Funny what you think about when you’re wandering among the giant trees.
I went to Muir Woods on Saturday, on my way home from whale watching. It was my third or fourth visit ever.
Muir Woods National Monument is a valley just north of San Francisco that’s filled with groves of giant redwood trees along a small creek. It features a boardwalk and paved pathway, several other trails, and signage to help you understand the ecology and history of the woods.
All the other times I’ve been there have been late in the day when the place was mostly deserted. On Saturday, I arrived at 5 PM and although the place was definitely emptying out, it was pretty obvious that it had been packed earlier in the day; there were cars parked along the road for at least two miles leading up to the park entrance with so many people walking back to them that I thought the cars were for some big party at Muir Beach.
Because of the time of day and the angle of the sun and the park geography, the pathways were in dark shadows. But if you looked up toward the tops of the giant trees, you’d see the sun still shining on them. Still, I didn’t take many pictures. Instead, I just walked along the pathways along the creek at my own pace, thinking about what I was seeing and trying to tune out the noise of the tourists all around me.
I remembered my first visit to Muir Woods, years before in January. Back in the 1990s, I was a regular speaker at Macworld Expo in San Francisco. I’d fly out for a few days — usually with my future wasband — see the show, do my speaking thing, and then spend some time in the area. Airfare and hotel costs in the city were a write-off as a business expense. The vacation tacked on afterward was just fun. One year we visited Napa Valley, another year we visited Sonoma Valley, another year we went south to Monterrey and St. Louis Obispo, and another year we headed to Hawaii. Those were great trips in days long gone.
I don’t remember which year we first went to Muir Woods. But I do remember the quiet of the woods and seeing two salmon heading up stream to spawn in water that was barely deep enough to cover them. One male, one female, several hundred feet apart, struggling to move upstream. I wanted so badly to just grab one of them and put it with the other one in the same pool of water so they could go about their business and die.
I don’t remember the park being very crowded or noisy. I just remembered it being dark and kind of hushed.
It was dark on Saturday, but definitely not hushed.
Even when signs asked visitors to “Enter Quietly” — as they do upon entry to the Cathedral Grove — people called back and forth to each other and kids screamed and cried. I could have been at the mall.
I tried hard to tune it all out, focusing on the tall, straight trees. And when I made a turn down a pathway and found myself in a little cul-de-sac with a bench before a huge tree, I found myself thinking about my grandmother.
Born in 1912 as one of eight children, my grandmother was a hardworking woman who never experienced much outside the world of her home in the New York Metro area. In the 1980s, when I had a job that required a lot of business travel, and then later, when I traveled with my future wasband, I’d send her a postcard from everyplace I went. That and television were he exposures to the rest of the country. When she died in 2002, we found a shoebox with all those postcards inside it. She’d kept every single one.
I found myself thinking about the last time I’d gone hiking with her. She was in her late 70s at the time and still very active, working part-time as a hostess in a family restaurant. I’d taken her to the State Line Lookout in Palisades Interstate Parkway and we’d walked one of the trails through the woods. I’d been worried about her when I realized how steep the trail was in parts, but I didn’t need to. At one point, I saw her stabbing a branch she’d picked up as a walking stick into a hole alongside the trail. When I asked her what she was doing, she told he she’d seen a snake go in the hole. Someone else’s grandmother (or mother or girlfriend, for that matter) might have screamed and run the other way. But not my grandmother. She was tough.
As I stood in the clearing at the base of the tree, I realized that the path through the woods was made so that everyone could enjoy the wonder of the trees, no matter how old or young they were. I found myself wishing that I could have brought my grandmother there. I could imagine her awe as she looked up and realized just how tall that tree was. Or when she looked at the base of the tree and realized just how big the trunk was.
“For crimsey’s sake!” she’d say. None of us knew where that came from but we knew that when she said it, it meant she was impressed. It was like me saying “Holy cow!” (or “Holy shit!”)
I wished I could shown her the big trees. Or the Grand Canyon. Or the view from my helicopter on a flight along the Pacific Coast. Or even the giant cactus that grew in my yard in Arizona or the amazing view from my homesite in Washington. The incredible but normal things beyond her limited range of travel and experience.
The things we take for granted as we make our way through life. The things we don’t miss if we never see them at all.
I miss you, Grandma.