It was the first full day of my redwood country road trip, about 180 miles north of San Francisco. John Stephenson was showing me his drive-through tree, a 315-foot beauty that's the pride of Leggett. • A storm had just roared through. Raindrops trickled from the forest canopy, and tendrils of steam drifted up from the rough bark of the pass-through trunk, where redwoods store much of their moisture. I thought Stephenson was going to remind me that the tree was called the Chandelier Tree, or that it was 2,400 years old. • "My brother and I were conceived here," he said instead. The family story, he continued, is that "my mom and dad would park in there and make out." • The next day, I was at the Shrine Tree, another drive-through attraction about 40 miles north of Leggett. The manager, J.D. Allmon, was standing by a tarp-covered lump. • "Hey," he said. "You want to see something?" • Then he pulled back the tarp, revealing a 7-foot-long section of redwood trunk, stripped, hollowed and planed to make a long box with removable lid. It was a coffin, nearly done, commissioned by a very sick friend.
"I've been working on this thing for two years, and he ain't keeled over yet," Allmon said. "He paid for the materials. I didn't charge him. I wanted to do it."
California's old-growth coastal redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth, and the old-timers thrive in the foggy, rainy territory between Mendocino and the Oregon line. For many locals, these trees don't just dominate the landscape; they connect with matters of life and death — even now, years past the timber industry's glory days.
If you're visiting, as Los Angeles Times photographer Mark Boster and I were in early spring, you can't count on hearing true tree confessions from everybody. But if you take a minute to step away from your car, you'll feel belittled in the best possible way.
We started by driving 550 miles up U.S. 101, from Los Angeles to Leggett, where Stephenson's Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree looms above Underwood Park. We spent two nights in the stately old Benbow Inn in Garberville, which opened in the 1920s just as the new highway was beginning to make big-tree tourism accessible.
Then we continued into Humboldt and Del Norte counties, beginning with the 32-mile Avenue of the Giants between Garberville and Fortuna, where the old growth of Humboldt Redwoods State Park alternates with roadside kitsch, and coonskin caps can still be had for $8.99. We pulled out our long lenses to snap elk near the old red schoolhouse in Trinidad and headed into the park belt — a long, noncontiguous series of public lands that begin above Orick and stretch more than 70 miles north to Crescent City, including Prairie Creek Redwoods, Del Norte Coast Redwoods and Jedediah Smith Redwoods state parks, which together make up about half of Redwood National and State Parks.
Hiking in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, we wondered whether the tallest tree in the world was hiding in plain sight. (It's somewhere in the park, but rangers and serious tree people don't disclose these things.) And we may have gasped a few times.
You step into the forest and wade through ferns and ground-hugging oxalis, dodge poison oak, glance at moss-covered maples and Douglas firs. You run your hand along the soft, damp redwood bark — redwoods are related to sequoias but grow taller — you feel the soft floor of fallen leaves and needles underfoot. You consider the tonnage, the fires, the floods, the centuries towering above you.
We roamed there with Christine Driscoll and Ann Wallace of Redwood Photo Tours (redwood phototours.com), and I kept thinking about The Wild Trees, Richard Preston's riveting book about tree researcher Stephen C. Sillett and the small band of compulsive climbers, mappers and catalogers who have revolutionized redwood research since the late 1980s.
Preston calls these trees "the blue whales of the plant world."
They could have been the dodo of the plant world. By the time the Save-the-Redwoods League rose up in 1918 to protect them, the timber industry had logged about 95 percent of the region's old-growth forest in less than a century. By the 1940s, when Woody Guthrie gave the redwood forests a starring role in his lyrics to This Land Is Your Land, the trees were even more besieged, yet there was still no national park for them.
Now we have Redwood National and State Parks, created in 1968, which get about 400,000 visitors a year.
Unfortunately, a few of them are poachers bearing chain saws. What the poachers want are redwood burls, irregular growths that protect a tree's health, weigh hundreds of pounds and fetch hefty prices. To get at them, poachers sneak in overnight and sometimes fell entire trees.
Jeff Denny, supervisory park ranger for Redwood National and State Parks, reported 18 poaching incidents last year and 43 since January 2011. On March 1, rangers closed the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway to traffic after dark.
Sometimes, Denny said, "folks who have grown up around these (trees) see them differently than folks who didn't." Indeed, you hear all sorts of stories about what people do when redwoods are at stake.
Local innkeeper Janet Wortman, whose Yurok ancestors have lived along the Klamath River "since the beginning of time," told me over dinner about how, long before white people arrived, her tribe made houses with redwood planks. Before felling a tree, she said, the men would fast for days to show respect.
Bill Hiney, a timber business veteran from Eureka, Calif., who was sitting at the same table, weighed in with a story about a father and three sons who risked their lives by taking a boat out on the Klamath River during the flood of '64, which leveled downtown Klamath and most of Requa, washed out the 101 bridge and flung countless trees into the sea.
Once the guys were on the river, Hiney told us, they spotted an old-growth specimen amid the floating lumber, and one of them jumped onto the tree to put a lumberjack's "choke" on it. Then they guided the long log from the roaring river to a patch of riverbank. When the log went to the mill, they got a big payday.
"In a flood!" Hiney said. "In a 14-foot aluminum boat!"
Implausible? Unverified? Told by a man who has spent 40 years trading tales with lumberjacks? Check, check, check.
After that drama, I shouldn't admit that my big tree moment came in a calm, still patch of forest, but it did. At Founders Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, you can stroll from the parking lot to the 346-foot Founders Tree, and from there it's about half a mile to the Dyerville Giant, a massive redwood that fell in March 1991 after a month of hard rain.
The tree was perhaps 2,000 years old when it came down, and the grove has a graveyard hush. You can't help but imagine the morning when that giant collapsed — the groaning wood, the churning earth, the whoosh, the million-pound impact. Some people, the sign says, mistook the sound for a train wreck.
To pace the tree's length, top to bottom, is a journey of about 360 feet. And when you reach the crater where its shallow roots once gripped the earth, you get a surprise: Like many fallen redwoods, the Dyerville Giant has started sending up a new trunk from the side of its old base.
The new trunk is more than 10 feet tall now. So this tree's graveyard is also its nursery. And who knows? With 2,000 years and a bit of luck, the new giant might surpass the old.