THE FERRY

As the ferry slipped smoothly away from the dark green shore, we were somehow transported to a different plane of being, where things seem slower and more beautiful, moving around us as if we were fixed in time and space. Dark islands slipped silently past us through turquoise water churning below. Sailboats with wooden hulls and crisply crackling sails carved arching trails through the choppy waves, and houses peeked out from behind the thin dark pines standing guard along the rocky shores.

We rode between the islands, stopping first at Shaw Island, its ferry landing no more than a wooden dock between two modest homes, the thick green grass of their yards running down to the rocky shore. We were asked to return to our cars, to prepare for our arrival, and as we drove off the ferry into the tiny crowd waiting to board the returning boat, the island took hold of us. Following the diminishing line of cars that pulled off the main road into driveways and dirt lanes, we wound through farm fields and countryside reminiscent of New England summers with their golden fields ablaze in the early evening sun.

 

THE REDWOODS

We traveled up the coast, past golden hills dotted by black cows looking out over the tropical ocean, wind blown houses, their wood graying in the salted air. The colors of the flowers on the California coast are vibrant and bright against the gray white sky, standing proudly in lieu of the absent summer sun. The farther north we drove, past Fort Bragg and tiny coastal towns, thick dark trees crept to the edges of the road, their soft needles dampening the sound, softening the light. The coastal air still cool, but the sun glittering above, it felt like early fall on the east coast as we drove into redwood country, into the land of giants.

Into the thickening darkness we pressed, feeling as though we were driving our car into an ancient cathedral. Everything grows quietly here, things move more slowly, more deliberately, and people speak in soft voices. There is a magic about these trees, standing so thin and tall in the silence of their own making. We walked between them, touching their faces, looking up towards their tops. I took off my shoes and walked on the soft carpet of needles covering the forest floor, my footsteps knowing and silent, as if my feet had walked these paths before.

This is a place where trees creak and groan as if in conversation. Hallowed ground.

 

DORST

Every tree in these woods soars skyward as if on a race into the clouds, but the sequoias stand firmly rooted on enormous columnar trunks, rust colored and shaggy amidst the needles.

We wandered, faces turned always up, running our fingertips along the deeply ridged bark, pressing our palms against the spongy trunks. These trees could swallow your car whole. We made our way back past an enormous fallen sequoia, its trunk broken and cracked. We climbed on top and stood a little taller, still dwarfed by everything around us.

From here, we drove down into the valley, thick with groves of olive and orange trees, past golden hills of whispering grasses, black and twisted trees anchoring the horizon. You could feel California in everything; the pink and white oleander pushing up in a profusion of color between the boulders, the small houses clinging tenuously to the steep and rocky hillsides above a tiny river, and the icy white granite peaks of the High Sierras behind it all.

Turning east, away from the rows of citrus trees, we climbed the twisting road back into the land of the trees. We entered the park at Three Rivers, and began heading north, but as we rounded a bend in the road, a big furry behind was ambling down the opposite side. As we drove closer, we realized... “BEAR! BEAR! BEAR!” I was screaming at the top of my lungs, trying desperately to wrestle the camera into shooting position without taking my eyes off the creature. My screaming, coupled exploded through the open window, giving us away, and all we could do was watch as the bear trotted across the road and stumbled down the steep embankment in the other side, hidden among the brambles. This moment was certainly not the fear inducing encounter I had always imagined, but it was great nonetheless.

Continuing on, we got a sneak preview of the massive trees we will be going out in search of tomorrow, and we set up camp deep within the heart of the park. All our food, toothpaste, lotion, soap, bug spray, Windex, coolers, water bottles, cooking gear, etc. have all been loaded and secured in the bear proof locker, and we intend to sleep in completely unscented comfort, totally bear free.

ANGEL'S LANDING

The time has finally come, and after another spotty night’s sleep filled with nightmares of plummeting to my death, we got dressed and packed up the car in the cool and windy morning, setting out to hike Angel’s Landing. A steep and winding, but paved, trail twists up the canyon wall and disappears into a crack in its red rock face. Deep green trees line the dry and sandy riverbed, and the trail relaxes its climb in the shade of the notch. After you’ve had a bit of a rest, the trail folds back on itself for the beginning of the 15 switchbacks better known as “Walter’s Wiggles,” so named for their creator. Back and forth and back and forth you climb, up and up and up. You are deposited at the false top, the Scout’s Landing, where the less-sure-of-foot and the terrified-of-heights wait in the shade illegally feeding chipmunks, eagerly awaiting the return of their fearless companions.

You continue on, past the sign warning of sheer, 1000’ cliffs, the precarious clambering and climbing hand and foot over bare rock, and of the several deaths that have occurred here since 2004. (There have been 9). A chain, tethered to the slick rock face provided a hand hold, a safety line when the going gets extra scary, and time worn toe holds give you just enough confidence that many others have come this way before you.

Carefully, delicately, you step, hands to rock and chain, breathing in slow and steady breaths. Surely, but still slowly, you climb to the flat saddle about halfway up. From here, you get the almost comically ridiculous view of the final ½ mile climb to the top - a sheer, smooth, 1000’ red cliff face, a knife-edge trail tracing its way up the narrow fin. And it would definitely be funny if there weren't a line of people picking their way up, daring you not to follow. You stand there for a minute kind of half laughing to yourself and the people around you, asking “This is crazy, right?” But then, I mean, you’ve come all this way, you can’t honestly call this the top, you have to continue!

So up and up again you climb, the chain sometimes on the completely wrong side of the trail, I mean, shouldn’t it be on the 1000’ cliff side?! In all honesty, the climb is great and although a little hairy in places, all it takes is a calm and precise mind, the patience to go slowly, and the ability to keep your eyes above the horizon. The Angel’s Landing is spectacular, a strip of white rock thrust into the air above the bend in Zion Canyon. Below, you can see the Virgin River, turquoise blue, winding along the canyon floor, the ribbon of road following close behind. You can see shuttle buses slowly creeping by, dropping of the next load of excited hikers braving the same trail in the rising heat of the afternoon.

But honestly, it was the hike itself, the feeling of the sandy rock beneath my palms, that was my favorite part. The slow, methodical climbing, the precision of hands and feet, fingers and toes, the heightened awareness, the gathered senses and alert mind. Like a giant puzzle, a steady test.

Coming back down we began to feel the exhaustion of muscles and mind, our legs flopping about like putty, our stomachs growling. We stopped for a moment to rest after descending the Wiggles, and spotted the downy white fluff of a baby owl, perched in a pine tree, its mother feigning sleep on the branch below. We made it down just as the sun was beginning to bake the canyon floor, we hopped back on the shuttle, and out of the park. Off in search of another canyon.

THE CANYONLANDS

The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is a maze of eroded sandstone extending south from the main arm of the park, east of Cataract Canyon and the rushing Colorado River. Red spires tipped in white rise from the desert landscape, deep canyons cut a tightly winding labyrinth of trails and dry arroyos, their sandy bottoms swallowing up any bits of moisture that fall here.

We arrived from the south, driving in a long and curving arc towards the distant mesas, burnt a rusty red by the late afternoon sun. The road follows thick groves of cottonwood trees growing along the banks of Indian Creek, bright green leaves topping the thick and shaggy bark through cattle ranches and crumbling hills. We arrived at Squaw Flat campground with the sun low on the sky, and despite our lack of reservations, we managed to snag one of the last available sites in the park. Backed up against a giant rock balanced on a pedestal of sandstone, we tucked our tent into the shade and went out in search of the setting sun.

The Potholes Trail is one of the only quick hikes off the main thoroughfare, an easy lope about the top of smooth slickrock past sculptural sandstone spires rising in twisting white against the sky. Like a playground for kids of all ages, the Canyonlands beg exploration, and we happily obliged, running across the smooth tops of boulders and climbing into wind blown caves.

We left the car at the end of the road and walked out beyond the Big Spring Canyon Overlook, up between the columns of red and white, perching atop giant mushroom shaped rocks to watch the sun set in a wash of brilliant gold. The walls of rock rising across the dry canyon bottom blazed red as the sun began to dip below the horizon. The shadows, growing long in the fading light, crept in blue fingers up the burnished faces of rock turning red to blue to violet.

A wizened old crow, coal black feathers ruffled by the cutting wind that whistled through the canyon, unimpeded by trees or shrubs, landed on a knuckle of sandstone beside us. His blue black eyes watched us from their corners, intelligent and observant, and he did not flinch as I moved closer to sit beside him. We three unlikely companions watched the orange sun melt into the horizon, thoughtful and silent, and as the distant mountains faded to blue and grey, the crow took wing. A blackened silhouette against the violet sky, he left us to savor the final moments of the day.