VR 360 View: Devastating wildfire compels family to adopt a new lifestyle among the redwoods
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DAVENPORT, Santa Cruz County -- Following the loss of all worldly possessions in a wildfire, a Northern California man discovered his devastating loss left him with a new opportunity to rethink how he lives.
Walk down his property at the break of dawn, just as the sun is just beginning to awaken, and it's easy to see why Wallace J. Nichols chose this spot to call home.
"We call it the Slow Coast because it forces you to slow down to stop looking at screens, stop running so fast," he said.
Two decades ago, Nichols, a marine biologist, was hiking down the California coast when he stumbled on a redwood canyon north of Santa Cruz - a magical forest straight out of a storybook, with a creek running throught it.
Within a year, he bought the land and started building his dream home.
"It was stout, the beams were heavy, built it out of recycled reclaimed old-growth wood," he said. "Very simple, nothing fancy about it. But it felt, like, 'Wow this place is warm and inviting.'"
For the next 20 years, life was idyllic.
"It's been a wonderful place to raise a family and disconnect from technology and our busy lives and reconnect to ourselves and to each other," he said.
But then, on the night of August 16, 2020, 11,000 bolts of lightning touched ground in Central California, sparking hundreds of wildfires. One of them tore through his canyon and headed straight for his home.
"I just grabbed a few things and got in the jeep and got the dog and we got out of here," he recalled.
The following day, all that was left was the chimney.
"We were able to salvage fragments of things," he said. "A teacup, a couple of silverware. I still find fragments of the kids' pottery in the soil when I'm out here but there was nothing of use at all, everything was destroyed."
Nichols and his wife had raised two daughters in what was their dream home. They had built it to endure the very worst of Mother Nature.
"And I look back on that perspective it seems so arrogant you know that?" he mused. "Here I thought I was building something that would last and be kind of timeless that didn't even get through one generation."
It took him a whole year to remove the debris. But when it came time to rebuild, Nichols just couldn't.
"The last thing I want to do is put my heart into another house and have that destroyed. I don't think I could handle that," he said.
So, instead, he took a different path and figured out a way to coexist with the growing unpredictability of Mother Nature.
"What feels right is something that I can remove, that's just lighter on the earth and consciously more temporary so I can just clear out of here and it will be a meadow by the creek not that far from the ocean where the redwoods rule," he said.
His solution: a luxury camping experience, that would allow him to share his slice of paradise with family and friends. More importantly, one that can be quickly packed up and moved out of harm's way.
Instead of a big house, Nichols put up a bunch of modular, mobile tents, called Jupes, with comfortable queen-size beds and their own solar panels.
"I think it's a lot more like the way many of our ancestors lived: a little bit more nomadic and a little bit more flexible," Nichols explained. "We decided this was the direction we were going to go for now on the property because we don't know what the weather is going to do, what the canyon is going to bring," he said.
But perhaps the biggest benefit was the fact that these tents, no bigger than a hotel room, force people to go outside and enjoy the redwoods.
"It's not a big area to hang out in so they basically kick out the door in the morning and go explore nature," he said.
What Nichols realized is that while he still misses that dream house, these ancient trees are his home; which is why these days he's focused on helping them heal.
Once a month, Nichols climbs his redwoods in order to trim the dead branches that didn't survive the fire. Two years later, his redwoods are coming back to life stronger than ever.
"It's gorgeous when you get up here and experience these trees in a way that I've never known them after living with these trees for so long," he said while hanging 40 feet above the ground.
Perhaps no other place embodies that resilience more than a hidden gem created on his property after the fire. Inside of a 1,000-year-old burnt-out tree trunk, Nichols showed me his makeshift speakeasy, where the only drink on the menu is the smoky, tequila-like spirit called mezcal.
"Part of the ritual at the Slow Coast is to taste the smokey fire of the mezcal and chase it with a little of the redwood growth tip," he said.
In every nook and cranny was a bottle of mezcal. And just above the charred remains, new sprouts of redwoods were rising high above.
Ironically, after the fire, Nichols thought he couldn't save anything. Turns out, he was able to salvage the most important thing.
"These redwoods have seen it all. Some of them are 1,000 years old," he said. "They've been through so much and yet here they stand, and they just keep coming back."
One other project that resulted as a byproduct of Nichols' and his family's loss is a children's book he authored, titled "Dear Wild Child." It began as a letter to his eldest daughter, who had left for college the day before the fire and was devastated by the loss of her home. The letter was circulated online and proved a rejuvenating tonic for others undergoing chronic stress.
Nichols and his daughter then decided to turn it into a book. The final message in the book was originally intended Nichols' daughter, but it can benefit everyone.
"Your house might be gone, but you will carry your home with you wherever you go."
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