There is nothing like an old-growth redwood forest for a reflective silent retreat. During my six days living at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in September 2013, I spoke only when needed, at the visitor center or giving someone directions. After walking a number of trails, I looked forward to the route I had saved for this final day here, my birthday.
It was sunny as I made breakfast, typical for late September and a reason why I had selected this time of year for my three-week trip in Northern California and Oregon. But I knew from the weather forecast posted at the visitor center it was supposed to rain, odd this early in the season.
Today I planned to revisit a magical spot I photographed in 2011 on the James Irvine Trail. I usually have no particular craving to have my own photo taken, but today I wanted to have a passing hiker take my picture in this redwood grove, to look at later when I needed a reminder of keeping perspective.
I hoped the weather would hold clear long enough for me to nest in that enormous redwood circle for a good long time, but I was also prepared if the rain came. In my daypack—rain jacket, rain pants, fleece jacket, fleece hat, all in a plastic bag. I wore my long-sleeved wicking synthetic turtleneck instead of the tee-shirts I’d been wearing the last few days.
My seven-mile loop began on the James Irvine Trail. Stunning, huge orange fungi grew on a trunk beside a bridge. I stopped to admire them and wished I could reach them to touch, but settled for sitting on the bridge and taking photos instead. Two band-tailed pigeons flushed, the sound of their wing beats unmistakable.
Hiking on, the wind picked up and the sky darkened as the storm moved in. I knew I would recognize that special grove of interconnected tree trunks when I saw it. I stopped and looked up into it. So far the weather had cooperated and fortunately a couple other hikers happened by from the other direction. I asked one of them if he would take the photo of a wee human under the towering ancients. And the first raindrops fell just as he was taking the photo, creating an image of a dark blur covered in spatters. Time for the raingear.
The light rain quickly became a vertical flood, the kind of torrent usually seen in December, not September. I saw no other hikers as I continued on the Clintonia Trail. The birds and squirrels that had been chattering earlier were all hunkered down and silent now, with just the sound of the downpour.
I recalled the advice of my friend Ray in Alaska describing spending time outside there—you’re going to be wet, it’s just a matter of being wet and cold or wet and warm. My breathable raingear meant that I didn’t sweat like crazy like I would in waterproof materials, but with the surprisingly intense rain, the fabric eventually became completely saturated. My fleece jacket and hat would keep me warm even if they got soggy. The lower half of my body was a lost cause. I was soaked to the skin through my nylon pants under my rain pants. The Gore-Tex boots were the only thing that stayed mostly dry and gave me good footing.
I continued up and over the Miner’s Ridge Trail, grinning as I slogged through the huge puddles, dodging the numerous tree roots that make great footholds when dry but are slick when wet. I got to see the whole forest glistening without the distraction of other human company. I was in awe at my good fortune to be in the redwoods during the first major storm of the year. All the debris of the dry season came down with the raindrops like snow, a cascade of brown needles and twigs. The thirsty earth after the months of drought surely must have been happy. I swear I could feel it.
It was early afternoon. Had I not known better, I would have thought I was racing to get back to the campground by nightfall, as it was that dark under the forest canopy. I was warm and even hot as I moved quickly up and over the ridge, but soaked as I was with the rain not letting up, I wasn’t about to stop to eat my sandwich and cool down. I pulled an energy bar out of a side pouch of my pack without stopping, gulped some more water from the tube of my water bladder, and pressed on. Then ate the second bar en route, too.
Eventually, I got to the junction back at the James Irvine Trail. I realized I could get to the visitor center to dry off a bit before they closed. The park staff had gotten a fire going. I joined two parties of soggy cyclists from Germany, South Africa and Canada as we took turns warming up and hanging our wet gear around the fireplace.
There was a timely break in the rain when the visitor center closed. Back at my campsite, I found a pond in the parking area behind and beside my car, so I moved it forward to avoid the moat that was clearly here to stay through tomorrow. My tent was in good shape as expected, but I got a sense of how hard the rain had fallen when I saw the splatter of duff and dead needles fully a foot above the ground and completely under the rainfly, with bits of duff stuck to the mesh part of the tent body. I changed into dry clothes and finally ate my sandwich, pleased that I had hustled for the last four miles up and over a ridge with no break, not bad 10 months after my knee replacement.
I knew whose company I wanted for my birthday evening, so I drove a few miles down the road looking for the local herd of Roosevelt elk. I parked by the road and headed down the footpath. Peering over the bushes, there was the big bull and the herd of cows. It was rutting season so I wanted to give the bull a wide berth. They were far enough away that I could creep down into the edge of the meadow. Given my distance, it was a surprise when the bull looked up and started walking toward me. I darted up the path and then looked to see if he was behind me. He was slowly herding the cows closer together, and I then saw it wasn’t me he was concerned about. When I got back into my car, another bull walked 15 feet away and into the meadow.
I arrived at my campsite just before dark. After dinner, I celebrated with cookies and sang the happy birthday song to myself, grateful to have a spectacular birthday in the perfect place for the fluke of the first storm of the year.