The Chandelier Tree is something I remember from a Childcraft book. I remember wanting – desperately – to drive through a tree, because what could beat that? Actually doing it, though, feels weird. I mean, this tree is probably 2,000 years old (yes, they grow that old). It was probably alive before Christ. You wouldn’t cut off your grandfather’s leg so you could charge someone a few dollars for the thrill of crawling under him, would you?
But it clearly was a different age, because the Americans who came here didn’t think, “Oh good lord, these are beautiful!”, they thought, “Oh good lord, what a lot of money I can make off these!” The logging industry rampaged its way through groves of redwoods and sequoias, which, after all, contain plenty of wood per tree, and, being softwoods (hitting one with a fist feels like hitting damp cardboard), were very easy to chop down. Seriously, you feel like slapping people sometimes. Further up, in Redwood National and State Parks, particularly down the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, you drive in the permanent twilight created by these giants and wonder how anyone could even bear to cut them down. There’s a cathedral hush in here, a feeling of awe, of incredible smallness. You talk in whispers, without knowing why.
One tree, sniffily disregarded as not being ‘the big tree’ by local naturalists because it’s a few trees growing together, not a single stem, feels like the hollow treehouse princes dream of as children. Everywhere you go, you’re gawking upwards, eyes bulging as you see a fallen behemoth, the width of the trunk taller than you, with massive mushrooms growing from it. American pickup trucks, the largest things ever built, get dwarfed in Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park.
There’s a Mustang, top open, the owner either too mesmerised to worry about it being stolen, or knowing that no one here would give a damn about any car when there are these trees to look at. And it isn’t just the size. It’s the gentleness, the sheer benevolence you feel from them. You feel like you’re with family, like the grandfather I compared the Chandelier Tree to. You feel like you’re home. You feel safe. And you want to return the favour, hug them, tell them you’ll take care of them. These are Tolkien’s Ents – you want them to speak in deep, rumbling voices, voices that carry green shade and streams and sunlight in them, sit with them and listen to stories of how things were two thousand years before you were born. In case you think I’m writing this drunk, I invite you to visit and confirm this for yourself. I’m really not the kind to feel much in temples or churches, but, God help me, I felt like part of something larger here.
I can’t explain it – but perhaps that’s why California has so much New Age stuff going on. Possibly the only problem with this otherwise perfect place is that, like all American national parks, it’s really designed for people in giant motorhomes, and so there isn’t much accommodation close to the trees, and so, in the end, a first-timer would plump for Eureka, only an hour away. Eureka clearly used to be an interesting town – there’s a pretty movie theatre and a couple of forlorn-looking Art Deco buildings around it, but it’s clearly been passed by. There’s a lot of this, especially inland in America, where towns get sick and then get infested with buzzards – all you can really see is a forest of tall neon signs for Walmart, gas stations, Costco and toxic-looking fast food.
Much better to stay in smaller, prettier Trinidad further up the road (and closer to the redwoods), but there is one compelling reason to stay here: the Eureka Inn, which is a twin to the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, complete with two little girls in frocks in the corridor (ha ha, I’m kidding. Sort of.).
It really is a lovely old place, and scads of American presidents have stayed here, and, apart from long treks down worryingly familiar corridors, there isn’t anything wrong with it. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a portrait of Jack Nicholson here, though. The good bit about the journey from Eureka to the trees is that it’s a terrific drive, by lakes and beaches and meadows that are home to elk. And, as you pass the little town of Orick, you also get to really study American diner food, which is a particular hobby of mine. Not because it’s so good, but because there is just so much of it, and all of it hearty and bad for your heart.
At the Palm Cafe (what palms?), under a neon sign that’s right out of a movie, you get a plate heaving with eggs, crisp, mile-wide hash browns, a flattened thing they call a sausage, and a ‘biscuit’ smothered with a thick, white gravy. Orange juice. Bottomless cups of horrible coffee. I find myself strangely liking the grits, which is a Southern porridge and an institution. Hashim, on the other hand, thinks it’s to be given to old people you dislike. I tell him not to knock a regional specialty, but then we discover the diner-style American Pie, which, well, doesn’t need horny teenagers to make it scary. The cherry pie at the Apple Peddler restaurant in Crescent City has a filling of gluey, unnatural pinkness that oozes out from a rockhard crust, while a lemon meringue pie on the road is not the crisp, melt-in-your-mouth slice of tartness that you might have mistakenly thought it was supposed to be, but a foot-high stack of wobble, with a yellow filling that would easily glow in the dark.
The waitress actually asks me how come I’m not finishing it. None of this tastes bad, at all – but it doesn’t taste of anything. Of course, once you understand that this was created for septuagenarian tourists in baseball caps and knee-high socks, it all starts to make sense. You don’t want a taste explosion after all, just in case one of them is overcome by passion and starts a tango with his partner that could result in his demise. But the mystery of its richness remains. At one point, while fuelling up, we’re tempted by a corn dog, but manage to flee the attempted seduction by a doughnut milkshake. An actual milkshake. Let me put it this way: it’s an experience you won’t forget, and it’s better than fast food. But ramp up your health insurance, just in case.