I held up the soggy notes with my numb fingers and read them again. My neck hurt from gazing upwards, into the canopy of branches hundreds of feet above my head. I was drenched from head to foot, as the drizzle continued to come down from the dark sky. I desperately thought, “This might be the one!” but I had a feeling in my gut that this was not the one. It lacked the downed tree running in front of the tree trunk. This was not the right tree. I circled the one-mile loop again, approaching this section of terrain from the opposite direction, hoping that a fresh perspective would allow me to find it, but I struck out.
There are three trillion trees on the planet, and the tallest of them all is located 57 miles from my house.
It is called the Hyperion and was discovered on August 25, 2006, by naturalists Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor. It was verified to be 379.1 feet tall and contains at least 18,600 cubic feet of wood. Its location has been kept a secret in order to protect the tree from the damaging impact of visitors.
The coastal redwoods are the most massive living things on planet earth. Weighing as much as 1000 tons each, these majestic behemoths date back to the time of Christ and stretch their arms towards the heavens far higher than any other organism. They are truly awe-inspiring.
For decades, the locations of the tallest known trees were public knowledge. I visited three of the previous champions, all located near the Avenue of the Giants, about 45 minutes south of my home. There were other groves of especially tall redwoods north of me in Crescent City and outside the small town of Orick. But the location of the Hyperion was a secret that I was determined to solve. I did my research and cast my net wide. Surely someone in Humboldt County knew where this wonder of the world stood. I pieced together news clips, internet posts, and vague descriptions from books. Some people told me they knew where it was, and I plied them with questions and jotted down answers while studying photos and maps.
Eventually, I believed I had enough information to locate the Hyperion. I drew a circle on a map adjacent to Tall Tree Grove, a particularly majestic stand of trees that necessitated obtaining a permit in order to access. The fact that a permit was needed to get into that area seemed to be a strong indication that I was headed in the right direction.
One Friday morning in May, alone, I took all the information I had, along with my light backpack, trail running shoes, and a camera. I stopped at the Redwood National and State Parks office just before Orick. There I obtained a permit and the combination to the lock on the gate that would allow me to get to the trailhead.
The rain was falling and there were only two other cars in the trailhead parking lot when I arrived. With excitement, I made the downhill hike to Redwood Creek. There along the bank of the creek, I canvassed the area, repeatedly completing the loop that I had circled on my map. I tried to make sense of my notes and instructions, gazing upward in an attempt to see the unique crown of the Hyperion. I located “The Nugget”, which was the tallest tree in the world for 25 years and remains the 3rd tallest tree on the planet. I stood among the giants, but were any of them the actual Hyperion? Uncertain, questioning, and filled with doubts, I was not convinced. Cold, wet, and feeling defeated, I reluctantly began the long hike uphill from Redwood Creek to the trailhead where I had parked.
After five years of looking for the Hyperion, I was giving up. Without any new clues or leads to pursue, my quest became a cold case. I stopped researching and asking questions. I moved on.
Two years later, I was talking to a friend from Crescent City when he shared with me some shocking news. “I found the Hyperion,” he said.
“No way! Seriously?! How?” I had my doubts as to whether or not he had really found it.
He took out his cell phone and showed me a picture of the tree while describing to me how he had done it.
“I read some instructions on the internet,” he explained.
I had read everything there was to read about the tree on the internet and had NOT found it. Much of the information out there was intentionally misleading. Two years had passed since I had last done an internet search on the Hyperion, and it turns out that someone had very recently released more information about its location.
Visiting the new website, I quickly connected the dots and knew that I had all the information I needed. During my failed search for the tree two years earlier, I had been in the correct area but had lacked the details that I needed to find it.
Word quickly got around to my friends that I believed I had obtained the “final clue” to the location of the Hyperion and was planning a trip to see the tallest tree in the world. Several of them implored me to take them along. There were my two surfing friends, Scott and Tamara, from Santa Cruz. There was Andrew, a high school senior, and one of the runners that I coached. There was our media director, and three other friends from our church staff. Heidi, my wife, was the 9th in our party, completing the group. I told everyone to bring wading shoes, shorts, mosquito repellent, a sack lunch, and water. Someone in our group observed that our party was the exact same number as those on the quest of The Fellowship of the Ring, so we dubbed ourselves The Fellowship of the Hyperion.
We met on Friday morning at 8 a.m. at Faith Center, piling into a church van. With a limited number of permits being issued each day, I wanted to make sure we were at the Redwood National and State Parks office before nine to secure ours.
We arrived at 8:57 and stood in a line with ten people ahead of us. They opened promptly at 9:00 and when it was my turn to request a permit I hesitated before mentioning that there were nine people in our party. Perhaps there were too many of us. Maybe we needed two permits. The park staff did not express any concern over the size of our group. I completed some paperwork and we left with our permit and the code for the locked gate. Having refilled our water bottles and utilized the restrooms, we proceeded to drive into the hills to the east. There was a sense of excitement and anticipation as we left the paved road, accessed the gate, and drove to the remote trailhead.
The mosquitoes were swarming as we exited the van before dousing ourselves in DEET. We powered up our cameras and snapped a group photo before beginning the easy downhill hike into Redwood Creek valley.
An hour later we regrouped in the sun on a dry sandbar next to Redwood Creek. We snacked on lunch, skipped rocks, and changed into our wading shoes. This was where we left familiar paths and entered into the unknown.
At first, it seemed as though we were the only people there, but then I noticed a man watching us, alone, on the far side of the river. He was haphazardly chucking rocks into the river. He wore khaki cargo shorts, a tucked-in white T-shirt with the word “forest” on it, sunglasses, a floppy wide-brimmed hat, a leather belt, and white tube socks extending far above his hiking boots.
Wading up to our thighs across the creek, we looked for the next tributary. At this point, I intersected paths with the man across the river. Feeling enthusiastic about our quest, I told him that we were going to find the Hyperion. I showed him my map and when my eyes met his, I saw that he was beginning to panic. With a look of alarm, he announced “Oh! I better get a head start,” and he ran off. As he left, I wondered what he was doing out here alone, and where he had come from.
I chuckled and shrugged my shoulders, knowing the direction we must go.
The route took us upstream through ice-cold clear water at the bottom of a narrow canyon surrounded by redwoods. We observed tadpoles and salamanders, flora, and fauna. The rocks were slippery as we found our way over and under downed trees crisscrossing the stream. We came to a few sandbars that made the walking easier. Occasionally I caught glimpse of the strange man, traversing the side of the canyon amidst the trees. He appeared to be staying one step ahead of us.
I knew that eventually, we would have to exit the stream and climb the steep slope to our right to get to the tree. From a distance, Scott and I spotted a tree that was taller than all the others in the vicinity.
Once near it, we took a sharp right, forcing our way from the creek bed up the steep, dirty, and brushy canyon wall. I tried to avoid the poison oak that was intermingled with other plants. I have been known to get poison oak without even touching it.
Climbing in the direction of that tree, we clawed our way up the steep and crumbly hillside, grabbing limbs, pulling ourselves over downed trees, and pushing through the dense brush. With great anticipation and excitement, I approached the base of the biggest tree that we could locate. Looking around I was startled to notice the man from the stream sitting on a log, staring coldly at me. Once we made eye contact, he smiled and began to incessantly babble about the trees and how lucky we were to have made it there.
One by one our group of nine completed the difficult ascent to the base of the tree.
“Wow! I can’t believe you guys actually found it. Kind of sucks actually. Pretty amazing tree isn’t it? I used to booby trap trails around Santa Cruz to keep the mountain bikers away. Want me to take your picture?”
At this point, it became clear to me that this man was a little bit crazy. He might be an ecoterrorist. He also might view himself as the “guardian of the Hyperion”. I distanced myself from the conversation and focused on enjoying this moment with the team.
Meanwhile, my friend Scott had gone off by himself. He said that he needed to get away to have some quiet. Ten minutes later he rejoined our group and whispered to me, “Matt, this isn’t the tree. I found it. It’s down this way.” Scott motioned further along the bank of the stream, through the forest. He appeared to be fully convinced. I passed the word along to Heidi and quickly we were putting on our backpacks and following Scott.
“Where are you guys going? Don’t listen to him. This is the Hyperion!” shouted our unwelcome guest.
Ignoring him, I followed Scott through the forest. Five minutes later, cresting a small ridge, I saw a tree that was truly remarkable. The base was massive and without limbs for the first 200 feet of the perfect cylindrical stem. Then there was the signature “arm”, extending outward and upward at perfect right angles. The tree stood apart and was unmistakably “The Hyperion.” One by one, as our group members crested the ridge they paused in awe as they beheld the tree. We celebrated the completion of our quest by basking giddily in the shadow of the tree, posing for photos.
The “guardian of the Hyperion” was nowhere to be seen. Scott told me that he began to doubt the authenticity of the tree we had found earlier because that man kept talking. The more he talked, the more skeptical Scott became. He also noticed that it did not look like the photos he had seen. He took it upon himself to explore further.
We returned down to the creek bed and began our return hike. As we emerged into the Redwood Creek valley, we caught sight of our unwanted companion, standing in the trees watching us. “See you on the other side!” He shouted across the valley.
I was not sure if he was talking about the valley, or if he meant to kill us. I did not want to find out, so we kept moving along, with our heads down. This was the last that we saw of him.
Since that day, I have twice been back to the sacred location of the Hyperion. I am reluctant to take visitors there or to give away its secret. The route has become increasingly worn by foot traffic in a short amount of time. The process of my quest is what made the discovery deeply gratifying.
As we work towards achieving our goals in life, there are times when we will get stuck. We may even give up for a season. Misinformation can set us off on detours. We may encounter those who want us to fail, for unknown reasons. It is easy to be deceived, or misled, falling for counterfeits. We will face moments of uncertainty. But all of these “challenges” are to be expected. They are part of the journey towards the completion of our quest.
“And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray.”
1 Timothy 6:20 (NLT)
“Timothy, guard what God has entrusted to you. Avoid godless, foolish discussions with those who oppose you with their so-called knowledge.”
• Discernment is the ability to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong. How can trust and discernment work together to help you make good decisions?
• What goals have you given up on? Why?
• When have you been misled into believing something that was not true?