Nature lover, pagan, hippie, cheapskate—call me what you will, but the Muir Woods Solstice Event ruled. And not just in a Wicker Man kind of way.
The free, annual event honoring the longest night of the year is uber North-Bay: wholesome, granola-y, non-denominational family fun, set amid old-growth redwoods and adorned with weedy handmade garlands. Luminaria-lit paths fill with white-breathed revelers, whose flashlights make the falling rain look like snow, or that scene from Edward Scissorheads. Puppet shows, antler-clashing Germanic dances and de-Christianized caroling ensue in an event that makes even a cynical 20-something (me) smile.
The promise of free entry and free hot cider lured me out on a moody Monday afternoon, to brave the bridges and highways of a Bay Area rush hour. On a slow Saturday, I’d gotten to chatting with some regulars at work, who gushed to me about the event. Traipsing around the damp dark of one of the Bay Area’s most impressive natural attractions had sounded like a damn good way to spend the longest night of the year. I grabbed a crappy flashlight and a hooded puff coat, roped a friend into riding shotgun and playing DJ, and we set out, sliding along the green curves of Marin, through afternoon sun that shone through the clouds like light into a church.
A ranger with plastic encasing her hat ushered us past the forever-full parking lot; we joined the assembly of cars lined up along the soft shoulder. We walked a muddy, pleasant 15 minutes to the park entrance. Slicker-clod kids tromped puddles as their parents juggled umbrellas and thermoses.
We arrived just as the crowd was thickening. A bearded ranger that looked like a nervous cross between a bluegrass singer and a surfer handed us a booklet of Solsticized/Muirized Christmas carols, complete with lines and titles such as “Deck the woods with luminaria,” “I’m Dreaming of a Green Solstice,” “O Redwood Tree,” and “Come All Ye People.” My personal favorite was “On the first day of Solstice / A Ranger showed to me / A spotted owl in a redwood tree.” The adapted songs captured the progressive eco-politics and non-religious spirituality of Marin better than an Anne Lamott novel. You know that stir a couple years back when right-wing Christians got their knickers in a twist over “Happy Holidays” replacing “Merry Christmas”? Well, these were the folks they were pissed at.
It was, as you might guess, a mellow crowd of nature-y families and local weirdos (a simplification that I suppose puts me into the latter category). We grabbed some cups of cider and strolled around in the intermittent rain, soggy sneakers and cold noses. The creek was full from the recent storm, the stumps mossy; everything felt wet and alive.
We joined the huddle of firepits and hunched shoulders encircling a small, makeshift stage. It was time for some wholesome, non-offensive entertainment. The crowd sang a couple carols, and was then held rapt by a story-telling performance featuring exuberantly portrayed animal characters that I’m sure have inspired several voice-over school rejections. We agreed that the confused shadow puppet show was most definitely the improved result of a flash of marijuana-fueled brilliance. We took it as our cue to stroll the now-dark trails.
Candles in white paper bags lined the trails, making it feel almost like we were walking through an altar. Raindrops held heavy on the tree branches as little kids ran past in a bobble of flashlight beams. Other than that, it was all sound. It reminded me of an interview I’d read with a travel writer (Don George?) who’d wanted to write about something other than the cathedral-ish quality of light in Muir Woods. He’d blindfolded himself and walked around, experiencing the famous woods with mostly just his sense of sound, and written the article from that perspective. It was true that it was a totally different Muir Woods without the light and the sight of redwoods—all rambling water and the solid, rooted presence of those trees, the way you feel a stranger in a dark room.
We got back to the caroling crowd just in time to catch the most bad-ass and spooky performance of the night, a Germanic Solstice dance by the Christmas Rebels (which sounds kind of punk rock). Composed of members of the German fraternal society California Rebels, the group did a slow, hypnotic folk dance that included antler-clashing and creepy flute playing. A bearded dude with a crazy eye hushedly explained the pre-Christian roots of the dance, which got back to the potent mix of fear and worship that fuels most religions, not just Paganism. Under the illuminated, snow-like mist, the clanks of the antlers and the wet clomp of the determined feet felt like a ritual not from long ago, but rather some deranged allegorical movie. Which is to say it was rad.
Toes numb and bellies hungry, we trekked back to the car under the dim halo of my flashlight. A half-grin of moon cut through the heavy clouds, and the earth rustled, sighed, pulled a blanket of darkness up to its chin and settled in for the longest sleep of the year. And Marin celebrated, the way Marin knows how: amid the trees.