Where to begin. How to explain.
A mighty Redwood, on the tilt, scrawny branches, nearing the end. Metal cable, guy-roped into great screws in the ground, like Gulliver tied down by the little people, partly hidden amongst the other trees. A hole through the centre, chain-sawed and angular, graffitied and scratched like a tube station wall. Wide enough for a Dodge Truck to pass through. Again and again.
‘Shrine Drive Thu Tree’ shouts the aging yellow signs, again and again. A Drive Thru Tree®. What fun. Images from a childhood picture book come flooding back. 1968, Encyclopeadia, Blue, hard backed. The section on America. A photo, in New York, of a shop that opened during the night – gasp – a 24 hour chemist! Next page, a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. Next page, a Redwood Tree so HUGE that you can drive a car through it! The image stuck. 1972, a trip to the New Forest, an arboretum, a Giant Redwood Drive, a plea to see the trees that were so big you could fit a car through it. In that childhood way, knowing no other, it did not disappoint.
Now, standing at the Shrine Drive Thru Tree®, dreams are shattered. The excitement is still there, but the concept so sorely wrong. Just like believing that Gollywogs were Ok, and the ‘Black & White Minstrels’ was just a musical show, that toy rifles were ok for the boys, that it was OK to hunt, the childhood ideal has been shattered.
Of course, this is one of three Drive Thru Trees®, the other Tour Thru Tree® and another Chandler Drive Thru Tree® are less beaten and sad, although fabricated all the same. But still as much fun.
Back to the story. ‘Shrine Drive Thru Tree®’ is a spectacle to behold. First, let me explain, for those travelling in an RV, then the Drive Thru Tree instantly becomes a Walk Thru Tree. However, the spectator sport of watching others squeeze their thirty thousand dollar SUVs through a beat up old tree is strangely gleeful. Like watching a Formula 1 Grand Prix, the excitement is not so much in the skill and sportsmanship but in the small gruesome anticipation that one might crash. Mayhem. It is the human condition, that we stand and stare, wanting others to make a mistake, slip up so we can say inside ‘what an idiot’.
Shrine Drive Thru Tree® at Myers Flat, is where it all happens. A green, in-need-of-paint door to the entrance shack is pronounced ‘open’. A man, about thirty, unshaven and in a dirty yellow vest, greets. “Howdy ladies, just three dollars for walk-ins”. Questions ensue. Yellow-vest-man, full of a self-importance that only befits the owner of a Drive Thru Tree, introduces himself as JR. Of course.
JR busies himself with a customer, a cheerful black man and his wife, over- excited and anxious about the size of his car. He is making a meal out of this, his $10 will have to be worth it. A long, hyper-discussion ensues, and reassurances are given. JR, from sullen to showman in less than ten seconds. “Here, these are pictures of cars that have got stuck in the Draaave Thru Tree, your car aint nearly as big as that”. The black man, visibly more excited, hangs on his every word. His wife paces the floor with a resigned air. He’s gonna do it whether she likes it or not. “Look these are pictures of other Draaave Thru Trees, this one here at Legget, that is a good one, but the hole is much bigger than mine, mine is a challenge. This one, at Klamath, not so wide but taller”. Pictures are produced, faded printouts from a cheap computer-printer with tell tale lines of running-out cartridges, are glued to some bits of bent corrugated card. We all bend forward to admire the handiwork. We are teasing, JR, unaware, is deadly serious. His ardour gathers “this one here, well it has braches that grow out and twist around and …….”, his arms become like the twisted branches, gesticulating this way and that, drawing circles in the air, and reaching for the sky, emulating his tree.
The time has come. Cameras at the ready. We walk in, take a seat on the fence outside the Draaaave Thru Tree. The man instructs his wife, who does not get to go through the Draaave Thru Tree, where to hold the camera. The giant shiny red car is lined up ready. Slowly, inch by inch, driver enjoying every second, the red car creeps through. The wife’s face is pained. Maybe she can see the visit to the bank for the loan for the shiny red car, or maybe she can see herself outside he car bodyshop next Saturday morning, who knows. It stops. We all hold our breath. Is it stuck? There is silence. “You gonna go baaack?” says the tremulous voice “Well sure can’t go forward” comes the knew -it -all -along’ reply. The car edges back. Stubborn, the driver lines the car up a second time. JR, in his shack, tantalising the next customers with his faded print-outs, is blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding inside his tree.
This time, slowly but surely, the giant red truck nudges through. A collective sigh of relief. We all cheer and clap and whoop – the driver- delighted to have an audience to witness the drive of his life, waves and gives a thumbs-up as he revs past. The door opens, the relieved and sagging wife climbs in. He checks the camera, nods approvingly and drives to the parking lot, for there is yet more to see.
The next car, a blingy man and his blingy wife in an open top cabriolet, ejects the wife to position of cameraman. She shakes her head and focuses the camera, while he drives through with feet to spare, talking under his chin on his cell-phone, palm-corder in one hand and two lap dogs on his lap. Boastfully, he opens the door and bling-wife climbs in, onto the pale beige leather seat. They go round again, hers is the new experience. We cheer and whoop and are met with a look of disdain. How dare we lower the tone of the sanctity of driving through the Draaave Thru Tree!
Next, a people carrier, sliding door opens, an Amish group steps out. Old fashioned floral dresses belted and done up to the neck, white caps around their hair, thick balck tights covering their legs. Men in high-waisted trousers and braces over blue stripy shirts, wide brimmed hats shading their bearded faces. A serious bunch. Incongruous in the Disney-world of JR’s yellow signage and serious marketing ploys.
One earnest lady with a camera, the elder, allowed to be in charge, the other lady, notebook in hand proceeds to take notes. The men, hands thrust in pockets, walk round and round the tree, sizing it up, chatting and gesticulating. The man in black, the elder, drives slowly but surely through the tree. Edging his way through. A single click of the camera. A moment in time captured. The ladies seem concerned we are watching, this is a serious act, no whooping and cheering and thumbs-up here. The ritual done, they pile back in, no excited chatter, more of a sense of acceptance that it is OK to drive through a Draave Thru Tree.
The excitement wanes. The afternoon draws on. A look around the site reveals the ‘Famous Drive-On Log’, a smaller ‘Walk Thru Tree’ for children, a freaky fairytale house made from a tree stump, and a ‘Walk Thru Time’ log, with dates that preceeds the American Union by a thousand years, so much so, they have to use their scant knowledge of world affairs to signify the passage of time. Even the Pilgrim Fathers are on the outer ring.
By now, shiny-red-truck man is engaged in excited conversation with JR, telling of his narrow escape and how he nearly got stuck. I suspect JR has heard it all before, but the consummate showman that he is, he ohhs and ahhs in all the right places. The man wants to know the record, how many times has one person been through? What happens if someone gets stuck? His fascination is endless. The wife, having been round the gift shop, twice, clutching a paper bag containing a porcelain Drive Thru Tree, stands wearily by his side. JR knows no limit, the excited chatter gains momentum. “My Aaaaant bought this place in ’63, year before the Flood. Did it up and made the Draaave Thru Tree. My parents bought it off her but she still ran it, but then she got too old, so I help out here now. It was her who invented the “Draaave on Log’ , needs a bit of attention now, crumbling a bit. In fact, I really need to get out there and get some more attractions going, after all that tree aint gonna last for ever”. I should say so.
‘I need to get out there with the chain-saw and clean up the inside, get rid of the graffiti and ‘all”. “Wont that make the hole bigger?” asks red-truck-man, seemingly miffed that he might not have got stuck and saved his pride if there was an extra inch. “Yeah, gu-eees sooo” says JR, “What’s an inch after a thousand years?” “ So, is that how you would get someone who was stuck, out?” asks red-truck-man, wife wincing. ‘Yeah, that or dismantle the wing-mirrors from inside. Trouble is these days, they’s all-electric, needs to cut the wires and stuff”. Wife winces again. We suggest an RV Drive Thru Tree, and JR agrees. We suggest a lot of ideas, and JR leans for his grubby pad as if to start to scrawl. We cannot believe it. “You girls are so much fun” he drawls, “You can come back tomorrow for freeeee”. “Hail JR, the offer is genuine, like a gift you can not refuse in case of offence. He believes in his tree, why shouldn’t we.
Exhausted from the day, expecting that JR will never get out from his shack to attend to the graffiti, with his cardboard-mounted pictures and girly-calendar, threadbare typist chair with a broken wheel propped up by a wedge of redwood, his grubby mug with the snooker-ball 76 fuel logo and his rubbed off map, we move on. Back in the RV we look at each other, speechless. What was that all about? We dissolve into sheer hysteria, somehow the excitement of the Draaave Thru Tree too much to contain. We decide we love JR. A man who loves that tree so much deserves respect.
Next day, we drive past the Draaave Thru Tree, “ You know you have a Draave Thru Tree in Your Backyard JR? “ we holler from the cab. “Sure do” cries JR, wearing same yellow vest, leaning over the green in-need-of-paint-door. We wonder if he sleeps in there. Each time for three days, as we traverse up and down the Avenue of the Giants in our Tioga RV, we unwind the windows and scream out the same ‘Sure Do!’ always comes the reply.