I spend as much time as possible outdoors doing interesting things. I love to hike and if I have little else to do in a day, hiking is what I will generally do to occupy my time. I love nature, I love physical challenge and exertion and hiking provides with satisfaction for both.
As I hike, I usually take pictures; animals, wildflowers, water features, views, whatever I eat and drink, of course, and things that look structurally or architecturally interesting like old buildings, rock outcroppings and fallen trees. I am fascinated, visually, by fallen trees. Some take on the form of something else, some have become bleached white and stand out against their backgrounds.
For all the fallen trees I’ve seen while hiking, for all the fallen trees I’ve photographed over the years, I have never actually witnessed a tree falling, out in the woods, along a trail, on a visible hillside. It’s as if trees find a private moment before they let gravity pull them to the ground.
Several years ago, when my kids were in grade school, we spent a great deal of time camping outside of a small town in the Sierra Foothills called Foresthill. Situated in the Northern California gold country, not too far from where gold was originally discovered back in 1849. Once a more populous town, back in the heyday, it boasts two large, old cemeteries; one Protestant the other Catholic. Heaven forbid they rot in the ground adjacent to one another! We used to wander through and read the names and dates on the old headstones. Some headstones would list the country of origin for immigrants and in one of the cemeteries, someone had taken the time to research the cause of death for the occupants and posted the information for visitors to peruse. I remember reading through and being amazed at just how many people had died, back in those days, from falling trees. I pondered this.
Trees certainly haven’t changed, biologically, so that they fall less now than they used to, so how is it so many people died historically, from falling trees and it is practically unheard of now? I reason that more people were probably harvesting trees for building their homes, as new settlers in the area, and Home Depot not being only 17 miles away in the larger, neighboring town. Perhaps. I don’t know, but it seems logical.
But still, how often do you hear of people dying by being struck by a falling tree? Not often. And, seemingly, trees fall more frequently during the night, at least based on my observation of the news. It seems that people wake up to find a tree fallen across the road, or their car, or a tree has fallen in the dead of night and smashed part of their house. These are stories that seem to make the morning news, especially during inclement weather; wind, rain, snow, hurricanes, tornados, etc. I really don’t think I’ve ever heard of a tree just flopping down to Earth in the middle of a sunny afternoon. Have you?
I was on a hike today. It was a very hot day. I was a bit hungover from festivities with friends last night. But I had this whole, blank, empty day and I really wanted to do something active. So, in spite of the near one hundred degree temps, I set out for a hike in one of my favorite local wilderness parks; Moore Creek Park, on the east edge of the Napa Valley, outside of St. Helena. I’ve hiked here before, several times. There are several trails to choose from, a six mile loop proximate to Lake Hennessey, and another section of the park boasts another nine miles of trail with a creek, Moore Creek, I’d guess, and secret waterfalls and a pool you can dunk in if it isn’t a drought year. It’s a drought year, like the fourth consecutive drought year. Well, with so much day at my disposal and some high mileage hikes on my docket this fall and a handful of marathons paid for, I decided to do the crazy. I decided to hike all the trails!
I decided to tackle the six mile loop near the lake which starts off on a service road, and the route I usually choose has me marching up nearly a thousand feet of elevation right off the bat. Then I follow the ridge of the hill and take a trail of a million switchbacks, through the woods, with views of the lake at each corner. The trail dumps back out onto the service road, lakeside, and takes you back to the parking lot where the other trailheads are situated.
I’ve always taken the cutoff trail, it’s a single track and the views are so pretty, but, today, having never taken the service road down the hill to meet up with the lakeside road, I decided to try it out. It was a nice change of pace, I still prefer the cutoff trail, but today’s route added a bonus two miles to my plan!
It was hot. I was hungover. I had three liters of water in my hydration pack and I made sure I was sipping regularly. At something past mile eight, I was back at the parking lot and could have called it a day and been plenty proud of my efforts. But, the seed had been planted, so I walked right past my car and up the next trail, up, up, up, up, and up some more. The highest point in the park was situated on this particular trail. The trail follows a tiny, man-carved ledge along the contour of an extremely steep hillside. There are trees, here and there, but a surprising amount of the trail is exposed, and, it is now, midafternoon. I can feel the heat rising off the hillside that reminds me of when I was a child, on a cold morning, sitting on top of the heater vent with my nightgown tucked around me, the hot air blowing up, making my gown billow out and the air seeping out of the collar and blowing, all lovely and warm, across my face. Yah, that’s what this felt like. But hotter.
My kids and I used to hike out in the Sierra Foothills when they were in high school. We lived near a large wilderness park and spent a great deal of time there. I’d hike, my daughter would hike, my son would mountain bike. It was lovely from, oh, say, late October through about April. Then the grass became scorched brown, which is true of most “natural” grass in California. The land had been donated by a cattle rancher, in part, so most of the trees had been removed at some point in the past. In the summer, the temperatures were almost always in excess of one hundred degrees. But, still, we hiked and biked. At the bottom of the canyon the park was situated in, was the South Fork of the American River, and we made sure our route would find us there so we could cool off in the frigid and fast running river. On the hillsides, though, in the summer, my son would exclaim, “This place is Satan’s asshole.”
Today’s hike was Satan’s asshole of the Napa Valley. And I was beginning to struggle about mile eleven. I was in the wide open, on the parched hillside, the heat blasting like a blacksmiths forge. I won’t often admit this, but I was beginning to exhibit some sign of overheating; I was fumbling to work the latches on the gates through which I had to pass. I was fumbling with the clip that fastens the bite valve of my hydration pack to the chest strap. I was feeling just a tad dizzy and I could feel my energy waning with every step. I didn’t want to stop because the trail was narrow, the hillside below was steep, and, most importantly, there was very little shade. I knew up ahead a ways, was a shaded spot, atop the next hill, with a bench and a lovely view. I planned to lunch there, though it was by now 3:00 PM and I’d not eaten since breakfast at 8:00 AM. I was out of energy. But I kept slogging along.
It was about this time that I heard a very welcome, very recognizable sound; the sound of an ice cold beer being pulled out the ice in an ice chest, that sort of miraculous swooshing sound and the ice cubes kind of all crashing together. I paused. No. That simply wasn’t possible. I struggled to identify what else the sound might have been. My heart began to beat faster, it was a loud sound, from behind me. The ice chest, if it had been that, would have had to have been immediately behind me, and there most certainly was not an ice chest anywhere for miles and miles. I then considered that it might be a mountain biker, coming up fast behind me on this precariously narrow trail, skidding around a corner. The sound did sort of sound like mountain bike tires biting at loose dirt, trying to gain traction. I looked carefully down the trail behind me and saw no dust, no form, nothing moving at all. My heart was beating pretty fast, all of this unravelling within seconds, trying and failing to identify the loud noise behind me.
Then it occurred to me. A tree. It was a tree. A tree, one of the few somewhere behind me, fell. A very small part of me wanted to backtrack and see if I could find it, if it was across the trail, if I should feel grateful to not have been squashed by a falling tree. But the call of the shade ahead, the beer in my daypack, the pistachios and the nutritious, raw, energy bar I’d picked up at the market earlier in the day was too much, I moved forward, on up the hot trail towards the bench in the shade.
The adrenaline that surged through my bloodstream in those brief seconds following the mysterious noise and classification of said noise now helped fuel me further, it allowed me to propel myself forward, closer to my goal, and to lunch.
And there is it was. And, Justin Bueno is my new best friend. Justin, a young man, skilled, accomplished, an outdoorsman with a strong sense of commitment and an enviable work ethic. He manages himself and others well and is well liked. He is a leader of men. He is my new best friend and I am so grateful. I’ve never actually met Justin Bueno, but I know all these things about him, because my tired ass is resting upon his Boy Scout Eagle project; the bench with a lovely view across the canyon to the hills on the other side where, somewhere, a fallen tree rests. The bench was wisely erected in the shade of a tree. The tree, I might mention, was leaning suspiciously towards me, like it might want to fall in my direction at some point in the not so distant future. I may never look at trees quite the same, the standing variety, anyhow. I shall forever more be wary of upright trees, I do not wish to be squashed.
After my beer, a little warm, but still lovely, some pistachios and my raw bar, I was reenergized and continued on up and down some more hills, through the woods, along a stream. Well, streambed. Nothing much was streaming. There were some dead pools of water and the flies and mosquitos were maddening the last six miles of my hike out to the falls and the “pool” and back. But, I made it. I hiked all the trails on this hot Labor Day.
I am safe at home, I was not squashed by some tired tree, no longer able to stand. I’ve had my dinner, I’ve had a cool shower, plenty of water, some dinner, and another lovely beer. I am quite tired, pretty sleepy, and I am just about ready to sign off, and fall, like a tree, into bed.