I present to you a pair of photographs:
The first is from Muir Woods on the Marin Peninsula of California. That morning was rainy and the colors are rich and dark and the setting is some natural/romantic variety of Baroque. Practically overwhelming.
The second is from Stone Valley this weekend, dry and crunchy with snow, the river mostly frozen at the surface, with currents of dark water beneath. More minimal, more quiet, more subdued. But is this trail any less beautiful than the first?
I may continue to bemoan the theme-park-like atmosphere of Muir Woods by midday on Saturday, but in the very early morning, with dawnlight scattering through the marine layer, it’s easy to forget about all that. There are no words to describe the place without resorting to cliché. Even so, the echoes of “Six Flags: Muir Woods” still exist, like these wood pathways designed to lessen the destruction that would be caused by enormous numbers of visitors on dirt paths.
The stunning, overwhelming, almost-heartbreaking Muir Woods National Monument in California has become a photographic cliché. (Thanks, Ansel Adams.) That doesn’t prevent me from discovering something new in every corner and every moment. The incredible contrast of scale between ferns and sequoias twists the mind, and the quiet, misty paths (early in the morning anyway) transport you to an overwhelming alternate world.
Tiny forest clearings feel like carefully decorated rooms to me: the carpet of springy fallen needles, the towering pillars of redwood trees, the edges bordered by ferns, and the minimalist furniture of moss-encrusted stumps. With the sonic environment of raindrops dripping gently through the limbs, the combination made a particularly relaxing effect.
The sequoia trees of Muir Woods stand straight and proud (just like that Neil Young song), but not every tree is so cooperative. Leaning at a jaunty angle and encrusted with moss and wee ferns, this nonconformist of a tree doesn’t have time for any of the “straight up” nonsense.
Muir Woods astonishes and tempers with its beauty, but I had trouble avoiding the feeling that it was all a bit manicured and controlled by man. At first, that disappointed me. When I thought back to some of the gorgeous Zen gardens I’ve visited, however, I realized that curated natural beauty can be just as spectacular and authentic as true wilderness. The gentle drizzle between sequoias and down into the creek is the American version of the Zen garden.
Early in the morning, Muir Woods is still quiet as the first hikers gear up. This picture really conveys the difference in scale between the people and the enormous sequoias of the park. (I liked it so much, I had to sneak it up on a Saturday.)