A day before we departed for California, Shar’s parents generously took us out for a late lunch at a scenic riverside restaurant.
“Don’t say anything about camping,” Shar advised me in a hasty text. “My dad will flip.”
This seemed puzzling, especially since my own father had no trouble at all sending me off into the sylvan unknown. He’d even helped me pitch our tent on the front lawn, ensuring that the poles were the right size and the canvas was clean. Shar explained that her father would worry; there were all sorts of plausible terrors lurking in the woods, and two frivolous campers would be an easy magnet for these terrors. Her father, she went on, would insist on arming us with weapons to pack in our checked luggage. This would have been problematic since the tent already occupied a lumpy two-thirds of the only bag we planned to check.
It wasn’t as if we’d never been camping before. Shar and I each hailed from families who spent many a summer weekend camping in various secluded groves across the state. (This isn’t entirely true. Each year, my family’s campsite seemed to retreat further and further from secluded groves until we wound up in RV camps that snuggled up against trailer parks. Appropriately, my uncles and cousins upgraded from tents to sleek RVs; only my father stubbornly insisted that we sleep on the ground, which should have come in handy.) This in addition to the fact that, a few years earlier, we’d planned on hiking the Appalachian Trail, an endeavor that requires months of careful planning and thorough research.
We knew what we were doing, I reasoned. I packed a tent, and Shar sagely supplied a box of waterproof matches, tinder, a sleeping bag, and a blanket.
As we headed north toward Humboldt, we both excitedly noted the rapidly changing scenery: vineyards gave way to slumbering hills, which eventually ceded to craggy, pine-studded mountains; elegant, expensive wineries slowly dissipated, replaced by the occasional post office or Safeway. For much of the journey, the road unraveled in a wide, straight line through miles of nothing – and then an old time prospecting town would spring up out of nowhere, as if someone had dropped it haplessly from the sky.
At one point, low on gas, we followed the GPS directions to a nearby fueling station only to wind up at a lonely gas pump that called itself a museum. The World’s Largest Redwood Tree Service Station Museum, to provide its full title. Here stood a sleek – but barren – gas pump, a proud relic from the 1950’s glistening beside an olive-brown Mercedes that may or may not have been a part of the museum.
At first, it seemed like the antiquated gas pump was going to be the most impressive reminder that we were driving far away from civilization – and modernity – but then, as we drove higher into the mountains, ears popping at each swerve in the road, we happened upon something even more peculiar: Bigfoot. Or, to be more specific, his towering wooden likeness.
Around a bend in the road, a large, multicolored sign welcomed us to Bigfoot Country, the carefully sculpted bigfoot gazing vacantly at the road. And this was not the sole roadside mention of Bigfoot. As it turns out, Humboldt County is a hotspot for Bigfoot sightings. According to bigfootencounters.com (an obviously reputable source), “the highest rate of sightings and recovered footprints are in the Northwestern most part of Northern California near the Oregon border around the Humboldt Forest.”
As a bipedal humanoid enthusiast, this was somewhat exciting to me. My sister and I had spent many a night settled in front of the TV watching Finding Bigfoot, raptly viewing self-proclaimed Bigfoot experts analyze what they considered to be “typical squatch behavior.” Still, I was unprepared to share my sleeping space with Bigfoot that night. California Bigfoot, the website continues, “is extremely shy, illusive* and while he seems curious, he is rarely aggressive when confronted by humans.” The website fiercely attempts to portray Bigfoot as the outcast, bookish type, and nervous hikers are encouraged to view the creature as innocuous, overlooking the fact that “kidnapping is sometimes reported, [though] the victim is never harmed.”
All this stewed in the back of my mind as Shar and I effortlessly pitched our tent and set off for a two-hour hike amidst the ruddy, sky-brushing behemoths. It was a serene stroll, punctuated occasionally by a photography session or a stop to read about burls or some strange proboscis emerging from the face of a poor redwood located in the grove. What caught my eye was the informational sign dedicated to redwood branches that fall from the treetops to the ground, aptly named widowmakers. The ominous moniker is actually fairly blunt: because these branches fall from staggeringly high heights, they strike the ground with such a force that they’re often known to pierce tree trunks or a particularly tough patch of soil. Or, as the name suggests, an oblivious redwood-enthusiast, happily perambulating through a grove before meeting an early death. This was just another reminder of one of the many cruel and creative ways in which nature can kill you.
I could only imagine Shar pausing to peer into a hollowed tree trunk, turning back toward me just in time to see a rogue redwood branch plunge decisively into my head. It would make a unique obituary; it’s not often people get killed by trees.
After our hike, we decided it was time to grab a six-pack and hunker down for the night. Not surprisingly, there was only one liquor store nearby. Doubling as a bar, the store simply called itself “Saloon.” I liked the no-frills approach; there’s no need for a clever name when you’re the only bar in town.
Inside, we gingerly avoided stepping on a sleeping-or-possibly-dead dog and doled out a hefty $12 for a six-pack of Coors Light. Apart from the dog, the bar seemed as average as any dive bar you might come across in New Jersey: haggard bartender forcing a happy smile, grizzled bar patrons sipping whiskey, old man in a plush recliner stroking a cat and greeting customers. Nothing out of the ordinary here.
Once back at the campsite, Shar and I continued to marvel at our ability to pitch a tent and decided that it was time to light up the firewood we’d purchased. We tossed a few logs into the fire pit and Shar liberally sprinkled some tinder along the logs. She struck a match, tossed it on, and we waited eagerly for the logs to catch fire.
“I think you have to blow on it,” I told her knowingly. She nodded, peppered a bit more tinder, lit a match, and we blew.
We continued in this fashion until Shar dumped the entire tin of tinder on a log and lit it up, only to watch it fizzle.
“We must have bad wood,” she reasoned. “It must be wet or something. And I think we need newspaper.”
“Do we stand the wood up?” I asked helplessly.
Frustrated, we both cursed the suicidal fire and the faulty wood until a man pulled up alongside our campsite, his wife wheeling a stroller toward the bathroom. He shook his head, laughing, and then paused.
“Okay, I can’t leave you like this,” he sighed.
In one quick motion, he scooped up a thick heap of dried brush from the ground and dropped it in the fire pit. For paper, we tore up the brown bag we’d intended to use for garbage. The man leaned three logs up in a teepee position, scattered the kindling and paper to create a plump base, and lit it up. The fire caught in an impressive blaze. We thanked him profusely**.
“Always have to be the hero,” his wife muttered from the car.
Our inefficiency had seemed surprising at first, until I remembered that I’d never actually started a fire before. All of our campfires sprang to life instantaneously when my cousin Chris poured a generous splash of lighter fluid onto some logs and set them on fire.
When the fire died and the six-pack had been reduced to a two-pack, we decided it was time to crawl into our cozy tent for the kind of easy slumber that follows fire-building, tent-pitching, and redwood-exploring.
We quickly realized a few things. It was cold outside, for one. We’d thrown the blanket over the tarpaulin, hoping it would function as a thin mattress. Still, the ground was unusually hard, and finding a comfortable sleeping position was impossible. Shar’s sleeping bag, which we used as a comforter, was actually not a flat sleeping bag at all; for one person, the mummy bag might have been especially cozy. For two, it was difficult to share with the bizarre way it unfolded to accommodate its hood.
Shar fell into an instant sleep. I slept for about forty-five minutes before waking up with an urge to use the bathroom. After that, sleep abandoned me. I spent the night rolling around, trying to balance the pain in my back and limbs. Once I got comfortable, something would pass by the tent. A shuffling of leaves to my right would cause my heart to race. Was it a bear? Mountain lion? Rapist?
Above, the mesh windows of the tent roof allowed for a shadowy view of the night. Each time I glanced up, I expected to meet a beady pair of glowing red eyes looking down at me. Bigfoot, aliens, rapists – any of these seemed likely. And who was to say that a widowmaker might not be hurtling toward our tent at this very moment, set to impale me?
I tried to be rational.
You’ve camped at crocodile-infested rivers on safari, with hyenas and hippos and elephants, I reasoned. But bears were a far greater threat. Unlike crocodiles, bears are notoriously dexterous; they are known to paw their way into sealed dumpsters, garbage bins, and cars. For a bear, opening a tent would be like opening an envelope. Suddenly, I began to panic. Did I have any wrappers in my purse? Had I dropped a chocolate chip in one of my pockets? Shar had mentioned that bears have peculiar tastes and are known to like deodorant. Was I wearing any? Did bears prefer Secret? Did bears like beer? Had we put the beers away? What about the empty coffee cups in the car console?
I was envisioning how I might react if a bear unzipped the tent when Shar shot up from her sleep.
“Oh my God,” she whispered. “I think I left a wrapper in my purse.”
“How did you just realize that?” It was after three in the morning; she’d been asleep for at least five hours.
“I don’t know!”
There was indeed a wrapper in the purse. We threw that – and the coffee cups – in the bathroom garbage and returned to our tent. It was just after four, and sleep was finally looking possible, when out of the night came a long, low howl that we later agreed sounded anguished. Shar grabbed my wrist.
“Nickels! That sounded like a fucking wolf!”
And that was that. We gathered our things, tramped back to the car, found that the seats reclined to a comfortable horizontal, and slept easily for two hours. I’m not sure why it was the howl that was the last straw. I’d accepted that there might be foraging bears roaming the woods, but wolves somehow seemed out of the question.
“Maybe it wasn’t a wolf,” Shar suggested in the morning. “Maybe it was a dog.”
“But why was it howling like that? It must have seen something,” I pressed. “Like a bear. Or Bigfoot.”
When we pulled up our tent that morning, we discovered the reason for our discomfort: half a dozen thick sticks had been scattered beneath the tent. An image flashed across my mind of my dad and my cousin Ian raking and sweeping the campsite before pitching the tent. Another thing I’d forgotten.
We drove out of Humboldt the next morning, deciding that perhaps Shar’s father was right: perhaps we needed a bit more practice with camping – and a taser. Driving back toward the main road, I anticipated a comfy bed in a posh hotel when we reached Groveland that night. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong about what the next lodging had in store, but that was for later.
Behind us, somewhere among the receding redwoods, Bigfoot was probably having himself a good laugh. (Before kidnapping someone.)
*I think the website means ‘elusive,’ but who am I to change this?
**Later, after our first fire went out, I am proud to say that Shar and I easily started a new one that raged well into the night.
Categories: United States (USA)