It cost a lot of money to fix it up, but damn this van is awesome.
Took this shot out the windshield at speed. I'd forgotten how beautiful this place is. Sunbeams were cutting through the canopy and steaming the rainwater off the pavement, filling the air with mist.
In this forest, everything made of wood eventually looks like this, unless you studiously keep it dry.
The moss marches all the way from the ground to the sky. In some places, one species swaps out for another along the way!
As soon as I got my camping spot, I grabbed my camera and walked about a mile back up the road, snapping pictures of the sunbeams. Eventually I left the road and walked up a wide, branch-strewn pathway. The forest carpet became very thick. With each step, the ground flexed as though I was walking on a wet sponge. Ahead of me, a small creek was chattering down the hillside, and when it reached the pathway it flattened into a series of pools.
I drew close to the first pool and looked down. Then I drew a sharp breath - an audible gasp of surprise. There in front of me, about two feet away, was a big salamander. It was just below the surface of the water with its arms tucked in, undulating side-to-side gracefully as it swam along the edge of the pool. I prepared my camera, keeping my eyes fixed on the salamander. It's skin color matched the mud of the pool so precisely that I might not find it a second time.
I wet my hand and picked it up, for a few close shots. Then I went looking for more. (By the way: Rinse and wipe your hand, for safety's sake, and though they may look delicious, never nibble on one of these guys. Their bodies are rife with a potent neurotoxin.)
Look at this prime salamander territory! Gotta be more in here somewhere...
About 20 yards upstream, I glanced down at the bank and made another squeal of happiness. A salamander was slowly climbing out of the water, moving in that plodding salamander way, like a tortoise in the shade. If the scene had a musical underscore, it would go, "doop-de-deeurp... a doopity-deeurp... a dum de doop..." I got a few shots of it and then hopped the bank to catch it sneaking underneath a log.
I cannot overemphasize how adorable they look when they travel over land. Their backbones are muscled to flex horizontally, like a fish, and they make huge bendy strides, pausing between each one, probably to check for the movement of predators. If you pick one up they will climb you like a ladder, and then at the top they will march straight off without stopping. I had to keep catching the one I picked up in mid-air with one hand as I held the camera with the other.
Further down the trail, the light filtering through the canopy was quite magical.
A while later I found the stump of a recently fallen tree. Must have been dropped by some pretty severe wind, since it snapped instead of uprooting itself.
Underneath some recently fallen bark nearby, the salamander parade continued! The first few I found were probably Coast Range or Sierra Newts. This lithe-looking fellow is a Monterey Ensatina.
Just a few minutes down the trail I turned over a piece of bark and saw a little gang of California Slender Salamanders. These ribbony creatures are all over the place. Seeing them brought back memories of peeking under logs in the woods behind my childhood home. When they're startled or hiding, they curl up into little cinnamon rolls.
And just a few more paces down the trail, I pulled aside a decayed chunk of cut wood and found this plump critter staring up at me. If it could speak, I'm sure I would have heard it say, "ohmygosh!!!" in a tiny little voice, just before freezing in place.
It's a California Giant Salamander, and though it it deadly poisonous to eat, it is eye-poppingly cute.
It's also a fairly competent night hunter. These salamanders have been known to catch small rodents, and have been observed slowly swallowing entire banana slugs. Those black-tinted eyeballs absorb an amazing amount of light, including some frequencies we humans cannot see at all.
I continued tromping around and snapping pictures until the daylight was almost exhausted. Among other shots, I caught a picture of a Arboreal Salamander sitting dramatically astride a log. Four species in only a few hours! Then I cozied up in the back of the van for some of the most peaceful sleep I've had in months. After getting used to night in the city, the winter forest so quiet it's disorienting. I occasionally had to remind myself that no, I had not, in fact, gone deaf.
I did wake up around 2:00am when a rain-soaked branch crashed down to the forest floor about a hundred yards away, but aside from that, I got nine delicious hours.
The next day I got up, washed my face in hot water at the nearby bathrooms, and set out walking again. I took a hoard of pictures, of course. One of the ways I enjoy nature is by finding fun ways to frame it in a photograph. I think for the 30 hours I was in the park I took about 180 shots, and at home I shaved that down to the 43 you see now.
To give you an idea of how verdant this place is, here's a chunk of bark from a fallen tree, held in one hand, and a few close-up shots of the same chunk. Brushing your fingertips along this feels like a brushing the tassels of a thick turkish rug dipped in ice-water.
After a while I went strolling down an unmaintained fire road cut into the hillside, with hundreds of streamlets trickling across it. A few yards past the first of the streamlets, I noticed moving shapes on the ground. The road was teeming with salamanders, all marching in the same direction - uphill. I had to stare at the ground to ensure I wasn't treading on salamander tails with every step.
A few looked kind of dry, so I picked them up and tossed them a few yards to the side, so they landed in water. "You there! Get outta the road!"
Five minutes later I suddenly realized I was whistling the background music to the old arcade game "Frogger". The mind is a strange thing.
This territory is really amazing. It would be cool to spend a few more days here, but alas, I don't have the time or the supplies right now.
On my way back up from running some errands in Santa Cruz, I stopped in Scotts Valley and took a catnap in the park behind Vine Hill Elementary School. As I was getting up to leave, I noticed the graffiti on the storage shed nearby.