Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is at the top of California. I asked a ranger to tell me where I could find the tallest redwood in all the land.
“Well, I can’t tell you where that tree is,” he said, with a hint of sarcasm and annoyance. He pulled out a visitor guide and circled three or four places on the map with a green highlighter pen.
“Go to Lady Bird Johnson Grove,” he said. “That’s where you’ll see a lot of big trees.”
“Where is the tallest tree in that forest?” I asked.
“We don’t mark that tree anymore,” he said. “The root structure is exposed from so many people trampling on it. But you don’t have to search too hard. You’ll find it.”
Of course, I took it as a personal challenge to find the massive redwood that I called the Big Kahuna.
It was five at night by the time I drove up the narrow Bald Hills Road to find the Big Kahuna. It was a steep ascent to Lady Bird Johnson Grove, which rests near the top of a ridge, more than one thousand feet above sea level. As I neared the top, fog and a heavy drizzle hung in the air. The sun had long since given up the ghost. It was fifty-four degrees.
I began walking the one-mile loop in the old-growth redwood forest while the mist was hanging mid-air. The pink-flowered rhododendron and fern-lined trail through the forest began to open up. The trees were getting bigger and taller.
I heard the whistle note of the Marbled Murrelet coming from a high branch along the canopy of the redwood forest. I felt the mulch below my feet and smelled the musky scent of Earth.
I stopped in front of a massive tree trunk and marveled at its width. It must have been at least twenty-five feet around. When I looked up, I could see the lowest branch, about two hundred feet in the air. The tree seemed taller than a football field.
Blocking my path to inspect the trunk was another massive branch. Clearly, someone had placed this obstacle in front of the tree for a reason. When I inspected this tree from trunk to branch, there was no doubt in my mind. I had found the Big Kahuna.
I clutched my heart at the sight of it.
What I did next was exactly the same as every other idiot the park ranger warned me about. I trampled on the roots of the tree to make my way to the trunk.
“Hello,” I said to the Big Kahuna.
I placed both my hands firmly on its fibrous bark, holding on to the tree much like I do the shoulders of my own children after I greet them. Then I turned my face and placed my cheek on its trunk and embraced it.
I stayed in that position for a long time and felt the energy of this massive sentinel melding with my own life force.
“What would you have me know?” I asked the tree.
I could feel the top of the tree swaying and heard it creaking. A deep tranquility emanated from its presence. This 2,000-year-old sentry was the embodiment of deep time. It held the past, present, and future all at once.
“Remain neutral,” the tree said to me.
I leaned my body flat against the tree until there was no space left between me and the Big Kahuna. This intimate bonding sent a shiver through my body as I felt the root structure connect to Earth’s bedrock and then head straight up to the canopy and beyond that, into the heavens.
“Feel what it means to be alive.”
I understood the elder. We get so caught up in rushing through life, that we forget to feel what it means to be alive—that we are here to experience life right now, not later.
I wanted to stay there longer, absorbing the Big Kahuna’s wisdom. But the truth is I was scared. I wasn’t strong enough to continue. The thin veil between reality and fantasy had been lifted, and for a few moments, I was on the other side.
Once I recognized that I had crossed the line, I removed my hands from the tree. Small red fibers stuck to my fingers. I quickly took two steps back away from the trunk and looked up. My neck stretched so far that my back arched. I looked like a reverse question mark.
Even though I was scared, I didn’t run away. Instead, I took one last moment to straighten my spine and mouthed two words. I gently touched the tree with one hand as I said this.