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The International Writers Magazine

In the Redwoods
Mike Blake
on the Californian Road

The moon was out that night – if not full, then close to it – and it shed a silver-white light down over the trees and the bank of the river. It was a wide, rushing river that we had crossed by a long wooden bridge to the flat, open bank (if you could call it that) where we settled for the night.

From the water, one could walk over sandy and rock strewn ground for twenty yards or so before you hit the tree line. This exposed area of rocks and sand was probably covered by water during flood times, but now had been exposed long enough to be dry, which was ideal for us. This is where we had our fire, where there was no risk of setting any of the dry woods ablaze. We chose a flat, circular, and sandy spot for the pit and for our bedding place for the night. We had blankets to wrap up in, and that would be enough to keep the early morning chill off.

As it turned out, we weren’t thinking about the night chill when we both passed out after drinking most of a jug of vodka and smoking a few joints. We didn’t care if there were plenty of stones underneath us. With a last tired laugh and good night, we were gone for a few hours, until daylight and the birds woke us.

The night turned out to be an unexpected pleasure for me, one of those unplanned experiences that made life on the road interesting. The day before I had been hitchhiking, with just a general idea of a destination, and you had stopped and changed that, for a night anyway. You were a Deadhead, a student from Berkeley, on your way home from a road trip. You wanted to spend one more night in the woods before returning to the routine of school and employment. A night in the redwoods, you suggested, with a high smile, and you had me. You knew we agreed on some things from a few miles of talk, and the way I moved to the Dead tape you had playing. You had the sudden idea that I wouldn’t be bad company for a night, a fellow traveler truckin’ along, and you had the correct impression that you wouldn’t have to twist my arm.

You had a camp stove, food, a guitar, a couple books of poetry, and weed. You already had a buzz on when I got in. We stopped at a store and bought a big jug of vodka and some fruit juice.

I had seen redwoods before, but not these particular trees you were taking me to see. This was a famous place called the Grove that had some of the biggest old monsters in the forest growing in it. This was a place that tourists had their pictures taken standing next to the huge, aged trunks. We weren’t supposed to camp there, but you knew of a place just on the other side of the river, which was ideal. You had camped there before.

We arrived at the Grove in the late afternoon, giving us enough time to walk around the giants on the well-trodden, needle-covered paths that wound around them in this cool and shaded world. The cooler air provided some welcome relief after our three quarters of a mile trek down from the car. You had parked the car off the dirt road, on what looked to be a rarely used trail – out of sight of passing vehicles. The trail was rocky and steep, and we had to take our time carrying our things.

Seeing the trees for the first time made the hike worthwhile, of course, and it was like entering another world after thumbing all day on the coast highway. There were no motor vehicles here, just the sound of a few human voices as some other groups made their way through the Grove. We could hear the river rushing by in the near distance, and there was a soothing breeze coming from that direction.
  “I thought you’d prefer this to sleeping by the side of the road,” you said, with a laugh, your face flushed and sweaty from the exercise.
What could be more fitting on this special night in the redwoods, I thought, than to have a moon shining down on us – that is, after it finally made its way above the trees. By then, we had the fire going and had filled our bellies with a stew-like concoction you had prepared with tuna, noodles, cheese and various spices. It was thick with a pungent broth, and would hold us over until lunch the next day. We each had several bowls of it and then didn’t feel like moving anywhere soon.

You played your guitar, and we sang together on some songs we both knew. I thought of certain Dead shows I’d been to, and we shared some of our experiences at these concerts. The liquor had loosened our tongues, and the stories came easily. After smoking a joint, we lay back laughing on our bedrolls. It was going to be a cool, clear night, with plenty of stars to look at, along with that ol’ devil moon.

The frothing rush of the nearby water was rhythmically soothing after a while. You read some of your favorite poems from your books and I read some of my poems from a notebook I carried. We discussed books, music, movies, anything that came to mind, both of us enjoying the company after some solitary nights on the road. I wasn’t thinking about my future in the Berkeley/Frisco area and the work I would have to find. I didn’t think about where I would spend the next night, or where my next meal was coming from. I had done enough traveling to know that this was an experience to fully appreciate without trivial concerns weighing on my thoughts. I aimed for nothing beyond a good party spirit for the moment, and you seemed to feel the same way. We didn’t take it easy on the drink, and you rolled joints until you were too drunk to do it.

“I wish we could stay here for a week,” I said, but thinking that this would probably be my one and only night here at the Grove. “I bet there are plenty of trails around here.”
“I’m sure there are,” you said. “You could easily get lost out here, I bet.”
“It would be nice to get lost for a few days anyway.”

As usual when in places of natural beauty like this, I wondered what it would have been like to just happen upon these red giants of the tree world at some time in the past, never having heard of them before. A time when only Indians had seen them, and when there weren’t well-worn paths and wooden walkways around them. A time before anybody had taken a photograph of them. I could imagine trying to describe their immensity to somebody without the aid of a picture.                                            
The next morning, not too badly hung-over (with a smoke for breakfast), we went back up to the car and you said that you wanted to show me another place, which was fine by me. I was in no hurry to get back on the highway.

We drove along dirt roads to another shady grove next to a river (the same one, I’m not sure). This place had some big trees, too, though not quite as impressive as the ones we had just left. It was a picnic area with tables and grills, and we parked next to a table. You turned on the music – a radio station playing some classic rock – and we sat at the table munching on crackers and peanut butter and granola bars. We finished off the vodka. More stories, with the music inspiring us (memories from our high school years).

Things seemed a little blurry, out of control. By early afternoon we felt tired and laughed out. You said, reluctantly, that you had to hit the road some time that day; you were due to meet someone in Berkeley that evening. Back to the world of appointments. What we had been able to hold off for a few good hours without worry, we could now no longer ignore. The real world with all of its sobering weight had gotten a hand on us, and we both knew it wouldn’t be long before we were firmly in its grasp, the last remnants of our good time having dissipated in the air like the smoke from the last joint.

We had music for the ride to the city, which was good because we were both talked out. We had told our best stories, had our share of laughs, and now felt empty in a post-concert kind of way. Plus, we knew we would be parting soon, most likely never to see each other again. Sure, we would exchange addresses, and you would give me a Berkeley phone number, but the city was a big, busy place. You had a job and classes to go back to and I would be looking for some work.
“If you stick around, look me up,” you said, after stopping at Peoples’ Park (where I would camp that night). “Maybe I’ll be able to get you a Dead ticket.”
“I’ll do that. Peace, my friend.” I gave him a wave and my best smile.                                                
Sleeping in the park that night certainly was a much different experience from the night before. There were some trees nearby and the moon showed itself again, but there was no soothing sound of rushing water, and there were quite a few people sleeping there with me (some tents were even set up). Also, there was the ever-present traffic noise and the urban smells that didn’t bring the word natural to mind. As I lay in the shadows, trying to rest, I told myself that it had to be done; I had to come to a place where I could find some work. I was broke and couldn’t hold out in the woods any longer – not unless I intended to live off the land, which I didn’t have the skills or the tools for. It was a matter of survival, and something I had done often enough before, yet still those big silent trees, the immense shadows of those nighttime woods were still in my head, and were still there now where they belonged, and would be awaiting my return. My return, yes, and on this positive note I was able to slip off to sleep.
© Mike Blake Feb 2007
California Link

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