Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The road less traveled

Kids! Take it from me, Shawn Turner — backpacking can only lead you
down the road to ruin! (These and many more wonderful photos by
Liam Lewis Turner.)
A week of rare things is now a wonderful memory: the most miles and nights I've backpacked in one trip, and time alone with my son in his brief escape from college town. Sore hips and knees gingerly remind me of the fun we had on the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, 30-some miles from a ridge above Saratoga at Skyline Boulevard,  to wind-tattered Waddell Beach north of Santa Cruz.

After pestering my son for months to take the route in reverse (I'm far better climbing and almost useless descending), I shut up about it after the first day, which somehow comprised just enough rising slopes to make me wonder whether we'd ever reach sea level. Bizarro days ensued, entailing more climbs, seemingly, than descents. But oy, the descents, when they appeared!

Day One was the mystery, not only in finding where to start the trail, but where to pay. We ended up driving the 24 miles round trip into the heart of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, our Day Two stop. Later that day, the know-it-all park ranger checking our credentials told us how we could have saved ourselves the trip: We had driven within a quarter-mile of the kiosk to Castle Rock State Park near the trailhead, without seeing it. Oh well. We drove all the way back up to the start, said goodbye to my wife, who camped with us the night before, and dropped slowly out of wind and drizzly fog to the first camp.

Tranquil Silver Falls distract from the
knee-jerking descent.
Day Two was the Slog that Never Was. True, we trekked the farthest at 10+ miles, but we inadvertently pushed it too hard and arrived in Big Basin before lunch, as we did each day. The trouble with backpacking, we remembered, is rarely having something to do once you reach camp; the journey is the point, not always the destination. Luckily, the destination this time included a store, where we gorged on ice cream bars and a bag of Fritos to supplement our meager cup-a-soup meals.

Day Three, into the redwood rainforest, was the Day of the Banana Slug, when we encountered most of the dozens we spotted.

Our planned detour from the main trail did not plan for this!
Serendipity! One of my favorite words and concepts.
Our stop that night was Sunset Trail Camp, described in one pamphlet as the Sunset Magazine Camp; instead of the split-level four bedroom experimental house strewn with ferns, and Aryan kids strewn in the sandbox made of railroad ties near perfect parents dining on cucumber-and-pistachio salads with pomegranate iced tea, we found 10 remote bare spots deemed campsites. There it rained just as soon as we arrived. After soaking and stewing, we decided it best to stake out a shelter and nap through the storm.

Day Four was Day of the Newt (or Salamander). They lived in a Jurassic paradise of Berry Creek, which spilled into three distinct water falls. Golden Cascade, named for the bright ochre Santa Cruz mudstone the creek washed downstream, looks in its striations like the temple ruins of a jungle-choked civilization; Silver Falls falls in tiers, every turn of the twisty steep trail revealing another level; Berry Creek is the big daddy, a Robinson Crusoe-desert island kind of tropical waterfall. We saw not a soul until we reached the last camp, and are reasonably sure we did not accidentally send any salamander/newt souls heavenward by crushing their slimy mortal coils under our boots.

The last day, potentially the most nerve-jangling, worked out almost perfectly, requiring a pre-dawn trek to the beach to catch the only bus into Santa Cruz, there to spend the day until Amtrak could trundle us home. We wandered to the city wharf, and our worries about smelling up the place and looking out of place soon dissipated when we realized we were just two of a great number of smelly backpackers in the city. We grabbed a newspaper and coffee, and sat as lotus eaters on a wharf bench, listening to the sea lion harems arf and reading with sadness the tragic loss of Buster Posey, and cringing at the front-page picture in which Posey's feet seemed to turn at anatomically impossible directions.

Could a velociraptor be around the next corner? Nah.
More likely a newt (Gingrich). Squish!
The only damper to the last day was our needlessly wandering through town waiting for the ride out, because my son's foot was aching badly.

Aboard the train, I wanted to tell my son about the strange Australian outback-style home set in the Suisun marsh, with its great wraparound porch and the wind tower jutting out of the center of the home to regulate the indoor temperature, but I was too tired. He would have thought it nonsense from a dream.

Ocian in view! O the joy! We are in view of the ocian, this great
Pacific Ocean which we have been so long anxious to see.
Final tally:

75 banana slugs, the last one entertaining us from before dinner to bedtime with its glacial parade through our campsite.

21 newts. Or salamanders. Probably newts. The sign said newts. The sign described two newts, too, so we think we too saw two kinds. Also.

2 rabbits.

4 deer.

2 big fat gray squirrels, one dead.

Back in civilization, we receive the bad news.
2 ice creams, killed dead. Same for a bag of Big Scoop Fritos.

2 raccoons, each surveying our feast and each giving up without threat; they could learn something from their brazen brethren on Angel Island.

4 Steller's jays, one for each camp. Their strategy seems to be intimidation, their ugly squawks meant to separate us from our food, but they're really just crazy clowns, their heads dipped in night.

2 cars wrecked on the slopes of the first day's hike. Two mysteries about how the cars got there (it's not obvious they ran off roads), and why after after the decades they haven't been hauled out.

Happy and sad to see the end.


  1. Nice water fall photos. Glad to see you avoided the banana spit slugs.They can spit in your eye from 30 feet away and while you are down eat your trail mix.

  2. I'm so glad we did not know that. We saw some rotten banana slugs, though. Liam musta taken 300+ pix.