I’ve mentioned here that my boyfriend, aka MoonPie, is one of those people good things happen to. Our seats were upgraded on the plane to and from California because the universe loves him. We were able to take this awesome road trip because people can’t help but be ridiculously generous to him.
One night we were sitting in the backyard at our airbnb chatting with a new friend when the conversation turned to travel – as it easily does when you’re happily away from home. MoonPie says something like I wish we could see the redwoods. To which our new friend, who basically only knew our names and wine preferences, responds, I’ll tell you what. You can borrow my car for a day.
And that is how we found ourselves driving south down US Highway 1 on a gorgeously cool, cloudy day. Our destination: Big Basin. Our agenda: see the ancient Redwoods, hike and walk on a beach.
It’s about 90 miles from San Francisco to Big Basin if you take the scenic route, and why wouldn’t you? U.S. Highway 1 is by far the prettiest road I’ve ever driven on. It winds along the coast with hills to one side and ocean on the other. We passed a hostile that looked like it was in an old lighthouse, maybe it was the one below.
Side note on Mexican food: The night before, MoonPie was gross sick for the second time during our trip, both after eating Mexican food. Our Californian friends here in New York have some explaining to do – any time we get Mexican we have to hear how there’s no good Mexican food in NY. You think this is authentic? And on and on. Both times he had a burrito and I had veggie tacos. Mine didn’t make me sick but the taste wouldn’t stand out in a taco line-up, if taco line-ups were a thing.
Maybe we just made terrible restaurant choices (one was in the Mission neighborhood and the other Lower Haight). For now Brooklyn reigns supreme for tacos and papusas, though Dallas is a close second.
MoonPie inside a Big Basin Redwood
Point is, MooPie was sick the night before so I started reading Bill Bryson’s most amusing A Walk in the Woods. I read right through the chapter on horrors in the woods, otherwise referred to as diseases, murderers and bears. Of these three, bears opened a dark place in my otherwise excited-for-tomorrow mind.
In case you’re wondering, bear attacks are not the most appealing topic to read about the night before hiking in an area you’re entirely unfamiliar with. Not to me anyway. For me, black bear sightings are only sometimes scary. I’ve seen them enough from the safety of a friend’s cottage in the Catskills to downgrade my reaction from paralyzing terror to functional fear. But brown bears…in New York I always comfort myself with the reminder that most of the books say there are no brown bears east of the Mississippi. (Is that true?) Moot point either way – California is west of the Mississippi.
The tree above is the Father of the forest from a distance. The walk to the two tallest trees is only 1/2 mile from the park’s main lot.
Once we turned off US Highway 1, we followed a number of narrow, windy roads on gentle inclines. The first time I saw a dear in the middle of the road I stopped the car until it leaped back into the woods. Then proceeded at about 5 mph because the drop-off on the other side of the road filled me with that weird adrenaline you get driving. MoonPie took over. We passed two more deer before finally arriving at the main lot.
As you can see, some of these trees sprouted long before the Mayan Civilization.
We had lunch at a picnic table before walking the lovely half mile to the ancient giants. While MoonPie finished his turkey sandwich, I took note of the metal trash cans designed to contain trash so as not to attract animals.
I was half asleep when we left that morning so I’d slipped on my clogs instead of running shoes. After seeing the Mother and Father of the forest and spotting a deer grazing nearby, we set off on a gentle 4-miles hike that turned into 6 miles when we connected to another trail after the waterfall above. We’d packed snacks, but after reading Bryson’s chapter on bear attacks, I thought it best to leave the food in the car. That was only the beginning of my paranoia.
Walking this trail was my favorite part of this entire trip. Breathing fresh air surrounded by nature fills me like nothing else can. MoonPie kept busy swatting invisible bugs, swallowing gnats and sniffling through allergies the whole time, so I refrained from voicing a few concerns as we ventured further from the perceived safety of park headquarters.
Now it feels silly to admit, but at the time I couldn’t get bears out of my mind. Thanks, Bill Bryson! Every twig snapped reminded me of a little quirk Bryson mentions. Like how a brown bear may stalk you for half an hour before you have a clue. How attacks go up following bad berry season. And maybe the continued drought made for a bad berry season? Does my purple hat make my head look like a fat juicy berry?
The hat came off.
looking up the inside of a redwood
I’m wearing a bright purple jacket. Do I still look like a berry?
Bears have terrible eye sight. That’s why you’re supposed to make a lot of noise and talk firmly or wear a bell in areas with a high bear population. According to the trusty Internets, bears are less likely to attack once they know you’re human.
The jacket came off and I wrapped it and the hat inside MoonPie’s green jacket. Then I realized my water bottle was bright red. That also went in the jacket bundle. MoonPie was starting to question my behavior, but he looked so at ease. I kept the suspicion that we were in mortal danger to myself.
MoonPie fears no bears
As you can see, MoonPie was good and relaxed. Meanwhile, I’m remembering our lunch. Did you know bears can smell a Snickers bar even if it’s unopened and packed deep in a bag? Yes they can. Then surely they could smell the turkey on MoonPie’s breath. I encouraged him to breathe less and through his nose to, um, calm his allergies.
inside a redwood hollowed by lightning
Ever noticed how thinking about something intensely sometimes draws it to you? I was absolutely convinced we would see a bear. Black bears can climb and sometimes brown bears can climb to. Why this is relevant to someone who can’t climb is beyond me.
All along the walk we saw these trees that were hollowed out inside. The rangers explained this is caused by lighting. Lighting actually burns inside, hollows some trees out, but not enough to kill them. Can you imagine seeing a bolt of lightning strike one of these trees and catch fire? – that’s the kind of thought I would’ve liked to entertain on this hike. Imagine a bear poking its head out to investigate turkey breath and the giant purple berry? – is what I kept doing.
My bear nerves did’t ruin the hike, but I wish I’d asked the park rangers about the bear population BEFORE we set out. See, one of the most common California tee shirts we saw all over San Francisco features a brown bear in the middle. I’m thinking they must be all over.
When the last two miles or so of our hike took us past this shallow stream, I steeled myself for a face to face with a bear at every turn. They like water, too. And, according to the bear attack book Bryson reads, which I now have to read, bears are fond of following hiking trails. They’re most aggressive when protecting cubs and food. Brown bears tend to do a few bluff charges to scare you off. You’re never supposed to look a brown bear in the eye or turn your back on them (step away slowly) but with black ones you’re supposed to stare them down and make yourself big and loud. But sometimes brown bears are black, or is it the other way around? I’d taken in so much trivia the night before, I could’t keep it straight.
We survived approximately zero bear sightings and encounters
After our hike, a park ranger told us bears are very rare in Big Basin because there are so many people around. He said if we’d done the 12-mile hike we may have seen one, but there was no reason to panic as long as you know what to do. Most bear attacks happen because people do something stupid. Until now, I thought ignorance was bliss. Now I know some dumb things not to do, but I’m still not entirely clear on what to do. There’s no unknowing the story of a group in Canada that did everything right only to have a boy attacked and killed because the scent of the burgers they’d cooked for dinner had gotten into the fabric of the tents, sleeping bag and even in the campers’ hair.
I guess next time I’ll research the area first and not obsess or dress like a berry.
After Big Basin we drove about 12 miles further south down the highway to Santa Cruz just because. We watched some surfers surf, noted the crazy parking prices by the boardwalk and rode the world’s slowest cheesiest most expensive haunted castle.
Reluctant to return to the city, we stopped at a number of small beaches along the way. Here we watched the sunset and encountered something infinitely more unpleasant than a hungry brown bear with a hankering for turkey. We encountered a species you can find anywhere there’s a bar nearby. It’s called aging frat boy fried on steroids (AFBFOS). This gigantic drunk behind the wheel of a pick-up tank woke up, saw he was no longer alone on this gravel strip by a public beach and proceeded to scream at the top of his lungs before throwing pebbles at the other cars. I kid you not. Our car did not get hit because AFBFOS have bad aim. Until this, everyone we met in California was disarmingly friendly.
Once we were out of Crazy’s reach, we had to laugh. We spent this entire day immersed in nature at its grandest, punctuated by man at the peak of dumbassery. Good times.
US Highway 1