In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous.
I turn off the Redwood Highway onto Davison Road and follow it through a meadow, cars parked on either side. Their passengers visually scout the grassy open meadow in search of Roosevelt elk. I don’t see any as I drive by, but I’m not looking for them. I moved here, to the California Redwood Coast, a year and a half ago from Colorado where throughout the years I saw plenty of elk loitering along the residential and business streets in mountain towns as if they intended to establish an elegant squatter’s settlement. It’s nice to see elk again, but my mind is set on reaching Fern Canyon.
I make a slight left onto a dirt road, and suddenly I’m in the deep old-growth forest. Immediately, the path turns narrow and steep, rocky, pockmarked, with a dappled sunlight that makes it difficult to tell whether the splotches of light amid the shadows of these tall trees are merely patches of sun or are holes that could devour my tires and send me and my SUV plunging into a hellish Wonderland, shaking hands with the White Rabbit as we tumble past each other.
The speed limit is 15 mph, and my SUV does it confidently, ready to take on more of a challenge. Me, the driver, not so much. Nine more miles of these driving conditions before I’m there? Surely there must be an easier way in? There must have been a mistake? The name “Fern Canyon” easily rolls off the tongues of locals. They make it sound as if it’s a routine trip, as if a drive to Fern Canyon is as easy as commuting to work in this rural, sparsely populated county where the idea of a rush hour is laughable to my city ways. These locally grown people must be heartier stock than I.
Fern Canyon’s claim to fame is being a movie star. It was a filming location for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World. If that trips your trigger, great. But it’s not important to me. I come to see the fifty to eighty-foot tall canyon walls covered with—yep—ferns. I come to feel the cool, damp climate. I come to partake of mother nature’s version of Wonderland, to get a whiff of the air that moves around the canyon, the smell of the older as well as the younger vegetation. I come to witness something of the marvelous.
So I travel on, not as wary of the rough conditions but still distrustful of the route. The steepness of the road eventually gives way to a more gentle uphill, downhill, winding, and narrowing pathway as I drive deeper into the woods. I encounter only a handful of cars. Six miles later I arrive at the Gold Bluffs Beach kiosk. I pay the day-use entry fee and proceed north. The road is still unpaved, but it’s wider, flatter, a gravelly road following the coastline. The trees give way to beach grass and scrub and the Pacific Ocean on the left, tree-covered bluffs on the right. Signs announce I’m in a tsunami hazard zone. In case of earthquake, go to high ground or inland. I travel three more miles, easily fording three small streams, and come to a dead end, the parking lot for the trailhead to Fern Canyon, my destination. About twenty vehicles are scattered throughout the lot. I won’t be alone.
The sun shines here, and I’m comfortable in shirt sleeves, but it’ll be much cooler by the water and in the shade, in the forest. I leave my sunglasses in the car, grab my sweatshirt, my warm beanie hat and gloves, and head down the quarter-mile trail, rated on the official map as “easy.” And it is.
I pass a few smiling hikers on their return trip and lag behind two others with a small
child. It’s more crowded than I thought it would be on a school day, but still not bad. I reach Home Creek and turn right. The path disappears, giving way to a narrow trickle of water and the rocky creek bed. The creek is only a few inches deep, if that. I follow it, the stony floor, and enter a prehistoric landscape. This is Fern Canyon. Narrow, lush, dense, green. Ferns and mosses grow on nearly perpendicular walls, moisture dripping continuously. Look who’s in Wonderland now.
Intrigued, I wander further into this magical place. The creek gets a little deeper here and there. I cross it five, eight times viafoot bridges placed strategically to keep hikers on the drier parts of the canyon floor. The bridges are four boards across, three feet wide and five or six feet long and some longer, sometimes three placed end-to-end to span the creek. Each bridge is supported with three horizontal boards that give them a little height over the creek. Thoughtful of the rangers to think of this detail.
I move along quicker than the others I’ve followed and overtake them. I distance myself, to be further up the canyon where I can be alone with it. I’ve passed children throwing stones in the water, adults urging the children to keep up, and oldsters who plod along precariously. Sunshine doesn’t make it into the canyon. The trees above keep it in shadow. Tree branches and tree trunks stripped bare of bark, probably deposited here by raging winter floods, rest where they will. I climb over a log or two, duck underneath another. I exchange friendly greetings with a small number of hikers on their return trip. Everyone smiles, beams. Another minute or two, and no one is in front of me, no one behind.
I park myself on a hospitable log, my feet dangling inches above the water. It’s quiet except for the birds, the American dippers. I don’t see them, but I hear them going about their dipper business as if it were just another day in Wonderland, paying no mind to the
human intruders. The air is cool, moist, and a slight breeze moves through the foliage. I breathe in deeply, then out, repeating the primordial rhythm that drives life. The air is perfumed with the damp, earthy smells of the old forest. My eyes take in the sights: the fern-covered walls and the water seeping from them, the trees fifty feet up, peering down at me, making sure all is well. Green, green, green everywhere I look. So green and peaceful. There’s nothing to do but be part of the canyon.
Be part of the canyon, part of nature, part of what’s been here long before we ever were. Nothing can hurt me here. Nothing claims me for theirs. Nothing demands my time, but I give it to this place. I float in Nothing and the Now with eyes wide open, mind noting what comes up, which isn’t much. Gratefully, it isn’t much. All of this Nothing in the canyon feels supremely right as it parades in front of me, as if I were watching a movie where Nothing happens. Nothing in front of me, Nothing behind me. It’s the most interesting movie I’ve ever seen. I am the ferns, the
moist soil, the water, the rocks, the trees and logs, the nocturnal tree frogs and salamanders, the American dippers. I am green, I am gray, I am brown, I am translucent, I am dense. I am all of it, and all of it is me. I reside here, and it lives within me.
All is well in my metaphysical world, which holds the source of my senses, ideas, dreams, emotions. The energy that moves through this place also moves through me. Perhaps it always has and I have just now noticed. I look around and above me, beneath my feet. Everything I see is transparent—the details of the ground, the lush canyon, the sky, the whole lot of it—including me. For a moment, I think my mind is approaching an unstable dangerous zone. I could be precariously close to a meltdown, but that thought quickly disappears and gives way to the life force itself intensifying within me. It beams outward, and I become lighter and larger, a super woman, whole within herself. It beams outward, and I ride the currents of air and water, eternal in my meanderings. It beams outward, and I think my chakras could explode in this recalibration process, but they don’t. Instead, I split open into a smile I can’t and don’t want to control.
I float out of the canyon, my feet hardly touching the ground. During the trek, I encounter only seven or eight others on their way in—an older couple, several teenagers, and a young couple— before I notice that I am the smiling hiker returning from Wonderland. I laugh to myself and continue gliding. I turn left, away from Home Creek, to a stone bench where I pause to savor the ambiance of my renewed self and fasten the memory of the experience into my psyche, inviting it to stay always as strong as it is now.