What did you do in the 70s Grandma?
Raising ten children meant my parents didn’t have a lot of cash to spare for entertainment. So a nice weekend—and let’s face it… Northern California pretty much only did nice weekends and that one day it rained—often meant they rounded up as many offspring they could corral plus the usual assortment of visiting relatives, a cooler full of hamburger and fixings, and headed for Big Basin Redwoods State Park. There my father would buy a load of firewood, my mother would stake out a picnic area, and we’d head off for one of the mapped hikes. Returning, we’d feast on the best hamburgers on the planet followed by the incredible treat of ice creams from the little park store. It was magic and family and so familiar it felt like part of our life.
For kids like me growing up in the California suburbs, our life in the seventies meant we were immortal (thanks to the right military deferment), bulletproof (thanks to the occasional shot of penicillin), and love meant never having to say you’re sorry (thanks to the Pill and Roe v Wade).
We were possibly the first and last generation to know so much freedom. We didn’t work on family farms or businesses—our dads had gone to college on the GI bill and bought new ranch houses in the suburbs. We didn’t really have to help much around the house—our moms had quit their wartime jobs to stay home and raise us, with the help of dishwashers, garbage disposals, boxed cake mixes, and new-and-improved everything from sugar cereal to ring-around-the-collar remover.
We could safely go anywhere our bikes or local buses would take us and even though we didn’t have cellphones to check in, our parents didn’t worry. Religious fanatics didn’t move to Guyana and kill over 900 people in a murder-suicide pact. Nuclear power was going to be cheap and clean and never ever cause accidents. Certainly, neither we nor Forrest Gump had ever heard of AIDS. Global pandemics were something we heard about in history class.
So at sixteen when my best friend and I decided to go camping for the weekend, my parents didn’t seem particularly concerned as we strapped sleeping bags and a package of hot dogs to our bikes and pedaled off to Big Basin. When we (finally) arrived at the redwood forest, we arranged our sleeping bags under the ancient trees (no tents—it was California after all) and cooked our hotdogs.
I was wearing my favorite jeans, which I’d been working on for several years. There wasn’t much denim still visible because I’d covered every rip or fray with embroidered patches, designs, and deeply moving sentiments like “LOVE” and “Hi!”. I had my patchwork leather poncho, and my fuzzy newsboy style hat. My hair was long and as straight as an ironing board could make it, while my little wire-rimmed granny glasses with the pink lenses just screamed cool. My friend had something even cooler—the bag of joints she’d stolen from her big brother who was in the navy.
By the time it got dark, we’d linked up with several other teenagers who were also “camping.” We sat inside one of the hollow chimney redwoods, and everyone tossed their offerings into a big bowl in the center. Pills of every color, joints of every size and shape, and a few things that looked like dried mushrooms were piled together like our mothers’ bridge mix. Soon the inside of the tree was filled with smoke and most of us were feeling the whole MakeLoveNotWar thing for our new friends (some quite literally).
And that’s when the park rangers showed up.
“Normally,” they told us, “We wouldn’t hesitate to arrest the lot of you.”
In the dead silence inside our tree, I could practically see the “Oh, shit. There goes college…” bubbles like cartoon thoughts above each head.
“But.” The rangers looked at each of us. “At the moment, we’re more worried about the tree. Do you have any idea how much damage you’re doing to it right now?”
The thought bubbles (or maybe it was those mushroom thingies…) turned to capital letters. “OH SHIT, I’M A TREE MURDERER.” Because if there was one thing our generation was even more about than MakeLoveNotWar, it was The Planet. Just the week before, my friends and I had gone up to San Francisco to buy “Save the Whales” and “Stop The Baby Seal Massacre” signs from hippies in the Haight. And now we were murdering trees?
“There’s only one thing that can save the tree,” continued the ranger who seemed to be in charge. “You have to pound on the trunk to get the sap flowing. It will take at least an hour, maybe two, and we have to finish our rounds.”
We climbed out of the tree, and all started tapping the trunk.
“No, you really have to put some muscle behind it. There’s no time to waste.” The ranger seemed to be choking as he spoke. Maybe it was the smoke?
“Just to be on the safe side, I’ll take this.” The other ranger darted into the tree and picked up the goody pile in the center. The two rangers moved back into the shadows as we frantically began pounding on the bark.
I’m guessing those rangers were still laughing every time they retold the story.
But nobody is laughing now. The beautiful old park headquarters, the trails, the towering redwoods that were some of the oldest living things on earth—all are gone in the lightning-sparked wildfire storm that’s destroying so much of California. What’s left is a smoldering wreck of California’s oldest state park. And of my past.