By Andrew Fort
The first truly adult trip I remember taking—just me and my girlfriend—was to the redwoods in northern California. It was part of a gradual growing into adulthood—first a job, then college and living away from the home I grew up in, and it felt like the final cutting of the cord. Northern California’s geology and biology of mountains and forests are completely different from southern California’s of deserts and date palms, and that also gave the trip the feeling of a rite of passage. Still, I was not really prepared for the mystery and majesty of the redwoods. As a newly-minted adult, the unexplored forests and coasts and the kitschy little roadside attractions and the fact that we were in motion meant that we could suddenly do anything. The future lay ahead, as unexplored and thrillingly mysterious as the forests themselves.
Among the must-see roadside attractions in this area was the Trees of Mystery, a grove of trees with unusual features and names to match: the Elephant Tree and the Cathedral Tree, the Brotherhood Tree and the Candelabra Tree. In case you might drive by without even noticing it, giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox stood outside.
For me, the appeal of roadside attractions has always had something to do with their proximity to the sublime. A little tumble-down antique shack, or a chainsaw bigfoot, no matter how clumsy, humanizes the landscape at the same time that it provides a reminder of the insignificant scale of human endeavor when set against the majesty of nature. And the name, Trees of Mystery, seemed to be speaking to me at the time. Whatever mysteries adulthood held, I was ready for them. I was certain they were every bit as majestic and beautiful as the redwoods.
Then life happened, and I was confronted with realities.
There was another trip to the Trees of Mystery, under different circumstances. This time I was en route back to Southern California with a young child in tow. At the time I was a newly-minted parent; new as well to the pressures and pleasures of working, home-ownership, and raising a demanding, intelligent four-year-old.
This time we needed to do the trip on the cheap. We packed everything in the car and stayed in ratty motels. We ate out of a cooler. But we couldn’t resist another stop at the Trees of Mystery.
In the intervening years things had changed. Instead of a grove of loosely-protected trees with a mist-swathed pathway through them and a kitschy gift shop adjacent, the Trees of Mystery had now been fenced off and an enormous gondola to the top of the mountain, dubbed the “Sky Trail,” had been erected. And the prices had tripled.
The majesty of nature was suddenly subject to a surcharge, and it excluded us as a matter of economy.
While we deliberated whether or not to pay the steep entry fee, which included the mandatory Sky Trail ride, we sat in the new restaurant across Highway 101. It was totally empty except for us. The room was decorated as if we were underwater in a lake, with the underside of a bobbing duck just above our table. It was cold and foggy outside. I mentally counted the dollars we had available to spend on the trip while I chewed on the unbearably salty French dip which I had allowed myself as a luxury.
After lunch we drifted through the gift shop. We bought my four-year-old son a little box made of burlwood and a pressed penny, still trying to decide whether or not to spend the money on the admission fee. It was about the same amount we would pay for a night in a motel.
Eventually I caved in. It seemed like there was a memory of something good there, and outside we were just touching on the fringes of it, afraid to take the plunge. We paid for the tickets, got on the gondola and went up.
The gondola went higher than I expected it to. I remember gliding above the tree tops, enclosed in the little bubble of the gondola car, over deep valleys lined with gigantic firs. The earth was a pincushion below us. At that moment, it didn’t matter how much we had spent, or how much we had left to spend. All I remember is feeling free—our little family in a bubble, high above the world.
Every time I hear the beginning of the Handsome Family’s song, I’m whisked back to that ride, high above the pines. It reminds me that out of all the mysteries in life, those fleeting moments of joy that come in the midst of stress are sometimes the most mysterious of all.