The Redwood Curtain

Under light cloud cover and rain, we grabbed our bags from the back of the silver-blue four runner and hauled them into Madrone’s room before making a quick bite to eat.

Despite our early three AM drive from Redding, there was still plenty of daylight left and he was to show me around the infamous Humboldt State campus.

“Best you bring a rain jacket,” he said as we approached the backdoor. “It’s almost always raining around here.”

And he wasn’t wrong. Out the backdoor we left under sea breezes and fog—following a dampened dirt trail until we soon found ourselves in the immediate company of redwood.

Sometimes two to three hundred feet tall, it was an organic city of skyscrapers, their roots connecting underneath—a high-speed honeycomb web of synapse and soul, neuron and network buried in the matrix of a living soil.

Fibrous and spongy to the touch, their bark acted as natural fire inhibitor, a heat shield resisting flame and bark beetle. How they could draw copious amounts of water through their suspended needles, drinking clouds by the gallons. They were individuals, yet one, a perfect representation of source splitting itself into the ten-thousand things.

This was his commute to school, and I was a little jealous, to be honest. There really wasn’t a discernable difference between the campus and the forest. They were in direct communion with one another, and it made for the perfect environment through which to study the natural world. It was no surprise that the university specialized in earth sciences, forestry, and geography—all fields related and concerned about the great cycles of the world seemingly “outside the self.”

Soon enough we arrived at an opening in the forest, the light pouring through the burnt red bodies of the redwood curtain. And there it was—Humboldt State University, or HSU—hills, stairs, umbrellas as the locals coined it—due to the relentless rain, elevation climbs, and rolling pacific hills.

We walked on passing the football field on the outer periphery before slowly thawing into the inner workings of campus. Up and down, stair after stair we passed the dorms and endless trees silhouetting the buildings that blended into the umber rich hues of Sequoia Semperviren.

Madrone acted as a tour guide, filling me in on where he had classes, where people would get stoned, where one could find players for hacky-sack, or just where to grab a beer. It was interesting to see Madrone in this new element. How he had made such a 180 from where I last remembered him.

There he was in the memory—squealing tires around turns in his ‘86 Brown Toyota Pickup, which he had artfully coined “the turbo turd,” his Copenhagen can stuffed into blue Wranglers, his cowboy boots working the clutch as he sped ten over everywhere he went. How he would hang out with the hicks and drink cheap beer around bonfires and chase girls until he eventually met his Jenny, and how he stuck around for a couple of years at the community college, still not quite trying at school, but was brilliant and a mechanic and a green thumb outdoorsman who just saw how the world worked and how to fix it if it wasn’t.

Now he had traded his cowboy boots for bare feet, his tobacco for weed, and some of our rural conservative viewpoints for more progressive perceptions. He would always be my brother growing up in that 100-degree valley heat, watching the urban sprawl exchange orchards of peach trees for houses, but now he was something a little more. He had become Madrone, shedding his outer layers for new growth on the outer waves of California’s north coast.

After an hour or so meandering through the campus, Madrone insisted that he had to show me something. We left the main campus and wandered about a quarter mile until we reached a disc golf basket labeled Hole 1.

“I’ve played here a few times,” Madrone said, staring into the forest.

“It seems almost impossible with all of the trees, but that’s why people call it the Redwood Curtain.”

“That’s impressive,” I said, wondering why he was insisting on showing me this.

Madrone looked at me and then back into the damp hollows.

“Yeah, but that’s not what I wanted to show you. Come on, we need to get to Hole 14.”

Without really waiting, he turned and started off into the cabernet curtain.

I quickly followed as we trudged onward passing each subsequent hole and after what seemed like a mile, arrived at the infamous Hole 14.

There rooted in front of us, was an old growth stump where a fairy ring had spouted four trunks from the same tree.

“Do you want to climb it?” Madrone said with some confidence.

“Are you serious, is that even safe?” I responded looking up at the giant sentinel.

“Sure it is,” he said as he started walking towards it.

According to Madrone, and the local word around Arcata—some years an arborist had nailed some stakes into the lower trunk of the redwood and had tied a rope to one of the lower branches on the tree (since the lowest branch was a good twenty-feet or so off the ground) you could use the stakes and the rope to get you to the lowest branch, and then from there you could just climb the winding staircase of limbs until about a hundred and fifty feet up—where the same arborist had tied a series of nylon ropes creating an interwoven web or platform.

“Jesus, I don’t know. . .” I went on—

My heart was beating hard and there was a more rational part of me holding me safely down on the earth, safely rooted on this fine damp earth.

But despite all of that, there was an even stronger part of me that wanted to see what the wind was like at the top—wanted to feel what the canopy felt every day.

Madrone could tell I was thinking about it.

“Come on,” he said. “My buddy Brance climbed up here with a six pack and sleeping bag and spent the night once. We got this.”

“All right, fuck it, let’s do it,” I said with a little more confidence.

Madrone looked at me in complete seriousness.

“You have to take your shoes off though, it’s a safety hazard if you don’t.”

He was my brother, I trusted him—and he was right—there was a superior advantage to being barefoot, a more primal connection to the earth and its textures.

I followed him as we grabbed the rope and starting in on the spike ladder until about twenty-feet up where we reached the lower rungs of the trunk. They were unfathomably huge—their own trees unfolding horizontally—and the four trunks split perfectly from the center which lent plenty of branches to ascend the spiral staircase.

Slowly but surely, we began our ascent utilizing our legs to do most of the pushing. I could feel the adrenaline pulsing through my kidneys as we climbed like fire-fed-air and fuel.

The fibrous bark sensuous to the touch—our bare feet, soles and toes finding confidence in the spongy soft bark that felt like forest floor lifting into the sky.

There was something innate in the act, a spirituality in the pure-direct meditation of letting go each moment higher and higher, each branch a breath that could be held for a moment, but eventually had to be surrendered.

And before we knew it, we were a good hundred feet off the ground. Having forgotten fear in complete faith and presence, I looked down for a moment and realized where I was.

Holy shit, I thought to myself—doubt started creeping in from the outer banks of the spirit.

I tried to shake it off and kept my mind to the task at hand. We were almost to the first net—about a hundred and fifty feet up. However, as I corkscrewed up the wooden staircase to the next limb, I noticed an unusually big gap between where I was and where I needed to be just out of arms reach.

Madrone looked down from a couple of branches up. “You’re going to have to turn your body back towards the trunk and then reach up behind you.”

“This part is a little tricky, but just turn your body and grab the branch behind you and step up, then you’ll be able to reach the next branch.

It was a technical move—but like rock climbing, it required just a little creative problem solving.

My only real main concern was the fact that I could fall and die like some fool who decided to free climb a giant redwood. How our family would get the phone call or the talking heads on the nightly news running their segment would utter phrases like, “totally preventable, short sided, brothers pay dearly for drug induced stunt.” Although we weren’t on drugs, it might as well have seemed we were high out of our minds. 

Instead, we stayed in the moment until we were safely resting on the net of the thatched nylon spiderweb. It was unreal, ballsy, reckless even, but we were free. We were alive and we knew it. I laid back and closed my eyes letting the wind softly blow chi into my chest.

“That was pretty wild, huh?” said Madrone. “Let’s go higher, there’s another climbing web just up about another fifty feet.”

I looked up, and sure enough I could see another net, albeit a little smaller in size. I thought for a moment—of course Madrone wanted to go higher, he always wanted to go just a little further.

I played it off and stifled my growing worries.

“All right,” I said, with all sense of a rational mind hidden away and exchanged with an unfettering and unfounded gumption.

We stood up, steadied ourselves and then started in on the ascent to the upper platform. We made quick time, but it didn’t negate how much more the looming heights of our ascent weighed on us.

Just as John Muir had climbed a Douglas Fir in a winter windstorm in 1847 somewhere off the Yuba River—to feel the wind as the trees do—we climbed in the same spirit, to lift ours off the ground.

Swaying in the top of the canopy, we looked out into a blue horizon, blending ocean inland. The cauliflower clouds collecting in the scene, above the Pacific teapot blowing fog in from the coast. We swayed in the light breeze like a pendulum on a dial of an earthen antenna, collecting the high like a molting butterfly for a diorama—perhaps like Icarus with wings glued on, flying too close to the sun—as we set our sights on who we were and where we had been—or at least who we thought we were.

It was like T.S Eliot’s idea in the Four Quartets—that the person who boarded the train would not be the same person arriving at the terminus. That in every moment we were given an opportunity to begin again, that we didn’t have to keep being the person we were ten minutes ago.

That the person who arrived in the forest, who climbed the redwood, who looked out from the canopy upon the sprawling Pacific stretching outward into the self, would not be the same person who would arrive back at the house—all just a constant unfolding like a thousand petaled lotus in each moment becoming new. 

We enjoyed the last of our fleeting moments before deciding it was time to begin the jungle gym descent—and while the climb up had been relatively easy, distracted with just another branch, the climb down would prove quite hairy.

As it’s known in the climbing world and in life in general, it’s always easier going up.

After nearly forty-five minutes, a few near-death visions, and some moments of sure faith, we were safely back on the ground.

That earthen floor. . . never had I appreciated that solid mass more upon which we hominids we’re meant to live on. How I think I was done trying to prove myself capable in such a way so nearsighted. Either way, I kept my shoes off on the walk back, a different light opening on the stage of this life, the sun starting to fade behind the redwood curtain.


Eli Coyle received his MA in English from California State University-Chico and is currently a MFA candidate at the University of Nevada-Reno. His poetry and prose have recently been published or are forthcoming in: Barely South Review, California Quarterly, Camas, Caustic Frolic, Cherry Tree, Harpur Palate, Hoxie Gorge Review, New York Quarterly, The Normal School, Permafrost Magazine, Soundings East, and The South Carolina Review, among others.