Among the Redwoods
Muir Woods is supposed to be beautiful this time of year, but I would say it’s either beautiful year-round or ugly year-round because it changes so rarely. There’s nothing like a forest fire to decimate the trees, but—although I’ve only lived in San Francisco for a couple of years—I haven’t ever seen Muir Woods get hit too badly.
Once last year, the sky was so grey it might as well have been photographed in black and white, except for the sun, which was the terrible rust color of rotting iron. It was as if someone had mixed blood and orange juice and spilled a single drop onto a pencil sketch of the California coastline. Nobody could go outside that day, and after the smoke cleared, I made up my mind to go out to visit Muir Woods and similar forests as often as I might, in large part because I became aware that they won’t be the way they are forever.
I take a tour every time I visit even though I know the trails by heart now. The treetops almost blot out the sun, but every so often, there are patches of light that look as if they have been strewn across the dusty trails or splashed across the pine needles. Most of the guests are elderly, and some of them just like to stand in those spots of sun for a few minutes, breathing and remembering.
One such woman once said to me that the sun “warmed her old bones.” I know that it’s just something old people say to younger people, but something about that struck me—that one day, my bones will be old too, and I may stand still in the sunlight and stare around at the redwoods and feel a sort of kinship because I will be old like them, and we will have both lived longer than our fellows (although their resistance is more literal; they are, relative to other trees, fireproof).
Today, I signed up for a tour with only four people, including myself. Joining a group so small wasn’t intentional. This is my day off work, and through a chain of unfortunate coincidences it’s a Tuesday, and almost no people my age are off work on Tuesdays, so everybody here is old enough to be retired. Some of them are young, because Muir Woods is close enough to Silicon Valley to draw the young Google hotshots who retired at thirty and have too much money and too much time. It’s also close to Marin, which is where the non-Atherton old money folks live, so some of the people here are the kids who are thirty-five with full access to their parents’ money and have no other occupation except spending it.
But my tour group is all old people. I like old people, except when I don’t.
The woman next to me (who is five-foot-nothing and has baby blue eyes and a swoop of grey hair straight out of a decade when women wore curlers to bed every night) speaks to me instead of the people her age.
“What’s your name, honey?” she asks. She says “honey” as if it’s force of habit—with no real affection—but it warms me nonetheless.
I tell her my name. She smiles, repeats my name, tells me hers. Her name is Rebecca Perez. I call her Mrs. Perez, she asks me to call her Rebecca. She is from St. Louis, but she’s moved around a lot. Oh, I’m from Santa Fe? She met her husband in Santa Fe. It’s beautiful, but it’s awfully hot, isn’t it?
It is awfully hot, I agree. Santa Fe is beautiful and I miss it more than anything, but anyone who’s been there will concede that it’s awfully hot.
The tour guide shows up. He looks oddly familiar, but that might just be because he looks like every tour guide I’ve ever gotten a tour from in NorCal. Sunburnt and skinny, a guy with his unwashed auburn hair in a man-bun. Long cargo shorts, a tank top with the arm holes big enough to show his ribs all the way down. Neat, but too casual—he’s clearly breaking dress code with those toe shoes. He looks like the kind of guy who’d quote a Kardashian and attribute the words to Kant. And then, if you called him out on it, he’d say it was ironic, but it really wouldn’t be.
“Welcome, everybody!” he says. God, he looks familiar. I hate it when people look familiar to me. “Muir Woods, as you know, is named after John Muir. He was born in 1838 and died in 1914, and was one of the greatest naturalists of his day. He was also a philosopher, and—”
I ignore him, as I always ignore tour guides, and watch the world as we make our way through it. It’s always better to be with a group. I can get caught up in the world without getting absorbed in my own thoughts, which are so often turbulent and confusing that I would prefer a moment of quiet to truly appreciate this place whenever I am here. It may be a little counterintuitive that I find true silence only when I am in the company of other people, but it is the forest that gives me that peace. The other people merely provide the white noise I need to appreciate my surroundings.
We pause briefly on a bridge and I lean my elbows on the wide, dark wood. Beneath, a creek skids across the rocks, slipping and sliding its way down to what I know will eventually be the ocean. I remember something from years ago, a story from elementary school: Winnie the Pooh and his friends, standing on a bridge, throwing sticks over one side and racing to the other to see which stick came out first. At some point, Eeyore fell in, I think, and got washed downstream, and there was a whole kerfuffle that interrupted the otherwise peaceful afternoon.
Oh. That’s where I know the tour guide from. I remember that face, sitting opposite me in the circle as our teacher read us that story. Then the face elongated, the jaw became square and then round again as middle school hit, as high school caught us all by the hand and yanked us along toward adulthood.
I had never known him well. I think his name was Tom Brearley, and now that I look at his nametag, it does say Thomas, which would make sense.
He seemed a little boring to me when we were children, now that I think on it, or perhaps not boring, but non-creative. Not that everyone has to be original, but he was lauded for his creativity in our class, I think, because he could fit every Silicon Valley buzzword into any sentence.
As childhood memories do, the memory of this man hits me hard, not because I know him well or have any connection to him but because he is, in some way, a manifestation of my childhood, my memories of Santa Fe, and he is here in California talking to Mrs. Perez—Rebecca, I correct myself—and he does not recognize me at all.
He does come over, though, probably because I’m younger than the others and standing alone and I have a better handle on Yelp and am therefore the most likely to give Muir Woods a bad review with his name in it.
“Hi,” he says. He doesn’t know my face, even though it has not changed much since high school. Maybe it just feels as if my face hasn’t changed all that much. Maybe I look completely different.
“Hi,” I say. I don’t know what else to say. I’m usually a little more charismatic, or at least, I’m usually a little more coherent, but this is an exceedingly odd day, and I don’t want to talk to him because he reminds me of when I was young, but I can’t help talking to him because he reminds me, in an odd, disconcerting way, of home.
“What’s your name?” he asks. I tell him. I tell him my full name, in fact, in case it helps him remember.
“Why’d you become a tour guide here?” I ask. It’s an innocuous question, but I really want to know. When I was in high school, I did think he was going places for a time, just as everybody else did. It was probably because everybody else did, now that I think on it, but the why doesn’t really matter. When you’re young, you don’t have much cause for comparison, so the most ambitious person you know seems like the most ambitious person in the world.
“I moved to California from Santa Fe,” he says. The old people wander the clearing, looking at birds, pointing. “I’m a business and marketing guy, really,” he adds, as if it’s a secret. “I’m just here to pick up some extra cash for a startup I’m working with. Consulting for, actually. Do you work in tech?”
I tell him I don’t. He loses interest in me, but I ask him another question, because it feels almost impossible not to. By now, I’m just seeing how long it will take before he recognizes me. I have no investment in him knowing who I am. He was no friend of mine—no enemy either.
“Do you miss Santa Fe?” I ask. “It’s beautiful this time of year.”
“I guess,” he says. “But I like it better here. There’s money to be made, and the people are interesting.” He doesn’t say more interesting, but I take it to mean that.
I suppose that makes me boring. But my mom always said that only boring people think other people are boring. I don’t know if that’s true, but I take comfort in it.
“You seem smart,” I tell him. “And if you’re working for a startup, you must be.” I’m trying to restrain a smile. It feels wrong to mess with him, but I’m angrier than I’d like to admit that he doesn’t know who I am. Am I that invisible? Did I leave that little of an impression on him, on the rest of the people I grew up with? How come I’m the one remembering him, and not the other way around?
“I guess,” he says again. Apathy seems to be part of his brand. He has to have a brand if he works in marketing. “But I don’t like to think of myself as smart. I just like to think of myself as having some good ideas and strong work ethic. Really, I’m a creative.”
I hate it when people use creative as a noun, I really do. I say nothing. Why am I so angry? The trees here tower over me, fire resistant. I have nothing against them, but everything against him now. I’d like to push him into the river. That would be silly, but it would be kind of funny to watch him float downstream like Eeyore, getting caught in the eddies on the way.
“This might be too personal,” I start, and he perks up, “but what are you planning next? What direction do you see Silicon Valley shifting in?”
It’s the worst question I’ve ever asked. In college, I majored in a subject that taught you how to ask good questions. I can hear my professor screaming at me now.
“I see it going toward outsourcing,” he said. “We’ve built an infrastructure—” we? I think, but don’t say “—and now we can start establishing connections with engineers and developers in Portland, Seattle, Atlanta, Houston, all across the country. They’ll bring new ideas, help us iterate on our model. Mind you, Silicon Valley’s model is almost perfect when it comes to ideation—” I snort, mask it with a cough, consider yet again the possibility of pushing him into the river “—but we need to have a growth mindset about the future…”
I nod along and wonder at how I ever thought this man had anything to say that could teach his classmates anything. He’s a little like an online text generator, receiving basic inputs and spitting out renditions of what he hears with a bunch of fancy words attached. He has grown up, and I have grown up, and the way I think of him—a somewhat-stranger in school, a total stranger now—is not an impression of a razor-sharp business acumen, but an understanding that he is a disappointing entrepreneur trying to make it in a place that eats entrepreneurs for breakfast.
He leaves me alone after that, which might be worse than having to listen to him continue. I actually can’t decide which is worse. On the one hand, I would have to listen to him and be disappointed, both in him and in myself. On the other hand, his wandering off is a confirmation that I made no impression on him when we were younger—that my younger self was, contrary to my belief back then, unremarkable.
I stay behind when the tour heads back toward the gift shop and I watch the redwoods above and around me, the water below me. To them I am unremarkable, too, but one reassuring truth outweighs my uncalled-for anger at Tom Brearley: he is as unremarkable to them as I am.
Everyone is unremarkable to the redwoods.