Sunday, November 15, 2009

It Comes with the Territory

Day 7, May 10, 2009
Route: From Old Finley Road near San Ramon, into Morgan Territory Regional Preserve. We followed what is now established as the Diablo Trail, going up Old Finley Road to Sulphur Spring Trail, to Black Hills Trail, to Crestview Road, to Highland Ridge Rd, to Highland Ridge Trail, and then down past the Morgan Backpack Camp and horse corral, to Morgan Territory Road.
Mileage: 8.1 miles
Flora and Fauna: I am not sure I have explained that I only put down new sightings in this section. As I travel through more of one habitat type I see fewer new species. The whole walk has been rich with wildlife but at this stage of day seven of the Coast Ranges I rarely see new things. Hence, only Mule’s ear, a big-leafed big-petalled daisy of the grass fields gets noted.
Logistics: We are dropped off at the Finley Road gate by Peter. He has provided us with his GeoTracker again, which clues in friend Kale to our proximity to the pick-up spot on Morgan Territory Road, so that he can drive the long way out to pick us up. We have only daypacks– thank God.
Recommended Reading: The Morning Side of Mount Diablo: An illustrated account of the San Francisco Bay Area’s historic Morgan Territory Road, by Anne Marshall Homan, 2001. At times a lyric ode to the days of the ranchero, cowboy, and farmer this substantial investigation provides detailed accounts of the people that managed rich family lives along this one steep view-ridden road–the principal access to the back side of Mount Diablo.

My first promise here is to assure any reader that I vow to never discuss our feet again. After only one day of rest, even with the same boots, they became a non-issue.

This was a very beautiful, expansive, lung-opening walk on Mother’s day. We started up the wooded and shady Sulphur Spring Trail coming to Crestview Road. Here we could look back over the unfocused soft-masses of distant oaks in the foreground of a majestic view of Mount Diablo from its east side. My notes say simply ‘dreamy’.

Without our heavy packs the day just skipped along. We turned south again on Highland Ridge trail. The trails below us and ahead of us were constantly visible from all points of the walk giving a foreshortened effect. With the provisioning of great views our spirits hardly noticed the altitude gain. We had lunch at the highest spot of the hike and were rewarded with a call from our daughter wishing me a happy Mother’s Day.

Peter had lent us a GeoTracker Spot device which added a techno element to our walk. This was the first day that it served us in a larger manner than previously. We had carried the palm sized orange transmitter for most of the walk beyond Tilden Park, enabling Peter and other friends to watch our progress at a site on the internet. The device also can make a 911 call to a satellite in case of emergency (we deemed blisters not enough of an emergency). This day however Peter decided to monitor our pace and inform Kale when to pick us up at Morgan Territory Road based on our progress across the ridges.

When we had lunch at our spectacular high spot we rested and relaxed for quite a while. We were unaware that our early quick clip and accumulating mileage gave our friends the impression that we would be at our destination shortly. It should have been a quick trip down from the ridge but we dawdled at lunch, and explored at length the Backpacker’s Camp further down the trail. We had suggested a time to meet Kale, but equipped with up-to-the-minute Spot information he headed out earlier than necessary. The lesson of the story is don't forget that a good walk also must have a good rest–a moment to relish the place or mileage obtained.
A backpacker’s camp seems an intelligent new twist on the usual Regional Park offering. Had we done more investigation prior to our walk we might have timed things to allow us to camp there legally. I encourage others to do so and keep it popular enough to survive budget cuts in the future.
For the first time since the urban strolls I felt strong.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Where Were We?

Day 7, May 8, 2009

Route: From our campground, uphill to the Wind Caves, to Wall Point Rd (part of the trail to the summit of Mt. Diablo where we are NOT going, thank you), crossing South Gate Road at Curry Point. Down from there on the Knobcone Point Trail (fire road) to Black Hawk Ridge Trail (fire road) to Oyster Point Trail which leads to Morgan Territory Regional Preserve and then out Old Finley Road to pavement and middle-of-nowhereness.

Mileage: The longest 7.5 miles I have ever experienced

Flora and Fauna: Here one has to admit that if you do not look for anything, you will not see anything. The following creatures were noticed only because they did their best to get noticed. I thank a warbling vireo and a hermit warbler for their kindness. Looking back on photos I also saw sycamores and buckeye trees. But obviously I didn't really see them at all.

Logistics: We basically walked uphill, hobbled downhill, had lunch and unwrapped my now bleeding toes, resumed the up and down and up and down, deciding in the end to seek civilization and foot rest, delivered nearly 30 miles from Morgan Territory Road to Walnut Creek Bart Station by a woman and her 14 year old daughter who took pity and put us in their van. I vow to purchase new boots.

Recommended Reading: Mount Diablo, Los Vaqueros & Surrounding Parks Featuring the Diablo Trail Map, produced by Save Mount Diablo, available at REI (map sponsor). Waterproof, Tearproof, detailed, a whole world offered for your perusal. The Best Diablo Map, if not the best regional map I have ever seen. About ten dollars.

This is a tough day to write about because it was such a tough day of painful feet and low spirits that I took only the following notes: warbling vireo hermit warbler. That is it. Coupled with the fact that I am writing about it now a mere five months after walking it may reflect, and reflect poorly, in the following account.

When I started this walk and this blog I figured I would reminisce about time well spent in the Eco-tones of California. I planned to write about what California had meant to me, what I had seen, and produce a kind of autobiography enmeshed in landscape. If I do that I will never finish.

So forgive me here if I don't tell you about slicing through the fine clays of Black Diamond Regional Park on the north foothills of Mt. Diablo while participating on an archaeological dig in college days and found green leaves a foot down folded into a capsule protecting a solitary leaf-cutting bee's eggs. I also will not tell of the ravens, the ruling pair, atop Mt. Diablo, or my subsequent epiphany while camping solo that even the most dreaded and raggedly-poor campground neighbor has love and forgiveness to offer. I won't even mention the visual impact of a wooly blue-curl atop the jumbled boulders on Pinnacles National monument in April. I will just stick to the walk events, and beg your forgiveness for drawing this account out so long.

Mt. Diablo is a very special place. I had pictured us climbing to its peak in a triumphant attainment of a milestone, looking back and forward at vast views, probably feeling superior and certainly feeling connected to its specialness. That picture was not to be as my toes were far too blistered to make unnecessary mileage and altitude gain. We would skirt the southern flank of Diablo and regain the eastern side by traversing its lower slopes.

Without a ridiculously overfilled backpack of tent, sleeping bags, journals, five days of food, walking sticks, clothes, flashlights –our house on our backs–and without the bulbous fluid filled bruising of blisters (Steve's entire soles were a blister) this would have been another perfect walk. Gorgeous weather, intimate canyons expanding into vistas at their heights, yadda yadda.

After visiting the Wind Caves (not actually formed from wind erosion but rather from water percolating into areas where the water dissolves the natural cement holding sand grains together), we came to our highest point at Curry Point. We walked down Knobcone Point Trail to a junction with Curry Canyon but counter-intuitively did not turn toward the east but kept just inside of the western foothills that fend off ritzy developments like Blackhawk. After climbing quite a ways back up to a junction of four trails we dropped our ridiculous loads for lunch. This is where I heard the warbling vireo in an oak– a sound that finally penetrated my self-absorbed self-pity.

Having seen nary a soul the entire walk we were surprised by the arrival of three people all at once. First came a cyclist who veered off onto our future single track trail. I remember thinking that he was taking a path where bicycles were forbidden. At the same time there was a relief that people pass this way, even illegally, and I felt instead of my usual annoyance at wheeled scofflaws a certain love and well-wishing that he be safe and enjoy himself. Perhaps a sign of becoming delusional but probably just old age laissez-faire making another attempt at ruling my life.

Then two perfectly-bodied female joggers in cute outfits, about our age, came to the junction, saw us under the tree, and one of them trotted up and asked "Excuse me, do you know where we are? We seem to have missed our trail." We had a map, a great map, the Save Mount Diablo- produced map referenced above. These ladies had already run many miles, had missed their original exit, and now were looking at an extra couple of miles to get back to a path that would lead them home eventually. I do not think the extra mileage would have phased them even if they had remained lost. Off they went, at a good speed, chatting. I was impressed. I had pictured the trophy wives of Blackhawk to be more odalesque than olympian.

There is no pain like post toe-freedom pain with blisters. We took the single-track Oyster Point trail towards Morgan Territory. At its highest point we could see another of Diablo's wall rock outcroppings, my guess is that it holds fossil oysters in abundance. Here we rested and I indulged in heavy doubts about my ability to do this walk. I felt so out of shape and unlike the old days I did not appear to get stronger but rather more tired each day. I wanted to throw off the pack big time. This is where a hermit warbler preened and tisked around us and broke through my morale-damaging reverie.

We were on the last stretch of Oyster Point trail, in need of water, and looking forward to Tassajara Creek at the bottom of the canyon. We had originally planned that we would guerilla camp in Morgan Territory, that we had to make use of this stupid food we carried, this stupid tent and cook stove, the incredibly inane multiple eating utensils. Why put ourselves through the torture of carrying all of this stuff if we were not going to tough it, be excitingly illicit with our illegal camping, be the adventurers we had ceased to be twenty years earlier? Either God is a stickler for the letter of the law and gave us blisters to 'mend' our ways and make us knock off this notion, or we took the signs of multiple mosquito attacks at the creek as definitive, or we realized when we emerged laden with all this crap, that sheesh Morgan Territory was well-used by local residents and that hiding out in a camp was going to be hard. We decided, glory-be, to give up our folly.

I felt like crying with relief when we decided to just walk out here at Old Finley Road, and call one of our patient friends to pick us up. We asked a nice family of father, son and uncle where we were in the civilized world and they described that we would need to walk out of the park through a gate, but that there was no actual parking lot for a mile or so. The private homes at this entrance were buffered from park user cars. Which was nice for them, but also meant we couldn't keep up with these informants over the next mile, and therefore lost our chance at a ride.

The first home we came to looked like an old ranch. Very picturesque, it was set amongst huge sycamores. We doffed packs and played with a dog that seemed to belong to the big barn/house complex that looked a hundred years old. Steve tried to find someone to let us use a phone because our cell phones had no coverage. After not being able to raise anyone but the dog, Steve suggested that we go on down the lane of eight big expensive, well-appointed houses and knock on their doors (or ring their security buzzers) to ask for the use of their phone. . We looked disheveled and needy, I could not bring myself to do it. It was like penetrating a veil of protection lain wordlessly and fencelessly that the homeowners had constructed while making the deal with us hiking riff-raff – you may pass, but do not bother us. I guess I still respond to class notions in my own head. I asked Steve to stay put and I would hobble ahead to investigate the so-called parking lot and try to find cell coverage.

Neither of those things did I ever find. The only thing to do was to hike miles to San Ramon or flag down a car. We put the packs back on and trudged out to the road. We hid our packs behind an oleander and walked without loads until Steve flagged down a passing van. Liz Wilson and her teenage daughter lent us their operating phone, but neither Steve's cousin, nor his Best Man in All Ways, Kale Williams answered. These people had driven us around, put us up, provided a GPS tracking unit, fed us, but here right now, they had their own lives apparently. So Liz gave us a ride to the Walnut Creek Bart Station, hugging the larger contours of Diablo's foothold, nearly forty minutes by car. She and her daughter were out driving for no good reason but companionship and cow watching. They had a great relationship obviously. and enough room in that relationship for us in their day. I salute their lives and generosity.

Steve left his binoculars on the Bart station platform, we both left our notions of invincibility behind permanently, not to mention pride. Peter had to pick us up at the Rockridge Bart Station, we could not walk the four blocks to his home.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Day 6, May 7, 2009
Route: From Walnut Creek Bart Station east along Ygnacio Valley Road, right on Homestead Ave, left on Marshall Drive to its end at Shell Ridge Open Space, rejoining the Briones-Mt. Diablo Trail (BTMD), to a junction with Borges Ranch (where we had lunch), backtracking uphill to continue on the BTMD trail to Rock City and collapse at our camp in the Live Oak Campground.
Mileage: 11.4 miles
Flora and Fauna: Brown-headed cowbird, fig, Bullock’s oriole, wild boar, western screech owl, great horned owl, brodiaea, ookow (Dicholostemma), western rattlesnake, gopher snake, mockingbird, great horned owl.
Logistics: This day we pretended to be backpackers, taking our one shared pack to the Rockridge Bart station on foot. We had left a very heavy pack at the Mt. Diablo State Park camp that we had set up the afternoon of the day before. We shared the load as we walked from the Walnut Creek Bart station up and up to our camp. Thank goodness we did not have a full set of packs because it would have been too much.

We walked from the Walnut Creek Bart Station with me wearing our one pack. I am sure I looked odd bobbing down commuter-busy Ygnacio Valley Road and my companion carrying zip. This was further made weird by a couple stopping their car on Homestead Ave to ask us if we were ‘going backpacking!’, and how they thought that was cool. Steve repeated his schpiel about my birthday aims, and though each rendering seems a boring tale, the couple in the car seemed impressed, wishing us success. The same wish was repeated by Hilary, walking her dog at the Shell Ridge Open Space where we had regained the Briones-Mt. Diablo Trail. I received a benediction in Hilary’s eye-contact-rich cheering “way to go, my friend.” It was still awkward to be heralded. Internally I felt the “too much information” reflex of Steve’s to be more an attempt to cement my resolve to finish than to provide total strangers with some bit of awe of this small feat.
Shell Ridge Open Space is gorgeous, and I remembered to thank the Save Mount Diablo non-profit organization for its potent activism of saving lands surrounding this wonderful mountain from over-development from the 1970s up to this day. The hills of resistant sandstone (many of which provide fossils) create a bowl, a moat around the southwestern foot of Mt. Diablo, shielding us from any sight or awareness of the modern nature-mindless metropolis on the other side.
On the wide fire trail it is an easy thing to keep your head up, looking around, absorbing the panaroma, but as the steepness increased, my head was lolling in sympathy with the labor of walking, and I was therefore able to spot a rattlesnake one foot to the left of my path. Stretched out and still, it made no warning. Steve, ahead of me (as usual and always) had walked by without noticing. Luckily the snake had found him unremarkable. Or like me was just too enervated to make a fuss.

When we had attained about half of the day’s elevation, we came to a gate on the Mt. Diablo State Park border. Down a canyon to our left an oasis of green trees and some very dark old ranch buildings beckoned us for a lunch stop. This was the Borges Ranch, a Walnut Creek-run park that preserves the old buildings of the Borges family cattle ranch that set-up here in 1899. The park offers living history programs, houses 4-H animal projects, provides a ranger residence and ample shade.
The old barn is so aged that its wood is black, looking burned and turned to charcoal in place. All the buildings have been transformed by decay and heat to resemble not so much wood but old taxidermy, slightly oily and off true color. Their age is picturesque and moving. Old fig and fruit trees are full of birds. Flowers have been planted with generosity. A brilliant Bullock’s oriole, finches, warblers, scrub jays, mockingbirds and bluebirds congregate on non-native food sources lush with leaf and health. A gopher snake basked next to the garage, bees swarmed, chickens investigated our lunch, pigs seemed indifferent to kids screaming into their pen. All of this life was in contrast to the sparser, more spread out wildlife we saw, or rather, rarely saw in Shell Ridge Open Space. This pocket of plowed and trampled earth was busy with activity.
If we had not walked here for miles but had rather driven we might not have noticed this disparity in diversity and number. Perhaps if we had driven we would only have noticed the human history, the stories of human striving. But by contrast this energetic place becomes a proof. Here it is evident that humans are not all bad in their activities on top of a landscape. The Borges ranch fits in. It provides function. It has a niche. The Borges ranch asks the question —did all of this locus-of-lifeness predate the cattle ranch or result from the cattle ranch? Were there springs here, well-watered trees, diversity of habitat prior to the Borges’ arrival? Is that what brought the family here? Or did the Borges themselves wring out a better arrangement for all through their ranch works?
We talked to a ranger who oversees Borges Ranch and the Shell Ridge Open Space. He told us that members of the Borges family come back for reunions here. I wonder if the current family experiences a wistful or relieved emotion upon return. Probably just pride that something this choice remains for all to enjoy. He was unable to tell us about connecting trails in Mt. Diablo State Park next door. Like other park workers, (as we discovered this truth all along our walk) he explained that when they get a day off the last place they go is further a-field from their office by trail. He and his wife would escape to the East Bay, shop, get civilized and take much needed breaks from cleaning up after drunken picnickers. He pointed out that stoners are nicer than drunks.
At lunch we had made the mistake of taking off our boots. When I removed the boots my toes escaped their bonds only to scream with pain at each barefoot step. The nerves were back, alive, and it felt like my toes were doing a miniature challenge of tiny little beds of coal walking. Once back in the boot, the toes took over a mile to become numb again in obedience to our goal.
Steve and I invented “a little game” today that as the days wear on I will regret having started. We count the number of hills we are climbing. Each hill is judged by a physical gear change. If your body shifts from plodding to ease with a following re-shift back into plodding low gear then you have ‘taken’ a hill. It was fun to yell out “Hill # 3!” It was not fun to yell out “Hill #16!”. So —a warning— don’t play this game (or sing ‘I love to go a wanderin’). You will hate your life.

We begin to see our first glimpses of the Wall, a huge escarpment of rock that rises to the east of us, quite a long way off of our route. Tourism, from the vantage point on Hill #9, looks less and less desirable. We choose instead to explore the closer smaller wall of rock to our west, across a field dotted with cows.
This being Spring the grass was deep and mostly green in spite of bovine predators. The chalky-appearing, pocked and bowled rocks—layers of erosion-resistant sandstone beds turned up on their sides through uplift of Mt. Diablo—attracted us to them through the emotional pull of their appearance of unfathomable age. Their seat in the rolling, contoured and soft field drew us as if we were just that moment spotting bones or the gumless teeth of a skull projecting out of a long ago burial or cache. There was a tingling spookiness about them and the promise of discovery in hand-size recesses. Once the mini-Wall was obtained however, much of this mood dissipated with the sighting of tidy, pool-bedecked cul-de sac house developments just below them on the other side. A chewing cow kept us wary company and looked possessive of this amazing spot between all that is modern and all that is ancient.
Mt. Diablo is a bit of a mystery itself. What geo-morphological processes were at play in its creation is still in debate. Is it a bubble of lighter rock that rose when upper layers eroded away, or is there more faulting and tectonic movement involved than had been detected by other theorists? It is not a volcano, that is clear, and don’t ever say that. By the time we reached Hill # 11! I did not care at all how it had been made.
I stopped being able to carry even our pseudo-backpack (a full-size pack with two water bottles, coats, lunch, journal, etc. what, fifteen pounds tops?). I sloughed it over onto Steve. This was my last happy moment until camp. We tackled, or rather the next five hills tackled me. What was a very pleasant temperature seemed to become torment. I hated an innocent man who sprinted by us at an incredible clip. By Hill # 13! I was red in the face and had to have a granola bar to refuel. I mean, I really had to have it.
Steve got so far ahead at one point that I could only spot him, out of earshot, like a buck on the prow of a cliff, waving back down at me jollily. This was particularly frustrating because at that moment I had spotted at the base of the gulf between us a black boar sow and her two piglets. Steve waved… I pointed madly for him to spot the boar feeding …and so it went, with no understanding between us but that we were both gesticulating idiots.
I really hate my inability to pull my head out of physical suffering, and as we approached our camp, (Hill # 16!) passing the familiar carved rock faces of Rock City, I could only grumble in tune with the small vexed cranky world of looking at my feet so as not to fall. All would have to wait until rest. Toes free, dinner delicious, beauty returned then, at sunset, on top of Rock City looking west back to the Bay Area. The sound of a western screech owl (sounding like he was dropping a flutey ping-pong ball repeatedly) chimed as the dimming light showed us, even now so early in our walk, the impressive and unlikely distance that we had won through walking.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Can't Keep Up the Pace

I am posting today out of sequence. It appears a walk is much easier than a write. We are heading down to California (two day trip by car) to resume our walk at the base of the Sierras. At a perfect spot where grassland gives way to oak-covered hills and rock formations, our band of three (Steve and daughter Irene, with visiting walkers on and off) will bake our way up south of Don Pedro reservoir, along remnants of the wagon road that carried John Muir into Yosemite Valley, along the North Rim of Yosemite Valley to Toulomne Meadows, down Bloody Canyon, south of Mono Lake and out past Benton Hot Springs to the Nevada border. I am hoping for the miracle of cool weather but will try to relish the heat if that is what we get.

Just a note about earlier travels, still left undescribed. There is a wonderful feeling when your feet have carried you from one ecotone to the next. Jubilance at reaching the Central Valley, and then seven days further, amazement and jubilance at having crossed that Valley to such a clear portal of up and over. I learned so much in the Central Valley about food and treatment of animals, about almond farming, kindness and good luck, and my marriage. This trip has been a thrill. I don't know if I will finish the fine scale writing of it before the internet and blogging has long faded away from the human scene. The walk is a sustaining life event for us. The writing has been important, and I will do more, but probably not before August as the walk gets lived, and the writing is necessarily postponed.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Big Dipper

Day 5: May 6, 2009
Route: Bear Creek Road at Happy Valley Road, into Briones Regional Park, right on Old Briones Road, to Seaborg trail (formerly Homestead Valley trail), right on Briones Crest Trail, left onto Lafayette Ridge Trail, down, down, down (with many partner ups) to Lafayette Ridge Staging Area, across Pleasant Valley Road to Acalanes Ridge Open Space – steeply up the ‘Briones to Mt. Diablo Trail’ and then down, going straight east on the Sousa trail (do not turn left on the BTMD trail) past Larkey Reservoir, eventually found the small unmarked trail that goes over a bridge and into a neighborhood that has no direct route out of it towards the Bart Station. Headed northwest for a mile to Alvarado, then right in the opposite direction on Buena Vista to the Walnut Creek BART station.
Mileage: 8.8 miles
Flora and Fauna: Sticky monkey flower, Lazuli bunting, poison hemlock, Nuttall’s woodpecker, vetch, spotted towhee, acorn woodpecker, California sage.
Logistics: We were staying with Steve’s cousin Cindy and her husband Peter and their son Matthew in their great digs in Rockridge in Oakland. Peter drove us to the Briones trailhead in the AM and we took BART back to the Rockridge station and walked back to their house in the afternoon. We then got our car, drove to the campground on Mt. Diablo near Rock City, set up a camp to receive us the next day, left it all by itself, and slept another night in Rockridge.
What can I say, we live in a beautiful world and this was a beautiful hike. I am so fortunate. All the numerous posts about this piecemeal trek – before and to come – hold a certainty of being dreadfully laden and perhaps dull with grateful exaltations. Each day must be named.
Every inch of Briones Regional Park is awe-inspiring –enormous oaks and bays, a perfect wedding site, Newt Hollow, at the base of the hill, lazuli buntings playing hide and seek in hillside swatches of coyote brush and poison hemlock. I notice the distinctly sharp smell of mouse pee that rides the dew-moisture of wet grasses at dawn. I know the smell from my days of hunting and trapping (benignly) the salt marsh harvest mouse. In those days we mostly caught the Western Harvest Mouse, same genus and just as good a pisser, and I wonder if this is the species I inhale with fondness this morning.
Homestead Valley
Seaborg Trail

This hike goes up the Homestead Valley to Briones Ridge, south through a short galleria of somewhat dwarfed live oak on the hard soils of the ridge, and then like a roller coaster, down and up and down and up along the length of Lafayette Ridge. Steve began making ratcheting sounds on his way up as if it were a real coaster. What looks like a fantasy poster of The Land of Make Believe with receding trails and diminutive knolls and just-so twisted oaks placed at perfect spots physically begins to wear on the hiker. One becomes sentimental about switchbacks and good principles of trail building on a ridge trail.

In a former life, employed as a field researcher on studies of the Alameda whipsnake, I had been given a set of keys that opened all of the locks on Pacific Gas and Electric gates. This allowed me to drive many private dirt roads of Alameda and Contra Costa County. I was not immune to the excitement of driving our old Jeepster Commando 4WD along these rounded and grassy Coast Range arretes and the fleeting, receding and wheeling views at those speeds held a real thrill. But to walk a ridge trail is to be center-stage in a 360-degree vista at every second; to be able to indulgently, unhurriedly and breathlessly (from exertion) capture the experience. The land makes you notice its true contours. The destination loses importance; getting somewhere is obviously not the point. The views are. Glimpses of Grizzly Peak to the southwest, Mt. Diablo due east and the Carquinez Strait and Sacramento River to the northeast were fine rewards for staying the high road.

Sticky monkey flower

Down we go

Oak galls, or baseballs in a pinch

At the base of this hill a pleasant woman named Dale Carey in a bright pink polo shirt, eighty-four years young, asked me for a tissue. She was just beginning the slope up the ridge from the parking lot. She told me that she had completed her usual walk today but found she just could not stop – it was too beautiful. I consider her happily as a good omen of the benefits of hiking throughout a life.

The knee rattling of the Lafayette Ridge trail wiped me out even though it did not take long to travel. Across Pleasant Valley Road we found the Acalanes Ridge Open Space trails. The Briones to Mt. Diablo Road at this trailhead goes straight up a very steep hill, quite unforgiving.

We had lunch at the top. I had to take my boots off as the previous descent had crushed my little toes. I was so tired, hot, foot sore and cranky. I was shaky from exhaustion, very hungry, and sunburned in places that I thought I had covered with clothing and sunscreen. I succumbed at that moment to a strong fear that my body would not be able to handle this walk, let alone the backpacking and bicycling that I planned. Was it too late for me to reclaim an acceptable form of fitness now that I had let it go for nearly fifteen years? Fifty years to celebrate but also just as many pounds to lose in order to once again experience the physical sensation of lithe.
When I get in this mood I start surveying for omens – only bad omens need apply – noting every small thing that had already gone wrong in the last few days (I ignore completely the many things that have gone so well everyday in total that enable me to take this trip). Just yesterday my appointed walk earring, a ceramic feather, shattered in the sink. This morning a key button to prevent sunburn fell off. These are the signs that I shouldn’t be doing this walk, that it lacks good portent, that in fact it is completely indulgent and vain, and considering the seriousness of the swine flu epidemic, mortality, and the vast needs of humanity and the planet, I should have never chosen such a folly. All of this of course – my repulsive lack of moral high rectitude, and its subsequent lip service to express a chaser of guilt about my purpose on earth not being very valuable to the whole of society – actually are, in fact, covering for my heart’s real desire to quit the whole damn thing because my toes hurt and I hate sweating, panting, and a fast heart beat.
I found that cashews and messages on my cell phone to answer are the cure for doubt of such a large nature. Hope returned and I thought that as California had formed me it might now do so literally, and I might look a lot better at the end of it all.
We watched a couple of acorn woodpeckers go in and out of a hole in a eucalyptus and I was reminded of a description I had read that eucalyptus forests were biologically dead places with a substantial amount of malevolent stickiness that entrapped smaller birds like brown creepers and nuthatches that visited them. I have always wanted to rebut this notion of their worthlessness in the California landscape. Here was a small piece of evidence that they did provide. Perhaps someday I will still make a study of them to see what their value may be to our native wildlife. I like the way they look. My grandfather loved to paint them. They are part and parcel of the visage of my beloved mother-state. An adoring child easily overlooks distasteful truths – even in plants.

My tiredness was not helped by the fact that after we left the Sousa Trail on its trip down to civilization we overshot the path and descended into a dead end at the bottom of a hill near a water treatment plant (I think that is what it was). We walked back up until we found a gap in a fence that led us to a bridge over a creek and then off the hill. We had to walk about a mile and half indirectly to our seat on a BART car and our trip back to Oakland.

Acalanes Ridge Open Space

Saturday, June 20, 2009

This Must Be an Isthmus

Day Four: April 5, 2009
Route: From Inspiration Point in Tilden Park (near Wildcat Canyon Road) down the east side of the Berkeley hills following EBMUD (East Bay Municipal Utility District – the water company) trails down to and across San Pablo Dam Road to EBMUD’s Old San Pablo Trail, then south to the Oursan trail which climbs the San Pablo Dam, and then south east on the Bear Creek Trail that runs the length of the Briones Reservoir, out to Big Bear Rd just short of the Briones Regional Park entrance.
Mileage: 6.5 miles
Flora and Fauna: Lesser goldfinch, elderberry, brown creeper, white-breasted nuthatch, Indian warrior (spectacular multi-flowered red club, related to Indian paintbrush), chinese houses, cliff swallow, white pelicans, western bluebird, Cooper’s hawk, California quail, starlings, white alder, Wilson’s warbler, bracken, five-finger fern, western sword fern, California polypody (an odd and delightful name for a fern) and trillium.
Logistics: You can get an EBMUD permit on-line – highly recommended for beautiful, under-used trails. We drove our car to a proposed ending spot that was about six miles further from where we actually finished. The nice spouse of an EBMUD employee that had jogged past our slowing bodies with a double stroller full of child drove us in his van, with one kid strapped in, staring at odd strangers, from Bear Creek Rd./Happy Valley Rd. back to our friend’s car at San Pablo Dam Road. We then fetched our badly placed distant vehicle and these two cars drove back to Oakland.
Out of Sight

Oaks and trillium
This walk can be summed up with the word fantastic. There is no finer thing than an EBMUD permit for obtaining empty trails with beautiful views, water-shine glimpses of reservoirs, and great pockets of plants and happy animals taking advantage of them. Leaving Grand Central Station at Inspiration Point’s parking lot you tend to look over your shoulder to make sure no one notices your disappearance over the wrong side of the hill – through a discreet and probably intentionally shabby cattle gate. What you lose in San Francisco Bay views you gain in peace and beauty and quiet.
These are not pristine trails or hills, they have been worked for years by cattle, invaded by non-native plants, homesteaded, logged, and prior to all of that regularly burned by Native Americans to promote wildflower bulb growth as a source of food. The wide fire trails are ankle hurdles because of the depth of muddy cow hoof depressions. High spots on these road-trails are shiny hardpan and support only those invasives tough enough; tiny erodium with its magenta flower, roadside mustard and delicate chickweed find a home here.
It is so Spring. The impossibly dense layers of the evergreen forest of coast live oak, bay laurel and madrone are pumping out new growth, red and green. Maples are coming out in a preposterous lime color. Poison oak is beginning to leaf and I hear it calling me to make one slight mistake at its most potent time. The forest here on the eastern and northern slopes is so robust at this moment that I feel an impact, a dull press against my chest and a distortion of closeness that is quite amazing. This day is a day of polarized eyesight, the greens unreal, the blue sky so dark, and the light so crisp.
New Territory
My husband Steve Evans has joined me for the walk today, and has declared his intention to accompany me for the entire length of the walk across California. How grand is that? We head steeply down past a curve of arching trees above pockets of rich soil covered in miner’s lettuce and poppy. At the bottom we spy lounging cattle in a stream bed –too much mud here now from all of their visits. We cross San Pablo Dam Road and find a connection to the Old San Pablo Trail and head south. This is a beautiful trail along a nearly invisible stream, its view blocked by a wall of alder and willow. My first migratory warbler of the year, a Wilson’s warbler, draws our attention with its bright yellow body and little black beret.

Our reverie is interrupted by a cell phone call from my good friend, another mompadre, Bobbie Lewis. She is wondering if we can meet her at the interim trailhead to borrow our ATM card to get cash for a bike she wishes to purchase that day at a swap meet. She would pay us back at a more convenient time that evening. She had gone to the swap meet in the early morning and planned to meet us at the trailhead to join us for the reservoir walks. Bobbie had figured it would be more time-efficient than getting her own cash from her bank back in Berkeley. We acquiesced to this weird form of efficiency, marveling at the notion of giving out our pin number, but were later called back and informed that the transaction would instead occur the next morning at 6AM before work. Bobbie is the most multi-tasking human I know, necessarily skilled at it; the trait seems to be required of an independent acupuncturist and single mother. Her full life matches her effervescence and energy and we knew she would be a great companion.
We three meet and walk up the perfectly engineered slope of San Pablo Dam. At the top of the dam we watch Cliff Swallows for about ten minutes, such an incredible flight display. The trail then follows along the south side of Briones reservoir. You go around coves full of trees and sticky-monkey-flower bushes.
This is a gorgeous trail that takes you out a peninsula that juts into the reservoir but refuses you access to the point (the trail is verboten, don’t know why). There is a bench at one spot where you can see all the way to the east and the west end of the reservoir. We stopped at this spot; this pseudo-isthmus, and all commented that we could not believe that we had never done this walk before.

Indian Warrior

At this not-even-half-way point I was feeling very tired. In the coolth of Washington I would easily walk six miles in a couple of hours on not very steep local trails. I had plotted out a course for the day that I thought would be a simple combo of two little walks, one of seven miles in the morning, and one of seven miles in the afternoon. I had been buoyed by the ease of my walk from the bay to Tilden and foresaw no problems. Well here it was almost 1PM, we had already eaten our lunch at the isthmus, and we still had approximately eight miles to go to reach that distant car in Lafayette. I have to admit I was really out of shape. Bobbie was not as winded as us and she had hoped for a more challenging walk but she went along with our truncated plan to quit at Bear Creek Rd, and for one of us to hitch a ride back to her car at SP Dam Rd.
Steve began talking to a man pushing a double stroller complete with twins along the dirt road where the single-track widened. Steve started up what would become a trademark schpiel for him. “This person here is Monica Fletcher, and for her fiftieth birthday she is walking across the width of California,” he would declare. I would wince, and then he would wait for some sort of interested response to further discuss our plans. This was a very odd thing to bear. I didn’t look like a trekker, I carried a small lunch backpack, my face was red from the heat, I was overweight, and yet I had just been presented as if a celebrity or an athlete. I felt like I was on a litter being carried amongst my people and heralded by this guy in a dirty yellow hat and a pair of binoculars around his neck.
But Steve undoubtedly had a plan. We were nearing the end of this leg of the trail and after our chat this nice man agreed to give us all a lift to Bobbie’s car. We walked with him to his home, a house provided by EBMUD as a portion of recompense for his wife’s job at the utility. Here he dropped off one of the twins with his wife (who regularly runs the ten mile Oursan trail to work, no slouch like us) and took us back down the four plus miles to Bobbie’s car.

Isthmus of Briones looking East

Old friends

When I conceived of this project so long ago –when I decided that this was the year I would do it –I never really bothered to consider the logistics of the thing. I never had a thought about the car use that would be necessary and its ecological effect. I had only vaguely imagined a backpack being necessary in the High Sierra. Route-finding was something someone else must have done, somewhere – only I couldn't find their info. I had pictured it as a walk alone with little distraction but wordsmithing along the route. I was finding even at this stage, on a day that resembled simply any park-user’s experience, that instead I was going to have to make my way with the use of a lot of fuel, with friends, with my husband as an accomplice, and with the help of strangers. The scope of those needs became much clearer in the far-back section of our Good Samaritan’s van. Sitting cross-legged in a rather undignified position in the cargo section with groceries around me and a baby's carseat above my head, I could not rely on such luck to always appear. I would need to plan this thing a bit better. Or at least try.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Walk in the Park

Day Three: January 31, 2009

Route:  From the Little Farm in Tilden Park, near Kensington, along Laurel Grove trail, taking left fork, to Peak Trail to Wildcat Peak through the Rotary Peace Grove, along Nimitz Way south to Inspiration Point.

Mileage: Three and a half miles progress on the walk, six miles for the whole loop.

Flora and Fauna: Bushtit, golden-crowned sparrow, sage, oceanspray, big leaf maple, poison oak and wild oat.

Logistics: A simple walk and return to the same spot, a loop, following down from the ridge along the Curran and Wildcat Gorge trail backs to the Little Farm and my car. 


This walk was just a normal walk, one that I have done many times from the age of eight until the present.  Mel Adamson, an old friend and co-mom-padre, accompanied me.  Her friendship with me stretches back through our times raising our only-daughters from when they were under two.  She is a painter and teacher of landscape, plein-air and domestic, with a penchant for clouds and dams.  She is one of the most effortless walkers I know.  It was a new model for me to have company on my walk.  Mel had at one point hoped to be with me on the whole walk in celebration of her fiftieth birthday but it was not to be. After that disappointment I figured I would somehow be just walking alone, reminiscing at will, taking notes when winded with an excuse to rest frequently.   Both of us were quite familiar with the day’s route, she had grown up in Berkeley unaware of my proximity in Kensington and yet our lives have followed similar paths and sensibilities.  We would have a chance to catch up on each other’s lives on this day.  I took no notes.

My memory though has a horde of impressions of this place. In general these hills are so familiar as to be difficult to describe–like trying to see your own face in that of your child’s.  This is where, wordlessly and without study, my Nature Girl self came into life.  Countless picnics, Easter egg hunts, birthdays, pony rides, merry-go-round rides, baseball games in Big Meadow – the human events – would falter long enough to allow forays into the poison oak for lost balls, trail hikes while boring adults prattled on around the picnic table, Wildcat creek explorations below Jewel Lake, attempts at making rafts, cave climbing behind the Merry Go Round when its child-charms grew less capable of producing excitement.  

The increased independence of later elementary school provided hours of time in Tilden Park.  I much preferred this long route home than the latchkey life I would have had.  Importantly, I learned to be happily alone here.  To lie in the grass with my eyes closed, listening, sometimes falling asleep.  To attend long enough to bird calls to learn them.  To crawl into shrubs to get the perspective of a rabbit.  One of my favorite sounds is a prop plane flying overhead – a summer heat memory, a post-picnic, belly-full, lying prone in dried grass memory – a sound that evokes this place and that time without fail.

I could go on and on.   Mel and I have discovered that we had a similar response to episodes of angst brought on by family problems, friend or boy problems etc. while growing up in this park-ringed East Bay.  Both she and I would leave our houses and run and run and run until we dropped from pain or exhaustion.  Later in life my coping skills have run more toward the kitchen cupboard or refrigerator, but Mel still runs, more sanely, for stress reduction.  But for both of us, the green backdrop, whether on city streets lined with trees or here in the regional parks, offered reliable solace for most of what ailed us.  I will declare here that I feel safest in nature.  To me there is no more comforting or reassuring a sensation of peace and safety than that of breaking a spider web strung across a trail as you pass.  That means you are alone, and all that is the world, that buzzes, that flies, that walks, is well.

We hike up lovely Laurel Canyon until it forks with a trail connecting to Wildcat Peak, where the Rotary had the audacity to build a circular platform of stone on its pinnacle.  Intended, I suppose, to call attention to the Rotary Peace Grove on the flanks of the peak this mini-lithic monument was a key landmark for kid games, especially during the Tolkien-mad era, and was known by my brother’s gang as Weathertop.  Behind it are the remnants of one of the old Nike Base beads in the nuclear necklace system that ringed the SF Bay.  Giving off the stale air of an Egyptian tomb, kids would sneak down the steps to the metal-shuttered bays that had once held rockets that were readied to intercept incoming missiles from Russia.  Though very familiar as a play stage to us I don’t believe I ever made the connection between our duck-and-cover drills at school and these vestiges of an early version of Star Wars defense. 

We then joined the two-legged, two-wheeled, wheelchair and stroller highway that is the Nimitz Way.  This paved, accessible former road to the Nike Base (and a small town that serviced it) is so popular on weekends as to seem utterly downtownish.  If you have a place in your heart for people, lots of people, engaging in a local and outdoorsy nod to the concept of a true promenade, it can be quite an enjoyable multi-generational walk with spectacular views.  We often would come here with my father-in-law in a wheelchair and treasured the opportunity to cover ground in such a beautiful viewshed.  

Mel and I veered back down to the canyon floor, along Wildcat Gorge and its almost obscured view of the cave wall, and its glorious meld of rock, water and oak, past the Big Meadow playing field, and back to the Little Farm parking area.