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. 


Friday, June 12, 2009

The Golden Gait

Day Two: January 29, 2009
Route: From Sixth St. and University Ave in Berkeley, to Sixth St. and Cedar, and then zigzagging one block north and two blocks east repeatedly, past Solano Ave, into Albany briefly, up through the Thousand Oaks district, to the Arlington and into Kensington, taking still-extant childhood-known footpaths to the Reservoir on Grizzly Peak, and catching The Memory Trail in Tilden Park to the Little Farm.
Mileage: 5.5 miles.
Fauna and Flora: Crows, brown towhees, robins, scrub jays, verbena bonariensis, magnolia, coast live oak, house finches, squirrel and their nests in sweetgums, yellow-rumped warbler, oak titmouse, Bewick’s wren, dark-eyed junco, chestnut-backed chickadee, fox sparrow, ruby-crowned kinglet, raven, Stellar’s jays, varied thrush, bufflehead, hermit thrush, and wrentit.
Logistics: From Little Farm I walked back up to Grizzly Peak and Spruce St. and took the #67 down the hill, transferred to a #51 back down University to my car.
This walk blew away my sense of scale completely. I had grown up in Kensington looking at the view of the Bay every day. The Berkeley pier was usually distantly visible and I was convinced from that vantage point that it was very far away. I imagined this day’s walk would take many hours and require a break from the exhaustion. In less than three hours it was completed, easily, and I realize that I had a kid’s memory of the hills. In some experiential corner of my brain I still carried a kid’s reluctance to walk up hill, a kid’s desire to walk down to the Variety store for candy but the dread of the hellish punishment of walking back up to my home. The candy itself never made it all the way home and was consumed as fuel and consolation for the steep climb. This time it was easy and required no sweets.
All along the walk I cannot help but notice beautiful gardens. I see a garden with Verbena bonariensis, a five-foot tall purple pom-pom on a spindly stalk. I remember in the mid-nineties seeing some at a friend’s house, a place of good taste, strappy tenax plants in pots, and colored concrete pavers. Up until that point I had not realized that there were avant-gardens that I could not keep up with. I had been asleep at the wheel with my old-fashioned rockrose, gaura, Mexican primrose and ceanothus. Today I am sure that Verbena is as passé as my mother’s era of juniper, ivy and Mexican sage. Has anyone else noted that miniature agapanthus is IN but full-size agapanthus is archaic? One could probably date the age of the occupants of houses by what era of floral style their gardens hold.
Bird life is rich by any standard in these pleasant gardens. Mature trees and many coast live oak crowd the Berkeley flats and hills. I see a flock of crows and remember having wished to make a study of their lives but never getting around to it. As I climb further up in the hills Albany Knob accompanies me off my left shoulder. There I saw my first monarch butterfly roosts in eucalyptus. Beyond I can see the bay again, the shabby fringe of manite (Patty Donald’s word for the shore’s ubiquitous concrete chunks) that believes itself worthy to hold the water back. I love this semi-natural half-real, half-manufactured ecotone, the Emeryville mudflat sculptures of yore and the Albany Bulb homeless architecture and simpatico free art park amidst fennel, rebar and coyote brush.
There are incredible specimens of tree in the Thousand Oaks district of north Berkeley. One live oak tree on Contra Costa Avenue has limbs so huge and improbably aloft that my family referred to it as the Wow tree. Its arms were muscled brazos, its roots flowed over sidewalks and into the street (another tendency of city-planted camphor trees that I love) and its trunk was beyond belief. An appreciative and lucky neighbor had gone to the expense of hiring an arborist to wire up its many limbs in support, and the city had painted the opposite curb red in order that parked cars there would never force other cars to move too close to the tree. It should win an award, or one of those plaited massive ropes that are bestowed on heritage trees in Japan. I feel privileged to have seen this tree alive in my lifetime.
This district is graced with stone as well. Wonderfully placed lichen-laced climbing rocks (like Indian Rock) seem to personify solidity and eternity; they proclaim an ancient aesthetic that makes you breathe more deeply. They are in fact ‘outliers’ a term that gives them the role of mere pebbles thrown up and strewn by a massive landslide a thousand years ago that fell from Grizzly Peak down to the flats. This area is still an active landslide as can be evidenced in all of the cracked and twisted foundations and facades of the houses built here in the early 20th century. This is not bedrock and earthquake worriers should take note.
This day's walk is riddled with memory triggers. It skirts around friends’ houses, my daughter’s schools, the stroller and latte mecca of Solano “The Good Life” Avenue, past my sister’s first room away from home, past our own north Berkeley home of many years on The Alameda, up to Kensington.
Kensington! The memory parade is dense here as this was the stage upon which I tread–the place where I always walked. I was little and afoot. This day I had to keep in check my tendency to remember extreme forms of family dysfunction that I witnessed along these narrow dull-housed streets. I can remember with some effort the normal families that were all around, the wholesome ones, but I have to admit to remembering more vividly the stories from the households bedeviled by drink, neglect and abuse. But that’s for a different path’s description.
In what could be a contribution chapter to a sociological analysis tome called “The Last Childhood” my cohorts and I in our Kensington era were allowed to run free. We did not know the term play-date. We watched television only when it was dark. This is where I noticed nature –the argentine ants on a crushed snail, an ornamental cherry tree snowing petals that met ash rising from our backyard incinerator, an arboreal salamander in a hole with automatic sprinkler faucet controls, huge maples that were street trees, non-native, but who knew. I walked often to school along the Lake Drive Trail unaccompanied except by the aroma of warm coyote brush and mugwort, the clicking of dry poison hemlock stalks and the greeting of Sandy the horse standing in what I considered a miracle of ruralness, a pasture. On days after school when no activity was pressing I would walk, often with friends, sometimes alone, down into Wildcat Canyon, thrilling especially when the old bridge that was poorly closed off still stood, back home past Jewel Lake and up to Grizzly Peak. It was a fantastic time and twenty-five years later not one I would allow my own daughter. I lost my gumption when it came to her safety, which I fear may have only been the result of an increased reporting of danger coupled with the atomized neighborhoods that the East Bay and working parents produce. You know the story.
One of the greatest things about this childhood time was the access. Kids knew every backyard, every route. We were never told to leave because we were rarely seen going up and over fences, into trees, down into the interstices between properties. There were routes that never touched a front yard or a road. There were routes that hardly touched ground. Hide and Seek led to such an intimate knowledge of every hollow and gap that we were like animals, safe yet wary we would be found. It was physical. I had noticed while walking this day, up and up, past my home, that one does an urban walk, flowing as fast as possible across streets, into crosswalks, timing strides to make lights, looking ever for the car that might kill you. There are many moods of walking, many rhythms, but I think the child gait was by far the best. It made its progress in a series of elevation changes and detours and regroupings and it was never late.
I take my fifty-year-old self (well still forty-nine yet) up to Grizzly Peak again, past the now-roofed reservoir with its delightful frozen mid-flight seagulls to Wildcat Canyon Road, and shortly thereafter the Memory Trail, which goes along the hill to the Little Farm and the Nature Area of Tilden Park. Memory trail is well named in this instance, a dirt tour route of memories of joy–The Pony Rides, the Little Farm, the raccoons feeding in the picnic leftovers at dusk, here I collected clay, there Sharon and Annie and I had our hollowed out hobbit holes in trees slipping into Wildcat Creek. This was my playground. And it has hardly changed. Lucky it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Once Begun is Not Half Done

Day One:  January 26, 2009
Route: From the end of the Berkeley Pier, over the fairly new pedestrian bridge across I-80 to a seat outside Bette’s Ocean View Diner on Fourth Street for a latte.  Mileage: 2.6 miles.  Fauna and Flora:  Pelagic cormorant, western gull, loon, willets, scaup, canvasback, horned grebe.  Logistics:  One foot in front of the other in disbelief that this might be the beginning.  Took the #9 bus from Sixth and University back to my car at the Pier.

My first day of walking began with no intention of doing so.  We were visiting the Bay Area to be with my ailing father-in-law.  I had only intended to look for winter birds on the Berkeley Pier on a beautiful clear day.  After reaching the end of the pier I realized that this would be the spot where my walk would begin.  I had considered starting at the Emeryville mudflats, or even Kaiser hospital where I was born, but once at the end of this ‘embarkation device’ it was clear that this would be the perfect place to begin the walk.  This was a place that, like my life, was lucky enough to be embraced by the waters of the San Francisco Bay.
The striking thing about this walk –especially in these early stretches through a landscape so familiar as to seem rutted by the number of crossings I have made of it – is that the thoughts are a jumble of reminiscence with no sequence.  Each step conjures a personal history that follows no timeline.  Here was the place I saw weird fish being hauled up when I was a kid ­– fascinating enough for me to overcome my shyness and speak to any successful fisherman to ask what was in the bucket.  Here are the concrete wind-breaking benches, the cold and hard high-backed loveseats that made for private kissing booths in high school in the seventies.  Here is the marina where I fell off the dock at the age of six.  I can remember the gold green light full of specks and algae with pilings looming further away.  I want to believe there were fish. It seemed a long pleasant time in this underworld until my mildly panicked father yanked me back by my ponytail and landed me on the dock.
Memory shouts loud here and drowns out whatever new message the land might be sending me.  This spot near the restaurant was the scene of an armed robbery in a friend’s VW bug.  That green lush park there used to be the dump, its contours assisted by family contributions over many years.  In order for this account of my walk to not range into an autobiography of great length and stupefying minutiae I need to enforce some kind of structure.
I will try to stick to a path.  I will describe what I see on the walk that day, and add one or two stories that sum up my relationship to each of the major biotic zones that I am passing.  The whole point for me is to try to pin down those experiences that earned me my early nickname of Nature Girl.  I hope to trace the evolution of an addiction to witnessing and bearing witness for other fascinating forms of life that co-exist on the fringes of human drama.
How to Build a Spider Web
After strolling the pier full of families, friends, lovers, and unsuccessful fisher people I veered up over a landfill landscape planted long ago with Monterey pine and non-native shrubbery, which of late has been enhanced with native species.  I come off this fake hill to view the Shorebird Park Nature Center’s straw bale headquarters and original temporary classroom where for two years I helped with marine science programs for Bay Area kids.   
I found the Shorebird PNC’s creator Patty Donald striding back from her lunch break. Tall and thin with a stride that doesn’t need to hurry because it is so long, her wiry blonde hair gives the appearance of being windblown even when there’s not a molecule of air moving. This is a woman whose endless energy is hidden by her friendly and smiling calm personality.  She is the person who taught me all I know about effective teaching.  Definitely.  
I had read about Patty Donald’s marine science courses for California school kids in a newspaper article that promoted her Bay Interpretive Training Program for volunteers.  Not only had Patty founded the Marine Science Center on Berkeley’s land left over from the auto ferry that shut down when the Bay Bridge opened but she had developed a killer docent training program that taught her volunteers more than just facts. 
I signed up because at that point I had a high opinion of my factual knowledge of the Bay.  I had taken umpteen marine biology courses at Cal State Hayward.  I had a job gathering mud samples from a Hayward marsh, cataloguing the denizens of the muck, (how many microscopic worm parts can you identify in a day?) and had had the privilege of holding a salt marsh harvest mouse when surveying for them in a Martinez marsh edge as part of my job assisting with the preparation of Environmental Impact Reports for a consulting company.  I had so much to offer kids I thought. I was all prepared to just let my knowledge rip, deluging the young impressionables with the facts they were undoubtedly looking for.
In Donald’s formal volunteer program I learned quickly and with the gentlest guidance from Patty that my knowledge meant nothing if rotely administered in a lecture format. Through this incredible training program I learned to listen and question and wait and respect the child’s mind as well as impart a few engaging facts.  We were given the task of preparing a small informative lecture to children in under fifteen minutes. I decided to teach how a spider makes a web.  I went way over, got tangled up in my demonstration device of two sticks stuck in foam, and I am still working on this presentation to this day.  My daughter made me a set of permanent web branches in ceramic that I treasure but cannot master.  
I asked Patty how she and the program were faring.  She had recently won a local Jefferson Award for community service having been nominated by a recent crop of stunned and grateful graduates of her training.   She spoke of the numerous difficulties that emerged when the Cosco Busan spilled its oil in 2007.  In addition to the death of hundreds of diving birds, shorebirds and gulls and the fouling that required the hand cleaning of stones in the Center’s beaches she spoke of the hardship of fielding volunteers’ emotional anger and grief.  Not a pretty sight for sure, and one that I cried about in Washington state, far from the grim reality. 
To this day I use the wisdom gained from this program, but not directly in teaching.  I have more used my experience to help me fashion effective, richer, loyalty-building programs that reward volunteers.  I cannot say enough good about this program and its creator. 
Ah the Delights of Berkeley
After leaving Patty’s office I strolled along the undulating ribs of the former auto ferry approach, rounding a crescent of beach that was speckled with shell and long-legged willets, and crossed for the first time the “new” pedestrian bridge across the Nimitz freeway.  The structure is elegant, the two statues at either end way over the top in self-congratulating energy.  Rather like Berkeley itself and thus fitting. Then down past Aquatic Park, this isolated-from-its-mother bit of bay that can have the best birding on the planet in the winter.  Up past the Sake plant (that I still have never visited) to Fourth Street and its village of luxury and edibles for a latte.  Afterwards I walked up to Sixth and University and caught the bus back to my car at the pier.  I supposed it unrealistic to imagine each day of my walk being so easy on the feet.