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Creek Running North

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September 06, 2004

Ground Squirrels

Ann Zwinger once said that nature writers always carry thermometers. Then again, Ann Zwinger also maintains that nature writers eschew the first person singular pronoun. As much as I love her writing, I suspect none of it is meant to apply to me. I prattle endlessly about myself, and I have no thermometer with me. I don't know precisely how hot it is on the trail.

But it's warm. It was 95 in Pinole when I left the house, and I'm now significantly further from the bay breezes. I'd guess close to, or just over, 100 degrees.

I'd meant to ramble quickly on Mount Wanda, commune with the ghost of its old landlord. But Mount Wanda was closed. Extreme Fire Danger. Logically, then, the thing to do was to proceed inland to a larger, more remote, brushier and less-well-maintained area with fewer emergency services and hike there. Hence my standing here on a crest at the north end of Briones Park.

It was a new trail to me, despite my having hiked here for twenty years. I've always come in from the other side of the park, over by Bear Valley. This one was a nice way to get me here: half a mile of dusty fire road in a sunny valley, a hot wind that sucks the moisture from your body, ground squirrels literally high-tailing it away for three hundred yards, and then into the oak-bay forest on a road that gains you 1000 feet in another three-quarters of a mile. There was one point, breathing hard and hoping the minor chest pains were from that fourth coffee today, that I decided I thought it not a bad place at all to drop dead. Tall live oak branches pleaching over the trail, sun-warmed scent of bay laurel, native grape leaves turning red from the edges inward and blowing around in the dust. Becky would have mourned, and I'd have spooken the trail horses, and some good Samaritan would have hauled me out on this hot day and died of heatstroke. So I didn't die. But I'd be glad to have that be the last thing I see when I do.

A few hundred feet higher, and a few hundred below me now, are the Sindicich Lagoons. There are newts there, buried in the soil and estivating, waiting for the first good weeks of rain. Then they will come out of their hidey holes, topple down to the ponds, and mate. All I saw there today was a cow dog gamely keeping up with his human pals.

From my vantage point on this high bench, I see the dog: a gray dot against the khaki hillside. Beyond him, the canyon through which I climbed. Beyond that, Martinez, and Suisun Bay with its mothballed fleet, and Solano and Yolo counties. I finally have a breeze at my sweaty back, coming from San Francisco Bay over the distant Oakland Hills. It may be 100 degrees, but it's probably only 90 with the wind chill.

I turn and face into the wind. Barn swallows surf the pressure ridge over the knife-edge crest I'm sitting on. They are gleeful, exuberant. I laugh almost involuntarily.

A collection of hills I have hiked over the last two decades is arrayed before me on the horizon: Grizzly Peak, the Miocene volcanics of Round Top, Redwood Peak and its fringing eponymous trees. I can close my eyes, point a finger at any spot before me, open my eyes and call to mind a story about hiking there. This valley before me is a bowl that holds half my life.

My water is half gone, so I'll go no further. I'll soon head back down the hill, passing uphill hikers, redtail hawks, and more groundsquirrels out to see whether the afternoon air has cooled at all.

But for now, for just a few more minutes, I'll stay - kick my toe in the hot dust, watch the baby fence lizards seeking what little shade the star thistle at my feet provides.

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 6, 2004 08:34 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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good lord it sounds hot. you can nearly smell the heat rising from the dusty trail. an unexpected breeze is a blessing isn't it? good words!

Posted by: Anne at September 7, 2004 10:25 AM
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Beautiful post, Chris. I especially liked that little, enormous phrase about the valley being the bowl that held half of your life. Quite a thing, that.

Posted by: beth at September 10, 2004 10:03 AM
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