On redwoods & rope swings: Northern California

August 16, 2014 in North America, Travelogue, United States

Eel River leap

Waking in a tent is a womb-like experience.

Or perhaps more like that of metamorphosis, in which I am protected from the outer world by a thin veil and the moment is pregnant with possibility. I have slept in tents my entire life. Big tents, small tents, cheap tents, ridiculously expensive tents, heavy canvas army tents, tent hammocks, and the bright orange pup-tent that frames my childhood camping dreams. I sleep better in my tent than I do in most fancy hotel beds, and they are my favourite place to awaken.

When I’m lucky, my eyes open in the semi darkness and I lay as quietly as I can, so as not to disturb The Man, and watch the sun come up in the changing shades of grey and green on the fly of my tent. I listen to the birds, the ones that I’m calling “black and bluejays” because I don’t know what they are, but they look just like the blue jays I know from the east coast, only black everywhere that they are not blue, as they wake and begin chattering to one another. Pinecones drop, with light thuds, on the soft needle under layer beneath the redwood trees. A dog barks in the distance. I hear my children roll over in their tent. The Man snuffles and throws his arm over me. I lay as quietly as I can and fill the space inside my tiny cocoon with my hopes for the day.

It occurs to me that it must feel the same for caterpillars, after their long transformative sleep, when they awake as butterflies within their shiny cocoons. The first morning of a new life. Memories of what the world was yesterday, when they were entirely different in form and function. They begin to wriggle, as I do, and eventually free themselves, breaking forth into a new day, a new existence, a new form, a new purpose, and with the ability to fly. I feel the same about mornings begun in a tent. Poking my head out for the first time, I almost expect the world to look completely different, or to find that I am. Sometimes both turns out to be true. Metamorphosis is a solemn miracle and a beautiful thing. Tents are transformative vessels for girls who’ve grown up in them and retained the magic of their imaginations.

I will confess to screaming.

Like a little girl.

There may, or may not have been an expletive escape my lips as obeyed my children’s shouts to “Let go of the rope!” and dropped the dozen and a half feet, or so, into the deep green of the Eel River.

We’ve swung wide on more than a few rope swings and vines and plunged into deep water various places on our journeys; it’s a source of tireless joy without regard to age. This particular rope, over this particular river, puts all the rest to shame. Climbing the hill in my bare feet, worrying about the possibility of turning my still-weak ankle, grumbling as a chunk of rock dropped away and I struggled to fall up hill instead of down, I wondered at the wisdom of this particular diversion. The boys shouted encouragement. They’d found the rope (without the hinderance of parental oversight) the day before and had already proved that it could be survived.

“Don’t worry, Mom!” Elisha hollered up the hill, “If you do it just right, there’s about a 2% chance that you’ll live.”

I giggled and kept climbing, trying each foot hold and praying that the rope wouldn’t pull me off balance.

“That’s the chicken spot, Mom!! Keep climbing!!” Ez encouraged. Apparently they were not willing to have the mother who only leapt from the chicken spot. Dutifully, I kept climbing, only stubbing my nail-less toe on a stone once.

Turning to face the river, having climbed as far as possible without shoes, I gasped. Why is it that cliffs always look higher from the top, when one is foolishly contemplating the leap?

“You remember that the last time I leapt off a cliff like this I dislocated my tailbone and it hurt for a year!” I shouted down at my boys, their father, standing, feet shoulder width apart in the rushing water, camera in hand.

“Don’t worry Babe, just don’t fall on your… backside.” Yeah. He said something like that.

“When you jump, jump up and grab that big knot further up, and keep your feet up, Mom!” Gabe bellowed in his deep voice. I’d just watched him execute a similar jump, perfectly performed, in a wide arc out in front of the endless wall of stone, his shadow casting a Tarzan image on the ancient rock, every muscle in his lean figure accented in perfect motion, shadows cast drawing anatomical lines across his back and abdomen. A healthy 16 year old boy is a miracle of strength and beauty; his grace and agility take my breath away. He plunged into the deep with a manly whoop and a shower of liquid diamonds.

I took a deep breath, fingered the silver charms around my neck, and leapt, screaming into the valley. The swing, the view, the endless moment of glorious weightlessness, the feeling of every muscle in my arms and my back supporting my weight as the pendulum threw me across the void, the joy in the whoop that escaped from my soul caused me to forget myself and forget to let go. I came back to the world in time to hear my sons shouting up at me, “Jump mom! Jump! Let go of the rope!!” And so I obeyed, plunging into the mountain river water, still screaming, completely forgetting to take a deep breath, or to close my mouth. The river spat me to the surface, laughing, coughing, and to the cheers of my children. Of course I did it again. I’d like to think a bit more gracefully the second time, but that might be debatable.

I would argue vociferously that there is no afternoon so nice as one spent on the shore of a fresh water river. Laying in the sun, half in, half out of the water, with a book, a bottle of wine, children to laugh at and a man to turn over river rocks with, capturing tadpoles and several varieties of snails in a cup is a kind of perfection.

The boys and a couple of ecologists from Catalina Island whiled away the hours pulling treasures from the riverbed: a cot, a tent pole, trash of various sorts, even a full, unopened bottle of beer with an expiration date from two years ago. The beer was opened and pronounced, “Not so good.”

Trout fry, the exact green of redwood boughs and sprinkled by the nyads with liquid gold on their backs nibbled at my toes and my leather anklet, reminding me of a Thai fish spa I once frequented in a night market in Chiang Mai. We were unsuccessful in capturing one, although they did enjoy tiny bits flaked off of our tortilla chips.

Wood smoke from the forest fires in valleys south of this one clouded the air just a little bit. The steep hillsides of the valley were carpeted in the exact collage of dusty greens in a 70s era shag carpet. The giant trees who have chosen this narrow strip of California, from all of the possibilities in the world, to call home, looked down indulgently, laughing and pointing at the antics of the children as they enjoyed what was, without a doubt, one of the golden days of their childhoods. And I, I stretched my wings in the sunshine, sanded my recovering feet on the rocks, soaked my soul in the river water and quit while I was ahead on the rope swing escapades.