In the American temple of Redwoods National Park

REDWOODS NATIONAL FOREST: Ranger Jim Wheeler leads us through the giant trees.

Father and Son, Across an Age, explore Redwoods National Park

REDWOODS NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA: We devoted an entire day to one of America’s greatest temples, the giant Redwoods that “Lady Bird” Johnson finally anointed with national park status in 1968. Here, father and son diverged on two roads.

David Crumm had visited in his 1976 journey around the U.S. when the land had the bright shine of a “new” national park yet the deep mystery of a prehistoric landscape. Eager to show Benjamin the park in 2010, we took a tour with park historian and ranger Jim Wheeler, who added to the other-worldly experience by pausing at the spot Johnson dedicated the park to talk about the Japanese concept of Shibui, which he described as most appropriate in the redwoods when we think of Shibui as “beauty that comes with age.”

For a father-son journey of discovery, that reference was both inspiring and a sharp astringent. Father on this journey has changed a whole lot in 34 years, clearly now in the second half of his life with graying beard. And the redwoods themselves hadn’t changed an iota between his visits.

Here are Benjamin’s words on the Redwoods:

Stopping in Redwoods National Park there was a feeling like I landed on the forest moon of Endor, from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. The trees shoot up and up, leaving a partially shaded floor of ferns and shrubs. With the Redwoods shooting up that high, it feels as if one is inside a building.  The walls are made of fog and the splotchy ceiling that towers overhead is made out of pine needles.

We stopped at the Lady Bird Johnson dedication site, because for some reason that sounded like an interesting place to go. All I knew of the woman was that she tried to get rid of billboards some time ago. The actual site, some ways out in the woods was about as exciting as the name suggests. And by that I mean it wasn’t. There was a plaque and a picture or two of the whole ordeal, but it looked more like an unkempt picnic ground than a historical site. On the way we ran into a hiking tour by a park ranger. Dressed in a typical park uniform of green pants, brown fleece and those circular straw-looking hats, Jim Wheeler was imparting his knowledge of the possible extinction of some seafaring bird. The problem it seems is that the bird’s chicks look exactly like tasty morsels of deliciousness for larger birds (think chicken nuggets to a four year old).

We followed Ranger Wheeler along as he pointed to a seemingly random clump of forest and gave us a quite interesting tidbit about edible berries, uses for the specific type of bark and the history of the place. It was fascinating, far more interesting than a Lady Bird Johnson plaque. The truth was that the old forest (some of the trees may have lived there for more than 2000 years) was a great deal more interesting than anything humans had done there in the past few decades.

To laugh at Mrs. Johnson’s patch of dirt and trees would not be appropriate, though, given the importance of what she helped do. Nearer the turn of the last century, when conservation was just starting to enter common parlance, those concerned with preserving the last redwoods were only left with some 4% of the original forests to save. Everything else had been cut down and sold. The last groves of the tallest trees on the planet were very close to the lumber barons’ saws or the homesteaders’ axes. Luckily for the trees, metal did not meet wood. Through the hard work of various individuals and organizations state and national parks were eventually formed that preserved much of what was left.

So, thank you Mrs. Johnson and your many peers for a good hike through the woods that hopefully, someday, I can take again with a son of my own.

(Photos and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

REDWOODS NATIONAL PARK: We explore a giant stump shaped like a giant’s foot. Can you spot Benjamin? PHOTOS: David Crumm

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