An Orion reporter lost in the woods
November 7, 2021
The drive to Mendocino started off a little rocky. I can’t drive, and my wonderfully kind partner Jon had volunteered to chauffeur me the four-hour drive to the campsite from Chico. Infinitely patient, he is the kind of man to give you the shirt off his back if you were cold. Tall and goofy with a mess of black curly hair, he looks the part too.
That day, even he was a little frazzled.
We were to be at the site at 2 p.m. Friday Oct. 15, but we couldn’t get out of Chico that day until 11 a.m. I forgot bags, breakfast and made us stop for endless bathroom breaks. Throughout it all, Jon put up with me and my endless question of, “It will be fine, right?”
The drive was gorgeous, once we got past the dried out drought ridden region of NorCal. We drove through the small town of Clear Lake, aptly named for the massive lake to the left of the town and then through the beautiful tree-lined Highway 20 down through the mountains to Fort Bragg.
I don’t know when fear became excitement, but it was somewhere around the first sightings of the redwoods in hour four of the drive. The world had been hot and dry leaving the city, but as we got closer to the ocean, the sun became muted and warm, light floating in the now cool moisture of the air.
The ocean arose suddenly on our right, a sheet of emerald blue green water stretching far off into the distance. I’ve only ever seen the ocean twice in my life, and it took my breath away.
We turned left, away from the cliff faces and the water, and began to descend.
Mendocino Woodlands Camp lay within a valley of redwoods. It was miles down winding dirt roads with sheer drops along one side and surrounded by massive trees with dense green ferns crowding the ground.
The roads wound down in tight curves, snaking down the valleys of Fort Bragg. It felt like we had descended even below the elevation of the ocean
The deeper we got into the valley, the taller the trees grew. Mountainous things, like giants. The trees grew taller and taller until our little black car was dwarfed by the size of them and the shadows grew longer.
While I sat in absolute awe of the place we had found ourselves in, Jon sat with gritted teeth and white knuckles as he tried to keep us on the tiny narrow road. I imagine the sight of his pinched anxiety-ridden face and my smushed face of childlike wonder pressed against the window would have been hilarious to see.
Our camp was the last one in the forest, and I do mean the last one. We finally made it to the ranger station after miles of “You’re almost there!” signs mocking us, only to find that we had many more miles to go.
Jon and I jeered at each subsequent sign that we passed.
It was well after 3 p.m. when we finally made it to camp, but with the trees blotting out the light, it felt like late evening. What I had expected to maybe be a little clearing with room for tents and maybe a port-a-potty — if we were lucky — turned into something very different.
What greeted us was a summer camp ripped right out of a ’90s movie. Quaint little cabins with stone patios dotted the forest, joined by a little infirmary, oldschool off-white canvas tents for storage and a bathhouse. In the heart of it all was the lodge, a beautiful building with two massive stone fireplaces and a full restaurant-style kitchen.
In the rocky clearing in front of the Lodge was a group of five students, David Rolloff, Jesse Engebretson and a man I didn’t know.
Stepping out of the car, the last bit of my anxiety was washed away as I met some of the people with whom I was to spend the rest of the trip. David and Jesse were there to greet us and show us where everything was.
The whole camp was made of the same redwood as the trees surrounding us, and the buildings seemed to nestle perfectly in the little valley. I was told by David later on that the camp had been built in the ’30s, and it showed in the best way.
The smell was incredible, like the incense I sometimes burn when I feel fancy. The air was damp and cold and smelled of green leaves.
“Do you know what to do if you see a bear in the woods?” David asked us before we ventured out. “Look at it! They’re beautiful creatures. Take a photo.”
I don’t know why I was so shocked by how nice they were, but I was. It had been my anxiety talking when I assumed that they would be standoffish, and would find me weird for tagging along when I was not part of the class or major.
The students were mostly recreation, hospitality, and parks management majors here to understand how parks are managed and how they tie into conservation efforts. In total, there were 15 students including myself. Two students were from Sacramento State, the rest were from Chico State. All coming from very different walks of life and with very different personalities.
Even so, everyone was so kind, taking me around the site and showing me the different buildings. We looked at creepy stone basements, the moss-encrusted wood of the gate house and the large mushroom circle that surrounded the outer ring of the camp.
The lodge was large but very cozy, with tall vaulted ceilings and dark redwood beams. Two massive stone fireplaces stood at either end of the room, big enough for me to walk inside only slightly hunched over. Tall antique windows covered every wall and broke up the deep wood interior. Two swinging doors led to the large commercial kitchen, all shiny metal and vintage tile. A massive walk-in freezer, nearly the size of a bedroom, and an even bigger storage room took up the back two corners of the room. Windows filled every empty space of the wall.
I felt like a character in a movie, I could even hear the strumming guitar of an adventurous indie song in the background.
While we waited for the late arrivals to find their way to the camp, we had an informal talk around the small stone patio of the lodge.
We met Chad Swimmer, the unknown man in the clearing. He sat on the ground next to a very fancy looking mountain bike. It lay on the ground in stark contrast to Chad. He was in well-worn earth toned clothing and shorts, despite the cold. He lounged on the ground in front of the lodge as if he had spent all his life there.
Chad is a member of the Mendocino Train Stewards. Jesse and David contacted him to speak with us about the forest we were in and the human aspect of conservation.
David called us over, and we stood around the side of the lodge, the light falling in dim beams and deep blue shadows that grew while Chad spoke. The air was heavy with moisture and a settled silence.
He taught us about the sequestering of carbon in redwood trees and the underground network of mushrooms that link the trees and contribute to their survival. He spoke about the mental health benefits of trees and the fiscal impact of ecotourism.
“Our society is built on the idea of economic worth,” Chad said. “These trees are worth more standing.”
This kind of conversation and informal teaching set the stage for the rest of the trip. It was learning for the sake of learning, and it was wonderful.
After the talk, we were left to our own devices for the evening before dinner and our official group meeting. We all went to explore our campsite together.
Tucked a couple hundred feet from the lodge was a hollowed-out redwood stump. It was taller than all of us and 10 times as wide. We jokingly began to climb inside one after another to see how many of us would fit. All 11 of us did.
It was calm and quiet. We all sat around in the tree and began to talk about our favorite childhood TV shows, the best horror movies and why we chose our majors. In that time we were not so different anymore, and it was easy to bridge the wide gaps separating us.
It was of no surprise that we all decided to stay in the main room of the lodge together for the remainder of the trip. We could’ve all chosen individual cabins around the site to stay in, but it was a little spooky as night set in, and I think we all just felt a little more comfortable together.
One of us offhandedly joked about building forts with the piles of camping mattresses tucked against the far wall of the room and the idea stuck. It was ridiculous — a bunch of 20-somethings building a lodge-sized pillow fort to sleep in. It broke the last bit of ice between us.
David and Jesse let us have our fun as we made little sleeping nooks and double-decker fort beds. We brought piles of mattresses down on top of each other and made a mess of everything, but it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.
Seeing Jesse nervously stand in a corner suggesting COVID safety measures, like keeping the giant kitchen vent on through the night and divider walls for the forts, as we all continued on merrily was also a highlight.
We all made our dinners after that with some relief at having such a nice kitchen to cook in. Later we had a short meeting to talk about our plans for the trip and then we went outside to sit around the campfire and talk before bed.
In the small clearing outside the lodge, there was a little patch of unobstructed night sky above us where we sat. The deep blue shadows of the forest gave way to the roaring fire that the professors built to keep warm against the chill. We sat for a long time and talked about the forest and the purpose of our trip.
Sleeping that night was difficult, and I tossed and turned for a long time. My little fort proved to be incredibly cozy and warm though, being right next to the gently crackling fireplace. My excitement for the day to come kept me awake long after the fire grew dim. I wasn’t sure exactly what our plans were yet, mainly hiking and “class,” but I was ready for anything. I fell asleep to the last rustling embers of the fire settling in for the night.