A tall tale is a story, perhaps once grounded in fact, that has been exaggerated beyond believability. Famous characters from American folklore include Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry, and Davy Crocket. They may have been real people at one point, but the stories that have sprung up around them and their adventures have made them larger than life, figures of myth and fiction.
On my road trip I’d already encountered one monument to Paul Bunyan in Three Rivers and was now on my way to reacquaint myself with Paul and his Blue Ox, Babe, at the Trees of Mystery, in Klamath, just forty-five minutes from Trinidad. Along the way I stopped at Elk Country, but the usual herd of Roosevelt Elks was absent, leaving just a red barn and redwood sculptures of a cowboy, unsmiling Indian, and a totem pole to take pictures of.
Trees of Mystery, like Confusion Hill, is what people sometimes call a tourist trap. It is interesting enough to justify a few hours there, however, with unusual trees like the Cathedral, the Candelabra, and the Elephant Tree, along with a canopy walking trail and gondola ride. They also house a large collection of Native American artifacts, which was my primary reason for stopping by. That, and to see Paul and Babe.
From the road the first sign of the Trees of Mystery, is the statue of the Indian, come to the end of the Trail of Tears, his head drooping, atop his hunched horse, his spear tucked under his arm, pointed at the ground in defeat. Next to that is an American flag, which on this day was hanging lifeless from the pole. I pulled into the parking lot and there were not more a dozen cars there. A good day to just drop by.
Paul stood there, fifty feet tall, black hair and beard, dressed in a red shirt over a black T-shirt, his jeans tucked into his logging boots. Babe was right behind him at thirty-five feet, light blue and with great white horns. Although capable of speaking and waving his right hand, Paul did neither, at least not to me. Would I be able to separate it from just a delusion if he had? I was riding high, not on anything but pure adrenaline. Dreams, memories, and fantastic new realities were getting mixed up all over the place.
I went to use the bathroom, then entered the gift-shop and headed straight for the Native American museum. One of the goals of the trip was to drive through as many reservations as possible, not to study them in depth, but at least learn a little about different tribes and where they’re located.
Up until now when I thought about Indians what came to mind was the Hollywood stereotype, largely based on the Sioux and other Plains tribes, with the tipis, the feathered headdresses, the war paint, the peace pipes, the bows and arrows, the horses, and buffalo hunts. I knew this was an incomplete picture but only had a small idea about the distribution of other tribes and nations, and what set them apart.
There is a map on the wall of the museum with the traditional names and geographic locations of the tribes. I bought a smaller version of, to act as some kind of guide. The collection houses artifacts, largely from the western Regions of the US. There were ivory fishhooks and totemic raven masks from the Northwest. A wolf skin was mounted to the wall. In one case there were black and white photos of Plains Indians, a warrior on horseback, a medicine man lifting his hands to the sky, a maiden by a stream, exposing one of her buttocks.
There were many cases of Kachina dolls from the Southwest, representing spirits of the Hopi, wildly fantastic beings, a bear, a crow mother, a butterfly, a corn maiden, a striped clown, a buffalo warrior. I looked at woven baskets, wooden flutes, a buckskin shirt with elaborate beadwork. It got me all pumped up. I was ready to explode.
Leaving the Trees of Mystery, I jumped into the Mountain Bluebird with no idea where I was heading. North. That was it. Just north. Would I continue up the coast? I didn’t even know until I reached the 199 and veered off towards Grant’s Pass. What was I doing now? I was heading in the direction of Crater Lake. There were some reservations north of that I could begin to visit. I thought about heading back south as far as Mount Shasta, a sacred destination, in its own right, but perhaps that was too far.
I just drove and kept driving on the Redwood Highway, jumping out to look down on the Smith River, deep blue and green, reflecting the pines, yet at the same time nearly transparent. Someone had left a little birdhouse beside the road.
Driving through the Cascade-Siskiyou National Forest, I almost had the highway to myself. I was flying through the mountains, leaning hard into the curves. Outside of that one spot of rain in Yuba City, the weather had been perfect so far. At Grants Pass, I got on the 5, heading towards Mount Shasta, but just past Ashland, got on the 56 and headed towards Klamath Falls instead.
It occurred to me that might be a good place to stop and set up camp, but when I arrived in Klamath Falls it was still too early in the day. I had to use the bathroom so pulled into Moore Park besides the Upper Klamath Lake, and right up in front of a porta-potty, just as a homeless woman was stepping out. Inside it resembled a crime scene.
Wanting to get closer to Crater Lake, I searched for a campground on Google Maps, and let the woman, the voice that I was becoming familiar with and beginning to trust, lead me onto the 97 in the direction of the Happy Trails Cowboy Campground, only thirty miles away. As I was driving north, however, I saw an enormous amount of fire damage. The earth had been scorched black in some areas and the campground was subsequently closed. Continuing on, I passed another one, but it was only for campers and mobile homes.
It was late afternoon by now, and I was starting to get a bit worried, knowing that without a reservation, I wouldn’t be able to camp at Crater Lake National Park. Maybe I could’ve figured it out on my phone, but resented what they were doing, adding a surcharge on top of a charge, making something very simple into something enormously complicated and expensive.
Outside of Fort Klamath, I passed a campground that looked like it might just be for RVs but decided to ask anyway. They did have a few tent sites, but each cost fifty dollars. It was the first big money hit of the trip, but I decided to deal with it. It was a beautiful campground, built around a shallow, gurgling stream, and the site I paid for was beneath a tree on an enormous bed of green grass.
After I set up the tent and laid down my bedding, I went and walked beside the stream, which was reflecting every color in nature, the most perfect meditation spot, but not tonight. My mind was jumping. There was a store inside where I bought a few hardboiled eggs and a Slim Jim. The guy working the counter was a college student who was supposed to be studying in Australia until the pandemic messed it all up. He’d taken a philosophic approach to the whole ordeal and was easy to talk to.
It got cold that night. I got under the sleeping bag and both my blankets, but my mind kept jumping. I could see the road ahead. The way that the trip was already unfolding, told me it was going to be epic. I’d barely scratched the surface. Awake, but content, I lay there and schemed, right up until I fell asleep and started to dream.