“You can be our good-luck charm,” Josh told Isabel, who had agreed to join David and Josh on their fourth excursion to Jedediah.
“We’re going to need it,” added Fred darkly. It was Friday the 13th, and things were already starting to go badly. Before they’d even set out, David managed to spill an entire cup of scalding tea on himself. Halfway to Grants Pass Josh suddenly exclaimed in horror that he’d forgotten his digital camera. They knew the trip was doomed when they arrived at Howland Hill Road and found the gate closed. It seemed the pot-hole prone road needed repairing.
Refusing to be deterred, they parked in a nearby turn-out and hiked past the surprised construction crew. Three miles later, already footsore, they reached the flat stretch Josh and David had explored on the last trip. They couldn’t get the Youtube image of the Grove’s flatness out of their minds. It had to be in here somewhere. This time they would strike from the west.
The Boy Scout Tree Trail runs from Howland Hill Road northwest some two and a half miles to Fern Falls on the west side of the park. The three travelers headed up the trail, making for a narrow bridge that spans the choked creek Fred and Josh had struggled up last time. Their plan was to leave the trail at the bridge, striking north right up the flat stretch to a low pass dividing the flats from the rugged hills. By the time they reached the bridge, the last traces of morning mist had lifted, and the sky glowed with a rare blue through gently swaying boughs.
With a quick prayer for success, they plunged into the forest once again. Josh and David were both worried for Isabel’s safety, peppering her with offers of assistance whenever they reached a fallen obstacle or particularly treacherous stretch of fake forest floor. They soon began to regret their chivalry, however, when Isabel proved the most nimble of the three, easily overcoming each difficulty with grace that shamed the two men. David particularly was prone to frequent falls, and now faced Isabel’s laughter as well as the usual cuts and slivers with each topple.
The morning drifted by in a procession of fern brakes, fallen giants, and above all the towering presence of silent sentinels guarding their ancient secrets with the dignity of kings. They lunched beneath a Stout-sized titan partway up the sloping pass. The fact that their woodland adventure must soon end, probably without success, was nagging at their spirits.
However, no gloom can last for long under a merry sun amid the splendor of a redwood forest. With bellies full, they turned southwest, hoping to cut back to the road through an unexplored section of the flat. After a time, the terrain began to take on a vague déjà vu feel. Suddenly Josh give a small groan.
“Ah,” said David, following Josh’s line of sight. They had re-discovered the Whimpering Titans. They were running out of new area to explore.
Frustration began to build. David felt they had mined this flat stretch for all it was worth, and they would have to look elsewhere. Josh got out the map and asked David pointedly to show him another flat section big enough to hold the elusive Grove. David had no answer.
They began to wander, chasing after large trees in the distance, or sunny patches that might be a glade. Isabel surprised the guys by revealing a talent for spotting far-off giants. They stomped here and there through the forest, growing ever wearier as the day lengthened and the sun descended toward the nearby Pacific.
“Don’t go down there. It’s too steep!” The anxiety in Isabel’s voice broke the stillness of the woods.
David answered without looking back. “We haven’t searched this gully yet. It might turn out to be the creek we’re looking for.”
“But look how steep it is! How far down is that? Sixty feet? And you can’t even see the bottom of the gully.”
“Come on,” said David dismissively.
He led the way down the slope, the others following cautiously behind. David had developed the habit of steadying himself by grasping six or seven ferns at a time. They couldn’t support his 230 pounds for long, but the tactic usually bought him a second or two to gain his balance. As he descended this slope, it became increasingly clear he would need more than fern tips to keep his feet. Not liking to admit that Isabel might have been right, he ventured on, his own anxiety growing at the steepness of the descent.
“Uh, I think we should go back actually.” David could go no farther. He’d descended some fifty feet, right to the edge of the gully, but he still couldn’t see the bottom. He peered over the edge, grasping a thick handful of ferns with one hand. Ten feet or more below, he heard the sound of gurgling water, but brambles and branches blocked his view. It was clear at any rate that if once he got into the cutting nothing but a crane could get him out.
“I told you it was a bad idea.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s just go back up.”
It was easier said than done. The last dozen feet of the descent had been more of a slide. Thinking to take the ascent at a gradual rate, David advanced along the edge of the gully, veering right and up with each climbing step. Suddenly he froze. The ferns had obscured the ground around him, and he realized with a start he was closer to the edge of the gully than ever. It had veered to the right more sharply than he had. He was inches away from a nasty fall.
“Hmmm. I just about fell in there,” he called out, trying to keep all emotion from his voice. “You guys should really stay away from here.”
“I knew that was going to happen,” said Isabel fiercely.
They got up at last. Isabel turned to the guys, begging them to head back to the road. “I just want out of this forest,” she pleaded.
“Yeah, no problem,” said Josh, putting a comforting arm around her. “It’s getting late anyway. It’ll be dusk soon.”
Half an hour later, the three explorers were sitting on a log beside Howland Hill Road, twilight closing in around them. They sat in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. For Isabel, the nasty gully—which David had melodramatically named “the gully of the shadow of death”—had become a problem. The forest didn’t seem so safe and pleasant anymore. She wanted to go home. Josh and David began to speak of their next journey in, perhaps the following summer.
“Where else could we search though?” David said. “We’ve looked everywhere it could possibly be.”
“Yeah,” agreed Josh. “I’m starting to doubt everything we’ve been going on. Even the pictures—”
“I wouldn’t put it past some of those guys to use Photoshop,” David interrupted.
“We need to head up the Mill Creek Trail as far as we can go before it’s too dark. Maybe we’ll see something off in the distance. A flat section or a creek, just so we know where to look next year.”
In single file, they headed up the road to the trailhead and turned their feet northward. Josh and David were limping by now, and the soles of Isabel’s feet were killing her. They walked in sullen silence, only the first stirrings of small nocturnal creatures in nearby bushes breaking the stillness.
Minutes passed. They saw nothing but endless stretches of wood, now fading into a gathering gloom. After a time the trail bent back on itself, bringing them down to the bank of Mill Creek.
Suddenly Josh cried out. “Wait a minute! What’s that there, off in the distance?” He pointed. A huge redwood draped in shadow dominated the scene across a meadow, just off the trail. “That couldn’t be one of the titans could it?” Josh asked the night air, his back to the others.
“If that’s one of our titans, there would be a faint trail leading off to it,” said David eagerly. “Come on, let’s keep going a ways.”
They turned a corner and all three stopped dead. As plain as day a small trail veered off right toward the behemoth Josh had spotted. They stared in silence, feeling the familiar thrill of expectancy they’d had before, but something more too, something deeper.
“Let’s check it out,” said David.
“We have to. We have to know,” said Josh. They both looked at Isabel.
“Fine,” she agreed, a small but weary smile at the guys’ obvious excitement playing at the edge of her mouth.
A few hurried steps. A short run. Up and around a little. Aching joints strangely forgotten. Josh looked up with quickened pulse. Anyone back at the trail would have heard a primal shout of exultation, wordless but rich with meaning. “That’s the burl. The claw burl. That’s El Viejo Del Norte!”
“We’ve found it!” David yelled at the top of his lungs.
“Are you guys serious?” whispered Isabel, her voice filled with awe.
But the guys were too busy running to hear her. Around the titan’s huge girth, over a few fallen logs, the path led them on while they leapt and shouted.
And then, quite suddenly, there they were. Beside a swift little creek which had materialized out of nowhere, just as they’d seen a thousand times in their mind’s eye, rose up the Screaming Titans, their joined base a mountainous silhouette hardly to be believed. David and Josh were screaming their voices raw while Isabel ran up lightly behind, laughing, eyes twinkling.
And now discoveries came swift and sudden. Earendil. Aldebaran. And standing proud at the edge of the meadow, its diameter of twenty-six feet wide enough to accommodate two semi-trucks side-by-side with room to spare, the Lost Monarch, the second largest tree on earth.
Amid their shouts, hugs and high-fives as they ran from tree to tree, Josh kept repeating, “But what about the Del Norte Titan?” Josh and David had agreed the Del Norte Titan, the fourth largest coastal redwood, was the most attractive due to its smooth sides and shapely trunk.
“We’ll find it later,” David assured him. “We have to come back to take pictures anyway. We don’t have a camera and it’s too late.”
“But Josh and I are both moving next week,” Isabel reminded him.
It was time to go. They’d had their moment of glory but dusk was turning to night. David bid farewell to the Screaming Titans with a wave, and they ran back to the Mill Creek Trail.
“I can’t believe it was there all the time,” he said.
“Hiding in plain sight,” said Isabel.
“What’s that?” said Josh.
He was pointing across Mill Creek to the opposite bank. The shadowy forms of trees stood out blacker against the darkened sky while stars shone between their softly swaying branches.
“Wow,” was all David could say.
A great hulking shadow rose up in the darkness, blotting out the stars. “You don’t think that could be . . .” His voice trailed off while they continued to stare.
“You guys are crossing the creek aren’t you,” said Isabel resignedly. It wasn’t a question.
By way of answer, David and Josh raced down the bank and into the darkly shining water. They had to know.
An hour and a half later, the three explorers were sitting at a booth in the Cave Junction Dairy Queen, waiting for their food to arrive. “I can’t believe you spotted Del Norte. Across the creek. At night,” said David admiringly.
At that moment their food arrived. David picked up his cheeseburger, looking at it thoughtfully before taking a famished bite. “And I can’t stand that we found the Grove of Titans just five minutes from where we first started looking on the very first excursion,” he tried to say, his mouth full of food.
Josh nodded gravely. His eyes were full of memories, some of which were painful, but all of which he would cherish the rest of his life.
“Don’t talk with food in your mouth,” said Isabel briskly.