That time I went to the forest
I’ve recently had the most intentional, reflection heavy, solo adventure I can imagine. I spent 10 nights alone in a glampy cabin, deep in northern California redwood country. I wanted a chance to get away from it all, run some trails, and live as carefree as possible for an atypical chunk of time. I say atypical, as usually people are celebrating a spare 45 minutes to themselves… my hope was that I would exhaust myself physically, and exhaust myself *of* myself, and I wanted the best possible chance of doing that.
I flew in to SFO, and drove about 7 hours north to my destination which was 20 minutes from the coast and a 30 minute drive to Oregon. The place I was staying was squarely in the Smith River National Recreation Area, an area known for vast sparsely inhabited wilderness, trees, a beautiful river, and its fishing. My cabin was directly on the north side of one of the river’s forks, with the main highway being on the south side. There were two ways I could access the cabin; the owners had built a small but sturdy bridge from an access rode that was big enough to take their golf carts over. The other way was a “road” that took 20 minutes longer to navigate given the miles of super sketchy switchbacks on a wickedly sharp gravel road. The road was not the preferred choice… but there was something mystically comforting about accessing a place by bridge, but also knowing there was a road that could be used if times got tough (think horror movie scenario where people are screaming “the bridge has been knocked out!?!!”).
The first time I walked across the bridge, I was in disbelief, awe. The river that ran underneath was the most beautiful blue green colour, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It raged below, with bits of patchy mist wrapping the towering trees that surrounded the river, and I stood in amazement at the fortune of being in this place. I got to walk this bridge every day during my stay, and consume as much of the river’s magic as I cared for.
I got to know the Smith River very well during my stay. From its different forks, gulches, streams and creeks, from high and low, and from dry and wet. It is an undulating, mesmerizing force that never ceased to give me pause. Thankfully, in addition to the gobs of pictures and videos I took of it (none of which holds a candle to breathing it in real life of course), the lovely visitor centre sells mugs of the area, in just the size I’m finding fashionable these days (large and NOT wide).
My first full day here I had mostly planned before I’d arrived. Wakeup, no alarm of course, coffee, breakfast of tiny eggs (I was given advance notice there would be eggs in the fridge courtesy of the chickens that inhabited the property), and then head to the coast to hit what I researched to be the easily accessible coastal trail. Everything went smoothly according to plan, and I was amped to get out into the trees as soon as possible.
The drive from my cabin to Crescent City is absolutely spectacular and I got to know it so well. The road was often next to the river, and then seemed to wrap through the most awe inspiring trees I could imagine. The weather changed frequently as well, often I’d wake up and it would be raining moderately at the cabin, but by the time I drove out 10 minutes the sun would be poking out. And sometimes this was fully reversed.
My chosen trailhead on the first day was a short walk from the Crescent Beach parking lot, which was a super convenient place to park, complete with vaulted toilet washroom, and a few folks around providing a small degree of security. I surprisingly was chatted up by another runner in the parking lot doing a similar route than me — my first thought was “wow, if I’ve already seen one runner out here, there must be tons and I’ll see them all the time!”… he was the only runner I saw on my entire trip.
Within the first km of the first run, it was confirmed that I had stumbled upon a magical place. The moss was thick, the sunlight dabbling through in all kinds of places, and the trees were magnificent (more on the trees later). The bits of beach, rock and ocean that peeked through depending on my elevation were equally breathtaking. Depending on the distance, the coastal rocks seen through the trees would take on that lovely greyness that makes you wonder about the atmosphere. Sometimes you could hear the waves, other times they would get muffled by the layers of trees and hills. The ground varied from super soft red mulched bark, to bits of rocks and roots. But never did it get very rough. Got steep as shit though, but usually a slow descent would follow and make it all alright.
That first day I ended up going much further than expected. I was completely mesmerized, and wanted to soak up as much as I could, so I just kept pushing further and further. This is typical for me — get inspired, forget about pace, and probably go a bit too far, too early, and ultimately ask a little too much from my body. I made it all the way to the Damnation Creek trail and down to the sunny coast where I enjoyed hummus and pita i was looking forward to all day. I was warned by a hiker couple (2 of the 5 people i saw on the trail in the entire 6 hours) that tide was coming in so not to go down to the rocks. I checked it, but was perfectly happy to sit above and bliss out with my snacks.
Working my way back to my car that first day was a bit humbling as my knees and body complained more than i expected. I was riding such a high of gratitude and acceptance i just rolled with it all the way back to the car, and then to the one lovely brewery in town where I sat my stank ass down for some delicious beer and a burger, and drooled over all that as well as the pictures I took on the trip. I cemented (and shared some of) the memories, and reminded myself it was not a dream.
I settled in to the area surrounding my cabin, and built up some comfort by visiting the numerous park visitor centres. In the area there are national parks, state parks, forests, national recreation areas, etc., and each area is administered by a different body. They mostly play nice together (i.e. some trails go from the national park into the national recreation area), and it was interesting to learn the upkeep levels vary based on owner and traffic.
Despite the cabin having all the makings of a fantastic horror movie presence (cheesy or cerebral), nothing significantly spooky happened while I was there. There were two events that do stand out out as being minorly spooky, but both were quickly rationalized by my brain in a sub second time frame. The first, scratching and little footsteps on the wall woke me up one night. Nothing visible, I quickly reduced it to a mouse or similar on the inside of the wall. It actually could have been a squirrel on the outside of the house, and the sound vanished as quickly as it started. The second thing — a 4.3 magnitude earthquake a hundred miles away jolted the house one night just as I was getting to sleep. I was rattled enough to lookup the specifics, then drifted off not too long after. California may be beautiful, so visit before it falls into the ocean they say!
As the days passed, my daily routine evolved into waking up without an alarm, making and drinking coffee, breakfast of some form, and then heading out in the 9 to 11 range depending on how much reading and basking I desired in the morning, vs how eager I was to hit the trails. The strain I put on my body during my first full day lingered. I had back issues going in to the trip that did not improve, and throughout I experienced pretty severe issues with each knee, as well as heavy calf cramps I’d never before experienced. I took most of it in stride, listening to my body, and just bit off as much as i thought i could handle each day, walking or returning to home base as needed. Being surrounded by the limitless beauty of the redwoods really helped put a damper on any negativity regarding me not being able to run as much as i had hoped, with the majority of the credit going to nature’s bounty vs any natural zen composure I would like to think I had going in to it… but I do believe some of that has returned and is now a part of me, which I will work to retain forever.
Those trees though. So. Many. Trees. The trees were ludicrously spectacular. Trees of such magnitude and character that it became a pleasant game to see how far I could get before my head would tilt and my jaw would drop yet again, even if only a few feet from where I last paused to absorb some of their glory. Their presence served as a constant reminder of my place and position in the world. They taught me lessons of longevity, resilience, change, diversity, and value. Many of the trees I passed were 2000 years old, many had survived fires, and a few had rebirths and appendages they never would have expected. After they eventually collapse and face death (and for a tree, death is not a specific moment), they become the fertile soil or suspended new platform on which new life can thrive. Whatever you’re looking for, the life oozing redwood forest will have a metaphor that will aptly answer your questions, and help chart the direction your soul wants to go. It's all there really. If you give it time, and if you use that time to really look outside, it can help you with your insides.
The property on which I stayed was run by a couple in their sixties that apparently had owned it for 30 years. We only had a handful of interactions, and they were short and sweet. In social encounters it is rare that I feel like the one pulling more, but with these two it certainly was the case. I got the impression they greatly valued their privacy, and if I were to reach a little, they had grown a bit tired of boilerplate questions to transients about what brought them into the woods to “get away from it all”. They had worked hard and created an oasis in the forest, but wanted nothing more than to keep it turnkey and impersonal, keeping their lives unaffected by the visitors, as if they were from another time and any interaction would disturb the continuum of their lives.
I finished these final notes emptying the fridge and eating as much of my final rations as I could, specifically surpassing my own gluttonous expectations by polishing off a large container of Bobby Salazar’s medium tomato salsa, a quantity I had thought too large to finish in a single sitting. It was a great trip. I feel so damn lucky to have found this place. To have had the means, and the time to visit. To have the support of my partner, and friends and family during my visit. Choosing to be alone is one thing, not having the choice is an entirely different thing, and I’m grateful in this instance, I had the choice.
As I walked the bridge for the last time, my mind turned away from the existential, and back to basic needs. I stopped at the nearest cafe on the way out, and consumed coffee and pancakes the size of my head for my last meal, the closing ceremonies. It hit the spot. I had to set my alarm on this last day, as I had a lot of driving ahead of me. It jolted me in to reality, back into purpose. I miss this place already.
I had a spare night and a full day after I checked out of the cabin before my flight, and I decided to make use of this time by heading down to Big Sur for a short pilgrimage. Like so many others I was a Jack Kerouac adolescent, and the mysticism I’ve felt towards Big Sur and the coastal highway has never left me, so I’ve always been eager to see if it can stand up to it.
I made it down to a cheap Monterey inn on my spare night, elegantly ordered Chipotle to my room, and drank a warm Pacifico that had been bouncing around my trunk for a few days. The next day I did a brief exploration of Carmel, before making my way to the Bixby creek bridge. It was stunning, a beauty. Lots of tourists around (myself included). Some mystery too, with a coastal road marked as unsafe during wet season (which it was), that would lead to the famed Kerouac cabin where he wrote the novel and nearly lost his mind… apparently the locals don’t like us beatniks too much, so I chose not to venture further given all the hazards. But I did spend a fair amount of time at the side of the road just soaking it up and watching the creek far below. Parking was a premium, and I got to watch flaring human nature amidst the stress of parking giant RVs on the steeply pitched roadside. Sometimes, we’re not kind to one another. It was a nice reminder and made me feel so damn grateful for how grounded I felt.
I found a state park a little further down the coast, and managed a beautiful run into the hills of Big Sur, with swirling views of the coastline, California poppies, interior mountains, as well as the old coastal highway where the Big Sur marathon is run (one day, I too hope to run it!). I noticed that I got my first tick bite of my life while standing atop the hill. It felt to be a fitting end really — I felt on top of it all, everything was downhill (only figuratively), there was work to be done, and I was ready to come home.
A couple notes: