California Memories,  Living Between the Lines

‘Roaring Camp and Big Trees’

More from my lone Californian trip: 1997

The drive to Henry Cowell State Park is quite spectacular. Yes, the scenery is pretty amazing but I am not referring to that. As we drive along Highway 17, towards Santa Cruz, in the rising heat of the day, Annie suddenly feels the need to remove her jacket.

“Hey Deb, grab the wheel,” she instructs.

“Excuse me?”

“The wheel – just grab it and keep us straight while I take this off,”

There is no time to refuse, the coat is coming off. Leaning to my left, I grab the wheel before it can spin out of control and hope for the best. This, I reason could be it for me. How do I explain this to my family back home? A vision of their perplexed faces as they are told that I appeared to be driving from the passenger seat, flashes before my eyes, along with the stream of traffic that is overtaking us on either side.

By some miracle, we do not veer off into the near side lane, nor does the vehicle in front stop. As I have no access to the brakes (Annie does keep her feet on the floor to be fair) this is just as well.

How long do we drive like that, with me steering from the passenger seat? It feels like forever but is probably only a few seconds. Long enough to be sure!

“Ok, that’s better, it’s sure hot in here today,” my new friend says, calmly taking back the wheel. Even her little dog has taken fright and leapt into the back. I sink back into my seat and say nothing.

We make good time and are soon driving into the mountains.

The steep winding road is a challenge for the old Camper Van. It wheezes its way up the hills rattling and rasping as it goes, the engine threatening to cut out at any minute, the brakes creaking whenever they are pressed. Looking behind me, I am aware that stalling would not be a very good option just now – it’s a long way down and there isn’t a Sheriff in sight.

Annie finds it all very funny as we grind to a virtual standstill at each bend. I imagine we may have to jettison some ballast if this keeps up. What to throw out first? The wheelchair? Now that’s a cruel thought and I should be ashamed of myself for even thinking it but it does cross my mind.

Luckily, it does not come to this and the game little van continues to climb, if at the speed of a snail. Annie’s jokes lessen. She complains that she has been sitting for too long. We pull over to allow her to stretch her legs and the little dog to follow nature’s call. I wonder if the driving is becoming too much for her but she insists she is fine and besides, we have the wheelchair in the back don’t we?

Now I feel twice as bad for even thinking of throwing it over the side.

We head along Highway 9 and through downtown Felton, to the entrance to Henry Cowell State Park. I pay the fee, we drive in.

By this time it is quite late in the day. We are hungry and a little tired. Annie drives into a clump of trees where there are several empty parking bays. To our right, a group of burly looking lumberjacks have set up camp. Well, they look like lumberjacks on account of the clothes they are wearing and the circular saw I can see lying in the van. Beer cans litter their pitch.

They don’t pay us much attention but I feel a little uneasy all the same. Two women (I have decided we are two women for the moment) camping alone in the middle of a forest in a rusty old camper van? My devil-may-care attitude abandons me and common sense drops in for a bit.

“Do you think we could park somewhere else?” I ask at length. Annie mulls this over for a moment and then agrees that we might be better off elsewhere. Despite Annie’s size (she is larger than me and looks as though she could ward off most dangers) there is something a little vulnerable about her.  This slight vulnerability is what keeps me from heading for the hills. For all her brash and sometimes downright rude behaviour, Annie is, deep down, a troubled soul I am sure.

Annie starts the engine and we drive off to an area where there are more people around. This suits me far better!

We smile at the other campers, a young family with two children and two couples who keep themselves to themselves. The family have a state of the art motor home, the two couples are in tents. Both types of accommodation look preferable to the Camper Van we are using. We arrange two sleeping bags between the wheelchair, bags and dog bed. Half way through the night we lose the wheelchair. I am not sure why we have the dog bed because Annie’s little dog spends most of the night sleeping on my head.

I sleep surprisingly well considering the circumstances and wake to the sound of Annie clambering out of the van with the little dog.

“Just off to the ladies!” she grins. A few moments later music blares out from the car stereo. I am impressed that this van has a stereo if not impressed by the music.

Annie has returned from the toilets and for the next few minutes she potters around our camp, checking the tyres and enjoying a leisurely cigarette. Thank goodness she never smokes in the van.

I perform a quick change into my pre-shower day clothes and step out into the cool morning air, carrying my toilet bag. Annie unfolds the wheelchair which we stacked by the van last night and sits in it, grinning.  I could be forgiven for thinking that if she is fit enough to get to the toilet block then she is fit enough to make the thirty yard dash to the shower block which is right next door.

“You ok there?” I ask in what I think is a sarcastic manner.  Sarcasm is lost on Annie.

“Yep, we’d better get showered and then make tracks – “ she turns the chair and heads off down the smooth concrete path at speed.

We are planning a trip up Bear Mountain. Annie wants to show me some really big redwoods. They all look pretty big to me.

Much refreshed ,we set out for ‘Roaring Camp and Big Trees’ over at Felton. The blurb reads:

In the 1880s, narrow-gauge steam locomotives were used to haul giant redwood logs out of the mountains. Roaring Camp’s steam engines date from 1890 and are among the oldest and most authentically preserved narrow-gauge steam engines providing regularly scheduled passenger service in America.

Travel over trestles, through towering redwood groves and up a winding narrow-gauge grade to the summit of Bear Mountain as conductors narrate the history of Roaring Camp, the railroad and the forest! One hour roundtrip.

The sun is out and the day is warming up as we approach the station buildings which are deliberately reminiscent of the ‘Old West’. We have to park some distance from the track.

Annie jumps out of the van and walks around a bit.

“I think I’ll need the chair,” she decides. I survey the terrain we need to cross. The path runs out. The ground turns to sand. With five children, I am well practised at dragging buggies across sandy beaches – not an easy task even if occupied by a lightweight toddler. I express doubts as to the wiseness of taking the chair.

“It’ll be fine,” Annie assures me.

Being patient and not wishing to doubt her, I help her unfold the wheel chair and wait while she settles herself in it.

“Let’s go!” she grins, enjoying the moment as I raise my eyebrows for the tenth time and take the little dog’s lead which she has also handed me. Annie wheels herself to the edge of the path.  Not wishing to appear mean, I set to and manage to push Annie and the chair a fair way before both come to a halt and have to be dug out of the sand. Annie gets out and helps free the wheels.

“That’ll do it,” she grins. I am hoping she may see her way clear to walking the next twenty yards. She doesn’t, she sits back down and waits as I huff and puff behind her. We reach the train and I wait for Annie to stand up and climb aboard. Before she can do so, a kind, elderly porter hurries up.

“Let me help get you and the chair on ma’am,” he offers.

I am about to say,

“There’s no need but thank you. The chair folds up and my friend can quite easily walk onto the train.”  I don’t get that far. Annie interjects,

“Thank you, that’ll be a big help, you are very kind,” The porter nods and takes the wheel chair, complete with Annie, to the back of the train. I watch speechless. Why doesn’t she confess? She is enjoying herself far too much. A hot flush of embarrassment engulfs me.

Whatever I say now will sound harsh. Besides, the poor man has painstakingly wound down a metal platform and is pushing Annie and chair onto it. Still grinning madly, she is levered up to the train from where she wheels herself to the far end of the carriage.

I thank the Guard.

“No problem Ma’am. Say, you from Australia?”

I spend a few minutes explaining that I am English, avoid the fog question and leap aboard to join my companion. She is enjoying herself no end as fellow passengers go out of their way to accommodate her and the chair. She does not notice how cross I look. I feel as though I am dealing with a naughty child.

I seat myself close to where she sits in her chair.

“You better stay in that. Don’t you dare get out after all that fuss!” I warn her through gritted teeth. She finds this highly amusing.


We chug along the track and climb Bear Mountain. I have to agree that the trees are spectacularly tall and the tour guide’s talk of gold mining and gun fights is informative though sporadic since much is covered by the tooting of the whistle and Annie’s raucous shrieks of mirth every few minutes as she shares a joke with her immediate neighbours.  My sense of humour is fading fast.

We are advised that we will have an opportunity to leave the train and walk right into the trunk of one of the largest redwood trees on the mountain. I am intrigued.

As we trundle to a stop at the top of the mountain. Excited children follow their parents down to the famous tree which we can just see from the train. I pick up my camera and head off…alone.

Annie contemplates making the steep walk down the embankment. I warn her not to try.

“You stay on the train,” I hiss, “I’ll take the photos!”

I know that half the people on the train witnessed her ascent to the carriage in the wheelchair and if she jumps out now and runs down that embankment I will kill her!

I take some photos of strangers standing in the tree. There is no one to take a photograph of me of course. I occasionally look back at the train and see Annie leaning on the handrail and smiling widely back at me. I squint into the distance, the sun in my eyes, is she standing up?

By the time I return to the train she is sitting back in the wheel chair, surrounded by our fellow travelling companions who are commiserating with her on the fact that she has had to stay on board.  Observed from afar, it would indeed be like a scene out of a comedy sketch. *

We chug gently back down the mountain side having seen the giant redwoods and stepped back in time for a short while through our guide’s commentary. Annie continues to milk her situation to the hilt and I am already wondering how we will get her off the train without losing face…

…I  needn’t have worried. The little porter is standing there waiting for us…

*‘Little Britain’ with David Walliams and Matt Lucas as Lou and Andy, had not yet hit our screens when these events occurred. We would have been the perfect role models on which to base those characters I think.

I am an Author, wife to one, mother to five and grandmother to six. I live in the English countryside in Hampshire, UK, with my husband and two dogs and am a non exec Director for Glow


  • Andrea Carlisle

    I have to admit I think the removal of the coat while the passenger steers is a fairly common American trick. I’ve witnessed it more times than I care to remember. But the wheelchair scam has, so far I think, been reserved almost exclusively for bilking insurance companies out of money, certainly not to board trains. Annie is relentless in her pursuit of being the center of attention. At least she got her comeuppance when she couldn’t join the others for the view of the tree. This is the first time you’ve put your foot down, and I was hoping that the tide was turning for Annie, but then she managed to squeeze sympathy out of it. She’s incorrigible! Thank you for continuing to take us on this trip, Deborah. It’s the first thing I’m grateful for on this very cold Thanksgiving morning far away on the edge of a forest (no redwoods) in Oregon.

  • Patricia

    Oh this is such an amazing trip and Annie is quite the Diva! Wheel chair and all.

    You were so polite even with teeth gritted and requests flowing….and all the pity about staying on the train…I might have lost it then!
    Loving this story

  • Katie Gates

    OMG, I am getting more and more annoyed by Annie! What we writers put ourselves through in the pursuit of fodder! You’ve got a goldmine in Annie. She is quite a character, and this is quite a story!

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