Where Did You Sleep Last Night

I have a very early memory of my grandmother singing that song repeatedly on one of our first trips camping in the California woods, and though it stuck with me, I hadn’t heard it again.  So it surprised me when Kurt Cobain did his tortured version on MTV just prior to his death.  I doubt she knew how dark it is.  Or maybe she did; she was full of surprises…  Regardless though, there’s inevitably a point during any drive through California evergreens when I hear her singing “in the pines, in the pines…”

Though it was a shame to leave the Oregon coast so quickly, particularly since our “bad” weather gave way to sun and mid-70s for our departure, we had several wickets to meet in California, so set off for the Redwoods via highway 101, which remains the route closest to the coast all the way until Hwy 1 splits off from it in Northern California.  The southern half of the Oregon coast becomes Dunes country rather than Rugged Rocky Shoreline country, which pushes the road a bit inland and blocks the view of the water, but it’s still a nice drive.  Here’s what we did:

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Our destination was a campground in the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park.  The whole “Redwoods” area is a little jumbled and difficult to get one’s head around, as not only are there both National and State Parks that stretch down California’s northern coast and share the Redwoods moniker, but it’s not entirely clear whether you’re in one or the other, as they seem to share jurisdiction in several places.  When entering, you see signs that say something like “Entering Redwood State and National Parks.”  Complicating things further, there are multiple semi-famous redwood groves all the way down the coast to the San Francisco area that may or may not be in State or National Parks.  So I guess the net result of all this is that it’s tough to know whether you’re in the “right” redwoods.  We, it turns out, were destined to camp not in the right redwoods.

Quick backtrack – we had rejiggered our plans in order to get to my parents’ house in the Bay Area a bit earlier and get a little time on the Northern California coast.  This required canceling the reservations I’d made months prior at the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State (and National?  I dunno) Park campground, which are in high demand.  Though we’d now be staying in the area midweek, there was very little available to swap into on short notice, but the Del Norte Coast campground was wide open.  That should have been an obvious red flag, but sometimes it’s tempting to think that you’re just so cunning and savvy, you’re able to find the hidden gems that no one else knows about.

Or maybe that’s just me.  Anyway, here was our campsite.

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Keeper had been fretting a bit about being off the grid yet again, and indeed that’s where we found ourselves, with the trifecta of neither cell coverage, nor wi-fi, nor campsite hookups (i.e. water / electricity).  It was a bit of a tortuous drive down into the valley in which this campground sits, and the other thing we noticed quite quickly about it was the peculiar disappearance of the redwoods as we descended.  There are none in the picture, and in fact I don’t think there were any in the campground either.  Odd choice, if you’re the guy deciding where to put the campgrounds.  And then of course the size.  This picture was the no-kidding, we’re now set up shot, not a picture taken in the process of shoehorning ourselves into the much roomier final campsite.  We couldn’t even open the awning.

Though I had been taking my best “hey kids, check out all these cool things about this campground!” tone, I pulled Tacco aside privately after about an hour of silver lining hunting and suggested we leave in the morning.  “This spot sucks” were my actual words I think.  To my great relief, I didn’t have to spend any time convincing her.  Here were the kids after we told them we’d be leaving early.

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But I need to shift gears abruptly here, because the truth is that the two days we spent in the Redwoods were actually some of our best yet, and that’s not something I toss off casually.

Most of it comes down to the Redwoods themselves.  I grew up in California, went to college on a campus on which redwoods grow, had seen a few of the groves of the larger ones in years past, and in fact discovered recently that my parents have a redwood growing basically in their driveway.  Yet somehow seeing them this time floored me.

I read that something like 95% of the old growth redwoods had been logged before we collectively decided they needed some protection, so most of what you would see outside of the dedicated groves are relatively young.  And they’re pretty trees, without a doubt.  But when you see the huge ones, the 1,500+ year old ones, it’s… well, I shouldn’t speak for anyone else, so I’ll just say that it affected me profoundly.  It’s almost like the previously described difference between a partial and a total solar eclipse.  We saw the first ones upon climbing into the Redwood State/National Park initially on the way to the marginal campground, and I couldn’t quite process what I was seeing.  The size just doesn’t seem right.

Then on the next day, after leaving our tiny campsite at Del Norte, we visited and hiked through the Stout Grove, right across from the Jedediah Smith SP campground, where our original reservations had been.  There’s a reason that place fills up early.

Hiking through that grove gave me a similar feeling to what I experienced in some of the more active geothermal areas in Yellowstone – a sense that there’s “stuff going on” around you and underneath you (and here, above you).  Almost as if it’s humming with an energy you can only intuit, rather than sense.  So hard to describe, but it’s one of the few places where for most of the hike, we all hiked alone, and silently.

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I’ll leave the futile attempts to describe it alone there, and just add that afterwards I asked Tacco whether she could ever get used to that scenery, and without hesitation she echoed the “not even a little” that I was thinking when I asked.

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Our enthusiastic Junior Rangers (the girls – despite what we’d heard before, that program is designed for younger kids, and not the “up to 14!” that they advertise) jumped immediately into their assigned tasks and were able to bag another ranger badge.

After our hike and while parked at the Ranger Station, I was able to get some internet coverage and search for our campground for the evening, since we’d abandoned our redwood-free Redwoods site.  We opted for Patrick’s Point State Park, just north of Eureka, and we’re so glad we did.  Not only is the scenery stunning as usual, but the park is enormous, as are the campsites.

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The site was so large that we didn’t even need to disconnect the Outback to get in.  What’s more, we couldn’t even see our closest neighbors, and across the road we had a clifftop path with multiple viewpoints looking down at the Pacific and expansive, empty Agate Beach to the north.

Keeper has been struggling with lack of personal space more than most, and he was thrilled to discover a small area of our campsite that was cleared of trees, but covered with them – essentially a cave made out of tree cover.  I offered to set up the hammock there for him to hang out in, and he saw my “hang out” and raised me a “I’ll spend the night there!”  I try to take every opportunity to encourage attempts of his to step out of his comfort zone, so I gave him everything he needed (sleeping bag, blanket, pillow, lantern, phone, charger) and cut him loose.  He asked for his knife as well, given that we were technically still in bear country.  We had a brief conversation about the mechanics involved in fending off a bear encounter with a knife, but I quickly noted there was no productive end-game to that conversation, and as long as he didn’t open the blade in his sleep it wouldn’t hurt.

Upon getting him set up and saying good night, I returned inside and wagged “a half hour, tops” to Tacco.  It was pitch dark out there, with lots of critters creeping around.  I was proud of him just to have tried.  Wouldn’t you know it though, he spent the whole night out there!  I love it.

In the morning we decided that a hike down to Agate Beach for some treasure (or at least agate) hunting would be a far better use of our time than any homeschool endeavors would, so we headed down right at sunrise, and had the entire beach to ourselves.  This is what it’s all about!

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