Nate Farrington is an outdoor professional at Cornell Outdoor Education. He is a full-time vagabond who prefers to travel on two motorized wheels. This is part two in a journal of his trip across the country on his motorcycle.
I landed in the early evening. My arrival felt awkward. I knew no one here very well, or at all, prior to coming out. I wanted to blame it on the brutal distance touring I had just completed, but that wouldn’t be honest. Something just seemed off. Fortunately, I recognized a face–one I used to know at a now defunct climbing gym near my hometown. Some chatting jogged my memory, and it connected. I’d found affinity.
Also landing that evening were several gentlemen from Cal Fire and a research forester from the University of California. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into when I agreed to this, other than:
- I’m going to California
- On a motorcycle
- Seeing places I’ve never seen before, and
- Having the honor of climbing giant sequoias, which I later learned was a big no-no usually.
The reason we would be climbing the trees, I learned, was to collect cones. Cool! Science! Even better? This particular forester–a tall, white-haired man with a calm voice and fantastic disposition–is an adventure motorcycle rider himself. The vibe was welcoming, and the Cal Fire guys and I became fast friends.
I slept that night out on the porch; I was too exhausted to even bother with the tent. The next day, I would be climbing some of the biggest trees in the world. For once, I was glad to have a reprieve from riding.
The morning brought mosquitoes so I retreated indoors, where several people were collecting gear, food and coffee. I got what I needed and got myself prepped.
I’m climbing 195. Look, I said it was science. I know the name sucks. But what sort of name do you give to an over 1500-year-old tree? Lenny? Paula? Engelbert? There’s no name (or number) that can express the magnificence of these trees. Ever feel how hot a rappel device gets after 300 feet?
This certainly is not on the list of tourist attractions. You will not find scornful and resentful faces here piling out of a poorly packed minivan wishing that this family vacation would end already. You will not find a line at the gate waiting for your turn to be clipped in. This is something else. This is special. The pictures here don’t capture how huge these trees really are.
Let me put it this way. If I turned around now and headed East, I would leave happy.
Haul bag monkey. That’s my job for the day. It sounds strange–vaguely insulting–but I don’t mind. I’m back in 195, a tree I met and conversed with yesterday. Some more people have shown up and now they’re collecting cones as I transport them to the ground. When I’m not loading the bag with cones, lowering, or raising it, I’m free to do as I please. I’m able to look at the branches, compare the young and old cones, marvel at the incredible smallness of the seeds and the absolute hugeness they are capable of creating. I touch the flaky bark–the better to survive wildfires with. This whole area had a prescribed burn several years ago. Listening to the people in the know, I gathered that it got out of hand and may have killed one of the trees. 155. Lenny.
I am not incredibly familiar with forest fires. In the Northeast, they are not the threat that they are here. But I wondered what it must feel like to be responsible for having killed a giant so old, who has seen so much. What sort of reaction would I have if I were the one who let this fire get out of control? Was it human error, a weather shift? I recall with severe sadness the time that I hit a baby coyote with my car and another that I hit a baby bunny with a lawnmower. How could someone else not feel that way if they were responsible for this slow death?
I’ve already made friends with these trees. I feel the need to defend them–says the guy stealing their fruit. In reality, the cones are going to research and the seed bank. I’d like to think I’m helping out their future.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled house drama. There is definitely strange vibe coming from one colleague. It’s unprofessional and immature, and I wish it weren’t so, but it won’t ruin my time here. Personalities can be a funny thing.
Since arriving, I’ve spent $0. I’ve ridden 0 miles. It’s been 48+ hours, and I am already itching to ride again. When I’m not staring in awe at the trees, I stare longingly at my motorcycle.
Disagreements in the (poorly run) morning discussion take longer than I’d like.
Today I’m ground crew. I’m support for the two folks that I was in 195 with yesterday. Good kids, both of them, and very knowledgeable about tree climbing. Hell, one is a particle physicist and the other a mechanical engineer.
Today we meet 333. Paula.
Paula has a lot of headaches (dead branches), so we remove several before proceeding. Even standing out of the way across the road, I feel the ground resonate as the headaches fall. It reminds me of a violent version of Plinko from The Price is Right. You drop a disc into a slot and wait for it to bump all the bolts in the acrylic housing before it settles on one of many prizes below. Dead branches bump into every branch on their way back to earth, exploding into wood fragments that could easily kill you. It’s really cool to watch them fall from a distance. Horrifying if I was closer.
I read a book while the others work. Eventually, I climb Paula, just for the experience. Paula has a clearer line than Engelbert. In 23 minutes I have gone up and back down again. I rappel slowly, since I left my gloves 300 feet below.
Things are getting better back at the house, but there is still a little tension coming from that one colleague. I feel as though I am on someone else’s turf. The tactics may have worked with me in my late teens or early twenties, but they won’t fly now. I continue to be courteous and friendly. Again, this is totally not on me, and I think now we both know it. Like I said, personalities can be a funny thing.
I’m being cautious and purposely vague. I hope you know that, dear reader, and I apologize for doing so. But this is just not the correct medium to detail it all. I will tell you that nearly everyone else I’ve met here I would be honored to work with or hang with again. I just want you to know what is going on. And I don’t want to lie to you.
The day drags on. The tree climbing is done. I thankfully manage to get in touch with friends regarding my next destination in a random moment of barely any service.
And truly, “destination” is a strong word. Because this is where everything gets exciting. I have no concrete plans now. No places to necessarily “be”. I am in control. I point my tire in the direction I want, and I go there. At my next stop, I’ll reconnect with friends I miss dearly, meet new friends, and explore unfamiliar places, while continuing to raise the bar of badassery to incredible heights.
Don’t worry–I’m bringing you along too.