Time flies when you’re not having fun, too. I was walking my old dog around the Redwood Bowl in the Oakland hills last spring when a conversation began with one of those serious solo trail runners. Did I know that a chain of natural parks and trails connected the East Bay hills from Richmond all the way south to Castro Valley?
I did not. I knew San Francisco, but only from a 1990s urban existence: broken-glass sidewalks, rickety MUNI trains and electric buses, an occasional romantic cable car ride to an occasional office job. Now I lived in the East Bay, those green hills almost always in sight. Regular daylong hikes would become my new habit. And that was the solemn pledge I made to myself in Redwood Regional Park, on that May afternoon of 2013.
Three seasons quickly passed in the East Bay, seasons of dull work, rushed walks, and the death of that beloved old dog. Finally, I announced to my household that an upcoming Saturday was mine alone, work and kids and TurboTax be damned. It was time to walk a dozen miles down the ridgeline.
It was 11 a.m. before my drop-off at Skyline Gate, high in the Oakland Hills, already too late for a long haul. The small parking lot was full and people were everywhere, checking their fitness monitors and adjusting their sporting costumes. But within minutes of heading down the Creek Trail, the mild clamor was forgotten and humans were in delightfully short supply. A mile or so south, small pools along the creek were busy with tiny fish. Were they “fingerlings,” the comically named babies of the local rainbow trout? If the signs warning people to keep their dogs away from the creek can be believed, these small fish were indeed young trout.
Trout. The perfect campfire meal on the West Coast, especially if caught by a member of your party who knows how to do such things. I had neglected to pack a lunch, or eat a decent breakfast. Now, approaching lunchtime, thoughts turned to trout, and beer.
My daypack—actually my wife’s daypack because I don’t like the things and generally avoid carrying a burden on the trail—held a steel bottle of water, a couple of apples, and a half-filled sandwich bag of “trail mix” from the Trader Joe’s. After my first stop, in a lovely little meadow with a single picnic table and thin young redwoods protected by wire caging, I still had one apple. Just 10 miles to go!
There are bigger redwoods here, too, mostly “third growth” trees, still beautiful and ancient in design, if nowhere near the size of the great redwoods used to build the region’s sturdy houses. The Gold Rush construction of San Francisco took the first growth; East Bay neighborhoods and post-1906 quake rebuilding took the second, including the massive stumps left from the old growth forest. Today’s century-old trees are the result of foresight, as is the whole of the East Bay Regional Parks District. Consider this tersely elegant description of community and conservation from the district’s website:
Our story begins in 1934, during the heart of the Great Depression, when a group of public-spirited citizens organized a campaign to tax themselves. Their goal was to preserve valuable open space for future parkland. This visionary effort created the East Bay Regional Park District.
When I arrived at my current home, a year ago now, the landlord’s final renovation was in progress: an ornate paint job in the Victorian style. But for a few days, I saw the thick redwood planks stripped and cleaned, the way they looked 140 years ago when the house was built. Not until the American Craftsman period of residential architecture would such beautiful wood be allowed to show its true coloring, and by then these nearby ancient forests had been mostly cleared.
The trails are well maintained here, but with the charm of age, the rustic hand-built beauty of split-rail fences protecting the creek, old camp structures in modest imitation of the National Park lodge style of stone and wood. Volunteers, both organized and random, tend to pick up the trash dropped by less civic-minded visitors. Only the neon-colored strips of ribbon from this or that tree offend the eyes.
And then, the runners. A current fad is the organized trail run, with its most vulgar variation the the “extreme” group run with its various hurdles and obstacles such as open shipping containers full of ice and mud and garbage. The trail runners now huffing and puffing in my direction have paid a private company for permission to run on these public trails. (The company pays event fees to the park district, but still.) The ribbons are visual shorthand to point the participants away from wrong turns, dead ends, sheer cliffs.
These runners are not troubled by basic trail manners. They’re barreling down and I’m trudging up, yet they just come right at me, expecting me to vanish so they can make good time on their paid amusement. Being generally polite, I step aside a dozen times without so much as a nod or grunt of thanks. Fine, then. For the next half mile, the rude runners are baffled as I simply continue my walk up the narrow trail. They have no idea what to do. One red-faced junior-partner type veers suddenly into a small stand of eucalyptus trees, where he remains for some time, unsure of what happened. “In the zone,” I guess.
For now I have left the redwoods behind, out of that particular foggy accident of San Francisco Bay geography that allows the coastal giants to grow many miles inland, thanks to the rush of cool humid air sucked into this little mountain nook by the infernal temperatures of California’s Central Valley. As in so much of the state, the eucalyptus has thrived in these drier hills where grand oaks once reigned. Fast growing and filled with oily fuel, these introduced immigrants from Australia fed the Oakland hills inferno of 1991.
Removal of eucalyptus in these fire-prone canyons has become a huge controversy, in the usual way of a handful of “skeptics” fighting the parks district, native-plant biologists, UC Berkeley forest management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists, and the disaster contingency people at FEMA. The skeptics are correct to note that humans have drastically altered much of what we consider “nature,” and entirely wrong to oppose the removal of volatile invasive species when removal is so literally “clearcut.”
The appearance of a sudden variety of humans announces an upcoming intersection of trail and automobile parking lot. I’ve never seen this little picnic area and playground, in a larger meadow with barbecue grills secured to the ground. It seems perfectly pleasant, with families losing their toddlers and a nature “craft” trail that encourages kids to pick up sticks and rocks and add them to the trail borders throughout the little maze. I am pleasantly surprised by this, because I know the way kids are routinely scorned by park rangers for the sin of touching anything in a semi-natural area. It’s one reason kids cannot stand to go to national parks, this near certainty that some Dean Wormer/Dolores Umbridge in a smokey bear hat will un-magically appear whenever a child looks at a pine cone with the wrong intent.
But a park is not a park without some charmless public employee trying to bum you out, so when I exit the clean and well-maintained men’s room conveniently located by the parking spaces, a woman in an unmarked economy car is idling outside, glaring up at me through her rolled-down window.
“Did you remove the barricades?!”
I look to either side, my usual automatic gesture when a crazy person has clearly mistaken me for someone who wants to engage with a crazy person.
She adds a fiery “I work here!” because how else would I know? Another anonymous slob yelling out of a car window, etc.
Glancing behind me, I see one of those folding “closed for cleaning” signs tucked behind a garbage can along the side of the building. Maybe that’s what she means? In any case, no barricades were removed on my watch.
“That ribbon,” she barks out, pointing out of the car window. There is a short length of yellow ribbon of the crime-scene variety caught up in the high branches of a tree near the little building. At this point there’s nothing to do but walk away, walk away before she gets out and tries to kill me for whatever crime. Imagine going through life thinking the word “barricades” means a bit of yellow ribbon fluttering from a treetop.
More fee-based trail runners impede my southward progress, and I’m beginning to develop a bad attitude. Just then, a trail junction confuses me—it’s going in the wrong direction, although there’s a possibility of a switchback beyond my line of sight. And there’s a road with traffic nearby, too.
Down below, I hear the whine of those idiotic street motorcycles that cretins enjoy racing up and down a curvy road on weekends. Long ago, when I was a beat reporter covering Camp Pendleton, a couple of young dumb Marines would kill themselves on the winding two-lane up to Mount Palomar most every weekend. “Had to go scrape a few jarheads off the pavement,” the CHP press officer would say before insisting (again) that the colorful description was completely off the record.
It’s a good time to finally consult the map on my phone. And …. “no service,” continuing my 100 percent success rate in getting “no service” when I need an assist. Well, the glory of hiking the urban-wildland interface is that you’re never far from cell-phone service, never far from a bus stop or—should all dignity be lost—an Uber pickup.
The source of the shrill and incredibly loud street motorcycles is now just below me. The switchback appears, there’s a split in the trail that gets me away from another panting group of fee-based running event enthusiasts, and then I’m dodging cars to reach the trailhead across the road. The traffic fades, and there’s nothing but the rumble of an occasional Southwest jet taking off from Oakland Airport to remind me how close this is to a sprawling metropolis of 7 million souls.
Marching up an eroded fire trail in full sun, I’m getting hot and I’m getting tired. What is this, mile six? Many hallowed names for this crossroads of trails, according the the marker poles: Golden Spike Trail, Goldenrod Trail, Ridgeline, USA something-or-other, East Bay this, SF Bay that. It’s oak and chaparral now, manzanita on the slopes, a half-dozen turkey vultures doing lazy circles above me.
I take a rest when a shaded park bench appears, a vista of greenery as far as I can see to the north and the east, a second tree-topped ridge hiding the dried-up hills and sprawl beyond. What wisdom these park planners had! A half-century before the Bay Area would attempt to jump the mountains, the whole green line was preserved, with the water agencies expanding the green to protect the watershed. A greenbelt long before the word became known to urban planners in Portland, Oregon, and long before the land-rapists and other market forces tried to make it a dirty word. The giant redwoods that once served as navigation aides for ships approaching the Golden Gate were chopped down a century and a half ago, but that green ridgeline remains. And most of the urban East Bay remains woefully underdeveloped, lousy with half-acre lots of stucco boxes and five cars parked outside. There is no shortage of space for infill development in the Bay Area, no reason for families to be driven halfway to Sacramento in search of an affordable house.
Back on the high ground, I hit my stride. The morning humidity has burned off but the breeze remains. The sky is a perfect blue here, no visible reminder of the flatland haze, and from a gnarled old oak some 20 feet off the trail, I hear an owl hoot. This heard-but-not-seen avian pal is added to my list for the day: woodpeckers, buzzards, mallards, red-tail hawks, Stellar’s jays, hummingbirds, and scores of little brown dinosaurs I cannot identify by name. I lack the patience for “birding” and have never been tempted to stand in the brush looking at one of these critters through binoculars. It’s the whole of the walk that matters, and I reserve my limited knowledge of flora and fauna to avoid stepping on rattlesnakes or sleeping in poison oak.
To take a long day’s hike is to walk through many human communities, too. Crossing invisible lines between Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and from Oakland to San Leandro, the people change. Now I see young moms pushing off-road baby buggies, older men walking golden retrievers, packs of mountain bikers politely slowing down as they glide past the hiker with his walking stick and stupid-looking “Outdoor Research” sun hat.
For many years, I had a sun hat I loved and wore daily on my desert walks: the dry-weather version of the “Seattle Sombrero.” But I left it on a bus in San Diego County, just over a year ago. The tide had come in and scuttled my plans to walk the beach from Scripps to Del Mar. Sweating on the hot bus, I set the hat on the seat beside me and neglected to pick it up. The lesson here is to buy three of anything you wear every day, because as soon as your old one falls apart or gets lost, you’ll learn it’s no longer manufactured.
My hatred of golf courses instantly returns when my trail—my trail—abuts the sickly green expanse of a golfing lawn. An obscene sign now warns me to be alert for motorized golf carts. But the horror passes quickly, with only a few distant humans in comical clothing visible on the “links.” Downhill now, and what is that glimmer in the distance? Water! A reservoir, in fact. Lake Chabot.
Looking at Google Maps the previous night, I sought as always an oasis for my end point. Oysters and Lagunitas on tap, that’s what I had in mind. The “marina restaurant” at the southern tip of Lake Chabot sounded promising. One of the constant joys of Northern California is how you can stumble into some random and ramshackle diner on a country road and be dazzled and refreshed by the local food and drink. This is what motivated me, during the last two miles, with my hips beginning to ache and my phone long out of juice. I am no fan of power boating, but a restaurant on the docks would surely have a bar. That’s 90 percent of the power-boating life, anyway: sitting at the bar, looking out at the docks, trying to forget about the engine overhaul or hull scraping or whatever money-gulping maintenance your boat requires next.
I heard no screeching engines, and the only watercraft I saw were brightly colored rental kayaks. The shoreline of this reservoir at the end of San Leandro Creek was, in fact, beautiful. Sitting by the water for my last rest, I watched an enormous great blue heron fly past at eye level. And then the joggers and dog-walkers and baby-pushers appeared again, the hiker’s early warning sign of parking lots and littering. Over the dam—a dam I will not damn because I use that water, too—and around the shore. Families with fishing poles, kids chasing the geese, a polycultural scene of dreadlocked dads, moms yelling in Spanish to their kids playing Angry Birds, women in headscarves walking alongside women in bikini tops, the usual California mix of couples and families: Asian, Latino, Russian, Indian, black and brown and white. The weather is perfect, the paddle boats move slowly back to the docks as the afternoon fades.
The restaurant and bar I’ve been imagining, however, does not exist. There’s a sandwich counter and the place to get your fishing license or rent a boat, and the reach-in drink cooler has nothing resembling beer. After a dozen miles, I can wait another hour for cocktail hour. I use the payphone to call my family and request assistance. The time passes quickly, because I fall asleep on the lawn, my dumb hat over my eyes. In the morning I’ll be hobbling around as I always do after a no-preparation daylong walk, but it’s a minor cost.
Ken Layne is the editor of Greenfriar.