I never went on many vacations when I was young. Two, to be exact.
The first was an extended weekend trip to the San Juan Islands of Washington state, a scant few miles to the east of where my parents lived and worked in Skagit Valley, but a locale isolated by water and exorbitant (according to my father) ferry fares. I remember the heady thrills of the resort, an ultra-luxurious facility complete with swimming pool, matching towels for seven and a Magic Fingers bed; the exotic six-course meal at a nearby restaurant replete with such delicacies as carrot-raisin salad and breaded veal cutlet; and finally, the abrupt end to all festivities when my father received the bill for said meal and hotel stay and drove us all home in a fit of pique.
The other vacation, oddly enough, occurred later that same year -- as if my father, in a moment of remorse, decided to make it up to us with a whirlwind tour of central California. I was 11. I remember well the excitement my four sisters and I felt as we donned our cotton pajamas and scurried under the covers the night before the big event. We were still wearing those pajamas hours later as our parents bundled us onto the mattress in the back of the family's white '67 Chevy wagon and headed for the stellar sights of Stockton, Calif. We visited family, we ate too much and got sick, and we almost made it to the Trees of Mystery in Klamath before my father, in true and predictable form, canceled the vacation and drove us all home in a huff.
Trees of Mystery. What romantic imagery that name evoked. What discipline its mere utterance commanded. "Quiet down and behave back there, you kids, or you won't get to see the Trees of Mystery." My mother used that carrot for the 350 miles of Highway 101 that led from San Francisco to the redwood forest below Crescent City, and I was only too glad to comply. She told us about the wondrous trees she had seen there years earlier, returning from her honeymoon, and the awe and magic in her voice captured my imagination. I thought about the trees as I lay quietly on the mattress, snug between my two older sisters, while my father piloted the station wagon through the darkness.
My mother said we would see elephant trees, and I pictured branches of ivory and tangled trunks snuffling for a spare peanut. She said upside-down trees, and I saw gnarled fingers of roots waving in the afternoon breeze while leaf-covered branches burrowed deep into the earth. And a cathedral tree, shaped like an entire church ... Praise be!
But the promise was never fulfilled. It was close -- we made it as far as the parking lot -- but my father ended up screeching out of the lot in a fit over our squabbling. I was crushed -- and swore one day to return.
Twenty years later, that day came when I decided to tour the back roads of America, treating myself to those many vacations I had missed as a child. The first stop on my agenda: those warped and wondrous redwoods of northern California.
My traveling companion and I found lodging at a youth hostel outside Crescent City, where for $7 and an assigned chore one could stay the night on a bunk bed nearly wide enough to accommodate a baby seal. I fell asleep that night thinking about trees and time. Twenty years wasn't more than a flicker of sun and moon to a redwood. A shadow's passing, a few insignificant rings as compared with the thousands upon thousands that made up a tree's long life. What had 20 years meant to me? Had I grown, branched out, put down sufficient roots? Would I wither and die for lack of nourishment? Would transplanting cause my spirit to flourish? Did I even have a spirit?
The next morning, my we set out in search of an answer to these questions. We breakfasted at Babe's Iron Tender, the official Trees of Mystery restaurant directly across the street from my destination. There, amid a plethora of burled wood (burl clocks, burl locks, burl tables -- we'd even heard rumor of an entire motel made of burl up the road a ways), we feasted on lumberjack portions of scrambled eggs and sausage. My mind was hardly on the meal, however, as my gaze continually wandered across the street to linger on that huge figure of Paul Bunyan and the ivy-overgrown tunnel just beneath his feet marked "Entrance."
We crossed the street and entered the parking lot, where I paid homage to Paul Bunyan and his companion, the impressive, anatomically correct Babe the Blue Ox. Inside the gift shop, we chatted with Arlene, the clerk, who informed us that the tour cost $5 apiece, payable upon completion of the trail, and that the Trees of Mystery had long been called a "place of spirits" by the local Indians. We ducked through the ivy tunnel and walked through the wooden entry gate.
The first stop along the trail was the Family Tree, a huge spruce supporting a dozen smaller trees from its branches. I couldn't help but think of my father. The next tree was the long-awaited elephant tree, named appropriately enough for its trunk. There were no peanuts or ivory, but there was a decidedly circus-like feeling in the air.
The upside-down tree could have been more aptly named the sideways tree, but I was in no mood to quibble; I just walked along in delight, following the signs and arrows.
There were tape-recorded messages every few hundred yards, informative segments on the 3,000-year-old giants that populated the park. There was indeed a Lightning Tree, although sans sparks, and a Three-in-One Tree. We saw the Cathedral Tree, a natural melded ring of redwoods wherein a wedding a week takes place come summer; we saw hollowed stumps of mystery and, of course, the ever-present burls. At the highest point in the trail stood the magnificent Brotherhood Tree, a benign and barked forest god.
It was starting to sprinkle, so we decided to forgo the Forest Experience Trail and head straight for Paul Bunyan's Trail of Tall Tales. There we were introduced, via the ever-present tape recordings, to the massive carved redwood statues of Sourdough Sam, the cook at Paul's camp, and other logging luminaries -- Choker Charlie, 2-Time and J.P. Stumpy Woods.
The rain began to increase, so we hurried through the trail, pausing only momentarily to admire the chain saw sculptures of giant squirrels, square worms and oversized mosquitoes and listen to the outrageous lore of the redwoods. Then, suddenly, we were at the exit, the tapes wound down, our hair and clothes sopping wet. Arlene sat patiently in her booth at the back of the gift shop, awaiting our money; people hurried past us, stomping their muddied boots on the plastic mat at the door; and I stood there, silently, wondering where the time had gone.
My friend took my arm and nodded toward the exit gate, but I shook my head and turned away. I wasn't ready to go.
Hiking back up the trail, I turned right at the top where it looped back to the beginning and stood gazing up at the towering Family Tree, its huge bulk supporting 12 separate smaller trees. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my friend watching me, but I still couldn't join him. I had returned here for an answer and wasn't sure I'd received it yet.
The rain continued to pour, my hair matted to my head, and yet I couldn't tear myself away from the spot. I heard the gate open to my left, signaling the tape recording to start in; I listened to it a second time, sneaking glances at the family huddled behind me in the rain. There were four of them: mother, father, two kids. The kids looked bored, the mother annoyed, but the father looked like I had felt while sitting in the restaurant an hour before, fidgety and excited.
"Your grandpa brought me here when I was just your age," I heard him tell his son, but the boy just rolled his eyes and popped another Starburst Fruit Chew in his mouth. They moved on and I watched the father as he encountered the next wonder, the Elephant Tree. "Look at the trunk!" I heard him exclaim.
I turned back to the Family Tree, its outline becoming more indistinct amid the woodland fog that was starting to move in, shrouding it as if it were fading back into time. It wasn't, though; I knew it was there. Trees were substantial things, unaffected by trivialities such as time or perception or tricks of the imagination. After all, a strong, powerful tree could be supported by only the shallowest of root systems, and some trees could take root and find nourishment in the most unconventional of spots -- the way the 12 trees standing above me had taken root in the shoulders of the largest. Trees could grow pretty much any way they wanted to, it seemed: sideways or upside-down or singly or in pairs. Mysterious and wonderful things, trees.
I thought about the man ahead of me on the trail, his excited voice still audible over the information tapes. These were Trees of Mystery to him, and they were to me as well.
The Trees of Mystery park (P.O. Box 96, Klamath, Calif. 95548, 707-482-5613) is located on U.S. Route 101, 15 miles south of Crescent City. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $2.50 for children 6 to 12 and free for children under 6.
Diane Mapes is a writer living in Newell, Ala.