Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Monday 25 October 2010

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Do you remember the Cadbury Flake adverts from the 1980s? A woman reclines in a wonderfully bubbly bubble bath, lying back and really luxuriating in it and then reaches for the ultimate indulgence, a deliriously crumbly, flakey milk chocolate bar that Cadbury have cunningly crafted in the shape of a log.

Well, I felt like that woman when I woke up the other morning in a treehouse.

I was not, of course, in a bath at forty seven feet above the ground (although we did have a fully functioning shower suite in this treehouse). Nor was I eating chocolate first thing in the morning (although that isn't impossible) but rather I was luxuriating in splendour and I was eyeing up with gobsmacked awe a real log of rather more epic proportions.

Phil and I were being treated by the neverendingly lovely Nancy Blessing to a night at her 'favourite treehouse hotel'.

Now, that is a good statement to start with. To have visited a treehouse hotel at all is fairly unusual, but to have a 'favourite' one is pretty splendid and then to be lovely enough to treat us, and my Mum and Dad, to a visit to it confirms Nancy as one of the absolute highlights of our trip.

And so it was that Phil and I found ourselves spending a night in the 'Majestree'.This was one of several treehouses in the 'Treesort' of 'Out N' About', inland from the Oregon Coast up the gloriously forested Smith River.

This was a genuinely magical place. The hard earned dream of a single visionary, it delights you with its childlike playground brilliance. You climb to your night's abode up wooden staircases that wind improbably round sturdy tree trunks or across fairy-light guided rope bridges. Once there you hoist your luggage up behind you using a fantastically fun rope and pully device before finally shutting the door high aloft and enjoying your haven in the sky.

The puns abound. Attendants at the resort wear tops that have 'Securitree' emblazoned across the back, everything you need to know about their 'Facilitree' and the 'Activitrees' you can take part in there can be estalished by sending them a 'Treemail' and once there you can stay in treehouses like 'Serendipitree', 'Pleasantree' and 'Forestree'.

Each treehouse is different. Ours was the tallest in the resort and was truly amazing. It was a properly luxury spot with en-suite bathroom. It was all made of wood and had both an attic area where you could stare through a skylight at the nightsky and a deck where you could sit out and enjoy the sounds of the forest. We had incredible uninterrupted views of the leaf canopy (all the houses are situated so that none is overlooked, rendering curtains or blinds superfluous) and a huge solid trunk rising right up through the middle of the room from the tree that was hosting us in its upper reaches.

The trunk was wonderfully knarled and solid and very, very wide. It's surface looked surprising like a Cadbury's Flake with folds of bark rippling across it. It was so present that it seemed as if there was another person in the room with us.

Waking up with that tree and a view of the sky and the gently moving leaves surrounding us, and then glancing sideways and watching the sun gradually creep across the wooded hillside opposite is one of the most special memories of the trip so far.

And it was the perfect introduction to the next part of our trip.

Nancy had arranged this excursion just as we approached the border between Oregon and California. And so with six miles to go to that fateful moment we parked the bikes in a kind lady lawyer's office (expert scouting by my parents), jumped in their hire car and drove inland to our palace in the skies. En route we wound up the Smith River, the northern reaches of a series of State Parks that celebrate one of the most famous trees on earth. Our relationship with those trees really began, however, when we returned the next day to surge into the Sunshine State and straight onto the Redwood Highway and into the land of those giants of the tree world.

And we stayed in the land of the giants for the next seven nights.

We began in the tiny town of Klamath, a short hop into California and notable really as a jumping off point for forest exploration. Our entry was heralded by the huge 'Trees of Mystery' park where you could take a ski lift like 'Sky Train' through the Redwoods. Such are the contradictions of enjoying this area which range from the headline grabbing, tourist friendly tallest this and highest that, to the low key trails and hikes detailed on obscure State Park maps that allow for proper off-the-beaten track experiences with wild camping and the ever present possibility of a wee chat with a bear.

We did it all.

We paid our money and held our breath and squeezed the hire car (with much back seat directing and anxious shrieking) through a Drive Thru Tree just outside Klamath. We took short trails to see the Giant Tree, the Tall Tree, the Immortal Tree. We ogled with wide eyed wonder in the quiet of the forest heart the fallen splendour of the Dyerville Giant - a 362 foot tree that fell in 1991 after a nasty knock from another falling tree and ended its nearly 2000 years of standing with a crash that could be heard half a mile away. We pulled the car over in quiet spots and wandered into the forest just to be amongst them. We drove down the scenic byways and The Avenue of the Giants and then we cycled down them. We stayed near the trees, we slept amongst the trees.

And they are, to use an very American expression, awesome.

They are so huge it is ridiculous. In a country very conscious of its giants, be they personalities or places or achievements, a country where every town has a first, or largest, or only, or widest, or strongest, or biggest, these trees really do stand head and shoulders above other things. When you are amongst them you just gaze and gaze and gaze. And then you prod one another, and call one another and say again and again and again, 'look at that one, it's huge'. The canopy waves so high above you that you nearly fall over looking up.

And the effect of being amongst them is to enclose you in deep, warm, sound filled silence. The forest is always making noise but it is heavy noise that is sort of sonorous and slow and so feels like no noise at all. The light is also different. When the sun is shining above it is filtered in strong direct shafts or hazy leaf spangled splodges and when it is not you are enclosed in shade that is several stages darker than outside the wood and makes the day seem as if it starts later and ends earlier.

Things hide in the woods, and so the feeling of comfort and serenity that you can find amongst the trees can also change and the mood can shift to one of conspiracy and lurking and nerviness. There can be odd noises that make you jump and whilst they might just come from something bouncing its way to the forest floor from hundreds of feet above, might also come from a properly wild creature like the Elk we happened upon one afternoon. You never know what you will find.

The Redwoods stretch of California contains a multitude of sins including a thriving Marijuana industry where rings of plants encircle the bases of the trees so that they can't be seen from prowling helicopters above, and those who partake can drift through the backwater towns with blissful mind softness and never be bothered by the law.

One such town was Arcata, our second base in the area. It was a charming Victorian town with a picture postcard square, a great 1914 cinema where we enjoyed a wonderful night at the flicks and an impressive record of recycling and general all round environmental loveliness. It also had an unmistakable aroma of naughtiness on every street corner and a lap of the town left you feeling positively woozy. This was repeated in equally pretty Ferndale and Garberville and Benbow with their glorious technicolour wooden houses all perhaps the products of somewhat addled minds. These palaces reached their apotheosis in the brilliantly named Eureka, stuffed full of extraordinary edifices. Ah ha, we cried, all sorts of things can be found in the woods.

We waved my parents off from Arcata and then headed deep into the woods again this time on our bikes to experience their wonder once more in yet another way.

Riding through them was such a delight. We wound our way down deserted roads and onto The Avenue of the Giants. This thirty three mile stretch of crowded Redwood loveliness was quite amazing. It was cool and quiet and wonderful pedalling. Each of us was lost in our own worlds on the bikes and able to quietly soak up the splendour. I found myself fascinated by the way creeping plants grow up the sides of the trees, clinging to them and making them look as if they have just been covered in confetti. Or how defeated and broken and yet indestructable they can look once they have fallen and crashed onto the forest floor, where they will lie and rot and support thousands of species in their slow return to the earth.

We camped half way through the Avenue and had a proper romantic outdoorsy night complete with campfire and toasted marshmallows. Once it was dark, we walked out on to the road and looked up at a spectacular gash in the trees through which a sky thick with stars was visible. We stood and looked and listened and soaked it all up and felt very, very lucky.

The following morning some gallant campers offered to share their hot breakfast with us. The generosity and fun of Greg, Steve and Jim was the icing on the cake. We chatted and laughed and ate a lush feast all washed down with killer coffee before riding with them and completing the route.

We loved the tree based camping so much we did it the next night too and said farewell to these magnificent trees with lots more contemplation and wonder.

It was with some sadness (and a rather aching set of limbs courtesy of the hills) that we climbed our way out of them to return to the sea. Their spiralling branches, Cadbury Flake like trunks, their gentle dropping of rust red ferny leaves and wonderful fallen cross sections blazing in shades of orange and red, their odd soft bark stuffed full or moisture and their massive wide root systems had all become familiar sights over the course of the week.

They had made us philosophical and meditative as we had wound our way through them and they had humbled us by their age and stature.

As we hurled down Rockport Hill and left the last of them behind a strong cold blast of sea air blew all that romance away. I well and truly had to get out of that luxuriating bath as someone turned on the shower of salty spray.

We turned left at the junction.

Goodbye Redwood Highway. Hello Highway 1.


  1. This certainly ranks number one on the list of things I have decided I want to do as a result of your blog before I die .....there are a few but this is straight in at number one. M x (PS there are also a few I definitely do NOT want to do....EVER!)

  2. oops - that was supposed to be from me!
    Malcolm x