The next day we began our field study camp in earnest.
Long before anyone else was awake, Jennifer and Eduardo got up, showered and cooked themselves a healthy breakfast. They were the power couple of the group. The kind of people that just looked perfect and made it look effortless, even after spending a night on the floor of a dusty lodge.
I, however, crept around the beautiful campsite that morning like a gremlin, hunched over and grumbling about the early hour. In my panic-packing the night before the trip, I had forgotten the most essential and vital thing for any trip: coffee.
Vincent, a kind man with glasses and a short beard, saw my sorry state and came to my rescue with a packet of instant Vietnamese coffee. I’ve had a lot of coffee in my life, but that has to be one of the best cups ever. Once again, I was human.
To start the day, Esme Plascencia, leader of Latino Outdoors in Mendocino County, led us on, what she called, a warmup hike. Our destination was Big Tree.
“It’s only about a mile!” She claimed.
It was not a mile.
This was to be a running joke for the rest of the weekend. The trail, in all actuality, ended up being about three miles, completely uphill. She neglected to mention that. I don’t mean a little incline kind of incline. I mean we walked up 48 flights of stairs kind of incline.
So says Jessica, whose tracker logged our steps. She is a short, fairy-like, woman with a shock of curly red hair that somehow became filled with flowers and leaves throughout the day. She seemed to have no trouble at all during the hike, chipper as always at the front of the pack while we all dragged ourselves up the steep hills behind her. Her leaf crown was in perfect condition throughout it all.
Along the way I think I saw God, who told me that I really should have brought my inhaler.
At the top of the vista there was suddenly a break in the trees, and we saw it. Settled in a beautifully lit clearing, the sun broke through the dense, dark forest. It was Big Tree.
The behemoth was hundreds of feet tall, dwarfing the others; it took all 15 of us, arm to arm, to surround the diameter of the trunk.
Hugging that tree, all of us together, created a perfect silence. Seeing this thing, over 1,300 years old, we all felt humble. This tree had been here before the ancestors of my ancestors, and it would hopefully be here long after me.
“Bunch of tree-hugging hippies!” David shouted from somewhere behind the giant tree.
All of us came away laughing, the spell broken. As we pulled away though, I caught David wiping his eyes, laughing along with us.
In that clearing, David and Jesse led us on another discussion about forestry and the human impacts of logging and carbon sequestration. David spoke about the Native tribes, the ecotourism industry and so many other things. It was amazing, sitting around that tree and smelling the forest and feeling the warm sun start to defrost the air.
It was like no class I’ve ever been to in my life.
Before we knew it, the professors called it a wrap and we hiked back to the trailhead. It was a bittersweet feeling leaving that beautiful place.
We had lunch by the beach before we began our next hike through the steps of the Ecological Staircase trail. We all sat together and wolfed down food, most likely to the horror of other passing hikers, while Jesse showed us baby pictures of his kids.
The hike was a bit chaotic, as the area was not managed well and we kept getting lost. Signs were buried in overgrown greenery, pointing unhelpfully this and that way with no conceivable rhyme or reason. Occasionally Jesse could be heard at the back of the party bemoaning the sorry state of the trails.
We finally took a small detour at the beach to talk about dog monitoring and to play in the sand and water. The midday sun shone brightly against the reflective sand as we exited the tree canopy. The sky was an endless clear blue above and the air was cool and damp, smelling of sea salt and leaves.
I felt like a kid again: causing trouble for the adults and being way too loud with friends. David and Jesse stood stalwart as we went exploring, guarding our shoes and bags and making sure we didn’t cause too much trouble.
After clearing the sand off our feet, we continued on.
Walking around the cliffs surrounding the ocean (only about a mile hike, David told us), we saw vastly different ecoregions with each step of the Ecological Staircase. One moment, we were walking through a lush forest with mushrooms and pine trees and the next we were surrounded by the expansive gray spider-like roots of a tree, which seemed to encompass an entire clearing like a web. It would have been dizzying had it not been so incredible to behold.
We talked about trail management as we walked and the impact of hikers on native vegetation. Jesse spoke about invasive succulents and their importance to the foundation of the cliffs we stood on. It was, somehow, both a running conversation and an in-depth lecture.
That night we made dinner together, utilizing the massive kitchen in the lodge. After the day we had, we didn’t need to assign tasks or cleaning chores. We worked as a team, and the food came out incredible: fresh guacamole, red rice and chicken and steak tacos with warm tortillas and salsa.
I ended up being more of a hindrance than help, so I stood back and tried not to get in anyone’s way as I took sniper photos of students sneaking chips and bites of guacamole when they thought no one was looking. When I shared one with the others, we all ended up cry-laughing, bracing the kitchen counters for support.
We made smores after dinner and I finally got to use that big scary knife to carve sticks with Vincent for roasting marshmallows. David and Jesse gave advice about working as park rangers and peace police and how to find opportunities in the field.
The fire kept most of the damp chill away as we huddled together. Gooey smores covered all of our fingers and chocolate smeared our mouths. We were a mess; sweaty from the day and continuously setting our marshmallows on fire.
In those moments, I had to sit back and take a long look at these people I had spent so much and so little time with, but might never see again. I was so happy to have known them. Even for just a little bit.