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Redwoods Bombed

January 22, 2013

I was introduced to the Point Reyes neighborhood before it became a national landmark, when it was more natural, calm and elegant. I have always been very partial to the cool, subdued light of the natural cathedrals of the deep, quiet redwood groves hidden in the canyons and mountain sides of the central California coast range. Point Reyes is an especially splendid showcase for the redwood groves for its being surrounded by the wide and endless Pacific Ocean on the one side, the finger strand of Tomales Bay on the other and Drake’s Bay on the southern arc.

The one special aspect of this location is that it has never been logged. I have seen pictures of the hillsides in the San Lorenzo Valley above Santa Cruz, where they had been clear cut from the mountain’s summit all the way down to the beach, waiting to be slash burned and replanted with second or even third growth redwood (Cowell Park and Big Basin are the exceptions here). While there are cathedral groves there, they are tiny chapels compared to the huge, silent arches of the old growth groves found on the cape of Point Reyes. The redwood columns rise bare and limbless up past a height above the tops of most other trees. When the deeply green branches inter-mesh so high above the fern covered floor, they are obscured by misty shafts of thinly colored light, so much subdued from their source, the bright, white sun.

For the density of the green, for its shade and its high content of water vapor, the cathedral interiors are cool, the air is thick and heavy and rich to breath. There is no dust. There is no pollen. Some mysterious poison in the redwood world kills off other, inferior, dryer plant materials. There is no pollen and its air is cool and comfortable. Lawns do not grow within the drip ring of a healthy redwood. The mysterious poison keeps the grasses from growing.

The huge redwood groves found in Point Reyes are, for me, calming, awesome and mystical. And, back in the old days, there was one other very far out element, there was a stable nearby. The stable made it possible to visit the redwood cathedrals, the awesome beaches, and the neck craning cliffs, all in a very short time on horse back, compared to visiting the same on foot. While I’m no ultra- confident equestrian, I could negotiate a heady horse well enough to visit the beaches and cathedrals of the Point at least a couple of times a year. It was a very fine and favorite past time for me, though seldom done. Besides, it was pretty expensive, people were willing to pay a good deal to ride horse back at Point Reyes.

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There was one time in the early 1970s when a special lady friend of mine had come into town (not Los Gatos, but for my short stay in Berkeley). She was the sister of one of my best musician friends. I had known her since she was a straggly teenager but as she had grown into a sophisticated but intellectual, professional model. I couldn’t help but be very much attracted to her. But, I held this attraction at bay, she was one of my best friend’s little sister. Damn, she was beautiful, and worse, she was very smart and so well read. We had great conversations.

She had kept her cool and worked her way up in her trade to work in New York and Los Angeles. Her parents lived in Daly City and whenever she came into the area, she made a point of letting me know so we could have a few long dinners together to “catch up.” I was working under a contract with the federal government on a computer project and it was necessary for me to leave the Los Gatos/Santa Cruz home base and live as a commuter up near San Francisco. I had a friend working on his third PhD at Berkeley and he agreed to let me crash with him until I found myself suitable quarters in the more rural countryside of Marin County. That is when I found the stable on Point Reyes.

The model had come home, Cathy was her name, and she let me know she was around, once more. It hit me, she would love this; we could spend a few hours on horse back at Point Reyes. This was very much her style. She might make her money as a sophisticate in New York and L.A., but like me, nothing would replace the wild and wooly upbringing on the farm and in the woods. I s’pose that was the root of our strong bond. But, still, she was so overwhelmingly attractive. I was just out of a divorce to another very attractive woman. Man, it was hard to have her remain a baby sister inside of my head.

When I mentioned the idea of horseback at Point Reyes, Cathy went bananas. She didn’t even know they had stables near Point Reyes. What a great idea, let’s do it tomorrow! I told her to slow down, let’s check our schedules. My year long consulting project was coming to an end and I had a big meeting coming up within a few days to make my final recommendations to the big wigs. I couldn’t screw that up. I was 24 and this was my first federal contract.

Cathy was in town for a couple of weeks between jobs and her schedule was very open. I checked my work and I was pretty much ready for my big meeting. We set up the ride at Point Reyes for the day before my meeting, from lunch on. She would meet me at my Berkeley apartment and we’d take my VW over to Marin for the horse back ride and have a nice dinner somewhere between the stable in Marin and my place in Berkeley, who knew where? What ever might strike our fancy.

Cathy ended up parking a couple of blocks from my place which was on the corner of Dwight and Dana Avenue, in Berkley, a block down from the infamous Telegraph Avenue and People’s Park. I had a studio on the second floor of an older building that was well kept but all the colors in the place were some insipid shade of grey that made it inherently depressing and it had an over sized landing in front of the place, a sort of outside foyer. It surely had to have been built in the forties. Even before we left, Cathy said she’d heard of a great, new restaurant here in Berkley, and let’s just decide to have dinner here now, before we left. I agreed and she plopped a big bag of stuff on my bed. Off we went.

At the stables, I had reserved the horse I usually rode when I was there, but I didn’t specify one for Cathy, she was a much more able rider than I was and I wanted to let her have her choice. We had gotten there way before noon and so most all the mounts were still in the stable. We had a good, long afternoon in front of us. As we left the gate in front of the stable, I pulled my horse up and looked round at the silvery haze in the towering redwoods. I breathed in, long and full, and told all my muscles, all my joints, and especially my brain, to unwind and relax, this was as close to heaven as we would ever get. Cathy called me forward. I pressed my heels into the horse flesh and caught up to her just a few feet away.

“Take it easy,” I told her. “This could last for a long time.” She smiled and playfully nodded in agreement. Here, we were kids again, at least for a while.

We went down a broad trail that led to the beach and we rode carefully in the sand, not sure how the horses could handle it. The morning fog hadn’t completely burned off yet so there were the thin remnants, giving the sky that silvery cast it gets just as the last of the beach fog goes away. It’s mercurial but weightless. Cathy’s horse didn’t like the sand, he was young, and we turned inland, to the redwood trails leading to above the cliffs.

Both of us had been working very hard for too long. The cool vapors were soaking into us, and we just wanted to vacation ourselves from the urban reality and relax. Neither of us held the reins, they were just looped round our saddle horns and we let the animals meander up the trail of this magnificent forest. Here, one thing looked as pleasing as any other, you couldn’t lose. We let the horses be our guides.

Even though we hadn’t seen each other in over a year, neither of us were inclined to talk. We just meandered through the redwood. The dim light, the reddish/brown hues of the tree trunks all round, the murky green sky, the mist and occasional glimmer of silver sky just lulled us into a half consciousness. Even the horses were lulled by it all. After all, we ARE all animals, in the end. Somehow I had my back arched over the rear of my saddle and I was comfortably resting my long haired head on the hips of my mount. I was nearly asleep, I don’t know if he was even walking or not, but some movement caught my eye.

Way up high, very up high, I saw some movement, some tiny movement, a glimmer. I roused a little and watched it. Whatever it was, it was at the very top of this redwood cathedral. I leaned up on the back of the horse, and focused and whatever I was watching was very small. It was something light and slow and flickering. It was slowly, gracefully falling, stalling now and again, but I didn’t know what it was.

Without moving, I said “Cat,” and she followed my eyes. In this absolute silence, we watched this fluttering fall from so high. Not a word was said. Then, as it got closer, even the horses spied it. We all watched and waited. It was just over our heads, fluttering.

It hit the ground and was still.

It was the tail feather of a red tail hawk. How did it ever make it through the canopy overhead?

The four of us just stared at the feather.

What a trip.

Cathy stirred, smiled at me and slowly dismounted. She went over to the feather, picked it up and cleared it of the little mulch it had found on the ground and walked over to my horse. She drove the feather deep into my long locks and simply said,

“Good idea.”

She remounted and she just rested her head on her guy’s back.

I was thinking, this could go on forever, so I clucked and turned in my heels. At least, now, we were moving, meandering through this wonderfully calm, cool and quiet forest, this magnificently towering “cathedral after cathedral” forest. I snorted a sardonic laugh, this was nature’s version of Paris or Rome.

At a slow, easy walk, the horses brought us back to the stables. It was good for them and it was good for us. We got in my bug and headed back to Berkley over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Hardly a word was spoken. We both had about the best non-formal massages anyone could imagine. We were as loose as gooses, we felt great. And we both knew why. We went to heaven.

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redwood2

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From the bridge, I took the exit onto the Nimitz Freeway to get us to Berkley and our dinner. I took the University Avenue exit off the Nimitz Freeway and headed for my apartment.

For those of you who weren’t around when Berkley was the center of a lot of student uprisings in the 1960s and 70s, most of those “happenings” took place up around the University of California, usually in and around Telegraph Avenue, up about two miles or so from the Nimitz Freeway. University Avenue, on the other hand, is the big, broad street that goes from the freeway up to the University campus itself and near the infamous Telegraph Avenue. University Avenue is a thoroughfare, not a rallying place. That sort of thing was all for Telegraph Avenue and the University’s campus some distance away.

So, on this day, in my VW bug, Cathy and I are just so mellowed out and we roll off the freeway onto University Avenue and are heading for my apartment so we can get some dinner at a new place she had just heard about. But, no sooner do we get onto this big, broad boulevard with streetlights and stoplights and urban buildings, but this boulevard now is strange and all that we see is very weird and out of kilter. We are looking at a big, broad city street, three lanes going up and three lanes coming down, and in the center are left turn lanes. But in my VW today, we are facing six or seven lanes of headlights coming straight at us, in a panic. These people are nuts. I pull up into a gas station to get off this crazy street and let all these nutty cars pass us.

We look round over the back of our seats and watch all these crazy cars head in all sorts of crazy directions, but when we look forward again, it gets even crazier. There are no cars on this city boulevard, there are just dozens and dozens of pedestrians running down the middle of this street, running like there is no tomorrow. I jump out of the VW bug and try to stop some of the runners to find out what the problem is here, this is just too weird. No one will stop for me. And then I see.

Flashing red lights fill the horizon at the top of University Avenue. The cops are coming down the boulevard in full force and in every lane. They are threatening the pedestrians, yelling curses at the runners using the big P.A. speakers mounted up with the blinking lights. They are telling us anyone is fair game. I panic.

I jump back in the bug with Cathy as she asks me what’s going on. I tell her I have no idea but we have to get out of here. I am so glad I hopped this car up. It could fly like a bat out of hell. I rev up the engine and speed out of the gas station and turn onto the first unknown, quiet street I can find. The world is upside down. I get out of the bug, telling Cathy to just lay low, and I walk down this little street to watch the cop’s sweep down University, a block or so away.

The sweep passes me and goes down University, it’s speakers still threatening. I wiggle my way up to University, looking up, it is clear, there are no cars, there are no pedestrians, there are no cops. I look down, there are no cars, no pedestrians, there are no cops. I jog back to my car and tell Cathy to just duck down. I start the car and rev the motor a few times to make sure it was going to be reliable, then I hang a big quick turn and floor it so as to cross University Avenue as fast as possible. Once on the other side of University, we would motor up the hill to get as close as we could to my place. After that we would be on foot. God knows what this is about, we sure didn’t.

We zig-zag our way up the blocks towards my apartment building. All we saw were scared pedestrians running down the streets, no one is running up the streets. They are fleeing down hill from the University campus. I parked the car in some off street about four blocks from my place, and locked it up. I told Cathy we’d have to make it the rest of the way on foot, but why? Random people were just fleeing past us and finally, in frustration, I simply grabbed a guy’s collar and tripped him and asked him what was happening. As he was trying to scramble from me, he yelled out that Nixon had announced they were going to start bombing HaiPhong, a Viet Namese harbor. We had been hearing much about it lately, on the news. The anti-war radicals went nuts up on the campus and on Telegraph and the cops went nuts on the radicals. It was marshal law. Or so the guy told me. Cathy and I hadn’t turned on one radio all day. Holy God, we had been in the totally other place. This was incredibly uncool.

I pointed out to Cathy how to proceed in the shadows, how to get from this dark and hidden street corner to that, as there was going to be no reasonableness tonight. Anyone caught outside was going to be made into a guilty person and a victim all at once. We proceeded in the shadows and in the dark, we finally made it to my building. We went upstairs to my studio and once inside, we both just rolled out on the floor and started breathing. I didn’t even turn the lights on in the studio, I was so scared. We both were. I turned on the TV to get the news but I kept the volumn way down. We watched all the confusing and unconvincing rhetoric one more time, as we’d heard in the past, too many times. We nodded to each other and shut the TV down. We were scared and we were exhausted, and the worst of it, we lost the magic of our day.

As we did so, we heard a rumble knocking around on my building, knocking very close. Then we heard mens voices, gruff mens voices and more rumbling. We shut the lights off and carefully peeked out the drapes. Looking down, the cops had set up a command post in my building’s over-done foyer. We were locked in for the night.

Eventually, a couple of cop cars pulled up to the foyer, and facing the wrong direction, they parked at the curb in some skewed formation. Soon another cop car pulled up and one of the uniformed guys got out carrying a big, flat box of donuts. We heard some good natured voices welcoming the box. Up in my studio, we started breathing easier. All of the evening’s adrenaline had us wired but there was no way to burn it off. We were still trapped. During the long night, all sorts of marked cars were coming and going to our foyer. There was no way Cathy could make it to her car several blocks away. They would surely stop her and take her in, just for being a young person in this old people’s neighborhood. Surely she could not be up to any good after today’s business. Reasonableness and logic were in short supply this night.

We turned the TV back on but still kept the sound low. There were protests and some riots all over the country in response to Nixon’s announcement. We weren’t the only ones trapped in our apartments. This was some sort of relief.

Within months, the Viet Nam war unwound and then it finally, really ended. The country was just too tired of it.

I still go to the redwood groves when I can, but never with the simplicity and serenity, the purity of those old days. There is just too much static in my head.

And Cathy, I have never heard from her or saw her after that hellish night to a heavenly day.

But, I still have the feather.

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