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Meet the redwoods

The Redwood forest above Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn
Ralph Gardner Jr.
The Redwood forest above Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn

Have you ever experienced this: you’re walking down the street, or some sort of artery, when your eyes rest on a passerby. It takes you a split second to realize that the person isn’t a stranger at all. In fact, it’s a friend. Perhaps even a close relative, such as a spouse or child. But in the infinitesimal flash it takes you to recognize them you’re seeing them through fresh eyes.

That’s what happened to me this week when I spotted my first towering California redwood, even if our only previous acquaintance was solely through photographs. It doesn’t say much for my powers of observation that I wasn’t on the lookout for them. The main reason I came to the state – no disrespect meant to any of the friends we’re seeing along the way – was to commune with these gentle monsters while I still can. Every summer and fall now bring heartbreaking stories of raging forest fires so intense that they’re consuming groves of redwoods that were thought capable of resisting conflagrations and have for thousands of years.

My first of what I hope will be many encounters with the world’s oldest trees came at the conclusion of a three-hour drive north from Santa Barbara to Big Sur along the Pacific Coast Highway. After checking into our hotel we went looking for a late lunch and then found ourselves at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

I don’t remember the precise order of our visit. I believe it began with a visit to the comfort facilities, largely bypassing the lodge gift shop. Since we were already there we figured why not check out the park. That’s when I found myself standing at the base of a large tree. The thing about mature redwoods is that they’re so big and tall that your interaction with them is less like that with conventional trees, even the largest East Coast maples or oaks, because you can take in the entire tree, from trunk to spreading crown, at the same time.

With redwoods the experience is more like standing at the foot of a skyscraper. Your relationship is with the lower story façade and the street front stores. The Empire State Building, for example, requires one to travel a block or more away to observe it from head to toe, from its Art Deco base to the pinnacle of it 1,454’ aerial.

So my first encounter with these behemoth redwoods, for whom I’d traveled the breath of the country, was the recognition that this thing I’d sidled up against – I was sufficiently clueless that the boardwalk surrounding it, let alone the bark, didn’t tip me off that the state park considered it something special – was, in fact, a tree and not a wall.

Lest one accuse me of suffering from a deficiency in observation skills, I plead guilty. A couple of days later we were walking through Carmel looking for a place to have breakfast when my wife informed me that two women we’d passed a couple of times and were now huddling in a corner, away from prying eyes, were arguing. I’d never have known. To me they looked like stylish young middle-aged women in tights and sweatshirts probably fresh from their morning yoga workout. One of the problems with being self-centered is that you miss a lot of the world going on around you.

In the case of my first redwood encounter I’d like to think that my stupidity could be blamed, besides on the specimen’s aforementioned dimensions, on the fact that I was still getting my bearings. Frankly, I wasn’t looking for the trees. I was looking for the bathroom and following that the beach and the Pacific Ocean; I was under the impression that Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park possessed one. It doesn’t. Access is to the beach is a mile south of the park off Highway 1.

I was better prepared to commune with the trees after a full night’s sleep at Deetjens, a rustic Big Sur inn, on the edge of a redwood forest. Deetjens’ redwoods had no boardwalk to mediate the experience. We simply turned off a trail above the inn and ascended through the forest. I believe it may have been marked “Danger Keep Out.” But its well-trod path led me to believe the admonition was rarely observed.

The base of many of the trees was charred. My wife and I assumed it was due to one of the recent forest fires. But now that I think of it, the damage might have been done decades even centuries earlier. Perhaps that’s the greatest difference between traveling an Eastern forest and a redwood forest. Our trees are companionable; they seem created to keep us company. Redwoods, on the other hand, are primeval. They put one’s life not just in historical but prehistorical, even cosmic, perspective. You’ve never felt smaller and more insignificant, yet somehow still enveloped in something resembling love.

The forest was filled with the sounds of the stream that ran through towards the ocean a few hundred yards away as well as the calls of Steller’s jays. They’re closely related to blue jays – and share some of their annoying qualities – but more dramatically colored. The blue of their feathers isn’t a Blue Jay’s flat blue. It’s more reminiscent of the iridescent blue of a bluebird or even, in certain light, the electric black blue of an indigo bunting. They also have a handsome crest.

I like to think of my first redwood encounters as an amuse bouche. After a few days in Napa we’re heading several hours north to two famous stands of coastal redwoods – The Avenue of the Giants at Redwood State Park and the Grove of the Titans at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. As boastful as their names sound, I suspect the trees will more than live up to their billing.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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