I can hear Hall shouting to us, but I can’t see him. I’m lying face down in the dirt, my knees caked with mud, heating sprigs of pine needles between my hands. We’re in the middle of an exercise to get us reacquainted with nature. For myself and the half dozen other writers and photographers burrowed into their own foxholes around me, living in the city has dulled our senses. Every day that we’ve spent breathing in smog or waking up to the sound of garbage trucks have conditioned our senses to block everything else out. Even when we do escape to the outdoors, it’s easy to hike a trail without really hearing it, or to rest in a meadow without actually smelling it. That’s why our guide, Hall Newbegin, has us playing in the dirt. When he first suggested it, there was some nervous laughter, everyone a little hesitant to be the first to roll up their sleeves and take a big whiff of the soil. But now, as I lay here watching a pillbug wriggle by just a few inches from my face, and breathe in the smell of freshly-turned earth — I feel like a little kid again. I suddenly remember that the world all around me is alive. That it’s breathing too. And that’s what Juniper Ridge is all about.
I’ve been invited up to Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County with the wilderness perfumers at Juniper Ridge, the only wild fragrance company that exclusively uses natural, gathered ingredients in everything they make. Over the next three days, we’ll be removing invasive species on the mountain, and harvesting all of the ingredients that will be distilled into a Winter Redwood fragrance to be released later in the year. I arrive at the Ranger station where we’ve agreed to meet, and for a moment I think I might be at the wrong parking lot. These guys certainly don’t look like perfumers. Every hand I shake is more calloused than the last. First, there’s Obi — he’s a bearded, old-west kind of guy. He wears dark sunglasses and a gambler hat pulled down over his eyes, and describes his position with Juniper Ridge as “Chief Storyteller.” Next I meet Hall, who looks like he’s just emerged from spending three days foraging in the woods without us — his jeans are stamped with dirt, his backpack is worn to shreds, but there’s a perpetual grin across his face. Finally, there’s Tom. He towers a good three or four heads over me, wears a bright red union suit that sticks out underneath his collar, and has the powerful grip of a stonemason.
After a quick huddle to go over the day’s plans, we pull on our packs and set off into the woods. We’ve only been hiking for a few hundred feet when Hall shouts back to us that we’re heading off the trail, stepping off the groomed path and stumbling down into the valley below us. After switchbacking our way to the bottom of the forest floor, we discover a patch of invasive plants and set about carefully removing them from the hillside. Ensuring that invasive plants don’t suffocate the naturally-growing species of Mt. Tam is a major component of Juniper Ridge’s mission. Hall has made his home on Mt. Tam for decades, and he sees it as his responsibility to care for the mountain that’s given him and his family so much. “I’m here to take care of it,” he says. “If people aren’t going into these places, we don’t know what’s going on there.”
...his jeans are stamped with dirt, his backpack is worn to shreds, but there's a perpetual grin across his face.
Hall bounds ahead of us, hooting and hollering with each newly discovered plant, pausing only to clear the path and gather a few clippings. Once or twice, he has to reach the handle of his pickaxe down into a creek to pull one of us up out of the muck. His enthusiasm is infectious. The excitement in his voice makes it sound like this is his first time in the woods or, for that matter, his first time outside. The natural world still fascinates him. There really doesn’t seem to be anywhere else that he’d rather be — even when the going gets tough.
We’ve been bushwhacking through sharp tangles and stepping on loose footholds for hours when a sinking thought enters my head. We’re miles away from the trail at this point and we’ve had nothing but a winding creekbed to guide us this whole time. Surely, I think, this is a terrible idea. I mean, this is how people die. [ed: And they unfortunately do, as Tam is a deceptively easy place to get lost] Hall doesn’t seem concerned though. He has a gut intuition that I imagine comes from living somewhere for so long that direction becomes second nature. Just when I’ve about resigned myself to a fate of nibbling on twigs until I die a slow and painful death in the woods, we arrive at a clearing and spot the road — still glowing gold in the last rays of sunlight. We crack open a few celebratory beers that have been stashed in someone’s pack and greedily suck them down, high-fiving all the way to our coastal campsite at Steep Ravine.
The next morning we set out for Slide Ranch, a coastal farm and nature preserve that hosts field trips and summer camps that work to connect children to nature. After an hourlong hike, we make it to where the Juniper Ridge crew has been busily setting up camp for us. We happily drop our packs and take a tour around the farm, poking our heads into the tiny homes that dot the ridgeline and serve as dormitories for Slide Ranch’s Teacher-in-Residence program. We amuse ourselves feeding the chickens that peck curiously at our boots. As I listen to our hosts discuss the relationship that Slide Ranch and Juniper Ridge have formed over the years, it’s clear that they share a common goal. Slide Ranch exists to physically educate people about the outdoors who might otherwise not have the chance to get out there; Juniper Ridge exists to use the sense of smell to transport people to a particular meadow, or stretch of desert, even though they might live thousands of miles away from it themselves.
Slide Ranch exists to educate people about the outdoors who don't have the chance to get out there.
“The mountain does all the work. We’re just there to bottle it,” insist Hall, Tom, and Obi. But there isn’t a scent in Juniper Ridge’s collection that can be replicated even from one year to the next. Each one varies annually depending on the level of rainfall, how much sunshine an area gets, or how well a certain kind of wildflower blooms that season. Their fragarances are meant to be a reflection of the very micro-environments where they’re harvested. That’s why Juniper Ridge works so hard to preserve the wilderness where they gather their ingredients — if the natural species and scents are allowed to die out, so does the unique personality of that wild place.
When we return from our tour, Hall is up on the ridge strumming air guitar along to “Telegram Sam” as it blares out of a record player. Next to him, our day’s collection of soil and bits of bark have been put into pouches and are tincturing in a copper still beside the Field Lab van. I walk over to the edge of the cliff and watch the clouds turn colors as the sun starts to dip below the sea. Obi catches me staring out over the water. He laughs and clasps me by the shoulder. “We’ve inherited something pretty special here, haven’t we?” We stand there together for a moment, sipping beers and watching the waves crash against the rocks below us. I nod my head in agreement. ‘Something special’ sounds about right. We say our goodbyes to the folks at Slide Ranch and hop in the van to head back to Steep Ravine for dinner. As night starts to fall, the beauty of Mt. Tam comes even more sharply into focus. These woods are just a short trip over the bridge, and yet it feels a world apart from San Francisco. Even though it’s less than a half hour drive from the city, there’s almost no light pollution. Downtown, you’d be lucky to see even a handful of stars. Here, the sky is flooded with them. When we arrive back at camp, we’re greeted by a row of candlelit tables. We pile our plates full of fresh mussels and clams still dripping with the Pacific, as Rob from Workhorse Rye fixes up rounds of Old Fashioneds, garnished with wildflowers that we’d picked earlier in the day. We dig in, and when everyone is stuffed — and fairly drunk — we gather around the campfire and listen to Hall strum his ukulele while we do our best Johnny Ramone impressions, laughing our way through an island-version of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker.”
I wake up the next morning to sunlight pouring through the window. At some point during last night’s festivities, I’d managed to crawl into my sleeping bag the wrong way, so that my feet are sticking out from the hood. My head is pounding and my mouth is dry. I pull on my boots, brush my teeth at the spigot outside our cabin, and prepare for the day ahead.
Today, we’re headed to Muir Beach to watch Juniper Ridge use what’s called “destructive distillation” to capture the scents of all the ingredients we’ve harvested. We hike unsteadily, our packs filled with cloth bags of soil and ziplocks stuffed with pine needles. Our loads shifting with each step. When we reach the campfire, we set our bags down in the sand and start filling cookie tins with the plants we’ve gathered. “We’ll bury them down in the sand then build the camp fire on top of it,” Tom explains. “The tin traps the heat inside.” We watch as Tom claws out a hole beneath the fire pit, arranging the tins before packing sand back on top of them. Soon, we have a bonfire burning and the air starts to fill with the smells of yesterday’s hike — rich redwood bark from the forest, fresh pine needles from the meadow.
When the fire has run its course, Tom pushes aside the embers and pulls out the tins. The ingredients have burned down to a highly concentrated liquid that will be used in everything from cabin sprays to colognes. He passes the tin around the circle, each of us breathing in the same fresh air from the trail we took the day before, still as strong as when we’d hiked it ourselves. That’s what makes Juniper Ridge’s distillation process so impressive. Smelling one of their perfumes in your downtown apartment means you could close your eyes and easily imagine you were right back on Mt. Tam.
When we’ve finished bottling everything up, we pack up our things and head to the Pelican Inn, our rallying point for one last round of beers before we head back to the city. We spread out on the lawn outside, passing pitchers and notepads back and forth, scribbling down our emails and phone numbers, promising to ‘stay in touch’ as though it were the final day of summer camp. After just a few days on the mountain, we’ve all become close friends. We’ve hiked dozens of miles together, stayed up laughing around the campfire until the early morning, and fallen deeply in love with Mt. Tam. We say our goodbyes and pile into cars headed back to the city. Pulling out onto the road, I look back at the mountain we’re leaving behind — that wild place that belongs to all of us, casting a lush shadow over the Golden Gate bridge.