Up and Down the Devil’s Mountain

There is no snow in Hollywood. There is no rain in California. There are seasons: fog season and fire season are the two big ones. I have heard tell of a rainy season, but I have yet to see it.

Right now it is wildflower season, and so I went to Mount Diablo, hard-hit by last year’s fire season, to see what I could see. 

firescarred

More than 3,000 acres were scorched last fall on Mount Diablo, when a target shooter ignited the blaze on a hot, dry day. The fire was quickly contained and no homes were lost.

Where I grew up, we also had a fire season. In the prairies, fires are essential to maintaining the land’s health. Before agriculture took hold in Iowa, lightning usually did the honors. These days, the locals handle it.

I spent many childhood springs and summers at prairie burns—where, after digging a ditch and settling sandbags along the perimeter, someone would light up the field, and we’d stand around, holding hoses and watching the flames to make sure the fire didn’t get out of control and jump the perimeter.

Prairie burns get rid of leaf clutter, helping new plants to grow. The fires also suppress weeds and invasive species; the ash provides a bed of nutrients. The prairie grows back stronger and better after a fire. Everyone knows that.

Wildfires out here aren’t that simple, and California’s fire season isn’t a series of controlled burns. But the benefits to the soil after a fire are true most anywhere, and are the motivator for the slash-and-burn tactics in the Amazon. Even though there wasn’t much rain this winter (or last winter, either), surely there would be some blooms.

yellow view

Like a lot of native flatlanders, I am uncomfortable in places where I can’t see enough of the sky. Not miserable, just … slightly itchy. But most places that aren’t rural Iowa don’t have enough sky, whether my view is blocked by apartment buildings, forests, or mountains. The view from top of a mountain, though, like that from the roof of a tall apartment building, will do in a pinch.

view of sf

Mount Diablo is close—the summit’s about an hour’s drive from Oakland. At the gate, they only take cash: $10 for vehicles, and another $6 for a map. Since I was robbed at gunpoint last year, I don’t carry much cash; when I pulled up to the gate, I was carrying $3, and went right back down to the Danville post office, an adorable little cottage that overlooks what appears to be a fabulously wealthy country club. The lovely clerk—there is no creature more omniscient or benign than the clerk at a small post office—gave me cash back on a purchase of stamps, and I was on my way.

Once inside the park, you can hike six-ish miles from Curry Point to the top, or you can simply continue driving. In the summers, apparently, it is too hot to enjoy the hike. I am merely lazy; I drove.

At the summit, about 3,800 feet up, there’s an observation deck and visitor’s center, along with a lot of elderly tourists and families. Many of the toilets are turned off now, because of the drought. But there are toilets, not just outhouses.

Just below, the Mary Bowerman trail loops around the summit, a very easy hike that’s under a mile. As I was walking it, a group of hikers who’d evidently climbed up the Curry Point trail appeared.

“Can you believe it?” one of them said. “Some people just cheat and drive up here.”

lizard

Birds circled the rock formations, and every so often, I’d notice skittering in the bushes. While Mount Diablo is home to tarantulas, scorpions, coyotes, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes, what I saw was mainly birds and lizards. Specifically, the Coast Range Fence Lizard.

These little dudes are pretty common from Oregon to Baja California. They appear to like altitude, and are found on rocky outcroppings on mountains. While I was noticing that about 3,000 feet above sea level, I wasn’t getting quite enough air, these lizards love climbing. In March, they’ve generally come out of hibernation to mate, with the males climbing on top of things to display, and the females huddled under rocks, rolling their eyes. The females will rebuff all advances until they’re good and ready.

lizard 2

The lizard was near the edge of the burn. Black tangles of branches dotted the Bowerman trail, but near the roots of the burned husks, green shoots were pushing up toward the sun. Some birds circled lazily on updrafts.

Sure, it was easy to see where fire had scorched the landscape, but it was hardly devoid of life. Purple wildflowers sprang from the rocks; yellow blooms, though farther between, were spattered near the burned branches. The fire had come, the fire had gone, and life was, stubbornly, continuing.

It wasn’t until the drive down that I decided I agreed with the doubtless cranky and tired hiker: I’d cheated. I dislike scrambles, particularly downhill scrambles, which look less to me like loose rocks and more like a new way to further damage my bad left ankle. I don’t breathe well at elevation. In general, I prefer flat land, the one true land, the land I grew up with.

But below the summit, there were fields and fields of the state flower, the California poppy. They didn’t grow at the summit—too high, I guess. I thought of the fields of wildflowers I hadn’t walked by.

poppy field

They grow all along the highway, if you’re looking. Doubtless there are other fields of flowers too. California is in many ways deficient: it’s hard to find Fresca out here, there are no really good thunderstorms, and the land is entirely too tall. But it’s good, in its way, to sit atop a mountain eating a lemon-poppyseed muffin on a fine spring day, and enjoy the tenacity of life.

poppy close-up


Elizabeth Lopatto is a science reporter based in Oakland, California. She recently left her post at Bloomberg News to scientifically pursue a life of freelancing, photography and hiking. Read more of her Greenfriar columns here! And subscribe to her free science newsletter! And don’t forget to go for a walk, and turn off the coffee pot, and floss.

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