A hike through Nisene Marks with the history dude
Sandy Lydon, known around Santa Cruz County as “the History Dude,” sits on the back of his white pickup truck in The Forest of Nisene Marks visitor parking lot, a map of the state park spread out beside him. He is explaining some of the earlier history of the land—a thing he knows quite a bit about, having studied, written and taught about the subject over the past 40 years.
“I’ve been kind of the history guy here, officially and not,” he says. Among other things, Lydon is also Emeritus Historian of Cabrillo College, a former KCBA television weather anchor, and a crusader against “hooey history”—a battle first taken up by a mid-20th century Santa Cruz Sentinel history columnist. I rendezvous with Lydon for a preview of the history walk he will lead at the park’s Saturday, Aug. 4 50th anniversary celebration.
Although the Marks family (the matriarch of which was Nisene Marks, who died in 1955) began the deal to transfer the land to the state in 1962, the park was not formally dedicated until 1963. As such, the Aug. 4 event will kickoff of a yearlong celebration, says Bonny Hawley, executive director of Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. While she isn’t ready to announce details, Hawley says to expect more public events and perhaps even some improvement projects “to make [the park] better to honor the anniversary.”
“So many people have worked so hard over the years to create these state parks and it’s great to take time out to recognize that, and also to look forward,” Hawley says.
Lydon’s Aug. 4 tour will focus on the post-1962/1963 history, including the acquisitions that added 1,000 acres to the lot, bringing the park to a total of 10,000. But, back at the pickup truck, Lydon is giving an enthusiastic, if abbreviated, rundown of the land’s pre-state park narrative.
“The key to this whole story is the Southern Pacific Railroad—their money and their capital and their aggressiveness,” he says when he gets up to the 1883 appearance of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company, which was backed by Southern Pacific. Despite the rugged terrain, which had until then been considered too treacherous to tackle for any industrial purpose, Southern Pacific plowed a 7.2-mile standard gauge railroad up the canyon, using an army of 300 to 400 Chinese laborers. This was Lydon’s entry point into studying Nisene Marks; his specialty, and the topic of a book he wrote, is the history of Chinese in the Monterey Bay Area.
He’s emphasizing the financial chutzpah this took (“It cost them $50,000 per mile to build this railroad—$50,000 at the time. That’s a fortune!”) when a runner approaches and interrupts. “I’ll take the condensed version, sir,” he says.
“By God! How are you man?” Lydon exclaims. “This guy spends more time in this park than anybody. He knows every inch of the place.” Lydon pauses, points at the runner and asks, rather cryptically, “The albino?”
“You and your albino!” the man says. “This guy led me on an albino hunt. Don’t listen to him.”
A teasing smile spreads across Lydon’s face. “It’s just right up there,” he shrugs. “I’m going to show it to her.”
Soon enough, we set off on the Old Growth Loop—the trail Lydon plans to take on Aug. 4—with the mythical albino redwood tree on our horizon. All around us, second and third growth redwoods fight their way to the top of the canopy in search of sunlight.
“People come in here, they see all these trees, and the word ‘pristine’ comes up,” Lydon says. “But this is not pristine. Every square foot of this forest, of this canyon, has been manipulated. Has been used.”
Although the logging operations selectively cut, rather than clear-cut, during their 40-year reign of the land, the environmental impact on the trees, streams and terrain was still massive. Lydon points out stumps and springboard notches left behind from the logging days, and gnarly, knotted old growths that the lumber company didn’t have any interest in. “Ugly wins in a redwood forest,” he explains.
Southern Pacific used the bounty to build a railroad going south— “they actually rode the redwoods out of here”—which allowed lumber from what would later become The Forest of Nisene Marks to fuel development and growth in Southern California.
“It’s done. We can’t change it,” Lydon says of the damage. “But what we have been able to do is create a dynamic for the forest to come back. This is a forest of regeneration.”
About halfway through our hunt for the elusive albino, we pass through The Curlicue Forest. Variably known as The Curly Trees or The Crazy Forest, this must-see Nisene Marks anomaly is mystifying patch of contorted, related redwoods that twirl and spin around one another in a whirlpool-like circle.
“Isn’t it totally cool? It’s like we know everything, but really we don’t know anything,” Lydon muses, his neck craning to follow the curvatures of the trees. “It’s like the trees are here to torment us, to tease us.”
The Curlicue Forest is one example of how Nisene Marks, in addition to being a record of the area’s industrial history, is also a scrapbook of scars from our natural past. One theory behind their odd, spiraling behavior is that they are fighting to return to vertical after various natural disasters—like the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, or the 1982 flood—knocked them off kilter.
Lydon recalls the spike in visitors to the park once it was discovered that the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake was beneath Nisene Marks’ forest floor. “People wanted to look down the gun barrel of what it was that bit them,” he says. The rush didn’t last, however.
The annual amount of visitors has declined significantly since the 1990s, according to State Parks documents. Nisene Marks had 239,494 “attendees” in 1998. Last year, it had 95,167. Its numbers are much lower than the county’s most-visited state parks, which, not counting state beaches, was lead in 2011 by Henry Cowell Redwoods with 745,489 visitors. Lydon chocks this up to the fact that it is somewhat of a locals’ secret. “Locals see it as theirs,” he says. “They are very possessive, very proprietary about this particular park. This park is not well known beyond this county.”
Hawley agrees that the park “isn’t on the radar” of non-locals. “People from out of town are more likely to go to Henry Cowell or Big Basin to see redwoods,” she says.
On average, 63 percent of the visitors who do come to Nisene Marks aren’t paying to use the park, according to State Parks records. This irks Lydon, to put it lightly. He points out that people—knowing locals, perhaps?—take advantage of the park’s many non-official, and free, entrance points. His bright blue eyes narrow. “It just frosts me,” he says.
For Hawley, it speaks to the larger battle being waged to save state parks in the face of drastic budget cuts. She points out that, “If more people paid there would be more support for improvement to the park.” (As for the $54 million in unreported funds recently discovered in the State Parks Department, Hawley says it’s yet to be seen how that will impact local parks.)
A few minutes past the Curlicue Forest, and up a blocked trail that may or may not be opened to the public, we finally find it: a bush-like cluster of white sprigs nestled on a tucked-away pod of redwoods. The albino. It doesn’t look like much to the untrained eye, but it’s one of only around 70 in the county, says Lydon. “In the redwood forest, that’s a big deal,” he says.
As we finish the final leg of our modest hike, Lydon pauses—as he often does—to take in the surrounding forest.
“Redwoods can inspire—they really can, and have,” Lydon says. “But usually the only way is if people see them. A picture is interesting, but if we want to develop allies and supporters, people have to see the trees. The trick is you want them to understand what’s happening with them—some people look at this and say ‘oh gee, it’s really a shame, they cut them down.’ Well there’s another way to look at this story: look at how they’re coming back. Look at the resilience of these trees. And we’ve done this. We decided to put a fence around them and let them run.”
We dealt a pretty good blow to this forest, he adds, but the redwoods are still here— and will be long after we are gone. “It’s hard to think of any other plant that is so determined,” he says.
The Forest of Nisene Marks’ 50th anniversary celebration will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the park, located up Aptos Creek Road in Aptos. For more information, visit the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks online at thatsmypark.org. For tickets, visit nisenemarks.eventbrite.com or call 429-1840.
PHOTOS BY SAL INGRAM.