A walk among the Giants
Prepared by Harold Stephens
Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International
Last week I told how easy it was to rent a car when your Thai Airways flight lands at the Los Angeles International Airport.
Once you are behind the driver’s wheel you can do much as you please, one of which is finding a hotel that suits you and your budget.
I suggested heading north on Highway 101 in which the motorist will find interesting sights galore. There are all the missions I mentioned, and then there is exciting San Francisco. But let us continue on, over the Golden Gate to some remarkable country, the mighty redwoods of California. If you see nothing else in the state, the trip will be will worth it. So let me skip everything and let’s go to the redwoods.
Some 370 kilometres north of San Francisco on Highway 101 there’s a sign on the right side of the road that reads:
AVENUE OF THE GIANTS
It’s a short drive, only about 50 kilometres, and less than an hour if you don't stop, but you will want to stop. The Avenue of the Giants is one of the most awe-inspiring drives found anywhere on this planet, for along this road are some of our earth's largest, tallest and oldest living things — the giant redwood trees of northern California.
The Avenue of the Giants, a truly fitting name, winds through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, follows the Eel River and parallels Highway 101. The Park's 51,222 acres (128,055 rai) of redwood groves has the largest remaining stand of virgin redwoods in the world.
Just to drive through the park is enough to shake up all the emotions. Only a poet could describe these vast trees, and even among these only a daring few have ever tried; and at the sight of them, even the most non-religious person will reconsider the existence of God. Here, surely, God must be in residence.
The beauty of the massive groves of towering giants, where shafts of sunlight hardly penetrate to the forest floor, is baffling. Many of the trees reach the height of 92 1/2 metres; some have existed since the beginning of civilisation, perhaps for as long as 4,500 years. If cut for its timber, a single tree could build a shed large enough to house the Queen Elizabeth.
As baffling as their beauty is, their very existence is even more so. A redwood is almost immortal. It’s impervious to disease, fire, floods, drowning and, above all, old age. A redwood simply won't
die. No disease can kill it. It has an armour of bark from six to eight inches (15 to 20 mm.) thick which protects it from disease and fire.
Death does come from old age, but only from landslides or high winds, or the lumberman's ax or chainsaw.
These giants of the living world, weighing more than 500 tonnes, have seeds so tiny that it would take 123,000 of them to make a pound, and what I find even more incredible about their
growth is that their roots go no deeper than two metres. Like mediaeval Gothic cathedrals, they are supported by buttresses, or in this case burls, which they grow when the need arises. (Butresses and burls aren’t the same thing though often serving the same function.)
Redwoods grow in a temperate belt stretching some 800 kilometres along the California Pacific Ocean, where the summers are thick with fog and winters are rainy. They need plenty of moisture, for each tree transpires hundreds of gallons of water each day. For this reason a redwood cove, even in the heat of summer, is a pocket of coolness.
When Spanish mariners landed on these remote shores in the mid-
1500s, there were millions of acres of these awesome giants. They existed as far south as Monterey Bay, 208 kilometres southeast of San Francisco. Today they survive only in preserves set aside for them.
The 20,000 or more native Americans who lived in the redwood grove did build crude homes in tepee fashion out of redwoods, but they used only fallen trees. The forest trees to them had spirits, and were given to them by the gods as a sacred trust.
It was the early European settlers in 1820 who first began cutting down the redwood forests. It seems almost sacrilegious that man would put an ax to a 3,000-year-old tree to make fence posts and walls for his house. The real wholesale destruction of the redwoods began, however, when gold was discovered in California in 1849. Since then 90 per cent of the redwoods have been cut.
Efforts to save the redwoods began as early as 1890. In 1915, Gilbert Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society, went on a mission to save the giant sequoias (another name for redwood). He and others in his party spread their sleeping bags at the base of a tremendous sequoia and brought the trees to the attention of the world when the photograph appeared in the pages
the National Geographic Magazine the following year. The struggle to save the redwoods still continues.
The redwoods that have been saved are there for all to see and enjoy. Some redwoods, like the General Sherman tree, which is about 150 miles east of San Francisco in Sequoia National Park, are thought to be between 3,000 and 4,000 years old, and perhaps as old as 4,500 years. In such an age, the tree would date back to the beginning of civilisation. This towering giant measures 272 feet (about 84 metres) high and is more than 100 feet (30.8 metres) in circumference at the base. Its total estimated weight is 6,164 tonnes. If cut for lumber, it would yield enough wood to build 40 five-room houses, or a single room shed big enough to house the largest aircraft ever built.
South of Garberville, a small town you reach before the Avenue of the Giants, there is a tourist attraction called One-Tree House. The base of this giant redwood was burned out, probably by lightning, more than 300 years ago. The area that has burned is a kind of shrine. The tree is still alive. This, according to botanists, is possible because nourishment and water travel from the roots not through the core but through the bark.
I remember as a child seeing in my geography book a photograph of a motorcar driving through the tree. Recently, I drove my car through the same tree.
Coast redwoods can provide a map of history. One fallen tree in Avenue of Giants shows that the 1,200-year-old tree had survived nine major forest fires. The first in 1147 (when the Mongols sacked Moscow) and subsequent major blazes in 1595 (when the Spanish Armada engaged in its last battle), 1789 (when the Bastille in Paris was stormed and the French Revolution began), and 1806 (when Napoleon rose to power).
Then, in 1820, a nearly-fatal forest fire destroyed more than 40 per cent or the tree's circumference. The tree survived because it had begun to form a buttress in response to the previous fires. The
roots of this great tree also reveal that the tree had withstood seven
major floods within the last thousand years.
In spite of its enduring age, a redwood is a rapid grower and can reach 50 feet (15.24 m) in about 30 years and 100 feet (30.5 metres) in about 60 years, but it doesn't reach maturity until it is 400 years old.
The Humboldt Redwoods State Park is reached via US Highway
101 and is approximately 448 kilometres north of San Francisco and 72 killometres south of Eureka. The park includes the above-mentioned scenic Avenue of the Giants which can be reached at numerous points along US Highway I01. Its headquarters and Visitors’ centres are located on the avenue between the towns of
Myers Flat and Weott. Branching out from the avenue are many small dirt roads that are worth exploring. Each one leads to a magnificent grove of redwoods—our earth's greatest living monuments.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q. Dear Mr. Stephens,
Here is something that might interest your readers. Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris has an exclusive and incredibly unique literary and culinary journey to Paris next summer with Phil Cousineau and Mort Rosenblum. Sponsored by Book Passage Bookstore, this small group travel program, "We’ll Always Have Paris: An Art, Literary and Food Adventure," takes place from June 26-July 5, 2011.
Highlights include talks and tea at Shakespeare & Company; a private chocolate tasting with reticent Jacques Genin; a seminar and movable feast aboard Mort Rosenblum’s teak houseboat docked in the center of Paris; exclusive tours of the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Magnum Photo Gallery, Cinematheque Française, Père Lachaise cemetery, farmer’s markets, the Marais, Victor Hugo’s home on Place des Vosges, and more. Plus a day trip to Chartres to meander on the 12th century labyrinth. Tours can be reserved through Insight Out Journeys. Check out the trip's Facebook page.
—Mort Rosenblum, Paris
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.