Armstrong redwoods draw huge crowd as thousands opt for outdoors

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Eli Figueroa hopped out of his family’s car Friday at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, ran straight to a towering tree and gave the rough bark a big hug.

“It was one of the biggest ones,” the 7-year-old boy declared.

On a cool, crystal-clear autumn day, seven members of Eli’s extended Healdsburg family joined the throngs of people eschewing the rush for shopping mall bargains in favor of fresh air, sunshine and a bit of exercise. Meagan and Felix Figueroa, his parents, said they are converts to the anti-Black Friday campaign, rejecting the consumerism that for years has celebrated one of its most cherished rites the day after Thanksgiving.

“We want to teach our children that’s not what life is about,” Meagan Figueroa said.

They’re not shopping at all this weekend, have sworn off chain stores and intend to buy all their holiday gifts from charities or small, local businesses, she said.

“We taught ourselves to stop buying all the stuff we thought we needed,” Felix Figueroa said. “We started spending money on experience instead of stuff, and it’s made a big difference.”

They had plenty of company Friday under the giant redwoods near Guerneville and elsewhere, as malls around the nation reported a decidedly calm, normal shopping day in contrast with the traditional post-turkey-day chaos.

Cars were parked a quarter-mile down Armstrong Woods Road from the park entrance, and a park aide at the entry gate said, “It’s definitely way busier (than the usual day after Thanksgiving). Pretty crazy.”

The park flurry was prompted, in part, by Save the Redwoods League’s offer of free passes Friday at 49 redwood state parks from Crescent City to Carmel, including eight in Sonoma County. By Tuesday, the nonprofit said all the passes for 31 parks had been claimed, and on Friday the organization’s website said they were entirely “sold out.”

At the same time, the #OptOutside movement gained about 1 million adherents, according to outdoor apparel company REI’s, which closed its stores and give all its 12,000-plus employees a paid day off Friday.

At the Santa Rosa REI, manager Lance Schoenen said Wednesday the reaction to the company’s Black Friday policy has resonated throughout the North Bay.

“It’s almost all positive,” Schoenen said. “People are calling in that aren’t even members with us, telling us how much they appreciate us letting employees have time with their families and how Thanksgiving should be about family and not shopping.”

And at least 13 other states had jumped aboard, announcing free day passes to parks.

Joe Quinn said he knew about Save the Redwoods League’s passes but parked just outside Armstrong Redwoods park. “It seems like a huge success,” he said, amid folks strolling through the sun-dappled forest. “The free tickets were a great idea.”

Jim Humes, his spouse, glanced up at the redwoods standing up to 300 feet tall.

“Living in San Francisco, we don’t get to see this much nature,” he said. “It’s nice. It’s invigorating.”

They were just back from a 6-mile roundtrip hike up to Bullfrog Pond with three friends from Berkeley.

“I love the trees,” Kevin Rayhill said. “This part of Sonoma County is so beautiful. It’s one of my favorite places.”

His son, Emmett, admitted that he is looking forward to a mall excursion in pursuit of a pair of Air Jordan shoes.

“Is the old pair worn out?” a reporter inquired, glancing at the pair on Emmett’s feet.

“That’s not really the issue,” Kevin Rayhill said with a smile.

Cindy Martin of Carlsbad was at the park with her twin 11-year-old daughters and her father, Charlie Costes of Santa Rosa, and there was divided opinion over the shopping boycott. The twins, Danielle and Cassandra, were intent on heading next to the Santa Rosa Plaza in search of clothing at Tilly’s and Macy’s.

Costes, a frequent visitor to Armstrong Redwoods, said he had never seen the park so crowded.

“I’ve been anti-Black Friday my whole life,” he said. “It’s good for business and all that, but I stay away from it if I can.” Costes planned to head home, make soup and watch a football game.

Donna Mantei, who owns a children’s bookstore in Newport Beach, said she’s all for avoiding the retail giants. She gave a thumbs-up to the Black Friday sequel, Small Business Saturday, started by American Express in 2010.

“It gets back to the grassroots of America where we all go downtown to shop,” she said.

Her friend, Mairead Kennelly of Huntington Beach, said she preferred breathing fresh air to waiting in a store checkout line. Shopping in Guerneville and a movie in Monte Rio were among their plans for the rest of Friday.

Friday might have been a bit slow for the big box stores, largely because they launched their mega-discount advertising blitz — and shoppers began responding online and in stores — earlier than usual this year.

The National Retail Federation said the holiday shopping surge was underway by Nov. 10 and overall sales for November and December are expected to exceed $630 billion, more than five times the California state budget of $115 billion.

Staff Writer Bill Swindell contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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