Thursday, January 1, 2009

Leaving the Forest

I walked two days before yesterday across the closed-off stretch of the road, washed out by a great storm in the '60s. It ended near where I was staying with my family above Felton on Mount Hermon, designated eminence if only as a couple hundred feet up a gentle hill rather than the equal of a biblical cedar-filled peak. Arriving after half a mile or so past the quarry at the main road to Scotts Valley, which at its bend opens into strip malls and tract homes, I turned away from its din, which can be heard more dimly from the cabin itself.

Doubling back, I passed teenagers dirt biking and a family cavorting in the quarry's spilled sand that had tumbled down onto the asphalt. I wondered if Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" might look like this half-paved, half-muddy path, an apocalyptic relic. A girl on a motorbike rattled back, and I wished that there'd been a metal gate installed at each end to stop engines from eroding the trail. Remembering cattle guards and turnstiles on Northern Irish farms, I wondered why these weren't installed out West. I was pleased to have to duck under a tree, figuring this'd thwart off-roaders, but then I saw a shortcut rutted by many tires to bypass the thickly branched obstacle placed by Mother Nature at my head's height.

Quickening down the paved stretch again, I went past the little lane where the cabin nestles within "Harper Berry Hollow." It sits with a few others that have slumbered often in the same families for decades, and the oldest, such as HBH and the one where we were, are over a century old, although remodeling and additions obscure their origins. Chris & Bob live in one of the oldest cabins around; the one we rented also celebrated its centennial a few years ago. Layne and I long to settle here, but despair at our own lack of finances, the need to make a living, the fear of the future, and the understandable tendency by the owners on these shady lanes not to sell their vacation retreats.

Continuing, I passed a newish tree zip-swing canopy. It had been installed when we last were here around the Fourth of July. Benches and ropes and signs all attested to its permanence. The Mount Hermon blog link on the right of this layout can tell you more about this desecration by the Christian camp that owns much of the Mount. I've fulminated enough about this, on line and in letters (to which no response came) to MHCCC. Suffice to say I remain recalcitrant. From where I sit typing this draft, I can see another such set-up across the ravine through the window.

Further on, the handsome gym on the south side overlooks a green lawn that once was a lake. Across, the expanding Christian family camp attests to its hundred years of prosperity. Bob came here as a boy. Last summer, Mennonite women in bonnets could be seen among those staying there; this Christmas, an Asian assemblage had convened, and the loud intonations of a language strange to me echoed among those in the parking lots who yelled from one SUV to the other as they accelerated down the road.

My pace being slower, I had time to look down into the roadside sludge at a tiny plastic bottle of Smirnoff, a brown sediment tilted in its belly. Teenaged Asian girls chattered, a grandmother with two blonde boys recited their placid adventures at the playground, and workers in logoed mini-pickups and electric carts whirred about. The confluence of Bean and Zayante creeks to the north just out of my sight reminded me of a scene the summer before last, when I wished I had a camera to take a shot of Niall, lit up all white like an angel by the angle of the lowering sun, its own beams reflecting up against the stone wall of the creek. Niall wandered in the water, playing happily, as I waited and watched on the bank. This sight I keep in mind as a memory, without any tangible proof, all the more I never want to forget.

Coming over the long bridge near Zayante Depot, I arrived at Graham Hill Road. Full of non-electric exhaust, rushing non-mini pickups, and stoplights. Across the main drag and down the old Roaring Camp train line, Henry Cowell State Redwood Preserve does that for about 4% of the riparian groves that once covered the San Lorenzo Valley. A century ago, he controlled most of the hills and valleys around here; San Francisco's houses rose out of redwoods felled here and shipped down the railroad and the rivers. After the 1906 quake and fire, I wonder how he thrived as the City grew higher and bolder, his fortune remade by another city built on beams and trestles. Fifty years earlier, John C. Frémont was said to have hidden in a redwood trunk there, perhaps during the Mexican War? Cowell must have owned millions of acres; we passed well above Pescadero on the way down the coast from San Francisco a beach named after the timber magnate.

A couple of days ago, when we stopped there, a loquacious receptionist at the Visitor Center learned that I was from L.A.; she told me her husband and she were LAUSD psychologists who once lived in Pasadena, who used to camp up here before, I presume, gratefully retiring around Felton. Bob, Chris, Niall, Leo, and Layne bringing up the slow caboose strolled for an hour and a half amidst visitors from Taiwan and India under the enormous towering cradles that filtered green aslant the air at noon into an open-aired cathedral. Clichéd, but truly the best metaphor. We glimpsed a family of deer, we saw willows bare by winter along the riverbed, we heard the train whistles and children shrieking at play. Years ago, on that mini railway, Niall and Leo were regaled by Chris who told them, to the shock of tourists sitting nearby, with suitably grim and juicy detail the fate of the Donner Party. History sidles closer here than at home; part of the appeal of vacation for us city folks.

I thought of how state parks and wilderness areas protect what's remaining of that vast sylvan and meadowed rocky sprawl up the coasts, now practically at my footstep. I could walk down the tracks to the city; I could drive south and find twenty million of my neighbors crowding around me. All the human spillover, after the Gold Rush, to this former lumber camp turned suburb of 6,500 from Santa Cruz six miles down the ridge and Boulder Creek and Ben Lomond and Scotts Valley spinning by, part of what I and my family would soon enter in our own dash south down the coast into the great Central Valley towards home over three long hundred miles away.

But, for now, I had the luxury of turning left, recircling back as the congestion eased over the little bridge that alerted me to "Zayante Creek" in its diminished capacity under the concrete road that for 150 years at least had carried pioneers and Indians and miners and most of all loggers and railroaders and speculators and owners of speakeasies up and down the summits where the redwoods towered and toppled. I dashed over the narrowed road before traffic neared at the miniscule bridge, a bump above a rivulet under a hundred foot span of concrete. A sharp left at the tracks, despite two drivers determined peering into the sun's slant to mow me down, and up I marched what remained of Roaring Camp Road back to veer right to the Mount. By now, my urban feet in sneakers, unused by treadmill to the land's undulation and the tension between natural and manmade surfaces, had begun to chafe.

Only a slight ascent now, so I looked forward to the place at the entrance to the Center when the road would level. Bob mentioned how the sign announcing Mount Hermon signalled to him a chance to visualize his release of tension accumulated from the world below. I shared the sensation of change, of leaving behind the combustion by my own energy. Never a steep incline, but I'd been at marching gait for a while now, instead of my usual treadmill, and I felt the difference in my lungs and step.

The return to my second home, if only for three days, cheered me. Layne noted how sad I seemed even with a day to go here. I miss this place very much. Just a little house under the trees, but out of such scenes, we all build our hopes and find peace.

We seem so obedient to an atavistic drive to cut down the trees and erect our Babel. Gilgamesh tells our oldest story, of cities rising and woods toppling. My ancestors touched wood, as I corrected my dear wife, not out of respect for the Holy Cross, An Crios Naofa, Santa Cruz. But, to attest to the "pagan" belief of Druids that in trees resided the spirit forces that many of us-- in those towers of glass that dwarf the groves we felled to outgrow them-- have lost touch with, unless we return to the forest.

I found a discard from a school library in the cabin, Francis Parkman's "The Oregon Trail." It had plastic covers, so I took it in the bath after my walk. There I could actually stretch out my legs and soak my blistering feet. Fifty pages passed of Parkman's 1846 trek's first stages from Missouri among Kanzans and Pawnees before I stood and dried. Two years before the Gold Rush that'd bring so many through detours into these mountains, millions to fill the Golden State who would soon follow. Here we keep roaming and clearing and circling.

Two years ago I noticed, on my own stop in Oregon City, a few hundred yards from the Conestoga-girded museum that marks grandly the end of that Trail, where a Home Depot looms. The timber keeps stacking up for fresh arrivals at the edge of the Pacific. Young Parkman made it only a third of the way. He couldn't stand most emigrants; his chronicle allows equal opportunity for the vanity and values of both settlers and natives. The Bostonian's weak eyes and poor health restrained him at Fort Laramie, where he spent months learning about the natives about whom he'd dictate, soon being blind, a shelf of vividly recounted histories about "the struggle for the continent." On a map at the Cowell center, I saw an "Ox Trail" path on the park's map. With far greater ease, if a blister or two in our softened state, we aim where Parkman did, targeting the western horizons, for our own dreams' fulfillment.

Photo: "Wake of the Storm". Caption: "I was telling everyone on Thursday that I didn't think the storms headed through the central coast were going to hit Mount Hermon as hard as some people thought, well, so far we haven't lost power and there was even a break in the clouds for a beautiful sunset." Jonathan Assink, January 5, 2008,


Bob said...

At first I thought this was a translation from one of your Gaelic exercises, it's so pure and simple. Then I realized it was just the language of the heart. Beautiful.

Fionnchú said...

Talk about a fast reader! Thanks for your kind comment, and in fact when I started this reflection, I did think of the Irish and its control of my English. I have been intrigued if truly bilingual (as in from birth?) writers carry the rhythms from one language's creations to the next; perhaps your expertise here professionally and personally can tell me more?

I'm delighted that you heard a hint of Gaelic echoes here. Perhaps the woods spark this return to a mother tongue? Tomorrow, when I recover from the Eve and the highway, I will write in Irish too, about my return drive, but a piece as intricate as today's unfortunately would resist easy translation!

Tony Bailie said...

That was a bit like 'Fionnchú ar seachrán' very Maganesque. I felt like I was briefly wandering through an obscure little part of California, with a bit of folklore thrown in along the way and musing on the terrible state of chassis that the world is in.

Tony Bailie said...

John, thought I'd published a comment but it hasn't appeared so if there are two there must have been some sort of delay.
Anyway, gist of what I said was that I felt like I've just been on a walk with you in an obscure (to me) corner of California, chatting about the state of the world and you throwing in the odd piece of local history along the way.

Fionnchú said...

Thanks, Tony! I wanted to reassure you all's well on the blog, but due to three "comments" by an Indian spammer lately, I have had to put back the block of having to type that silly letter protection (there's a net-coinage for these) to try to filter out Our Man in Bangalore.

I guess I was trying for a more methodical, differently paced prose this time around, post-perambulation. The benefits of a small vacation? If you ever visit our coast, or even its blighted interior where I have to live, be assured or warned that I'd be an informative host in just such a manner as my entry promises! The comparison to a chronicler we both admire's flattering, I might add!

Chris Berry said...

John...quite a thoughtful post (again). I could follow every footstep as much as if I were there on the walk with you.

One day we'll have to show you the lesser known routes that take you deeper into the woods and away from both secular and religious "civilizations"...We'll supply the moleskin!

Fionnchú said...

Thanks for the offer, and in the tottering wake of your expert trailblazing, I'd like to compare Zayante meadows with its depiction on the model railroader's site I sent you!