Works and Days

Presidents Summer Fellowship, Rediscovery and Writing in the Desert Part 3, Nathan Martin

Colonel Armstrong Tree

Nate Martin '16, English Literature, is a President's Summer Fellow on a trip through the American Southwest with the goal of rewriting his connection to poetry by visiting areas where he first established that connection.

It was one of the last nights of my trip and I was in northern California, looking for a place to sleep. I googled "campgrounds" and after rejecting a bunch of RV parks that came up, I found Bullfrog Pond Campground. It seemed remote and also near, so I set the google directions to it from my phone and headed there.

I turned off I-5, onto a winding river road through small communities. This ended in a small town where I turned onto a smaller road. This road ended at a park entrance. The sign said "Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve." I was immediately ecstatic, as the coastal redwoods were the final thing I really wanted to see on this trip. I've wanted to see them since I first learned they existed, more than a decade ago.

I was also wary. Every single state park campground I'd passed while driving through southern California into northern California had been full. No mercy. It was now dark, and even darker as I began to drive into this forest. If this were full, it would hurt doubly. I'd have to turn back and hope to find space at a crappy and expensive RV campground. I'd also be turned away from exactly the place I'd been hoping to find, and from the opportunity of waking up surrounded by redwoods.

I passed the empty park kiosk on a bumpy asphalt road and it got dark. No moon, no stars, no lights but the beams in front of me. That's when I passed the first of the giants. A mass of bark appeared in my beams, and then passed slowly beside me. The trunk was at least eight feet wide. That's when I knew it was for real.

The road became very narrow, winding between trunks, thinner and greater, around every curve. I could have been at the bottom of the ocean, passing leviathans with nothing but the light I carried. The road split and I followed signs to Bullfrog Pond Campground, still ahead of me. The road split again, narrowed and went straight up. There was no white barricade with a "Campground Full" sign that I'd seen so many of. I got out and wandered around for a minute. There was no wind, and it was incredibly quiet and so dark, darker because of the headlights. The only sound was the low hum of my car's engine. There was no barricade. I got back in the car.

This next road proclaimed to be a "2.5 mile one lane winding road. No turnarounds." It was also the road to the campground. Any night light was still completely blotted out by the unseen canopy far above me. There were no cars, no people. I felt like I was creeping down a rabbit hole into a land of giants. I started up the hill.


The road was exactly what it proclaimed. It was hardly as wide as my little car, and the incline pulled me back in my seat like a slow climb up a roller coaster. Every curve was so tight that it was blind, as the beams of my headlights were not wide enough to show me what I was turning into. The five mile an hour curve signs were accurate.

The two point five miles felt like five, but eventually the trees loosened and I got some moonlight. I was at the top of a small mountain, and the vista that opened around me, though still dark, released the growing claustrophobic grasp of the forest. I reached the entrance to the campground and saw two white barricades next to the Iron Ranger, with signs on them. My heart sank. I drove up to them and got out. Neither one said "campground full." Finally.

I pulled into the first empty site I found and set up camp. In the morning I awoke surrounded by trees and went for a long hike down the mountain and back into the heart of the Redwoods. It was exactly what I hoped it would be, and more.

And so was this trip.

I'm back now. School is in session, and I'm wading into classes at my final year at Reed. I could say that Reed has changed my life, and no matter how cliche that might sound, it would still be perfectly true.

I don't yet have enough distance to say what my experiences this summer have really meant to me. I know that I'm thankful to Reed for providing me with the opportunity to focus on writing in a deeply personal and extended manner. I know that I learned about family, about having it and not having it, and that this project informed my thesis year. And I know that I spent a lot of time alone, and that I found a new comfort with myself, by myself.

* * *

My second post here started off by wondering how a poem comes to be important, or cared about. It was a poem by Sylvia Plath called “Mushrooms,” and on the long steep hike out of that redwood grove, I found a response to my thoughts on her poem, which I'll now share here.

Thank you.


Sylvia's Mushrooms


Who cares about your poem

About mushrooms, Sylvia?

Who cares about their toes, their noses?

Taking hold on the loam,

Acquiring the air?


Who cares about your

Five syllable lines?


The quiet nosing around

Of words and small white

Hammers making room?


The small pale things,

The meek you imagine,

So many of them!


Shoving and nudging,

Multiplying and

Getting a foot in.


They are coming soon

While we are sleeping.

Nothing can stop them.


They will inherit

All the earth and us,

But who cares about


Mushrooms, Sylvia?

Tags: psf, presidents summer fellowship, travel, writing, poetry, journey, desert, outdoors, adventure