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Humbled by the size of California’s giant redwoods

Wearily, we crested ridge after wooded ridge, each time expecting the ocean, and always seeing more mountains until even I was mesmerised by the insistent throbbing of my bike. Down a slope, engine comparatively quiet, brakes squealing occasionally from dust in the pads, popping sounds of backfire set up in the exhaust by the altitude. Up the next grade, throttle open, pistons working, blatter of exhaust echoing back from the forest or the rock walls. Another summit. Still no sea. Shut the gas down, ease on to the big footbrake pedal, forget the front brake. It doesn’t do much on a Harley, and if you lock up the wheel on the gravel you’ll be sliding in the stuff. Body weight thrown forward by the braking and the downgrade, handlebars bucking through the potholes, wrists screaming. I felt for Roz, but left her to her pain. The only way to keep my own mind from slipping down my neck was to shut off my head, watch out for the long drops and the busted lengths of highway and wander into the dreamland of northern California, the journey’s end for the McGarrigle sisters. Here, their character lived out the remainder of her life, still looking westwards as the evening light died away across the ocean. Her satisfaction was perfected by each subsequent dawn over the redwood groves behind her, the woman rising with the sun until one morning her song was stilled and she rose no more.

Where, oh where were these immense, legendary trees, harbingers of the Pacific, the greatest and almost the oldest organisms on Earth? Surely we must be into them soon.

Desperate for Roz’s sake to be finished with the escarpments and hairpins so as to cruise in among these marvels, I kidded myself that each of the progressively tall pines we passed must be one of them. It was true that the conifers grew loftier with every 50 miles, and as we lost altitude for what must surely be the last time, we were passing trees taller than any I had seen anywhere. These must be them, I convinced myself, marvelling at their girth. But they were not. They were merely hefty Douglas Firs of the type that had once made the West Coast famous for its mast-making timber. The experience of riding into our first redwood grove was different altogether.

Towards evening, we were spinning through varied woodland along the foot of a valley. Suddenly I had the eerie sensation that I was cruising into a fish tank charged with air instead of water. The sound of the bike seemed muted and the light was plunged into a restful green.

Motorcycling into this unmistakable aura, I looked around for its source, and slowly became aware that I was moving through trees as tall as modest New York skyscrapers. I think I had not recognised them because the girth of the redwood trunks was not comparable with any tree in my experience, including the ancient oaks of the New Forest. The height beneath the canopy dwarfed the neighbouring primary growth firs. I shut down the bike, listened to the stillness and gazed aloft for several minutes to readjust the meaning of ‘tree’ in my mind.

Like most of the redwood groves, which have survived the frantic onslaught of nineteenth and early twentieth century lumbering, this one had a small visitor centre and a tiny campground. Two families were pitching their tents almost shyly. The small timber buildings were tasteful, unobtrusive and in keeping. I hardly noticed the people. In the context of trees 350 feet high, they practically disappeared.

Walking among these colossal plants, a sense of deep peace descended on us. Roz’s angst was soothed and my own anxieties about the rest of the journey seemed to fall away. The very ground in this dim, green place was soft to our tread, with clean bracken and the gently decayed needles of centuries of autumns. The trees grew sometimes singly, more often companionably in close groups of two or three, their shafts soaring straight through a verdant vault higher than the greatest cathedral nave, to where the coniferous branches spread out far above, cutting out direct sunlight and completing the impression of protection. We walked on tiptoe and spoke in whispers, leaned on the trunks and touched their foot-thick bark. The youngest of the fully grown trees might well be 500 years old. The gnarled elder statesmen, their top hamper riven by countless lightning strikes, could have been standing tall when the Romans still ruled Britain. The century and a half since the California Gold Rush has flowed by them almost unnoticed.

Our own waxing and waning could never be more than a rustle in their eternal branches.
As I sat on the dry, sweet-smelling mould, breathing in this enhanced perspective on my own length of days, I recalled the sense of a lesson learned at my father’s knee. I had not been picked for the first team football at my junior school. Sport was everything to me then, and to be confronted with my own mediocrity was almost more than a child could bear. As I wept out my disillusion, he sat me down and said simply, ‘I know it’s hard to understand, but remember that however bad things seem, nothing that happens to you will change the way the world will be a hundred years from now.’

Surprisingly, it helped. Even at the age of ten.

Dad had died two years before Roz and I set out across the States. He had striven for a fairer society all his days, and I had suffered worse failures than my first ever selection board, but the giant, slow-breathing redwoods hadn’t even noticed. Secure, until recently, beyond the mountain ranges and the windward passage around Cape Horn, the fleeting years steal by them in decades and centuries as they grow from cone, to sapling, to adult majesty.

Even their dying takes hundreds of years, sinking finally to the ground without sadness, complete only in their return to the soil.

We lay down amongst the trees that night and awoke in the shining, verdant dawn, readier for the road and the last day to the Pacific.

More about this author’s motorbike ride across America in his book.

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