I left Camp Mattole, which had hosted the Lost Coast Writer's Retreat, driving south, the opposite direction than I'd come in on, past the minuscule community called Honeydew. I felt light and content after resting and writing for six days. The road I'd taken last weekend switched and bucked, and so did this one. It's a characteristic style of road here, I guessed, perhaps a wry joke by road builders who might sit by on quiet afternoons to see if tourists end up in deep ravines or not.
Speed limit signs said 10 mph; many 180-degree switchbacks had to be negotiated carefully or I'd have launched into the sweet hereafter, off guardrail-less inclines. The road climbed up and up for miles until I reached a level but still narrow vista point called Panther Gap. I wanted to hear a screaming mountain lion or the mournful howl of a wolf, but since this was broad daylight and nowhere near a movie theater, the drama was all in the spectacular view. Ridge after blue ridge played out to the southwest, the truly wild region bounded by the Lost Coast.
I saw very few cars. On my own, driving in contemplative solitude, I was lost in thought. California has few places left unspoiled by hordes of people, with far more places to be alone in Northern California than in the south. A quick glance at a state map will tell you that. This winding drunken road, called Mattole Road, had been described as beautiful and a great drive, and so it was proving to be. I was hoping I'd not missed a turn and wasn't exactly sure of the distance I'd still have to drive to get back to Hwy 101. I felt excited to be exploring.
I began my descent which looped and turned sharply downward into a narrow tree-covered valley. The road headed down into the redwoods, a remnant forest of old-growth trees. Without any real warning, I was plunged abruptly into the depths of a very dense stand of the tall giants, just as if I'd actually driven straight into a sacred cathedral. It's called the Rockefeller Grove and is simply gorgeous, thick with tall living pillars. The road allows no more than 25 mph and literally winds between the giant trunks of the redwoods.
I rolled down all my windows, slowed, and inhaled deep whiffs of the scented air, peering through the cool echoing gloom. How wonderful, I thought.
I rounded a turn and saw a Toyota minivan driving slowly toward me with a white-haired woman at the wheel. She was looking around and smiling, just like me. A small truck was driving right smack behind her. Just as the minivan was about even with me in the opposite direction, a terrible screaming voice shattered all peace for miles: "JUST PULL OVER!"
It was the driver behind the minivan, turning herself inside out with frustration and an unholy rage. As if they were a nightmare come to life; as soon as they'd materialized they were gone again, the tormentor and the tormented. Just like that. It was a shriek from hell that startled me severely.
I was left with a deep jolt of stunned amazement and a worming fear. There was no resolution to the scene that had exploded before me; it seemed to echo over and over, reverberating in an endless sound loop.
I parked in a lot, decided to walk. A sign pointed to The Tall Tree (356 ft tall) amid groves of magnificently beautiful ancient giants. Still, the notes of hatred, intolerance and ugliness in the screaming voice echoed on.
I had to look for a long time at the trees and think about what they'd lived through for centuries. Not that I think trees see and hear, just that they endure, mostly by luck and amazing genetic resilience, the forces around them that take down other lesser beings. The green canopy far overhead shrouded the tips of trees, vectors of energy connecting heaven above and earth below.
Would the screaming driver ever find peace? What was that indescribably awful note in her voice? I sat in the sacred space of the forest, as sacred as Chartres or Notre Dame and doubly grand, thinking about the concept of heaven, hell, eternity and what humans make of it all, how we create our own heaven, live in the hell of hatred and suffering we create for each other.
The trees stood quietly beside me. I felt the cool shade and an enveloping calm. I walked among them for a little while, grateful for the soft breath of nature on my face. Just that morning I had awakened in a quiet, tranquil haven in the company of peaceful people. Remembering that, I drank in deep breaths of peace and turned my attention to my surroundings. Hikers passed by, chatting, striding along a quiet trail. Visitors nearby murmured between themselves, looking up at bits of sky and sifting beams of light.
Without nature to heal us, will we survive ourselves?
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way