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.