Cathy and i went hiking for a few days in the Stanislaus National Forest this past week. Had a great time hiking around some gigantic sequoias. They aren’t as tall as the coastal redwoods, mind you, but they're definitely wider. Man alive, do they have circumference! Serious girth. Damn. They're freaky wide and glorious to behold. (The third FAQ addressed on the National Park Service’s special Redwoods National and State Parks website asks, after the more practical, “Where are the parks?” and “When are the parks closed,” reads, “Is there a drive-through tree?” and reveals, I believe, that yearning for transcendence so many of us crave and that is satisfied only by driving one’s car through a tree.)
I can’t thing of any other object (natural or otherwise) that so overwhelms and majestically frames a human body. It always provides this exquisite rush of displacement and a poetic punch of context. I’m always left fumbling a bit, thinking, “gee, we’re so…small.” You can’t help but feel a little swept up by the grandeur of it all. And yes, damnit, I am always left with that vague and nagging feeling that it does feel reminiscent of the forest moon of Endor. But who could begrudge Lucas these trees? They are otherworldly.
And while we didn't see any of the heralded Ewoks (or Hobbits, for that matter) we did have bears and plenty of horse manure. The bears came into our campsites (we stayed at designated public campsites) each night, though we never saw any ourselves, only hearing stories of their nocturnal escapades from other campers in the morning. "Hear about the bear?" somebody might ask us, toothbrush in hand. "A couple of them were outside my tent last night, they even picked up my cooler and moved it. I think there might have been two, but my little boy swears he saw a whole bunch of other crazy stuff in the surrounding woods.” We'd nod and think, "What happens if your kid accidentally goes to sleep with a squeeze tube of Chunky peanut butter under their pillow in the tent? What then?" Has this happened before? Did I miss these segments on America’s Funniest Home Videos or in the pages of National Geographic? Or does this never happen?
The first night we camped I awoke sometime in the middle of the night (let’s say 2:30ish) to the sounds of a little girl crying. It’s a terribly distressing sound, a kid crying in the distance under what was, I might add, a full moon and in the middle of an otherwise silent campground. Spooky, that’s for sure. The mind’s little scenario factory starts up and conjures all sorts of possibilities. My best guess, and probably the most rational and likely, was that she was on one of her first camping trips and awoke disoriented and, well, it simply scared the hell out of her to realize she wasn’t in her big-girl bed anymore and that the nightlight was suddenly missing and so her little newly constructed monster factory started up and conjured all sorts of possibilities of its own. She cried for a minute or two longer before somebody successfully managed to quiet her.
The next night I woke up to another creepy sound. Not coyotes- at least I don’t think they were, because I’ve heard coyotes before and these didn’t sound like coyotes. “Maybe they were wolves?” Cathy wondered in the morning. Maybe. They were spookier sounding than the little girl, that’s for sure. Here’s why. They seemed to be replicating that grossly phantasmagoric howl Peter Jackson’s sound designer’s have created and used for the Wringwraiths in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. I lay there in the cocoon of my sleeping bag and awoke just enough to appreciate the tinge of dread such a sound brings to the camping experience. Isn’t this part of the allure of camping, of setting up tent under that canopy of trees and on a bed of needles and sleeping out under the stars? To get…closer to nature? Of course, if that’s so, there’s a part of me that thinks it’s important to reclaim whatever it was I heard from the arguably shallow fate of being understood only by its resemblance to a particular Hollywood sound-designers potent concoction. What was it really? What purpose does the howling serve? Why do we always want to describe this sound as “lonesome?”
My ignorance disappoints me. But still, I wonder and don’t think it the least bit shallow- will the third and final chapter of the trilogy maintain the high enchantment standards of the first two installments?