Friday, January 29, 2016

BAY AREA ARBOREAL WONDERS: Magical Encounters / Spiritual Appointments with Our Beloved Old Acquaintances

“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”
(Henry David Thoreau)

Mythic Manzanita @ Morgan Territory
What nature lover worth their salt doesn't count a friend, many friends, in fact, among the great and small trees found in the forests, backyards and parks of the Bay Area. Whether a sweet-scented Brugmansia in your back yard; a towering Redwood in Muir Woods; a magnificent Mama Madrone at Mount Diablo; a tentacled California Buckeye starkly exposed on a hillside ravine; stunted remnant Apple, Plum, Pear and Cherry trees from an old homesteader's orchard; or a monstrously twisted Oak on yonder ridge, it's always special, always a joyful encounter, and always worth tramping eight or ten miles (or just a few feet) to keep an appointment with our most familiar and cherished and beloved of arboreal acquaintances.

Oak Defying Elements @ Vasco Caves

No need for gushing homilies or epiphanies in praise of the Planet Earth's most important biological beings; heck with ineffable words of pomp and bluster; who needs rhapsodic paeans to the plant kingdom's crown jewel of creation. To get the picture, simply take a long leisurely look at the sylvan gallery showcasing the diversity and splendor of trees found growing in the 9-county, 47-square mile, 9,000,000 strong Bay Area landscape.

Lumbering Behemoth @ Tilden Park

Trees you've come to know and love, develop an emotional relationship with, harbor deep feelings for, and yearn for their company evermore when you relive magical encounters and keep spiritual appointments with our Old Acquaintances.

Bay Area tree lovers (Dendrophiles!) have long rejoiced in a blessed abundance of healthy forest amidst urban surroundings. (Note: four years of extreme drought have threatened, weakened and hastened mortality for thousands of trees; in one instance, at Del Valle Regional Park, the District is removing 100 untenable Poplars and replacing them with drought-tolerant Oak.)

Weathered Pines @ Tomales Point Trailhead

Still. From sea level to over 4,000 feet elevation, native trees and exotic species alike flourish in diverse environments contained within a sprawling metropolitan area of skyrises, shopping malls, business parks, dense neighborhoods, and industrial blight - not the sort of surroundings you'd expect to find surrounded by expansive green belt!
But. Flying over the north flank of 2571 ft. Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, pilot Barbara Rowell remarked to her famous photographer / mountain climber husband, Galen, "This is incredible. It’s all unbroken forest down there. I’m seeing more continuous forest right here in the Bay Area than in all my flights over the national parks of Costa Rica." (Tragically, both perished in a plane crash near Bishop CA in 2002.)

No hyperbole on Barbara's sober-minded observation. Bay Area Dendrophiles are indeed fortunate to have in our midst, at our recreational disposal, beautiful open spaces abutting our large cities, splendid nature preserves contiguous to urban sprawl, and coastal foothills and pristine shoreline on the ecotone of the wild and the civilized, protected for all time.

Octopotamus Oak @ Pleasanton Ridge

Not too surprising that the oldest, tallest, baddest ass trees in the world reside here. Or once resided here, in the case of wiped out stands of old growth Coast Redwood, Douglas Fir and bountiful Oak groves - trees once numerous in their established ranges. Muir Woods National Monument, in Marin County, California, holds within its moist and ancient bosom the Bay Area's only remaining OG forest, where once reigned the very tallest of California's Redwoods.

Lone Twin Oaks @ Sunol Regional Wilderness

Fortunately, much second and third gen OG Coast Redwood and Doug Fir were spared the ax, thanks to early preservationist efforts on the part of forward-thinking people horrified by wanton 19th century massacres ("harvesting") of the most prized and ancient local giants. (Not even the stumps of the Old Ones exist to attest to their once impressive embodiment, having been cut out and chopped into firewood for a growing - and very chill, you presume - East Bay populace.)

 California Buckeye @ Diablo Foothills / Castle Rock

Today, in the Oakland Hills, at Redwood Regional Park, you can stand in the "fairy circles" of Titan Sentinels once spotted by confused navigators from sixteen miles out beyond the Golden Gate Strait. No doubt amazed and humbled by their presence; perish the thought or need at that time of cutting them down for utility and profit. For buccaneers, privateers and military patrols, the tallest trees in the world stood as beacons of orientation, welcoming them gently into the great San Francisco Bay from the rough outer waters of the Golden Gate strait. . .

Dendrophiles, count your hundreds of thousands of blessings for a myriad of species of trees dotting Bay Area open spaces and natural places. Trees glorious trees, sheltered in 65 East Bay Regional Park District designations; harbored in an astounding 51 State Park sites; thriving in 10 National Parks, including the world-famous Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore; and last but not least, providing shade, succor, bird habitat and eye candy in countless backyards and city and county parks.
Famous "W" Sycamore @ Sunol Regional Wilderness

Bay Area trees have it good today. That is, unless you happen to be a reviled Blue Gum Eucalyptus just trying to make a living in the East Bay Hills. Long a contentious "fire safety" issue, the Australian transplant is also the bane of ecologists for its bio-adaptive ability to change soil conditions to its benefit but to the detriment of native flora. After the devastating Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991,
neighborhood and environmental groups pressed for their removal, along with a few thousand other non-native fire-hazardous trees. The divisive issue only recently has bloomed into public consciousness, especially since news and clamor of the campaign broke, spearheaded by various public agencies to partner up with a master plan to cut 'em all down, root 'em all out.
Elephantine Trees @ Muir Woods Nat'l Monument

Not to be accomplished without the herbicide Garlon 4 and Garlon 3A, of course, whose judicious applications (quote unquote) will introduce into the environment over the next ten years untold amounts of toxic Monsanto RoundUp. No matter how you apply it, poisonous chemicals will leech into the immediate biosphere for half a generation.

According to the Claremont Canyon Conservancy website, the herbicides "will be used in such small quantities and under such strict controls that it will not be a carcinogen." (What would Rachel Carson say?)

Fractal Oak @ Pleasanton Ridge

What would founding board member Marilyn Goldhaber say? She admonishes, "being afraid of the herbicide is not a reasonable point of view.” (What would the Sierra Club say?) Attested to the common good, the harvesting plan, we've been told, is backed by sober impact review / appraisal and solid scientific evidence, and entails ridding East Bay ridges of the dreaded scourge of unwanted Eucalypti. Trees that have been part and parcel of the East Bay Hills landscape for over a hundred years.

Dendrolithic Monuments @ Redwood Regional Park

Trees that, yes, are suffocating out native plants. Trees that, Jesus!, were meant to bring a huge profit for their importer and grower, Frank Havens, but the old boy made a colossal blunder in his choice of inferior (useless) species to propagate. So much for obscure history, but it's left us with all these damn unwanted combustible trees! (What would YOU say?)

No matter if it's the right approach or the best thing to do, Gambolin' Man will go out on a limb and proclaim the plan, while conceding scientific and public safety arguments, is an unabashed case of Might Makes Right, and an irrepressible urgency to spend a $5.6 million dollar FEMA windfall underwriting the clear cutting Operation Nuke-alyptus.

Dwarf Sargent's Cypress @ Pine Mountain
One thing is for sure, though: the plan is not, repeat, is not, in the best interests of Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and many other birds and insects who nest, feed and shelter in the otherwise unwanted trees' dense canopy. Oh, well, we're told - and must believe - for how can we dispute scientific evidence? - that the benefits of Blue Gum eradication far outweigh any and all harm - end of argument! But who speaks for the Owls, Red-tails, and many other birds and insects? Surely, they won't be poisoned, will they? Surely, they will successfully relocate elsewhere, won't they? (What would Leonardo DiCaprio say?)

Tree Rock Fusion @ Vasco Caves
Back to the rich forests of the Bay Area -  harboring a trove of native and exotic trees: Pine. Spruce. Cedar. Juniper. Redwood. Yew. Willow. Madrone. Manzanita. Walnut. Birch. Laurel. Bay. Holly. Maple. Cypress. Nutmeg. Sycamore. Alder. Poplar. Dogwood. Cottonwood. Throw in a dozen species of Oak and voilà - a DENDROPHILES' TREETOPIA! Other species of woody plants too numerous to mention also thrive in our local city parks, open spaces, wild places, residential landscaping, backyards, unincorporated areas, and along roadsides. In short, wherever a tree can find purchase.

Stump of Ancient Redwood, North Coast

Outside of tundra and extreme desert conditions, very few places are inhospitable to trees - the planet's preeminent manifestation of life's tenacious spirit, surely evolution's crowning natural achievement with tiny seedlings taking root in the most unlikely of places, surviving in the harshest of climes.

Think of venerable Bristlecone Pine, individual trees robust and living (and half-dead) for thousands of years, in California's nutrient-poor, high altitude White Mountains.

Cached "Egg Horns" @ Ohlone Regional Wilderness

Think of a hardy stand of Palmer Oak ruling atop a distant ridge at Vasco Caves Regional Preserve, representing the tree's northernmost range, an uncommon desert species of Quercus known for its large acorns and Holly-like spiny leaves and generally found at altitudes a couple of thousand feet higher than Vasco Caves.

Yet here they exist, in splendid isolation on that high, distant ridge.

Holy Convergence @ Redwood Regional Park

Think of specially adapted species eking out successful survival strategies in nutrient-depleted serpentine soils. Marvel at the stunted "genetically pure" strain (you believe) of Sargent's Cypress growing in rocky soil on Pine Mountain in Marin County. Or, that wondrous lone Western Juniper rising out of a rocky crag above Donner Falls in Mount Diablo's Oat Canyon. Think Coulter and Grey ("Digger") Pine. normally found at higher foothill elevations, but taking root and thriving in the perfect niche environments of Henry Coe and Mount Diablo State Parks. Think Canyon Live and Black Oak found in dispersed, selective habitats, knotted, ancient gnarly-assed species, draped in spooky strands of pale green moss, co-existing with parasitic Oak apple gall and other epiphytic entities that could easily compromise their being.

Spooky Manzanita Brush @ Gary Giacomini

You have your favorite trees, the ones that when you come upon them during your nature outings, you recognize them as dear old friends. You bow down reverentially to them as living monuments; you hug and kiss them shamelessly, and smell them lustily, and commune silently with them - in a mostly futile endeavor to mind meld with their undetectable y-wave penetrations carrying tantalizing hints to their mysterious existence.

Yeah, a lot to think about when it comes to the divine nature of trees, the heavenly trees of nature.

Medusa Oak @ Wildcat Creek

Certainly, you've learned through repeated osmotic sensations, that being in the company of trees, connecting physically / psychically with them, is the best therapy you can give yourself (next to water flowing). Who else listens so well? Who never talks back? Who does not stand in judgment, nor fall to the ground in resentment, whether felled by the logger's ax or a bolt of lightning from the heavens. Who just stands there, existing in a timeless state of transcendent patience and infinite but unseen forbearance.

For trees, you have come to know and appreciate, have a supernal ability to infuse your spirit with calm and peace, and pervade your senses with joy and love! Truly, trees are holy, something "only God can make" as you smile and nod at the reference to Joyce Kilmer's famous poem.
Sculptural Madrone @ Alpine Lake, Marin County

Over the years, certain stands, copses, clusters, groves and woodsy tracts have become part and parcel of your dendro-cosmology. Individual trees you've fallen in love with, whom you romanticize and apotheosize, standing out from all others.

And now, enjoy a few of Gambolin' Man's favorite tree profiles:

From Morgan Territory Explorations:

Glorious Oak @ San Pablo Creek

"Growing in a proto forest, right off the trail, is an enormous Manzanita, the most impressive Arctostaphylos you’ve ever seen, maybe residing in this sanctuary like a guardian of the ages for the past 300 years. Who knows. Nearby Manzanitas deign to compete in girth, height, textural richness and sculptural complexity, but fall short of measuring up to this old dog . . . an absolute epic specimen showing off dark red chocolate skin tones the color of ancient Mayan cinnabar, thick bodied, gnarled-branched piece of work. You circle it repeatedly, touching and stroking it, lost in rapt admiration, more even than you would for a prized sculptural masterpiece in the Louvre - if you were able to touch it."
Olympian Oak @ Ohlone Wilderness

From Ohlone Wilderness Hike:
"A sentinel Oak sits off trail over 2000 feet above sea level in the Ohlone Regional Wilderness near Livermore, California. A stand-out tree if you've ever seen one, an antediluvian specimen with a trunk five feet wide - such rotund girth! - and deeply furrowed bark, richly textural, an ancient and sentient being as though Ga-Be-Nah-Gewn-Wonce himself incarnate ("John Smith"). There is sanctity and purity about this tree. You spend an inordinate amount of time admiring it, wondering about it, inspecting its various oddities, scrutinizing its subtle profundities, fascinated with lichen and moss growth and dozens of acorns cached in the deep grooves."

From Muir Woods Cathedral of Trees:

"The massive trees of Bohemian and Cathedral Groves are up to 800 years old, soaring sky-high-ward, tapering out of sight with their huge canopy containing entire living ecosystems. These specimens compare to some of the biggest Redwoods in existence up and down the coast.

Titan Sentinel @ Muir Wood Nat'l Monument

Redwoods in the Mist @ Steep Ravine
Somewhere along Redwood Creek is a tree over 250 ft. tall, 14 ft. wide, and 1000 years young. It sprouted around the time Vikings set sail for Vinland, when Toltecs ruled central Mexico, as Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages. It has outlived forty generations of humans. It has survived fire, wind, storm, the ax.

Today, it is just middle-aged. Will it be alive a thousand years from now, in the year 3000? Will we paltry humans still be around to bear witness?"

From Vasco Caves Miracles

"Same thing goes for the big Cottonwoods and the 100+ year old Valley and Interior Live Oak, thirsty trees which require year-round access to water. In a geological conundrum, the preserve is a subtle water-dependent ecosystem where plants thrive in harsh conditions owing to ground water that is forced to the surface from far away by complex subterranean activities that somehow push it to this area."

From Arboreal Wonders of California:

Sycamore-lined Alameda Creek @ Sunol Regional Wilderness

"For indigenous coastal and inland native peoples of the Bay Area, the little acorn from the genus Quercus – especially from Black and Tan Oak – provided (along with salmon and shellfish) the bulk of their sustenance. The Sacred Acorn was the foundation of their subsistence patterns, the raison d’etre of their celebratory rituals; indeed, the powerhouse nut represented the key to life itself and the marking of new phases of time.

Supernal Madrone @ Rock City

It’s easy to see why the mighty Oak – Emerson's “the creation of a thousand forests in one acorn – was so revered by autochthonous tribal peoples in North America and ancients the world over. Wherever this ubiquitous keystone species is found, it has always provided an important dietary staple for humans, Oak groves create drought-tolerant islands of shade and coolness, and spawn environments conducive to a rich wildlife habitat. In California alone, Oak forests sustain over 100 species of birds, while multiple dozens of its land mammals rely on Oak in some symbiotic relationship during their lifetime."

From Original Jurassic Park - Oakland's Redwood Forest:
Western Juniper @ Mount Diablo State Park

"Make no mistake - this ain't wilderness, but it was once primal forest where grizzlies, mountain lions, condors and bald eagles prowled the ridges and patrolled the skies. Before the saw mills of the 1860s wiped them out, this locale supported the largest, tallest and most magnificent Sequoia sempervirens on earth.

Malcolm Margolin describes today’s present crop of offspring as a 'race of adolescent giants rising out of logged off remains. . . .With their great size and a botanic history that stretches back 100 million years to the Age of Reptiles, the redwoods . . . seem aloof from the modern world.' Indeed they are, and so are you when standing in their midst, lost and mindless to civilization’s buzzing, humming, whirring and mechanized noises down on the flats."

Check out Gambolin' Man's Paean to Arboreal Wonders of California

I on U White Alder @ Pt. Reyes Nat'l Seashore

Don't miss the photo gallery @ Gambolin' Man's TREETOPIA

Dendrophiles, please share some of your own favorites!

Lest Auld Acquaintance be forgot, here are a few more:

Bird Rich Canopy of Side Yard Oak @ North Berkeley

Stand-out Pine Tree @ Conlon Knoll

Eucalyptus Shedding @ Tilden

Animated Tree Swimmer @ Tilden

Moss-carpeted White Alders @ Liberty Trail

Half-live / Half-dead Manzanita @ Morgan Territory

Healthy Manzanita @ Black Diamond Mines

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE: Tantalizing Discoveries, Uncanny Phenomena and Frivolous Diversions at Sunset Beach

You drop your bikes at a small pond to catch your breath and wet your whistle, giddily sniffing in lungfuls of sweet ocean-scented air.

Still a few clicks from your mondo ocean destination - a rugged and isolated spit of Pacific coastline along Drake's Estero called Sunset Beach - you're in no special hurry to "make time." Only kill it, slow-baked and leisurely over the course of the next several hours waiting for the sun to go down.

Sheltered within a 1300 acre marine sanctuary in remote Point Reyes National Seashore, the Estero's six perennial creeks drain a pristine 7847 acre watershed - an estuarine / coastal / foothill biota unrivaled on the West Coast.

(Years of legal wrangling later, an oyster company recently got the boot, while cattle grazing is allowed to continue, a worse defiler of natural habitat and offender of aesthetic nature experiences than oyster farming. The science attests to the benefits, though, you've read, so what are ya gonna do?)

Named for the 16th century picaroon / privateer, Drake's Bay / Estero was the putative layover for the Golden Hind, a propitious landing spot providing hearth and provender for several months while Sir Francis repaired his ship, damaged during attacks against Spanish Armada West Coast ports in service of Queen Elizabeth I's "special ops" forces operating against King Philip II's aggressive marauders.

Military forays - make that raiding and plundering expeditions - were carried out up and down the coast between the two mortal enemies each desperate to establish a permanent foothold - and seize the most bodacious booty - luxury goods, gold, silver, porcelain and spices coming up from Acapulco - in the name of the Imperial Crown. (Note to self: wait, now, who were the good guys again, you keep forgetting?)

You go for a minute with the (unsupported?) theory that bedraggled Sir Francis found the Bay / Estero layover in 1579 to be a perfect hunkering down place for his sea and battle weary (and horny as hell) sailors. You wonder, did the crew / natives miscegenate? Not according to Oliver Seeler, who debunks much of accepted knowledge about Drake's activities and whereabouts. On this topic, he asserts, "there is no evidence that any sexual contacts, permissive or otherwise occurred."

Yet this sort of puritanical discipline on the part of sex-starved sailors you find hard to believe in a day and age when forced sexual liaison (i.e., rape) was the norm in the ranks of conquerors and oppressors. (Still might be.)

Well who knows, you don't, maybe it is an outlier case in history of an example of sustained peaceable relations in a First Contact setting. Most likely, it'll never be known what exactly took place, how things went down, amiably and convivially, somewhere in between, or otherwise.

No question, though, it was some kind of paradise . . . soon to be lost forever, at least for the unassuming Coast Miwok (maybe Pomo) who greeted the Spaniards bearing gifts and carrying no weapons. A peaceable people who regarded the interlopers as Gods, they also by nature were an overly friendly and trusting lot, prone to be taken advantage of and easily duped.

But in an interesting twist, Seeler recasts Drake's Weltanschauung as atypically laissez faire and polite, compared to the behavior of contemporaries elsewhere engaged in the brutal and systematic Old World takeover of the New World. Seeler writes of Drake's treatment of the natives as standing "in sharp contrast not only to the later tragic destructions of native cultures, but to common practices of the day." (While admitting to self-serving / ulterior, non-altruistic motives, which c'mon, had to be the case more than their benign cultural relativism!)

Okay, all fine and good, but let's get real, it was all downhill from the get-go. These and other first contact encounters set the stage for a centuries-long church / state sponsored campaign of subjugation, slavery, cultural disintegration and genocide. But, hey, in the beginning bonhomie (apparently) prevailed between the Curious Indigenes and the Good-Intentioned Visitors - a motley crew, for sure, merely strange mortals, let it be known, but perceived by the natives as Gods manifest. You wonder how long it took for them to wise up.

Enough with (pseudo) cultural history; now for a bit of (quasi) natural history. The Great Estero's fresh and saline waters, you only learn later, intermingle to create optimal conditions that support diverse sea dwelling creatures and creatures that depend on the sea to dwell. A fine sandy substrate helps shape the tidal / marsh environment, giving rise to an essential plant you'd never heard of.

Thank heaven for eelgrass! Like the resident apex predator (Harbor Seals), eelgrass is a linchpin species, crucial to anchoring the Estero's fluid food chain and web of life, providing cover, sustenance and breeding habitat for fish and invertebrates. The National Park Service considers eelgrass to be "highly significant to the ecological function of the estuary." (Note to self: and here you thought you knew everything!)

Harbor Seals come and go and feed and play and rest and breed in large numbers and with particular nursery preferences. You're amused by their round furry brown heads bobbing on the water's surface, so curious at your presence (you think). With eyeballs peeled, if lucky, you might spot bat rays or leopard sharks tooling around in the clear shallows, whilst a spectrum of "insignificant" aqueous and earthy creatures operate unseen and hidden, "mean and lowly things" vital to the ecosystem's health that Aristotle insisted we must grok in order to understand the world itself.

The Estero's bio-diversity attracts migrating birds who winter over (or spring over), flocking in numbers too large to count, feasting on the Estero's propitious food chain ingredients. The area offers up some of the best bird habitat around.

On the other side of the bluff, Limantour Beach gets all the attention, ornithologically speaking, but along the Estero's inland bays, hundreds of birds, some rare, threatened and endangered, come together in a great feathery biomass: cormorants 300 strong; coots, ducks and other shorebirds in uncountable aggregations; pelican and gull klatches; a mirage of sandpipers in mesmerizing murmuration, a single organism skirting across the surface of the bay.

All quite hard to pull away from, your chill spot with such great views and all the bird activity. Something catches your attention in a far away tree top. A quick check through binos reveals an American Kestrel striking a statuary perch, adorned with distinctive facial marks and possessed of a taut, strong diminutive body. One helluva huntress, Kes is the first of four raptors spotted today, along with a Northern Harrier, a White Kite and several Red-tailed Hawks, but Merlins, Ospreys, Goshawks and Peregrine Falcons go unseen. The Kestrel suddenly lifts up and takes flight over a sloping meadow, crossing paths with a pair of Red-tail Hawks who begin engaging and dodging a gang of crows flying over, setting off a flurry of screeching and evasive aerial maneuvers. The biggest crows you've ever seen, and outnumbered five to one, the Red-tails want no part of 'em.

Across the pond, two creatures appear out of the dissipating fog, spooky figures that turn out to be foraging deer. Opposite, on the pond's skanky hoof-trampled edge, a Great Blue Heron stands frozen, in crouch mode, on a single spindly stilt leg, immobile as a rock, a caliginous sculpture of zen patience, hidden to all the world. Except you.

No doubt about it, this is one splendid ass day at Point Reyes National Seashore, biking Estero Trail to Sunset Beach, eliminating nine miles of hiking which your ever-sore ankle would not withstand. Tomboyishly, you delight in the day's simple adventure, but exotic prospect - chewing up a heaven's worth of coastal foothill scenery skirting the pretty headlands of Home Bay, barreling along like mad men for the most part, churning and burning up some of the trail's tougher hill stretches. Final destination: SUNSET BEACH! You are, quite simply and exotically, enjoying one splendid ass day at Point Reyes National Seashore.

You ditch your bikes in the thicket at the Estero / Sunset Beach trail intersection and hike the remaining mile or so. It feels so damn good to be walking! Last time/first time on this stretch with Gambolin' Gal, plop out of the sky, a half-eaten hare fell to the earth a few minutes before, fresh guts exposed, trailkill waiting for a vulture or coyote to claim, or the hawk that dropped his prized morning victuals.

(Note to self: how does a hawk express an "aw shit" moment?)

On the final approach, the rutted trail narrows, eventually disappearing, giving way to the wide open "country" of the sea and estuary. At a small rise in the land, the Farallon Islands stand out stark and lonely on the remote horizon, appearing telescoped in size by some trick of visual distortion. The recondite island group - you've still never been! - is protected within the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, part of a larger National Marine Sanctuaries system of special oceanic conditions and undersea topography along a 150 mile stretch of historic Bay Area coastline.
Whoa! Sunset Beach might be the prettiest unknown and least visited beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore system of pelagic jewels. A lifetime's worth of first impressions quickly sear in your brain of a wild, alluring, transcendentally beautiful place, a supernal seascape, but also a brutally exposed world, with scant respite for shade, a world where sleeper cell harsh elements can - and will - turn on you at any time, posing unsuspecting hazards and unseen peril. (Note to self: check all hubris at the door.)

Arriving in the crisp glare of a winter's noon affords plenty of time to burn until the pyrotechnic show begins to glow at 4:53 PST, the official sunset. So how do you pass five hours out here "doing nothing" under a bright and penetrating sky? Easy.

The hours slip by unnoticed, filled with fun and frolic, that's how badly you want to see this day out and bear witness to, as few are fortunate to experience, a quotidian but hardly pedestrian event: the sun going down at Sunset Beach.

You are there. You are here. Sunset Beach!

And let the games begin. The rocky beach is all yours, a narrow strip of unreal estate sandwiched in on one side by the sea and on the other by impressive alabaster cliffs rising a hundred feet high and turning Egyptian gold in the late-afternoon gloam. You've seen a total of zero people, well, except for a lively "older" couple who head back early and another guy hanging around looking for polished sea glass, it's been a total of zero.
You're held captive by an infinite variety of natural distractions at hand (and foot), spawning a zillion questions and observations. Like wide-eyed Hardy Boys set loose in some fairyland playground, you find everything in your path amazing and worthy of deep analysis, taking a half hour to walk fifty feet, marveling at odd shaped stones, mystery sea lion moans, and thrilling to discoveries of fossilized whale bones.

Who knows in this fantabulous land, maybe you'll turn up a Unicorn's horn next.

And so you dawdle away the hours of a seemingly endless day, expostulating and pontificating on any number of subjects hatched in your imaginations by the wealthy array of things to investigate and big question conundrums to chew on. A real heady cud of natural history, science, paleontology, philosophy - one of you, after all, is a scientist - singularly possessed of boundless curiosity and unending glee - just like little boys - over the simplest - and most complex! - of things.

Operating in a heightened state of awareness fueled by a dopamine flush and endorphin high, a hyper-attention OCD-like mindset takes hold, in which natural phenomena assume exaggerated importance and take on an aura of immense mystery and interest - every little thing.

In this supernal world, nothing is as it seems. Natural features take on animated personalities. Objets trouvés turn up you want to take home (but don't). Funny faces look out from rocks - some work, others fall flat. Rock faces holding eons of secrets. (You're baffled.) Artfully arranged strands of beached eelgrass. (Befitting a MOMA installation.) Anemones clustered like ploopy druplets on a humpback round rock. A dragonfly design inlaid on a rock. A polished flipper
bone and other skeletal remnants of seals victimized by Great Whites.

(Notably absent from last time/first time is the seal skull you found positioned on a rock). Gigantic log thrones claimed by enormous crows as bully pulpits. Mud crabs scurrying for cover. Blubbery ass seals zoning out on sand bars. Oddly sculpted rocks taking on the appearance of apes, turtles, and other bizarre imagined zoomorphic figures. And without a doubt, the highlight of all your aimless (but purposeful) beachcombing is finding several outstanding specimens of ten million year old Cetacean fossil bones and halibut vertebra! Hard to top that!
First time/last time with Gambolin' Gal, you failed to spot the fossil whale bones, or so you thought, because you'd been scanning the high cliff faces looking in vain for embedded skeletal remains. Which is a ridiculous assumption, for the fossil bones are - hello! - not on display in some paleontological panel on the cliff face, with fully articulated or recognizable skeletal structures - no, ,they're scattered willy-nilly up and down the coast, here, there, everywhere you step, fossil specimens nearly indistinguishable from regular sea rocks.

That is, until you take a second, harder, closer look. (Note to self: first time/last time you actually did photograph the fossils without realizing what they were at the time! Cabeza fraca!)

The next couple of hours are passed with particular attention focused on keenly inspecting every rock with a plausible fossil look to it, delighting in noting ossification patterns and other tell-tale clues to an osteological origin. How funny, though, at first, you think it's fossilized wood, debating one another how this could be so, but obviously it must be so, because, just by looking, it's obvious, seeing is believing, and - just look! - the specimens sure as hell look like fossilized wood! (Note to self: very similar, but yo, a tree is a tree and a bone is a bone.)

Around 4:30, as the day is waning, you strike up a conversation with a search and rescue guy digging around meticulously in the sand for polished glass. Just you three lonely humans out here at the edge of the world. He's an amateur naturalist who sets you straight. Ain't no petrified wood in these parts, guys. Them's real whale bone fossils!

Then he points out a couple of small petrified protrusions in a rock. If you didn't know what they were, you might mistake them for insignificant accretions or natural oddities instead of ancient halibut vertebra. Dude also somehow manages to turn up a small curved piece of reticulated bone, more halibut vertebra who met his fate here millions of years ago when this was all under water.

By now, the tide has receded dramatically, exposing a fantastically fractured sea bed whose huge reduction in water volume (oddly) recalls in your mind the old tale of the Five Chinese Brothers and the one who could swallow the sea to reveal all the riches of the deep blue laid stark and bare. With the tide a good ten feet out, tidal pools, curiously absent of starfish, appear, and once submerged rocks rise like little volcanic islands. Glistening mud patterns ripple in beautiful psychedelic patterns.
With always one more bend to look around, you boulder hop carelessly on slippery rocks and fall on your back with a wicked thump, shaken but not stirred. Moments later, on cue, your other half stands too near to the edge of a brittle chunk of seabed, breaking it off, sending him awkwardly into the tidal pool, luckily unhurt. (Note to self: any number of things can do you in and mess with your day. . .you do not want a swollen ankle out here, or a deep gash, or worse.)

Finally, the bright and endless day begins to give way to a softening effect.

The late afternoon lighting is blessed with a crispness and clarity that seems 3D virtual, hyper real, a delicate interplay of light, shadow and substance, a tapestry of lacquered water and pastel brushed sky, a tableau of fractured rock and unending sea. An almost frighteningly vast, unfamiliar world existing of its own accord, accountable to nothing and no one, operating on its own terms, by its own rules, in its own time and eternal and infinite rhythms. (Note to self: a venue to trespass respectfully, but not a place of permanence for a puny human.)

You are there! You are here! Sunset Beach at sunset! Nowhere else you'd want to be on the entire planet!

But with the wind picking up, temperatures dropping and darkness setting in, it's time you get serious about heading back. Though prepared with essential survival gear, you never want to have to employ it. As things get darker, and colder, the chances for a contretemps or pratfall greatly

Plus, you're experiencing an ever so slight sensation of malaise, having forgotten how vulnerable it feels being out at an uncommon hour, alone in the wilderness, far from the trailhead, in the dark, surrounded by contorted shapes and unfamiliar objects, haunted by mysterious sounds, engulfed by dark voids. All quite unsettling, but the raw experience and exhilaration trumps so you stick around to savor for several more minutes the holy loving crap out of - this special present moment - cold and darkness can wait.

More than several minutes pass, though, and now it's really time to break free from the magnetic attraction. You gear up, ready to high-tail it back like nobody's business, but, alas, you're still unable to pull away, not just yet. You pause for several more double-takes, each a prolonged last lovelorn glance, one final melancholic encore to salute the surreal act's final curtain call.
The knife-sharp contours of the Point Reyes peninsular ridge is bathed in fiery pastels, a bold silhouette against a spotless indigo sky, a heady peyote vision splattered with hot lavenders, incendiary reds, sensual yellows, passionate purples, and heartmelt blues. The great Estero's sunken waters brim in reflective brilliance, exposing arterial creeks snaking like makeshift rivers into Drake's Bay. Not an everyday sight, so you stand steadfastly, holding your ground, refusing to turn your back, gawking, mind-blown, with the minutes ticking by and the scene becoming darker and more - portentous? - by the second. Time to get a move on, Hardy Boys!

At the crepuscular hour, the animal show intensifies. The signature call of a Great Horned Owl - a high-pitched hoo-hoo-hoooo - pierces the silent night. Just enough light remains to make out a pair of the regal birds perched on twin fence posts up the hillside. Hoo-hoo-hooooo, they exchange calls, ready to launch a fearsome zipline assault on a hapless vole out for a paranoid stroll. One owl flies off, the other stays put, emitting a series of eldritch hoots that send frissons down your spine.

With high-powered headlamps you navigate safely back to the trailhead, but not before stopping in your tracks at eerie ululations reverberating in the dead of night - a pack of coyotes making their way somewhere, their plaintive yips echoing like lost banshees. Then, in the middle of nowhere, a pair of beady glowing eyes fixates on you like laser beams twenty feet distant. You freeze for a moment, wondering, but luckily, the wild animal turns out to be a harmless old bobcat, and not the other feared feline predator. (Note to self: what would you do, besides shit your pants?) You roll on slowly by, without incident, as expected, since no bobcat has ever attacked a human. (Sigh of relief.)

Lickety-split, you're back at the car, pitch darkness prevailing, bright moon unrisen still, adrenaline-rushed at being back safe and sound. Oh, and dead tired. With just enough energy left in the tank to load the bikes and change clothes. Before stopping suddenly to look up at the Milky Way, the Greatest Show Off Earth! The best you've seen the dense stellar cluster since a night in the Sierra Nevada mountains years ago, or maybe it was below sea level in Death Valley. Scanning the heavens of an infinite universe, being a speck of a speck of cosmological insignificance, but so what - you are still part of it all, the "stuff of stars."

Just a few more moments to gawk and admire the sidereal show of the dense cluster of stars at the center of the galaxy, one last curtain call, paying mute, exhausted homage to it all - from the watery wilderness of Sunset Beach to the sparkling other worlds, unreachable and inscrutable, above and beyond the (no less wondrous) terrestrial realm of Sunset Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore.