Trip reports, Writing

Among the redwoods

I didn’t go to the redwoods seeking clarity.

Redwood root burls
Redwood root burls (Lauren Danner photo)

For once, we were able to go somewhere over spring break. Frustratingly, my kid’s high school spring break had always coincided with the first week of the academic quarter at the college where I taught. Hence, no travel. But this year, my online teaching meant I wasn’t attached to a physical classroom. “Let’s take a road trip to the redwoods,” I proposed. We’d driven through once before, when she was a baby, on the way to a California gold country wedding. This time, the great trees would be our destination. And I knew I needed to get away from everyday responsibilities, even if only for a few days.

We left my husband behind, recuperating from the seasonal virus that flattened him for a full week. Fueled by key lime pretzels and coffee, we headed south, then west toward the Oregon coast, emerging into the wide blue Pacific horizon at Reedsport and turning south again toward California.

A perfect day for a road trip
A perfect day for a road trip (Lauren Danner photo)

Redwood National and State Parks is a pastiche of the tenuous fragments of coastal redwood forest that remain after a century of logging followed by decades of fighting to preserve them. Cooperatively managed by the National Park Service and the state of California, the pieces of the park stretch for 50 miles down the coast, squeezed between the Coast Range and the Pacific Ocean. In some places the park boundary is so narrow, a beach trail and some waves at high tide barely fit inside it. In others, views into creek valleys make it possible to briefly believe, wishfully, the trees go on forever.

One of many neck-craning moments in Redwoods National Park
One of many neck-craning moments in Redwoods National Park (Lauren Danner photo)

Coastal redwoods are stately, graceful, and bogglingly tall. Their trunks soar skyward, topped with a clump of bushy foliage barely visible from below. Viewed at a distance, they bulge above the surrounding forest like verdant lollipops stuck into the ground. Redwoods thrive here because fog from the Pacific curls over a ridge fronting the ocean and seeps into the forests beyond. The redwoods drink the fog, absorbing it into their needles, bark, essence. They grow within sound, but not sight, of the ocean, benefiting from its moisture while avoiding its salt.

Redwoods feel timeless in a way that is relatable, as opposed to, say, layers of rock. A million-year-old outcrop is hard to wrap my brain around. But a five-hundred or even fifteen-hundred-year-old tree? That’s easier. The trees exist in historic time, sharing their environment with the stories of people who live among them.

High above the mouth of the Klamath River, we pulled out lunch and eyeballed the Pacific for migrating whales, who come in close to the shore to slurp nutrients spreading into the ocean from the redwood forests upstream. April in the redwoods isn’t particularly crowded, and there is a less urgent feel to visiting that encouraged us to linger in the spring sun. We met a Dutch couple who shipped their car from Holland to Florida and were spending the year traveling the Americas. We met a guy from southern California who struck it rich founding a company that provides social media content to RV companies. With his wife and baby, he lives in a giant fifth-wheel, creating and posting content from anywhere. None of the three seemed to have concrete plans for their next destination, but neither were they letting the winds of chance push and pull them around.

The Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean
The Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean (Lauren Danner photo)

Something about talking to these travelers and walking among the giants provided new and needed perspective. For months, I’d felt restless, dissatisfied, uncertain, aimless. Teaching has many intangible rewards, and for several years those had been enough. Now, though, I was working on a manuscript with a self-imposed deadline, and the tangible compensation felt pathetically inadequate. I started to resent the work. Despite encouragement from my partner and friends to leave teaching behind and focus solely on the kk, I’d hesitated. What was I afraid of? I couldn’t articulate it.

The redwoods, seemingly impassive yet somehow watchful, created a place of quiet consideration within me. Wandering among them, I abruptly and irrefutably realized I would not be returning to teaching after the quarter ended. I would finish my book and, while waiting to learn its fate, embrace my uncertainty and confront my fears. I would learn to hike in the woods and mountains by myself, and begin to reconnect to my optimistic inner adventurer. And I would write about it, which is why this blog. Welcome to the wilderness within.

Among the redwoods
Among the redwoods (Sophie Danner photo)