Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Deep Woods

Life is made up of journeys. Most of our lives are spent between the journeys, pondering what we learned during the trip. Then we take off again, experience unforeseen things, arrive at our destination and look back. When we gaze at where we came from, we often have a different perspective. Our point of view is different because of the things we did and saw along the way. Our perspective is different because the place we eventually find ourselves is far different than where we came from.

The number of journeys we take in our lifetimes vary, but almost everyone takes two or three. We all have our first day of school, our honeymoon, changing jobs, moving to a new town, our final trip to the hospital. It was one of these trips back in the 80s that will remain in my memory for the rest of my life. The trip held promise, fear and great beauty, although I didn't know it when I set out on the journey.

I was leaving college. I had lived in Oregon for almost 8 years, going to college and trying to find work. However, the time finally came when I had to call it quites. Back then, the economy was in recession and the unemployment rate in Oregon was astronomical. Even though I had a college degree, there was no work to be had anywhere. So I packed up everything in my Saab 99LE and left town in the middle of the night to head to Arizona. Back then, the American Southwest had a booming economy and my parents lived there. So after 8 years on my own as a young man, I was leaving all my friends and the only adult world I had ever known to return to the nest. I had little choice. Oregon had become a dead end.

Since I knew that this would be the start of a new chapter in my life, I wasn't in any hurry. I was going to take the longest, meandering route I could to Arizona and take in as much scenery as possible. In a way, this was the end of childhood and I was going to enjoy it as much as I could.

I decided to head south along Highway 1 and follow the California Coast all the way down to Santa Barbara. Everything I owned was in that car and I was traveling cheap. No motel rooms, I slept in the car, I ate in the car. Everything I owned that summarized my life up to that point was in that car. It was a little shuttle craft crossing a vast sea of stars to a new world. It was adventurous.

I would often drive long distances until I was about to fall asleep and then find a small park next to the ocean, pull in, stop the car, recline the seat and doze off. The sunlight would eventually wake me and I would peer out the windshield to examine the coastline that I couldn't see the night before. Exiting the car in a deserted parking lot with the smell of salt water and the crashing of the waves isn't a bad way to wake up, even if the car seat wasn't the world's greatest bed.

As my trek left Oregon and entered into Northern California, I entered the land of the wooden giants, The Redwoods.

The route down Highway 1 has changed over the years. They are constantly re-directing the road and making modifications to it. Back in the early 80s, you could drive through the Redwood forest. There were little turnouts called 'groves' where you could park your car and walk off into the woods. They aren't there anymore. The highway has been changed so that there are only a few places where you can actually drive to the trees today.

During this journey, the roads were pretty deserted and as I became tired I found one of the small groves to drive into and parked my car. I was the only one there and as night fell, I hunkered down in my car and ate some chips and dip while listening to the radio. Eventually, the light faded and I covered myself with my sleeping bag and wondered where the next days miles would lead me as I dozed off to sleep.

I don't know how long I had been asleep when I was jarred awake by a loud crash on the top of the car. I sat up and opened my eyes, only to see nothing. I mean nothing in the most literal sense of the word. I couldn't see. Even tough my eyes were open, all I could see was total blackness. I was blind! As I rubbed my eyes in an effort to try and figure out what was wrong, there came another loud "THUMP" over my head, as though something was throwing rocks at my car.

By now I was starting to panic and I began feeling around for the dome light switch. If you have never owned a Saab, the ignition and dome light switch are mounted between the seats. I had to pull way the sleeping bag and the potato chips in the darkness to try and find it. I felt the switch in the darkness, pushed it, and prayed for the return of my sight. The interior of the car illuminated and I took a deep breath realizing that I could still see. But the interior of the car was all I could see. Outside my car windows was nothing but an infinite void of blackness.

"THUMP", I heard something strike the front of my car.

I reached for the headlight switch and turned them on. The front of the car illuminated the grove for about 20 feet. They reveled that a heavy fog had settled into the forest. Realizing that my environment had changed dramatically, I opened the car door and exited into the darkness to investigate. As I stood by my car, what felt like a large slush ball hit the top of my head. It finally started to make sense.

In this remote part of the California coast nature had conspired to play a little trick on me.

There was no light here. Among the thick trees that stood over 200 feet tall all around me, there was a moonless night. Add to this mix, a heavy fog rolling in from the coast to cover up what little starlight there may have been and you get total darkness. Darkness where there is no light what-so-ever. Your eyes are useless in this type of situation. It was nature induced blindness. Add to this the fact that the tall trees acted as giant water collectors for the fog as it drifted though their upper branches. Large drops of water formed in the treetops and then came rolling off their branches and hurtled to the ground below....or in my case, the car below.

I reached inside the car, turned off all the lights and stood there in the darkness. The only sense I could perceive was the faint rush of the wind in the treetops and the ambient noise of the forest at night, along with the occasional shot glass of cold water to my face. This was one of those rare times that nature made me stop and think. The world was full of surprises and this was only the beginning.

As I stood there, I knew what the ant must feel like as he traverses the lawn when the sprinklers suddenly pop on. It is frightening at first, but he eventually gets through it.

I crawled back into my car, snuggled up under the sleeping bag and had the best nights sleep of my life. "This is what life is all about", I thought. Finding the unknown and conquering your fear.