Day 1 - Highway 1 & San Francisco
I finally got around to packing in the five hours before the flight was scheduled to depart, & then I only slept for about two hours. But the morning got started off right -- John & I were awarded our First Class upgrade from Colorado Springs to Denver. The flight was only 20 minutes (in fact, we spent more time taxiing than we did in the air), but we had an amazing Flight Attendant, Nate, who made our first First Class experience unforgettable. Upon being seated & getting our bags stowed, Nate asked if we would like a drink. Now, I should tell you, it was barely 6:00 A.M... but I wanted to really take in the lavish experience of a 20 minute First Class flight by partaking in the free alcohol, so I asked, "Is it too early for alcohol...?" The couple seated behind us began laughing & responded, 'IT'S NEVER TOO EARLY!" I laughed, nodded in agreement, & ordered a whiskey & Coke. What's even better is that the flight was smooth enough to accommodate a second round of drinks for the First Class cabin. Again, I indulged. Cheers to watching the sunrise with ample leg room, seated in a comfortable chair at 12,000 feet, with your best friend on your left & your whiskey on your right.
We had a quick layover in Denver before boarding our flight to San Francisco, which was on a Boeing 777-200 aircraft. These planes are like mansions, with two aisles, First Class cabins with reclining seats & footrests, & an economy cabin equipped with nine seats per row with power outlets for every chair. I think the only time I had ever been on such an impressive aircraft was on an international flight to Europe back in 2010. Unfortunately for this segment of our journey, the First Class cabin checked in full, so we were unable to be upgraded -- but, we were seated in Economy Plus, which was great for us tall folk. We both attempted to sleep, but without much success.
Landing in San Francisco was like a dream come true. I love waking up in Colorado & being across the country in less than half a day (#WorkPerk). After the fiasco of picking up our rental car, we hit the road... for In-n-Out. Because duh, it's California. We had lunch, got a rough route to Arcata outlined, laughed in disbelief about being in California, & then hit the road again for Highway 1.
San Francisco is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful & interesting cities I have ever seen. From the architecture throughout the neighborhoods, to the bright green trees, this city is as equally charming as it is beautiful.
And ya'll, don't even get me started on the Golden Gate Bridge. Just.
Wow. While traversing our way through the city streets, we were teased relentlessly by the tip-tops of the bridge, inching up in our seats & hoping for a better view. We laughed again about being in California. When we rounded the bend through Golden Gate Park & saw the bridge revealed in all of its glory against the green hills & the blue sky, that moment was majestic. I fumbled for my cameras & iPhone, wanting to capture the moment with every single lens, as if that would somehow keep the memory more sacred & protected. How John managed to maneuver the vehicle without rear-ending or side-swiping the others as our jaws gaped open remains a mystery.
After the 1.2 mile journey across the bridge, we pulled off into the Visitor's Center & prayed to find a parking spot between the plethora of tourists who were also crowding the area. Spoiler alert: we found one, grabbed our gear, & headed for the coast. I swear to you, I felt like I was in an alternate reality. In those moments while approaching the bridge, I actually argued with myself about how unfair it was that this beautiful spectacle still remains unseen by the majority of people who live in this country. How tragic that this bridge will remain just a symbol of San Francisco, seen only in movies, television, & advertisements, but never experienced or brought to life firsthand. Let this story serve as your gentle nudge to visit San Francisco the next chance you get.
My heart was still beating out of my chest when we returned to the car, I just couldn't contain myself. I wanted to be pinched. I wanted to sit on the bay & watch the sailboats just a few hours more. I wanted to listen to how far others had traveled to see this marvelous feat of man. I wanted to take portraits of the contented tourists & their families. I wanted the magic of those fifteen minutes on the coast to linger a bit longer.
And as we began navigating our way on Highway 1 through Muir Woods, the magic did, indeed, linger. My imagination could have never fathomed the strength of the ocean painted against poignant cliffs, or how the momentum of the earth could turn an essential nutrient of life into a killer current. The northern coast resembled absolutely nothing I have ever witnessed in life so far, & I thought for a moment that perhaps we had boarded the wrong flight altogether & were now in Ireland or Iceland. Negative. We were just experiencing the raw beauty of our own homeland as never experienced before.
The drive on 101 from San Francisco to Arcata takes roughly four hours, depending on traffic, but because we opted for the historical, world-renowned Highway 1 until the sun set, our trip time nearly doubled. The entire experience was dizzying, not just from the curvaceous roads, but for the beauty discovered in the coves, cliffs, & coast. Prepare yourself, because those sharp turns in the road will unveil the nobility of the sea like a red theatre curtain being drawn on opening night, an experience that can hush a crowd in steady anticipation, an experience not soon forgotten or taken for granted.
Finding our way from Highway 1 back to 101 took some time, & the sky rapidly grew dark upon the sun setting against the horizon. We twisted our way through mountainous terrain, rounding bends that led us through endless tunnels of forests. The trees were so dense that I was certain we were just driving in complete circles as our navigation systems were tapping in & out of service. We eventually made it out of the woods & on to 101, greeted by rockslide crews & construction cones every few miles along the highway.
The headlights of our rental car weren't the greatest, & the highway itself was very dimly lit, so it was difficult to see precisely where we were heading. I remember squinting my eyes & peering into the distance, sliding forward in my seat to try & get a better view of three small, shiny objects ahead of us. What is that? I can't explain the eerie surprise that occurred & disappeared in an instant, when I realized that the three shiny objects were reflectors on the base of a redwood tree... & the sheer size of the redwood tree itself. John & I both yelled at each other. "DID YOU SEE THAT?!" I saw it with my own eyes, in one quick flash of the headlights, but it took my mind much longer to catch up to the visual experience (note: my mind is still trying to catch up). The phenomenon of headlights revealing the bases of redwood trees lasted until we reached Arcata. Needless to say, I was too excited to sleep, so I got about a nap's worth of rest for the second night in a row.
Day 2 - Redwood National & State Parks
The drive into the park was completely dark, much like the night before. Thankfully, John suggested packing a headlamp, which saved me on the trails from fumbling over the timber, puddles, & my own feet. I should mention, it rained... All dang day. Sometimes sprinkling, sometimes pouring, so I'm grateful we were prepared & properly outfitted for the elements (rain-approved gear list coming soon). We started on Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail, an easy one-mile loop that served as the dedication site for Redwood National Park in 1968, for our introduction into the redwood forests. This park being federally protected was actually quite controversial back in the 1960's, as the lumber industry was trying to meet economic demands that had already destroyed roughly 90% of the original redwood forests (www.nps.gov). Can you imagine destroying one of these giants, let alone an entire forest of them? Ripped my heart out. But hooray, the forest shall remain safe... for now (I'm watching you, President Trump). Okay, less politics, more adventure, I hear you.
As the rain poured, I began to feel like I was back on the dark highway from the night before, with only the flashes of light from my headlamp revealing the giant redwoods that I now stood beneath. Quite frankly, I felt like a bug, or some character in a fantasy movie. Nothing about this environment seemed real or tangible to me. I was actually afraid that I was still dreaming, & that the sound of the rain would wake me from the magic. But as I watched the daylight gradually pour through the branches of the gentle giants above us & felt the fog settling over my skin, I knew this was real.
What began as a one-mile loop quickly turned into a strenuous eight-mile hike, further confirmation that this was real. Very real. Berry Glen Trail is a 7-mile-roundtrip trail that is accessed from Lady Bird Johnson Grove, which we assumed was a coastal trail. Turns out, the trail ended at Elk Meadow Day Use Area, not the coast. The trail gained 1,200 feet of elevation on the return trip, which was easy on my lungs being at sea-level. My legs, however, were less than pleased. My spirit & I? Completely overwhelmed.
As I was taking photographs, I began feeling frustrated by the images I was producing. What I was seeing with my eyes wasn't being accurately captured through the lens, even though all of the manual settings were correct. This continued to happen, for the duration of the trip, & I wondered why I even bothered carrying the heavy equipment. Why I even bothered trying to capture the magnitude of this place, when I honestly felt like the images were completely worthless. I feared that I would return home, with 762 unworthy photographs that would just collect dust & go unnoticed. That I would look at these photographs & forget how it felt to stand in those lush forests beneath those gentle giants.
I photograph the wild for two reasons: number one, to inspire others to wander. Number two, to remind myself of how it felt to roam within it. How it felt to discover the world while discovering myself, capturing the freedom, sense of purpose, & bewilderment that I found beneath my own two feet. What I learned on this trip in particular was that seeing an experience through a frozen instant on a screen holds no comparison to seeing the actual experience firsthand in live-action mode. My frustration was in comparing the beauty on a screen to the beauty of real-life -- & the truth is, there should be no comparison. Life is meant to be lived.
The Berry Glen Trail gave us a good run for our money, as we were exhausted, hot, & thirsty after completing those eight miles. We drove along Bald Hills Road in search of more trails, looking for something flat to recover on for a few hours, when we found the Redwood Creek Trailhead. This trail runs along the entirety of Redwood Creek, so we completed an approximate three mile section. Again, here is another part of the story where I stop using words, because words are pointless in describing what we saw.
Winter in Colorado severely lacks the wide array of color that we are spoiled with in every other season of the year, so to visit California in the late winter, early spring, really did a number on my senses, especially because of how much rain the state had accumulated so far this year. I have never seen so many shades of green, nor have I ever seen trees overgrown with such heavy laden, yet delicate, embraces of moss on every branch. From shrubs to redwoods, the majority of trees along the creek were wrapped in moss, like little Christmas presents to those who wandered in their paths below. We meandered as far as we could before the trail disappeared into the creek, pausing a few moments to play on one of the fallen redwoods & take photographs of the magical fairytale world that we stumbled upon by happenstance.
As if everything we had seen so far wasn't enough, we learned that the best was yet to come. We stopped in the Visitor's Center to purchase our lapel pins & stickers (traditions, guys), talked to the Park Rangers about more trail recommendations, & wandered on the stormy beach. Gerry, an RNP Volunteer, suggested hiking to Trillium Falls. I originally wanted to hike the Fern Canyon Trail, which was made famous by The Lost World: Jurassic Park having been filmed in its trenches, but the trail was inaccessible without an AWD vehicle. Dang. Should've paid for that upgrade at Hertz.
We hit the road again, where we encountered wild elk along the roadways to the Trillium Falls trailhead. I expected to hike to these falls, take two pictures of the spectacle, & then call it a day... but the trees en route to the falls were even larger than our original redwood encounter & the ferns seemed much taller & brighter, like the forest had inhaled an unhealthy dose of powerful steroids. I was watching my feet when I rounded one switchback in particular & heard John begin to laugh. Not a haha-that's-so-funny-laugh, but one of those holy-crap-is-this-real-life-I-don't-know-what-to-do-except-laugh laughs, which immediately made me look up from my feet. I saw a magical moss-wrapped tree that was larger than life, surrounded by rushing water through a glowing green grove, surrounded by redwoods the size of skyscrapers, complete with a dirty bridge that looked like it came straight from an Indiana Jones sequel. The water was so loud, we couldn't even hear each other speak. John went galavanting through all of the foliage while I stood mesmerized by the whole scene, trying to accurately capture a photograph that would render this place the justice it clearly deserved.
And with that, our brains were too numb & our nerves too shocked to see any more of the enchanted redwood forests. My D300 was feeling the same, as the device ceased working on our way back to the car. More on that later.
At this point in the day, our feet were soaked & our bodies were exhausted. The craving for fresh socks & a cold beer were the most real they had ever been. On the drive back to the hotel, we clearly got distracted by the coast, which was the first we'd witnessed of Humboldt County in daylight, & we missed our exit. And, oh darn, we ended up at a Target -- which was great, because I only had my soaking wet Merrell trail runners for footwear & I really wanted dry feet for dinner. New, dry shoes in hand, we returned to the hotel to make ourselves presentable for a local dive brewery, Mad River Brewing Company.
The location? A bit sketchy, especially in the dark. The service? A bit sketchy, but once we figured out that it was an "order drinks & food at the bar & sit where you want" kind of place, it felt like home. Raymond let us sample the different brews to find one that suited our tastes best -- I went for the Redwood Porter, John for their IPA -- & we ordered burgers. We drank, exchanged photographs, & spent a significant portion of the evening laughing & recounting our adventures from the day. I highly endorse a pitstop at Mad River Brewing if you are ever in the area, not only for the good brew & burger, but also for their keepsake stickers. Traditions, guys.
Day 3 - Avenue of the Giants & SFO
The tree is approximately 315 feet tall & 16 feet wide. Let's not forget about the onsite gift shop, which boasted lapel pins & stickers galore. We were both in quite a tizzy over which pins, stickers, shot glasses, magnets, & patches to purchase. Tourist towns adore us, what can I say.
Giant tree distractions aside, we did eventually arrive back in San Francisco, where we checked in to the hotel before cramming the last of our tourist adventures into the evening hours. Number one on John's list was driving down Lombard Street, known as "The most crookedest street in the world" for its eight hairpin curves. Number one on my list was the Full House house. Done & done, folks, complete with enough time to almost get run over by a real, genuine, San Francisco trolley car!
With what little energy we had left, we had dinner at the hotel while (again) exchanging pictures & laughing, sans beer this time. We learned a really fun iPhone fact, that your iPhone will create movie slideshows with your pictures, complete with music & transitions. WHAT?! You have full editing capability too, which means you can select which photos you want & where you want them in the presentation. We giggled super loud like complete idiots as we designed our slideshows, reliving the wonder of the previous two days through the magnificence of photographs & Snapchat stories. After dinner, we returned the rental car & settled in for our last night away from home. I crashed pretty hard, while John worked away on his iPhone movie.
Day 4 - Traveling Home
Morning arrived just as quickly as the night had disappeared. I begrudgingly got dressed & repacked my gear for a second & third time. I could barely speak on the airport shuttle, while going through security, or while waiting to board our flight because my body exhausted & my heart was so full. I can think of worse things.
While flying between Denver & Colorado Springs, we gazed at the Rockies to the west & exclaimed our joys for life. The word used throughout many conversations that weekend was blessed. Blessed for our health, for the freedom to travel, for the flexibility in work schedules that permit us to travel, for living in America, & the list goes on. As we descended into Colorado Springs, we flew right over the top of my house & saw John's car from a birds-eye-view, which filled our bellies with incessant laughter. In fact, I'm pretty sure we laughed for the entirety of that flight, being so overwhelmed by the goodness of a weekend well spent.
Once we began driving home from the airport, we hardly spoke. The reality of responsibilities began looming, while our minds were still racing to comprehend all that we had just experienced in California. The coastal cliffs, the crashing ocean currents, the winding roads. The gentle giants & the mist that rose in the mornings among them. The root systems that spawned trees in the oddest of places. The eerie jungles full of glowing green ferns. The pouring rain, the calming creek, & the fervent falls.
Nothing could have accurately prepared us. Nothing. Some experiences in life leave you feeling enchanted, for long after the experience ends... & this was no exception.
Megan Elizabeth is a storyteller based in Kalispell, Montana. Take a peek at her blog & portfolio, drop her a line, & follow her story on Facebook & Instagram.