It’s been so long since our last hike at Big Basin Redwood State Park in California. But it isn’t that last hike that comes to mind; it’s the first one we made one winter. My not-yet-husband Greg and I had been living together for about 18 months when we decided to spend a couple of winter nights at Big Basin. At the time (the late 80s), it was an easy two-hour drive from our San Francisco apartment. We spent the previous night packing our sleeping bags and other gear, preparing food while The Talking Heads’ movie Stop Making Sense played out on our TV.
It was a cold winter. We practically had the park to ourselves; it was so cold no sane person would think about spending the night in a tent. We were sane, but also young. That first night we set up camp and walked around a bit, returning to eat and retire early.
I wanted to read. I don’t remember what novel I was reading at the time, but it was a paperback. I remember that because turning the pages while wearing thick wool gloves took as long as actually reading a page. I reclined in one of our Nifty chairs, a two-piece chair of slotted wood and dark blue cotton panels. It sat low to the ground. I wore a wool cap, wool sweater, long underwear, a hooded storm blue parka, thick wool socks, jeans, and hiking boots. I draped scarves around my face. Greg cocooned me in blue, green and red patterned wool blankets that he had bought in Ecuador.
We were slotted in among tall trees and deep green bushes, a thick border between us and our neighbors, except we didn’t have neighbors. Instead, we had uninvited guests, an unwelcoming party of five young raccoons who, at the first scent of our roasting hot dogs, decided to crash our little party of two. They came out of the bushes, advancing on us, their bandit eyes fearless and curious. It was cold. They were hungry.
“Shoo, shoo!” We waved them away, normally not afraid of raccoons, but we were outnumbered. Finally, Greg took a big stick, a fallen branch, and pounded the ground in front of them. They looked at him, shrugged, and went away reluctantly.
That night I bundled into my sleeping bag and lay listening to a barred owl hoot as it flew from one tree to the next. I was warm except for my nose which felt like an ice cube. The raccoons came back and tried to jimmy open the cabinet where we had stored our food. I smiled knowing they could never break in.
The next day we went on our hike, starting off with three layers of clothing. That morning I had had to chop through a layer of ice to get to the water in our bucket. The seven-mile trail we took was flagged as “strenuous” by the park. Seven miles of drops and climbs, from the bottom of waterfalls with dark green ferns and moss, up to chaparrals with manzanita shrubs dotting the stony, bare hillside.
We lunched on a platform overlooking one of the falls, taking in as much with our senses as we city people could: the tang of muddy earth, the lull of rushing water, the slipperiness of moss-coated stones. Our calves were cramped with the strain of hiking this roller-coaster of a trail. This trip, this vacation, was a pilgrimage to a place on earth we knew we had to enjoy now while we could still walk.
The air was fresh and wet and cold, the temperature rising to the forties, maybe the fifties. By the end of the hike, my left knee gave out and I had to walk sideways for the last half-mile. We had warmed enough to strip down to one layer — long-sleeve t-shirts and jeans — stowing all the rest into our too-small backpacks.
At the end of the hike, the temperature was dropping and the light was fading. We bee-lined for the showers. Have you ever taken a hot shower in an ice-cold stall? Any bit of your skin that isn’t covered by hot water feels the knife-edge of freezing air. I always thought I would linger during my shower, but I never could last long, the cold air and hot water battling over my body. By the time I toweled off, I was starting to shiver. I couldn’t get my clothes on fast enough.
Back to camp and a fire and some brandy. More hot dogs. More raccoons. They kept their distance this time and all was well until I reached for the bag of pistachio nuts that I had left on the picnic table. It was gone. Panicked, because I loved pistachio nuts and had only eaten a few, I searched under and around the picnic table. Then I heard it. The familiar crunch and crack of the nuts being broken open and then devoured. The raccoons had stolen the bag.
I glared at the bushes where they were hidden, unseen but not unheard. Outwitted by raccoons.
As we stood around the fire, sipping the pint of brandy, I wondered out loud whether Greg’s former girlfriend — the one just before me, the one who left him and then tried to come back — would have been a better camping companion, more experienced and fun. He laughed out loud and said, “No, she’d be lying in the tent right now if she came at all.” She was not, never had been, a good camping companion. “You’re a superior woman,” he said before he kissed me.
As we packed up the next morning, making sure we weren’t leaving any crumbs for the felonious raccoons, a doe and her fawn sauntered into our campsite. They paused when they spotted us, and the four of us stood staring for a minute or two. We were in awe by their proximity; they were waiting for us to leave so they could forage. I poured some trail mix — peanuts and raisins — into my hand and held it out. The doe leaned her head forward, taking only as many steps as she needed. Her soft muzzle tickled my palm. She never took her eyes off me and kept her body between me and her fawn.
We dropped the rest of the mix on the ground so the fawn could eat too.
This wasn’t my last winter hike at Big Basin, but it was the last one where I looked deep into the eyes of a doe as she ate out of my hand. It was the one where I learned that I had won the heart of the man I loved.
Hello, everyone, and thank you for reading. This story was written in response to a February flash challenge hosted by Mom Egg Review. No worries. I’m not going to post daily, but since it took me ALL day to write this, I just thought I’d go ahead and share. Here’s your reward for sticking with me this far.
Marie A Bailey
Writer, blogger, knitter, cat lover, and introvert.