Tuesday, February 20, 2007

When you go down to the woods today ...

Sunday February 9

The alarm clock is set to wake me up early, at 7.30am. Since I enjoyed my ferry tour so much yesterday, I’ve decided to book another tour; this time to the redwood forests at Muir Woods and the seaside town of Sausalito, which faces San Francisco from across the bay. It’s easier than I thought to make a last minute booking. As I wait for my 8.30am hotel pickup, I decide that breakfast would be a good start to the day. Though I sit down and accept a menu from the hotel restaurant, the food being served around me doesn’t look so good, I already know the coffee is awful, and I don’t have much time. I decide to brave Market Street. No luck – but it’s good for my self-esteem to have tried.

The tour bus that picks me up is empty. Strange, I think. Surely I’m not taking this tour alone. That would be kind of awkward. The driver speaks to me occasionally, addressing me through a loudspeaker. This too, I think, is strange. We are heading for Fisherman’s Wharf, where I’m to buy my ticket and board the official tour bus. I reply politely to every announcement: thank you, that’s good, I will. As we pull up in front of the ticket office, I am shocked and dismayed to see a stream of people file off the bus behind me. From the upper deck. I didn’t realise this was a double-decker bus. (If I had, I’d have been on the top deck, too.) I imagine the driver’s puzzlement at my replying to his every announcement.

Our driver for the morning takes our tickets as we board.
‘Where are you from?’ he asks matily. ‘Melbourne? Well, hello Melbourne!’
He offers the same greeting to each passenger in turn. When we’re all seated, he goes along and checks that we’re all there, calling each of us by our city name. It’s how he’ll refer to us for the rest of the trip. Impressively, he remembers everyone correctly. As we begin to drive and he starts a running commentary, I sigh inwardly, expecting to hate this part of the trip as much as I did yesterday. I fumble for my iPod. But quickly, before I can block him out, we wins me over. He’s cheery and upbeat, selling us the city, but he’s also quite genuine and charming – and the facts and anecdotes he trots out are actually pretty fascinating. This tour guide is a born storyteller.

I learn the story behind yesterday’s Bush Man encounter. Apparently, he hides behind his branches and jumps out to scare passers by. He’s been doing it for twenty years. The Ghiradelli building? It was the home of a famous chocolate factory, now it’s a restaurant and café complex. The Marina District was formerly a swamp. When the city was reconstructed after the 1915 earthquake and fire, the resulting debris was pushed into the swamp, creating landfill, and the Marina District was built on that landfill. The Palace of Fine Arts was never made to last. It was originally made of Plaster of Paris, but a local millionaire liked it so much he paid to have it restored so that it would become permanent. I noticed yesterday that locals are raising money to have it restored again, with on-site signs imploring visitors to ‘Help Save Our Palace!’

We cross the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, home of Muir Woods. Today is the first sunny day since I’ve been in San Francisco. Blue skies and golden light reign. But fog still clings to the green hills of Marin County, resting on the peaks and nestling in the troughs from afar. The bay shines below us and the wooded hills beckon.

Marin County, we hear, has the second highest concentration of income in California, though its population is just 235,000. (The highest is Orange County.) Over one third of the area is national parkland. The driver tells us that he has lived in the area for thirty-two years. I can’t help but wonder how he can afford it.

Blue gum eucalypts tower above the road on either side. Apparently they were brought to California as part of a land scheme because they grow tall and fast, but proved useless, as they’re unusable as building material and provide fuel for forest fires, burning easily. Hmmm. Yes they do. They are beautiful, though.

Redwoods, on the other hand, are relatively fire resistant. Their average age is 400-800 years, and their average height is 180-240 feet. The tallest tree in Muir Woods is in Bohemian Grove, which we will get the chance to visit.

We park by the entrance to Muir Woods, marked by a hanging wooden sign and a small booth where you pay $3 to enter and receive a map. We have one hour to wander as we please. I don’t have the words to describe how beautiful the forest is. Trees stretching far, far into the sky above, carpets of ferns and undergrowth, a gushing river spilling into intermittent waterfalls. Mossy branches yawning over the river or against the sky. Sunlight filtering through the trees in shifting columns. Walls of moss and fallen leaves. This is the best thing I’ve done since I got here. I could easily spend four days just in Muir Woods.

I’m keen to see Bohemian Grove, featured in one of my all-time favourite novels (or series, more accurately), Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. In one of the books, the main characters camp in Muir Woods and the climax revolves around a ritual performed by an exclusive secret society - in Bohemian Grove. More interesting, perhaps, is the other context in which I have read Bohemian Grove immortalised in print. Jon Ronson’s Them, a brilliant work of reportage in which Ronson infiltrates various cults and conspiracy theorists, also climaxes in Bohemian Grove, at a meeting of the same secret society. The society (I forget the name) is made up of international world leaders, in both politics and business. George Bush is a member. Bill Clinton was a member. Once a year they camp in Muir Woods, let loose and behave like children, and stage an Owl Burning Ceremony in Bohemian Grove. It’s kind of a college frat boy thing, only for grown-ups. Ronson actually watched the ceremony take place, confirming the myth.

The real Bohemian Grove is much smaller than I thought, a stop on the trail. I imagined a ring of trees the size of a football oval, not a small wooden sign and a space the size of a suburban backyard, surrounded by railings. It is beautiful, but I can’t imagine any kind of ceremony being held in such a small space. Maybe it was in the hills behind the fenced off area? I take photos anyway, including one of me standing inside a redwood with a hollow as tall as a building.

In the midst of my wandering and mad photographing, I get nervous that I’ll miss the bus, and sprint back to the carpark. I’m ten minutes early, but most of the others have obviously had the same thought, as the bus is half-full. It’s not surprising, as our driver has told us emphatically several times that he will leave exactly on 11am and that if we miss the bus, it’s a $60 cab ride to Sausalito, the nearest town. Not that cabs are easy to come by here. A woman from Wisconsin tells her companion about her son’s move home after breaking up with his girlfriend and her hope that he’ll meet a nice girl at church. She’s urging him to advertise on dating sites, too, but he won’t. She remarks that it’s Sunday today, and she’s missed church.
‘This is my spiritual experience today’ breathes her companion.

NOTE: I just googled Bohemian Grove. There's another one in California, owned by the Bohemian Club. Oh well. I thought it seemed odd.

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