Why is it that the very things that frighten us also intrigue us so? I am more than a little claustrophobic, so of course touring the insanely cramped quarters of the captured German U-boat at the Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago filled me with morbid fascination. Younger daughter Laurel’s longtime borderline obsession with dinosaurs began when, as a three-year-old, a life-sized animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex scared the bejesus out of her at the St. Louis Science Center. She immediately insisted on being taken to the library to get books on dinosaurs. Knowledge is indeed power.
And when we began planning our trip down California’s coast, I insisted on seeing redwood trees. Not that I’m afraid of trees. I just have a healthy respect for heights, shall we say, especially when no intervening railings or other barriers are involved. The Signature Lounge on the 96th floor of the Hancock Center is one of my favorite places to take out-of-town guests—I can press against the windows to stare fearlessly straight down the building’s side, putting my complete faith in a sheet of plate glass. But without any such protections, I tend to agree with George S. Kaufman: “I like terra firma; the more firma, the less terra.”
So when I read Richard Preston’s amazing article “Climbing the Redwoods” in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, I was hooked. He talks about unclipping himself from the main rope to climb the rest of the way to the top of a tree named Adventure by the scientist who first scaled it, some three hundred and sixty feet in the air: “There is something unnerving about leaving the main rope behind and going into free motion in the crown of a redwood tree. The main climbing rope is a lifeline that connects a climber to the ground, and it is the escape route out of the tree.” And climbing down, he rappels the last 250 feet to the ground, swinging far out from the tree trunk and opening “the brake on the descender full wide.”
Not that I wanted to climb a redwood, mind you. But I wanted to see these giants—Sequoias or California Redwoods. To touch one and stare up the side of it, watching it disappear into branches and sky.
My fascination with redwoods isn’t all fear-based, of course. I think it began with seeing photos of a footpath or possibly a road carved through the base of one giant in a textbook or an ancient National Geographic as a kid. Just imagining something that massive, that majestic, that old—some of the largest are perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 years old or older—stirred my young soul and made the far west feel like a magical place. Later, reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America, one of the moments that stuck with me more than just about any other was his dog Charley’s encounter with a Giant Sequoia.
Preston’s own fascination with redwoods is more than climbing. In “Climbing the Redwoods,” he tells of the amazing ecosystem in the canopy of the California Redwoods. A dazzling array of animals and plants live there—masses of hanging fern gardens weighing tons after a rain, salamanders that never leave the treetops for their entire lives, thickets of huckleberry bushes… even other non-redwood trees.
In the end, we failed to find true giant redwoods this trip. That could have something to do with accidentally finding the Bonny Doon Vineyard tasting room along the way. But the ones we did find were still beautiful and haunting and impressive. And yes, I did touch them and stare up their glorious sides.