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Exploring the Northern California Redwood Forests

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The wilds of California stir, but they also soothe.

There is something infinitely calming and, well, infinitely infinite about California's coastal redwoods. They can also make your hair stand on end.

Providing inspiration, pure awe (how else to explain why small children so often hug the trees?) and, in certain unseemly instances, unabashed scaredy-cat fear, California's coastal redwood forests are magnificent theater: an ecosystem with ten times the biomass of the Amazonian rainforest, elk-peppered meadows and ancient sentinels that stand as tall at football fields (including both end zones). The coastal redwoods are no ordinary tree. They are neck-cricking skyscrapers whose longevity (the oldest redwoods live some 2,000 years), height (current tallest redwood, 379 feet) and mass (500 tons, easy) showcase man's need to tally everything, and nature's oblivious scale. Their ancestors shaded the dinosaurs. This alone is enough to set the imagination running.

Beginning roughly in Big Sur, 40-plus redwood preserves and parks string their way up Highway 101 (also known, not uncoincidentally, as the Redwood Highway). California's redwood offerings thicken as one heads past San Francisco, ending in a biomass to end all biomasses just south of the Oregon border.

Already, you can feel their magnetic pull.

Who should resist? Precisely why I drove north from my Southern California home, passing through San Francisco and on up into a world which is, well, wildly different from much of California. As you drive north, a strange and wonderful thing happens. The ware-house size Wal-Marts and the factory outlets dissolve. Along the roadside rusted mailboxes and small towns tick past, the towns' volunteer fire stations hung with banners alerting residents to Rotary Club breakfasts and fundraising rummage sales. The sky opens up, sometimes fog-shrouded, but often wide and blue.

It feels really good.

There are charming towns up here along the North Coast, and when you come you should visit them -- Arcata, where you can listen to live music at Jambalaya and the Arcata Theatre Lounge, and Eureka, where you can stroll the old town boardwalk and order steamed clams at the Lost Coast Brewery & Café -- but if you love the wilds as I do, you will quickly move on, drawn by the redwoods' black hole pull.

Exploration works best when you trudge off in directions unplanned. I planned on a week of exploration. Outside of that, I made no other plans, which is how I found myself alone in a small parking lot in a drumming rain at the edge of the Van Duzen River. Seventeen miles east of Highway 101, Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park is often less crowded than its Park cousins immediately adjacent to Highway 101. On this day, Grizzly Creek was empty. Crossing the Van Duzen River, I wandered through the redwood groves. Several hundred feet above my head the rain was coming down hard, but on the floor of the forest it was nearly dry, the distant drum on the treetop canopy arriving as the comforting sound of a crackling fire. If you're a "Star Wars" fan, you already know portions of "Return of the Jedi" were filmed here. If you are a fan of solitude and silence, you are glad George Lucas has left.

Though it doesn't seem possible, the further north I drove, the more beauty I encountered. Granted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this beholder has seen few places lovelier than the triumvirate (running south to north) of Prairie Creek, Del Norte Coast and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Parks.

One day, at Prairie Creek (three miles north of Orick), I took a mountain bike ride, beginning at Elk Prairie campground and dropping down through dank forest to unpaved Davison Road, where I rode through slashing rain along desolate, driftwood-littered beachfront, gawping at gray waves that humped toward shore as if moving through syrup. Just back from dunes carpeted in wild strawberries, Roosevelt elk grazed in meadows. I crashed twice; partly a measure of my bike handling skills, partly a measure of the largesse around me. I stopped at Fern Canyon. Pressed in by sheer, sinuous walls carpeted in fern, I dipped my face into the cobbled stream and rinsed the mud from between my teeth.

The redwoods are also a mysterious place. As I explored, not unexpectedly I heard tales of Bigfoot at many a turn. In the tiny town of Hiouchi, within the borders of Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park, a man informed me that Bigfoot had been sighted not far away.

"Saw it on 'Unsolved Mysteries,'" he said. "There was videotape. It was night, but you could still sort of see this thing that was big and black."

I find Bigfoot and his/her ilk fascinating (it is a lifelong dream to glimpse Nessie), but anything that has appeared on "Unsolved Mysteries" immediately loses its mystery to me.

But let me tell you, Bigfoot reemerged, larger-than-life and a bit more than mysterious, when, one night, I was again inexplicably drawn in by the redwoods' magnetism.

It seemed like a fine idea at the outset, pulling off the road, as the last of the light left the day. It was not a fine idea to forget the flashlight.

No matter how many times I entered a redwood forest, with each first step my brain registered the shadowy plunge as if it were a descent into a murky pond. Suffice to say, the feeling was magnified as the light left the day. The sense of submerging deepened in the darkening forest. No doubt it would have been wise to stay at the edge of the forest. For some reason, I walked deeper. The road and my car disappeared. In the last falling light, the ferns glowed. Everything was still. It was like walking through a photograph, only instead of developing, this one went dark.

And that was when I heard sounds, sporadic cracklings at first, and then - did I mention it was deathly quiet? -- something that sounded like breathing, and then something like a faint grunt. More sounds might have followed, I don't know, because now I was walking very fast down the duff path along which I'd come.

I walked faster and faster. Where those my own panicked breaths? What in the hell was that crackling? Where were the rangers when you needed them? Probably back in the safety of their quarters watching "Unsolved Mysteries." Let me say, there are few things darker than a redwood forest at night. All around me was velvet blackness. The crackling seemed to be following alongside me.

I confess, my imagination was not the only thing running. I ran with my arms wide, my own shuddering breaths now providing the grunting. It was panicked and unseemly, but I didn't care. I was damn glad when I shut the car door with a sound whump. Gladder still to leave that hellish dark glen behind.

I know now what I experienced. It wasn't Bigfoot. It was something far bigger, a presence stolid and unintentionally mocking. It was civilization, abolished by black hush. The redwoods through which I had unabashedly run had shared their existence with the Crusades.

It is both discomfiting and enlightening to realize you could disappear, and not one iota of bark would be altered.

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