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May 01, 2005

Tomales Point

Last year we put in a back patio, two tons of red flagstone we hauled by hand from the driveway into the backyard. We laid it on a bed of bay sand. We wanted thyme between the flags, but the sand had too much salt in it for planting. It sat fallow all winter, rain after rain pooling on the sandstone, trickling into the soil below.

Today I pulled the foot-high weeds, slipped thyme into the washed sand. Sun reddened my shoulders.

Two weeks ago I walked out to Tomales Point. It was a nine mile hike. I had no water. I had wrongly remembered a faucet at the trailhead, then told myself I'd only hike until I was thirsty, then head back. With no water, there was no reason to carry a backpack. I ended up going the whole distance, turning around only when I got to the deep sand at the approach to the point.

The douglas iris were a field of purple flags. I held my hiking stick above my head to walk through the bush lupines, carrying it like a gun across a flood.

Tomales Point is a preserve for tule elk. The smallest elk species in North America, they are still formidable. I was the first person on the Point that Monday morning, and they had not yet become disgusted with the crowds. We regarded one another.

Turkey vultures hung on thermals off Tomales Bay, swiveled slowly on the wind. Northern harrier careered just above the tips of the grasses. I remembered something I'd written after my last visit to the point, tried to reconstruct it in my mind.

These hills bear predators fluid and tawn
with shapes defined by our desires.
Their prey is mean.
It stamps holes in the soft earth, snorts.
Round up the children! The herd enfolds
and folds again upon itself,
safe in a knot of fur and hoof and horn.

And likewise fur and nail retreat to homes
beneath the tattered, browning iris.
The languid harrier's talon shall not clasp
and though the coyote dig and dig
this maze of runs is too complex.
Old pathways, not used in a dozen years
will open up, will beckon
that whiskered claws may scurry safe from harm.

And I.
And I see none of this.
The clouds are whipping past too furious.
The buckwheat pushes dry stems in my back.
Rocks scrape along the fault
a million years in transit
for a moment they rest, poking at my calf.
Wind off Kamchatka stirs my hair.
And I see none of this
held by irises compelling brown.

That last visit was an unpleasant one, full of conversations the memories of which I have fought to lose, and a long, uncomfortable drive home, a week of self-recrimination to follow. Hiking, I realized my pace had quickened. Back to thinking about Joshua trees for you, Clarke. Relax. Now. Does the subspecies chapter come after or before the packrat chapter? How to handle the whole issue of taxonomy? There must be a way to introduce dichotomous branching without sending every last reader into a deep, fitful sleep troubled by dreams of dull desert lizards.

beneath the tattered, browning iris...
Wind off Kamchatka stirs my hair.

I sat for a while among the shoulder-high lupines at the Point. Painted lady butterflies alighted on the blossoms, launched themselves across the bay to Bodega Head.

Walking back, a thin thirst film on teeth and tongue, I recognized a low outcrop overgrown with iris and California buckwheat. We sat there, then, before the conversation turned. We'd shared a sandwich and an apple. Pass it by, I told myself, pass it by. No need to walllow in old memories.

I walked until the rock passed from my sight, then turned, not entirely of my own volition. This is a bad idea, I reminded myself, walking to where we'd sat that day.

The elk had lain there that morning. Great trampled grass circles showed where each had bedded down. I saw two dozen circles. Stems stretched slowly back toward the sun, prodigious turds steaming against the warm air.

I laughed, low at first and then in gales. The surf was louder, waves washing up on Driftwood Beach a quarter mile away, four hundred feet below. I wondered where she was.

Out in the middle of that ocean there are animals, colonial medusoids like men-of-war, but smaller. Their stingers would not hurt you unless you put them in your eye. They live in the mid-Pacific gyre, in the lee of the ocean winds, eating copepods and tiny fish. They grow chitinous cellophane sails an inch high; the winds drive them. They are called "by-the-wind sailors." They land wherever they happen to land. The beaches here are full of their wrack, sheaves of bleached transparent chitin tumbled in the wet salt sand.

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chris, i love when you write like this - i was seeing the walk, the memories through your eyes.

Posted by: Anne at May 2, 2005 08:42 AM
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It sounds like an excellent hike, even if you did have to go for nine miles without water.

Posted by: sya at May 2, 2005 09:28 AM
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Memories are hard to resist and harder still to fight. I understand the temptation and the battle. And the bitter, slow regard and release.

Posted by: NoIvory at May 2, 2005 10:09 AM
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