She knows I admire good kitchens and she has researched the dining options. She tells us that the hot off the press top pick remains Gary Danko.

I give Gary Danko an A+ for this evening. Here’s why: the food is, indeed wonderful . That’s perhaps predictable. You’re not number one if you can’t get your food stuff together in this culinary epicenter (I would say northern California is, indeed, a culinary epicenter, spoiled that they are by a generous clientele and fresh produce year-round). Lobster pieces on melon balls, pickled cucumber and mango. Corn chowder with Dungeness crab and pancetta biscuit. Salmon in crusted horseradish and mustard sauce… Mmmm…

But beyond that, their set price menu gives you total choice. You buy three courses, you get three courses. Any three courses. You want three seafoods? Go for it. Three apps? Yours.

And then, most importantly, there was their treatment of us. Picture this: my mom is wearing her bright red fleece to keep warm, her tennies to keep comfortable, her peasant cap because she likes the fashion statement, and a huge Obama button because she believes in the man. Ed, well, he’s in his best Ed garb: the black t-shirt I once bought him in an attempt to make him blend into the background. Me – I stuffed a sundress into my backpack at the last minute. Imagine the wrinkles. Oh, and my well worn ballet flats. For comfort on tired feet. We were, well, different.

The staff couldn’t have been nicer. The maitre d’ came up several times and commented on Ed’s hearty appetite (he wipes plates clean of all sauce with bread routinely) and my mom’s political leanings. We were not quiet (for God’s sake, my mother can’t hear “quiet”). We raided the menu of all the choice dishes. We drank, between the three of us, only one bottle of wine and it was hands down among the cheapest. A dry New Zealand Riesling.

We were treated like royalty.

Danko, you have the best staff in the world.

The cabbie who took us to the Bart station was eerily the same guy whom we had flagged to get us to Danko. An older guy who hated the East Bayside. My mom could have made mincemeat of him for that (she’s loyal to Berkeley). But they parted friends, especially once he told her he was soon packing his bags and moving to Italy.

My last memory of the evening is of listening to them pass words in Italian to each other -- of the mamma mia, mangia mangia type (neither claims to know more).

At the BART, we go one way and she the other. I leave her, content that she is exactly where she wants to be, doing exactly as she wants, dependent on no one, forging her way ahead, unencumbered by the caring for others which had so weighed her down, especially when we lived in Poland.

Before dawn, Ed and I head back home, to the Midwest. By late afternoon, I'm in class, teaching.