They are among the oldest living things on our planet. Millions of tourists have made special visits to experience them. Almost every Californian has been deeply affected by them.
I recall being at a party in San Francisco, talking with a woman who said her husband, away on business, was an architect. “Where did he get his degree?” I happened to ask. “At Cal Berkeley,” she answered. “But he often says that he really got his degree in the Redwoods. He will tell you that, if you just spend a few hours sitting next to one of the trees, you’ll learn more about architecture than you can in any other way.”
My first experience in the Redwoods took place in 1951 when I was around eight years old. My father, my mother, my five-year old sister and I were living in Vallejo at the time, and decided to go camping at Big Basin State Park, in the Santa Cruz Mountains a couple of hours drive south of San Francisco.
We drove for what seemed endless hours, and then I saw Redwood trees for the first time. They resembled huge protectors. Like one’s parents, they were almost frightening and had mysterious powers. But they were fundamentally benign, and infinitely interesting, and they were carriers of a past that you could never directly experience but might come to sense by being close to them. Even their thick, shaggy bark was ancestral, like my mother’s dark auburn hair or the feel of my father’s body whenever he hugged me. The groves in which the trees lived were often fogbound. At such times they were haunting.
My mother was not impressed by the things that made the trip enjoyable for the rest of us — the smell of bacon in the morning, the interesting sights along the trail when we hiked, the crackle of the campfire at night, the clear beauty of the stars, the friendly forest ranger who played guitar and led us in a sing-along. My mother dwelt upon other aspects of the trip: the stomach ache she got when we hiked, the clammy feel of the cold dirty water she had to use to do the dishes after our meals, the primitive bathrooms provided for campers. As for the singing ranger, my mother declared, “He thinks he’s Nelson Eddy,” referring to the famous movie star who seemed always to be playing a melodious Mountie.
After the trip to Big Basin, many years passed before I experienced Redwoods camping again. When I was eleven years old, and we were living in Berkeley, a new Congregationalist church was being constructed across the street from our home, and I joined the Sunday School. The two young men who were our two teachers asked the six of us students if we would like to join them on an overnight camping expedition to Mount Tamalpais, the topmost point of the Marin peninsula that extends northward from the Golden Gate Bridge, between the Pacific Ocean and the Bay.
My mother helped me gather together the right clothing and gave me lots of advice about eating properly and avoiding chapped lips and sunburn. My father told me to watch out for small snakes and spiders, reminded me of what to do if I got a cut or a sprain or felt woozy, and lent me one of his Navy duffel bags to carry my stuff. From my closet, I took out the U.S. Marine Corps sleeping bag that he had given me after his return from the Korean War. I had played with it over the years, but had not had an opportunity to use it for real camping.
On the appointed day, our group piled into two old cars and rode across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to Marin County, then up the winding roads that led to Mt. Tamalpais. We unpacked, one of our teachers said a prayer, then we cooked hot dogs and hamburgers in the stone fireplace, joked around for a while, went on a short walk before sunset along a nearby stream, and finally got out our sleeping bags and unrolled them on the ground for a good night’s rest. Even though the season was summer, the ground on which we all put our sleeping bags was very cold, and, with a wind coming through the trees, I shivered for hours. I had thought that my sleeping bag would keep me warm. After all, it had been used by a Marine in the Korean War in the snow and ice of winter. But now, after so many years of fantasy, I realized that the Marine would have slept in his bag with all his clothes on, not only to keep warm but also to be prepared in case enemy soldiers invaded his camp. Probably he slept with his rifle and bayonet next to him. And, even with his clothes on, he, too, must have shivered in the absence of a cot or pad or air mattress to insulate him from the ground.
We got up early the next morning, ate and brushed our teeth and went to the bathroom and washed, then put on two pairs of socks each and laced up our shoes in preparation for a long hike to the top of Mt. Tamalpais. The morning air was cold and damp. But as our hike proceeded and the day wore on, the temperature rose, and we felt the summer heat whenever our path took us temporarily out from beneath the protective cover of the trees. We passed beautiful streams and walked occasionally along dry dusty roads. Now and then we encountered privates houses, and a couple of old hotels, that occupied parts of the mountainside for no apparent reason. Near one of the hotels we came upon a cistern under the trees, built to hold rain. I have never, then or since, tasted fresher, more pleasing water. We crossed the tracks of an old, small gauge railroad. A few times, we lost our direction and had to climb up the sides of big rocks or down pebble filled gullies until we relocated the trail. Then eventually, after about three hours, we came to the paved, two lane highway that led on up to the peak of the mountain.
Here again, I had mixed feelings. The hike was a pleasure, I was enjoying my companions, and I was exhilarated when I reached the top of the mountain and took in the panorama of the Bay and the land that ringed it. But I did not like discovering that Mt. Tamalpais was dominated by a large cross rising some fifty feet into the sky. I had no idea who had constructed the cross or when. But the act of putting it there seemed to me to be possessive and unequal to the natural beauty. When we stopped at a picnic table near the cross, and one of our teachers said a prayer of thanks for the bag lunches we had brought with us, I felt intimations of peace and a sense of love for God, but my stronger feelings were resistance to the way God was being jammed down my throat, and guilt in the face of my anger. Over the next five hours we made the trek back to our campsite, where I shivered for one more night before the next morning when we all went home.
My next experience with camps came in 1956 when I was thirteen years old, and my family made the first of three trips over successive summers to Yosemite.
After a long drive across California, the road soon opened before us on either side and we drove alongside the deep green water of the Merced River into a huge, flat valley — a vast amphitheater, walled on all sides by gray granite cliffs over two thousand feet high, with groupings of Redwoods here and there on the valley floor, and vast swathes of green Alpine meadows and marshland. This was the center of the National Park, and from here it was only a short drive to the camping areas in the Redwood forest.
The trip to Yosemite gave my father the opportunity to tell my sister and me vital memories about himself and his mother and father and two sisters who had all camped together in Yosemite in the 1930s. One of the stories was about his family’s greatest Monopoly game of all, the game that lasted for almost an entire month, with intermissions for hiking and swimming and other activities as my father and his sisters and their parents spent what seemed to be the happiest of all their seasons at Yosemite. Along with this story, which represented my father’s memories of joy, there was another one, more reverential, that came up one evening when we were taking in the campfire performance in the big outdoor amphitheater at Camp Curry. In accord with tradition, the songs and dramatic performances were followed by lights out, and the two thousand or so of us in the amphitheater stared two thousand feet upwards to the top of the valley’s granite wall, where a giant bonfire was being ignited, and the embers were about to be pushed over the cliff to produce the world-famous “Firefall.” As the spectacle occurred, everyone was silent, except for an occasional member of the audience who let out an “ooh” or “ah.” After the ceremony was done, and everyone was talking again, my father began telling us about the “Firefall” as he had experienced as a boy in the 1930s. At that time the ceremony included music, and whenever he and his family were in Yosemite, his mother was asked to sing. She had a beautiful, powerful, soprano voice. He felt a sense of wonder when his mother sang “Indian Love Call.”
On one of our days in the valley, my sister and I asked my father if he had ever been to the top of any of the granite cliffs. He said yes, he had. He wasn’t going to take us, because the drive there and back would require an entire day, and there were other things he wanted us to see first. But he was willing to tell us a story about one of his high school friends, a young man named Nemo. I don’t remember Nemo’s last name, and, looking back, it seems incredible to me that anyone would have such a symbolic first name – although I do know that my father had several friends in high school who were from Greek families living in Alameda. In any case, this story about Yosemite had to do with the time that Nemo and my father went up to the area where the Firefalls were prepared. Somehow Nemo and my father got a ride up to the ranger station at the top of the Valley wall. Nemo took his small camera with him. After the two boys had admired the view for a while, Nemo handed his camera to my father and walked over to the edge of the cliff. “Get the camera ready,” Nemo said. Not knowing what else to do, my father did as requested. Then Nemo proceeded to do a handstand. “Quick, take my picture,” he said. My father snapped the photo and then yelled at Nemo to get away from the edge. As my father told me this story, there was great drama and animation in his manner and a lot of rolling of the eyes, as if to convey that he understood his friend’s desire for adventure but wondered why anyone would be so unconcerned about the possibility of falling off a cliff. When there was a pause in the story, I asked my father if he was still keeping in touch with Nemo. My father sighed. “No,” he answered in a resigned tone, “when Nemo and I finished high school, the war came, and he died in combat.”
Our third and final trip to Yosemite occurred in June of 1961. The natural setting was as beautiful as ever. But we noticed that the valley was becoming more crowded – almost urban. The camping areas had big new buildings with modern showers and toilets. A few miles away, a supermarket had been constructed. To conserve trees, the Firefall now occurred only three nights a week. Along the beautiful, previously quiet river that wound through the camping areas, people now coasted along on rafts and air mattresses, shouting as they went. The Yosemite that had been my father’s valley was quickly disappearing. He and my sister and I knew that if any of us ever went there again it would not be the same.
In some of the same summers when I went to Yosemite, I also became involved with a camp for young people that was run by the City of Berkeley and was located in the Redwood forests on a creek near the Russian River north of the Bay Area, near a small logging town called Cazadero. At the camp, you could enjoy hiking, swimming, canoeing, crafts, softball, campfire songs and dramatics. I first went to Cazadero as a camper, when I was fourteen years old. Then later, when I was nearing my seventeenth birthday, I got a job as a member of the staff, working for three successive summers as a kitchen helper, assistant janitor, lifeguard, and, eventually, counselor.
I have hundreds of memories of Cazadero, but the strongest one of all concerns the gigantic, legendary trees that surrounded us and sheltered us. I felt their power most of all during my last summer at Cazadero, when the camp began to include sessions for musicians. The counselors were music majors from local colleges and universities. Music teachers came from public schools in the Bay Area. Prominent members of the San Francisco Symphony were brought in to supplement the regular teaching staff. But almost any music student with passing grades could enroll as a camper. I had no training in music but was able to piece together a job that involved working in the kitchen for all three meals and helping with lifeguard duty. I was willing to accept the arrangement because I loved being in the Redwoods.
I got to know several of the Symphony players who visited camp. The most interesting musician I met was the man who was the lead French Horn player for the San Francisco Symphony. He was not the happiest person at music camp. He and his wife argued frequently and there were rumors of a divorce. He said he had come to Cazadero to search for peace. He told me he had been the lead French Horn player for the Cleveland Symphony, which at that time was thought by many to be the greatest orchestra in the world. I asked him why he left such a prestigious position. He answered that the conductor liked Wagner too much. “Do you have any idea,” he asked me dramatically, “how draining it is, if your instrument is the French Horn, to play that much Wagner night after night? I would have been burned up in another year.”
He did not yet seem to me to have attained his sought after calm, however. He drank whiskey late at night by the campfire and picked arguments with other musicians and the staff. One thing did bring him peace, though. Each evening, when the Redwoods grew dark and the campers became quiet and were in their beds and the time came for “lights out,” he walked up the hill and stood in a grove of big trees and played his horn. Sometimes he played a piece by someone like Mozart or even Wagner. Sometimes he just played Taps – a long, embellished, musically sophisticated, incredibly textured version of Taps — the most haunting and sentient interpretation of Taps that anyone could ever hope to hear.