Tuesday, May 31, 2005

DESERT SOUTHWEST: Sacred Lands, Spectacular Sights and A Dash 'o Derring-Do in the Back 'o Beyond in Nevada and Utah

"What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote."
—Edward Abbey {as quoted in A Voice Crying in the Wilderness - Vox Clamantis in Deserto - Notes From A Secret Journal}

PRERAMBLE: There is nothing like a desert southwest road trip to stir the soul and evoke memories. But what will forever go unremembered?

Certainly, there are bigger things and issues to write about here: the natural history of our National Parks; galactic stretches of Great Basins and Greater Ranges; meeting friends and family on the sacred land; water uses and rights; abuses and fights; Native American sovereignty, gambling, history, grievances and poverty; Area 51 off the Extraterrestrial Highway near Rachel, Nevada; mountain biking and hiking adventures; all that driving and cramming in of exciting place after place after place.

But it's the "insignificant little things" that deserve our attention for a moment, that make up 99.9% of experiential reality, that ineffably manifest at every turn, constantly reaffirming life's small but great truths, ever demonstrating its evolutionary design and our place in its framework, eternally revealing over and over, one upon another, fabulous lessons of proper perspective, enabling me to see and understand how I am also an "insignificant little thing", but still an unheralded miracle in the universe of the spirit-that-moves-in-all-things!

In Henry Miller's words, "The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself." Maybe the other Henry — Wadsworth Longfellow — put it even better: "Every dewdrop and raindrop had a whole heaven within it." Perhaps Blake's timeless line from "Imagination" best captures the sentiment: "To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour."

This is what I am talking about, the oft-ignored, oft-overlooked magic and purity of the insignificant little things all around you: thus, a songbird serenading and escorting us in a riparian red canyon; thus, a perfectly round, thirty inch diameter claret cup cactus in full scarlet bloom hidden from all the world to see while a skirting yellow-throated hummingbird seeks the avian nepenthe of its blessed pollen; thus, flawless cerulean skies with the longing scent of bunchgrass and sweet sage carried in the breeze, returning you to a primeval state of mind; thus, a solitary butterfly alighting for precious seconds on a shoulder; thus, vibrational energy signatures of rippling water reflecting off rock and trees; thus, optimistic minnows who'll never know fishhood, and cannabilistic tadpoles engaged in last gasp frenzies in stagnant tinajas; thus, the raw ringing silence that stops you in your tracks and freezes your gaze to the immense horizon to behold the full spectrum of a wild, wild world; thus, a wizened dead tree, bleached nearly white, rising starkly out of a lump of rock set against a backdrop of pink-lemony clouds at dusk; thus, priceless water in the remorseless desert; thus, lizards doing push-ups, snakes sidewinding, kaleidoscopic dragonflies abuzz, ravens circling overhead, cackling, mocking us with playful laughter; thus, mountains of mud, canyons of clay, eroded cliffs of Navajo sandstone exposed in sheer naked glory in their antediluvian seabeds; thus, an industrious red spider spinning a delicate web floating on air; thus, the plaintive owls of a coyot'l on a distant ridge; thus, beauty-on-steroids scenes of magnificent sunrises and magical sunsets; thus, the eternal mysteries of Pueblo ancestral hieroglyphs. . .thus, a whole heaven within it all.

The eastern Sierra Nevada, the Great Basin and Range territory, the sprawling canyon and badlands of the Sonora and Colorado desert plateaus — a lifetime could be spent wandering around and exploring this vast expanse of earth, this geological, hydrological, historic, cultural, ecological, biological, meteorological, recreational wonderland! Few things are more fun than packing it all up in the Outback and hitting the endless road leading east through California and Nevada, into Utah, north to Colorado, south to Arizona or New Mexico, with one adventure after another awaiting no matter which route you take.

We did this trip in about twelve days, covering over 2000 miles to Moab and back. Two-thirds of 'em were lonesome "wasteland/badland/nothing-in-sight" kind of miles, utterly boring to most but fascinating to me! (There's lots out there; just take a look!) Although twelve days is a really just a tease, it was ample time to pay homage to some special natural wonders and scenic attractions bypassed on previous visits.

HICKISON PETROGLYPH RECREATION AREA, on BLM land in central Nevada (near Battle Mountain), was a refuge for prehistoric hunter-gatherers. These mystery people incised a Rosetta Stone's worth of undecipherable messages, in typical Great Basin "curvilinear" style, on the eroded red sandstone walls that rise in a majestic arc from the surrounding basin.

Who were the "writers"? The "authors"? The "artists"? The "historians"? One man? One woman? A quorum of carvers? No one knows for sure who was responsible or what the meanings are of the varied symbols. From evidence gathered at hunting and living sites around here, it is surmised that the sophisticated peckings date from around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. (Personally, I don't buy it, those dates. Human beings were widespread in the Americas possibly as early as 100,000 years ago or longer! Evidence exits for pushing the conventional timeline way back from the spoon-fed figure of 12,000 years ago!)

Of course, academia has proffered plenty of educated guesses as to their meaning. The BLM brochure states: "The petroglyphs at this site may represent hunting or fertility magic — or they may merely be prehistoric graffiti or doodling. Many archaeologists believe that the horseshoe-shaped glyph is a female symbol." The consensus being, we don't know. Your guess is as good as mine. Whatever their meaning and whoever brought them into existence for our future contemplation, is beyond knowing. All we can really do is enjoy them, revel in the titillating mysteries of unknowable antiquity.

We were stiff from just completing a stupefying sixty mile spell down a wavy asphalt ribbon of highway in a sea of nothing (quote unquote!) that was Highway 50; it felt great to get out, stretch, eat a snack, and hike a self-guided tour through this big country awash in crisp colorful sagebrush, forests of sweet edible Pinyon Pine, and sandgrass — both important food sources for the natives who resided here and called this prehistorically lovely place home sweet home.

It was hard to imagine, walking that dusty petroglyph trail, gazing out at the "Big Smoky" Toquima Mountain Range, that at one time, not too long ago, this was a near-tropical paradise, a land of huge lakes, abundant plants and animals, the lap of luxury, the bosom of nature. Whoever they were — the academics call this period of human occupation in the Great Basin, before the droughts forced people to upland areas, the "Western Pluvial Lakes Tradition" — they were people who lived for untold generations in tune with the seasons, in harmony with Mother Earth for thousands and thousands of years. (Is this a mythical view of life then? Was it more brutish, bellicose? Didn't they callously slaughter animals, wantonly waste resources, and foolishly contribute to their own demise, as homo sapiens are wont to do?)

But who were they, really? We may never know anything more about them short of what we are (in)capable of forensically knowing from archaeological sites, beyond what we are (un)able to decipher of their semiotic markings, writ in stone walls throughout the Americas all the way to Tierra del Fuego. We may know them only in our imaginations, as mysterious Ancient Ones who walked this earth in beauty.

KERSHAW-RYAN STATE PARK, outside of the sleepy, historic railroad town of Caliente, Nevada, is a place you'd never think of to go, yet once you do (think of it, and go), it's like, whoa! In aptly named Rainbow Canyon, there exists a true oasis of seeps and springs in bad-ass desert country, supporting an astonishing variety of moisture-loving plants that soothe the eye and soul alike — a veritable microcosm of the entire panoply of Great Basin flora that people have timelessly depended on for their nutritional and utilitarian value: green leafed wild grapes growing sumptuously up red rock walls (edible fruit, the birds love it, and probably get drunk on the fermented grapes!); Virginia Creeper (lover of dampness, bright red in the fall); Desert Range Almond (a favorite of the ground squirrels); Gambel's beautiful Oak (sacred food source for both two and four-legged critters!); Bitter Brush (a favorite browse plant of wildlife and livestock — boo!); Broom Snakeweed (where it grows abundantly it means the land is overgrazed); Skunkbush Sumac (edible fruits and used for tying and basketry — how long would it take YOU to harvest some Skunkbush and make a container or a rope?); Big Sagebrush (big seed producing Nevada State Flower); Ephedra (also known as Mormon/Brigham/Desert/Squaw tea, used as a tonic for many ailments, seeds ground into bitter meal for bread, also tasty to squirrels and quail); Prickly Pear Cactus (imagine such a delight as a pear-shaped edible fruit from a thorny plant, this hardy species is one of the few that can survive the cold winters of Red Canyon); Juniper woodlands (the most common tree in the Great Basin, another in an endless list of utilitarian and gustatory flora exploited by the natives — the pulp of the fruit was eaten, and the shaggy bark used to make rope); Narrow Leaf Yucca (agave family, who knows if they got drunk on mescal?!); Four-Wing Saltbush (over 17 species, the native peoples valued them for their nutritious seeds and salty leaves for flavoring food); Cliffrose (rose family native to dry slopes in this area); and let us not forget, last but not least, Cottonwoods (a surefire indicator of the precious stuff, there is nothing so pleasant as a Cottonwood oasis).

Yes, Kershaw-Ryan is resplendent with life, thanks to that most precious of stuff on earth: water. The seeps draw animals down to its replenishing bosom. Mary and I had hiked to one such seep, an easy mile out, but no animals were about. We continued up the rocky wash, polished smoothly by eons of flash floods, noticing intermittent piles of horseshit. Only later, as we sat beneath a one hundred foot high overhanging wall, and were fortunate enough to have a wild mustang approach us, did it dawn on me that all that horseshit belonged to this beauty's beastly kin!

I had gotten up to walk around, rounded a little bend, when we met suddenly. I froze in my footsteps, the mustang remained spooked in statuesque dignity, then took off in a semi-panic. Later, back at the seep, she'd circled around and down, and we got another good encounter. What a moment! I was too transfixed to grab my camera. She (he?) then rapidly tore up the scraggly-ass side of the cliff like it was nothing, disappearing onto the high mesa, but not before Mary and I got a real good look into those emboldened eyes and (somehow) Native American-looking face!

I also carried on with Ms. Raven, as she sat perched on her aerie, cackling and cawing gutturally in a playful attempt at imitation (flattery?) that seemed to work! I led her on, singing my Ravensong several times, then pausing, and faithfully awaiting her response. This went on for ten minutes! Finally, feathers ruffled, she tired of my torturous game and flew away with another, truer suitor, a fine-breasted, fan-tailed mate, but not before dive-bombing at me and clipping my head, nearly! (You believe that?)

CATHEDRAL GORGE STATE PARK is a curiously eroded land of spires and columns of clay — mountains of dry mud! Called the Panaca Formation, it is the remnants of a lake bed that flourished one million years B.C.! Over time, it dried up and exposed the lakebed's sediments and the unstoppable forces of erosion from rainfall and snowmelt gradually sculpted the rivulets into cracks into gullies of siltstone and clay shale. Very amazing!

Plus, they let you single-track out there in that desolate place! We did a nice and easy four mile loop late in the day, admiring the hardy stands of narrowleaf yucca and juniper trees, the brushy varieties in subtle flowering stages, oohing and aahing at the washed out sunlight playing off the buff-colored walls, and exploring the deep fissures that disappeared into the bowels of the odd formations. These winding entrances were not true caves, more like slots twisting inward and open at the top. It was ten or fifteen degrees cooler in there, too.

Back at the only campground around, we had to confront an old ex-Navy type fart whose obnoxious generator was bugging the shit out of us in this pristine environment of, what we had hoped was, peace and quiet. Putting on my friendliest smile, and biting my cynical tongue, I knocked on the door of his mobile monstrosity (he was watching a sit-com with his wife) and asked him what time he planned on turning that contraption off. Some other less diplomatic person might have barked, "Turn that goddamn fucking thing off, you idiot! Don’t you know this is the wilderness, not the city!"

The fart, looking like a cross between Harry Dean Stanton and Oliver North, looked at me askance, up and down, barely disguising contempt, and said "quiet time, son" wasn't until ten. I smirked and walked away. Ok, fine, whatever, if this is camping then count me out! Well, the old fart did compromise, to his credit, and shut down his noisy engine at around 8:45 p.m., but STILL! (Note on this scene: rarely do we camp with the masses, but sometimes, like here, ya gotta. Note on Nevada: it's full of old codgers and people like me — everyone else is either on their way to Utah or returning to California, ain't got time for no eastern Nevada State Parks and legions of rednecks, hunters, and old-timers revving their generators in the still night!)

RED CANYON is untrammeled backcountry wilderness, ideal for those in pursuit of solitude, beauty and wicked singletrack biking trails. Located just outside the infinitely more popular Bryce Canyon National Park, Red Canyon is just as amazing with many of the same eroded columns, cliffs, spires and hoodoos of Bryce, but minus the tremendous hordes.

We did a great loop (saw two people!) after having ridden our bikes down "Bicycle Highway" (my term), a ten-mile stretch of paved, signed bike lane through the canyon, to keep cyclists from having to be on the dangerous road full of tourist buses and cars, all on their way to Bryce. It was nice and all, but hardly an adventure, so at the bottom, four miles down, we crossed the highway and entered the National Forest or Wilderness Area of Red Canyon and had the time of our lives.

That night we found an off-road camping area beneath vermilion pillars crowning a massive mound of orange-red scree, hills in disrepair, stripped to their bare rocky essences. As the moon rose, we climbed up a 200 foot high slope of detritus and wandered around on top in a world apart: scraggy junipers clinging to life, a scattering of hardy plants with tiny white flowers, sun-bleached logs, long views of nature's sprawling grandeur, ground squirrels, jay, cactus, Tom and Mary.

GOBLIN VALLEY, eldritch and whimsical, a place where Gaudi and George Lucas no doubt got their animated inspiration to create their bizarre sculptural worlds! It's a landscape filled with the oddest shaped rocks on earth! Brown, red, green, all shapes and sizes. It didn't even take a hit off the homegrown to point out all sorts of crazy images, faces, and creatures we divined in the shapes of the rocks.

We ambled around in gleeful abandon, free to go anywhere, climb anything, explore, get lost, and revel to our heart's content in this geological wonderland where gigantic green rocks rise like ancient stupas and ziggurats of hardened red clay.

CALF CREEK FALLS, deep in the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (thang-Q, President Clinton!), is a 126 foot high waterfalls, a very popular side trip indeed for all who pass this way, as we found out upon arriving at the falls. It's basically a big family scene, which is fine, I'm glad we did it, because it is truly a beautiful and amazing spectacle of water pouring over red rock, eternal mist and rainbows, chartreuse mossy walls, adorned with monkeyflowers and maidenhair ferns, and graced by the flitting presence of many pretty butterflies.

Calf Creek itself is a perennial flowing stream supporting an abundance of plant and animal life. Humans have occupied this special place for millennia, no doubt — who would not want to live where water is permanent? The unassuming little canyon stream burbles through gorgeous land, affording hidden nooks of paradise as it winds and bends its way through the landscape.

I hiked the six rugged miles round trip without shoes (an easy feat for me and my tough "cabron" feet!) because I really and honestly wanted to establish my link/connection to Mother Earth in a pilgrimage-like approach. It was a tremendous hike! Sheer Navajo Sandstone canyon walls resplendent with their coatings of desert varnish, darkened streaks caused by rain, wind and minerals working artistically together over eons as one great force.

I jumped in Calf Creek's little pools, full of darting brook, brown and rainbow trout, whenever I had the chance. So utterly refreshing in the Utah heat! We came upon Marker 9 halfway to the Falls, and with my binoculars I could easily discern, at the base of a smooth cliff wall several hundred yards away, three red figures, beastly looking, linked at their hands, with trapezoidal bodies and elaborate head dresses (antlers, horns and antennae?). Were they deities? Could they represent lineages? Were they hunters? Whose "tag" was it? There was also a storage granary high up on the cliff, but I barely saw it. (The Fremont people cultivated corn, beans and squash, the Holy Trinity of Native American Sustenance, but they also relied on wild plants, pinyon nuts, berries and seeds, supplemented by wild mammal and fish meat occasionally. They'd store surpluses in the protective granaries. What did they do, rock climb with ropes to get to them?) Truly this was living off the fat of the land. What more could you ask for? An aluminum cooking pot and a gun? Unfortunately, it did eventually come to that.

GREAT BASIN NATIONAL PARK, Nevada's only National Park, showcases the ever-redoubtable 13,063-foot Mt. Wheeler, spectacular limestone caverns, and a 6,000 year old bristlecone pine forest. With its commodious campgrounds, expansive vistas and lack of people, GBNP is a joy to visit and explore!

Unfortunately, I always seem to be "just passin' through". . .We set up camp by cold, golden and fast flowing Wheeler Creek, then went to the Visitor's Center to see the exhibits and check out the weather. A storm had been chasing our asses ever since leaving the Bay Area, and it looked inclement tonight. We got a short bike ride in and then hit the sack early after a meal of corn soup, olives and crackers.

We woke up to an inch of snow covering the ground! We quickly broke camp and hit the road, where somewhere between Baker and Delta we found a fantastic little pull-over and took a hike through a gorgeous canyon with soaring views of yellow mountainsides, sun heating the day up nicely, the storm a distant memory, birds melodiously accompanying us on our stroll through this unexpectedly marvelous "nowhere" place.

MOAB, CASTLE VALLEY AND CANYONLANDS. It was awesome to meet up with my sister, Colleen, on her sacred land in Castle Valley. Also, the chance to meet her "Greek God boyfriend" Yiannis was highly anticipated; plus, we reconnected with Turiya, their land caretaker, and Vijali, an artist-activist living on land next door.

Separated from Moab by a massive red ridge, Castle Valley is a "one in a vermilion" paradise, whilst Moab continues to cement its reputation as a fast-growing, unsustainable, sprawling commercial strip, tacky tourist mecca for two nearby National Parks (Arches and Canyonlands), and self-proclaimed (snooty and snotty) mountain biking capital of the world.

The twins bought ten acres in Castle Valley a few years ago, and struck gold with water! (Shall we digress for a sec and discuss water in the desert? — make that no water in the desert! Yet the cities of the Southwest, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, Albuquerque, and hundreds of smaller but just as needy communities, continue to use it up as though there's no tomorrow. And there just might not be if they keep up their wasteful consumption — misuse — of it.

Just one scary fact: the subterranean water tables of the Great Plains and Big West have diminished to a small percentage of their original capacity, sucked dry by the gluttonous, glittery citadels of civilization, and by wrong-headed agricultural practices. When the water is no more, ceases to be, dries up, what then? When no meteorological manipulations or medicine man rain dance or all the prayers on earth to the Water Goddess can make the clouds burst forth with their precious and for so long abused cargo of life-giving water. When that day comes, heaven help civilization. Wake up call! That day has come. A cursory briefing of a World Watch Water Report makes it frighteningly clear that lack of fresh water (re)sources is the singlemost determining factor deciding the ultimate fate of human civilization. Probably moreso than nuclear winter, even. One day, maybe 500 or a thousand years from now, perhaps sooner, our abandoned cities will lie in eternal ruin, in the bone-dry silence of once-lush Chaco Canyon.

I think they paid around four times what our rich, black, but probably depleted, land in Indiana was worth, but even so, it was well worth it, even at $8,000 an acre. If the water holds out, it will probably be worth $80,000 an acre in ten years. They have a fruit orchard, enjoy surreal postcard views, serene vibes, and special neighbors and friends. One of these days, they plan to "retire" there, but for now the land is in the hands of their caretaker/friend, Turiya. The twins, not residing in Castle Valley, must retain a caretaker and demonstrate a need or usage of the water reserves, or the state of Utah will confiscate the water rights!

It was wonderful to meet Yiannis, whom I'd heard so much about over the past few years. Planning this desert reunion was a long-overdue opportunity to finally meet him. A workaholic, this was his first "real vacation" in fifteen years. Hard to believe, he seemed so natural, at ease, I couldn't really picture him in a business suit or negotiating a hardball deal in New York or Athens. He's a gamer in my book! I really believe we made the most of our short time together, becoming true friends, perhaps even soul mates, and I would hope, friends for life, even though probably another five years will pass before we reunite.

Each and every day we packed in so much that come nightfall, all we could do was fall into our sleeping bags and drift off in imperturbable sleep. We had about five days to pack in adventure after adventure with the two indefatigable lovers of life; they were running on the unadulterated, amp 'em up adrenaline of love! Yiannis and Colleen are starry-eyed as two lovers can be! Mary and I kept pretty good pace, however! And what a pace it was, non-stop from morning to night, so thoroughly exhausted at day's end that all we could do was stumble into our bags and pass out, let alone stay up late into the evening for tea, treats, great conversation, tomfoolery and merry times!

Our first day, we took off down Kane Creek Canyon Road, toward Hurrah Pass, just a speck on a map. Colleen and Yiannis had never mountain biked before (both are incredible "roadies", though) — and there we were, heading off into that blazing hot desert, plunging into canyons, gaining and losing breathtaking altitude. (It took lots of gut resolve to accomplish this ride, or is it that I've got a gut to resolve?) We ended up doing 40 miles — a muthu-humpin twenty out and twenty back! I'm talkin' 40 sandy, rugged, rocky trail miles! It kicked my ass, I'll cop to that, and probably Mary's too, because that night we were both worthless after Yiannis graciously cooked us up a scrumptious, gourmet-on-demand meal (but he neglected to tell me he added "fetid" cheese to his otherwise delectable Greek salad!).

Next day, we were off to do thefamous slickrock trail, but I had a gear shifter break on me, damn it! Great timing! But Rim Cyclery, oldest in Moab, fixed me up in about an hour ten, not bad, but it set me back $115, damn it! Friendly, great service, no-fuss folks (the mechanic did have an ego-need to fulfill, though, by making sure to tell us that he was some three-time champ of something or other biking competition.)

We pedaled over to Slickrock "park". It was teeming with bug-eyed twenty-somethings wearing all their important, requisite emblematic regalia identifying them as hip bikers. (Was I one of them? You bet I wasn't! I'm Old Skewl all the way!) After a mile or so of awkward negotiations, Colleen wasn't sure it was her "thing" and she and Mary opted to ditch their bikes and wander around and talk. (Who will ever know what was said, expressed, shared, communicated, and appreciated between my sister and wife during their two hour amble across the slickrock wilderness while the boys met their challenges and limits on the trail?)

Yiannis and I chewed up the rollicking "trail" — just slickrock marked with yellow arrows — make that vice-versa, it chewed us up, and we have the abrasive souvenirs to prove it! Again, Yiannas was without protective headgear, despite the large notices on the signs to wear your helmet! Turns out, he did fall over and over again, and jokingly, he'd glance up at me with a jaunty, almost immortal, smile, intoning with mock seriousness, "Tom, you gotta know how to fall." (One person called him an "organ donor.")

We rode out about seven miles over the lumpy, treeless, faded red rocky terrain, but didn't have enough time to do the full loop. So we took our time practicing at particularly technical stretches, and if we failed to make it up the first try, we'd go back and do it again until we made it up, or as the case may be, didn't make it. On such occasions, Yiannis always assured me it was only because we weren't used to the activity, not because we didn't have the strength, it was the "tech-nik" he said, that would come with practice. Well, I guess it makes sense. A seemingly simple uphill run of about four feet had stymied me five times, and Yiannis, with Colleen and Mary looking and cheering on, managed to make it up, around the side, but he admitted "it was cheating." A second later a young woman rides by and in a graceful lunge, not a missed beat, she pedals right up the lumpy surface to the top. Like I said, it sent me reeling five times! We were stymied repeatedly on several tracks, but sure gave it A+ for effort! Yiannis, boundless with boyish enthusiasm, told me, "Tom, I'm hooked on this sport now! Colleen's not gonna like it."

The next couple of days were taken up doing a monster backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park. Crazily, we had only allotted a day in and a day out to explore/enjoy this 527 square mile sanctuary of colorful mesas, canyons, buttes, fins, arches, pinnacles, spires, grassy gardens, and potholes, this wilderness of rock in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, evoking romance and adventure with namesakes such as the Maze, Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Rivers.

One day in and one day out just didn't seem like enough time (you could spend a lifetime getting lost in this remote terrain and see but a speck of its vast grandeur), and it surely wasn't. We chose the Needles district, and Salt Creek Canyon in particular, after reviewing our options with Turiya, who'd hiked it before and was enthusiastically urging us to go there as she unfolded her well-used 7.5 topos of the area.

It didn't take much persuasion. Apart from the magical circumstances of perennially flowing water sources and stunning desert backcountry scenery, and incomparable solitude and abundant serenity, Salt Creek Canyon is a repository of archaeological, historic and ecological treasures, a special place of intriguing rock art, ruined structures, and cool caves and angular joints formed by intersecting slabs of adjoining boulders. We all gathered in one such "joint" at the precise moment that the sun's pellucid golden rays shafted through to fall upon us, forming a perfect and utterly holy cross of light on the floor. During this intensely spiritual moment, we huddled together, arms embracing, as Yiannis spontaneously offered up a prayer/incantation of peace, love, happiness, joy, and prosperity; a truly beautiful and rhapsodic, spell-casting oration, bestowing his buena onda and good karma upon one and all as though he were a Pagan priest blessing us and the world.

Before any hiking was to be done, we first had to get our overnight permit. That took up forty-five minutes to an hour when it was all said and done, forced to listen to a summertime kid give the standard litany to the tourists — stay out of the water, pack it in pack it out, no firearms — and, sign here, swearing not to destroy the national treasures and monuments along the way. (Do people really violate the rules?) And as for the bears, we were alerted, take every necessary precaution! (Oh, my!) They too dig Salt Creek Canyon, for its water and abundant delectable flora, so they trundle down out of the La Sal and Abajo mountains to forage; we were warned to hang our food. I pooh-poohed that notion; in more than twenty years of camping and hiking in "bear country" I have never once hung my food and never once had to contend with a prowling ursine (well, maybe once). Yiannis looked at me with a surprised expression, "Are you sure, Tom?" I said yes, that we all have positive bear medicine, nothing to worry about. (Yiannis and Colleen unconditionally accepted and trusted my answer.) And, of course, I was right, not a bear nor any scat in sight. As it turned out, we were lucky to get a permit, one of the last ones to be issued on the spot, but it was at the 8.5-mile camp site, above Upper Jump, which meant a long, slogging hike.

On a 1 to 10 scale of flawless, pristine days, this was a 10.5, and hot as August already. Yeah, you're thinking, it's only 8.5 miles, but it was some of the hardest mileage I've ever trudged! The first two miles plunged over 1500 feet down a boulder-strewn trail through a gaping cleft in massive rock walls. The remaining miles were vast stretches of sandy, unshaded trail; we got all scratched up by thorny trailside brush. The sun beat down and we were dying for a swim in the first pools we came to, but we resisted the temptation, not being bears or foxes or coyotes or deer for whom the pools are reserved.

Mary and I certainly regretted carrying so much gear on such a short hike, and Colleen and Yiannis, no doubt, were happy to be venturing into this wild country with just fannypacks, their sleeping bags, Spartan food, and a quart of water apiece! At one point, Yiannis picked up my pack and was astounded at its weight. I suspected he was even impressed, but then he called it "foolish". (Yeah, ok, laugh, but when you need the medicine kit for some emergency, or me to filter water for you, or a freak rain or dust storm forces you into my tent, let's talk then! I couldn't figure out if it was Icarus-like hubris, boyish naivete, macho bravura, or simply the deep faith borne of natural confidence in the world that Yiannis possessed, or what, that allowed him to be convinced of his invulnerability and immortality. Turiya was similarly puzzled by their seeming lack of preparation. Granted, we were only going in for one night, but still, you've got to be prepared! Or as I put it to Yiannis during our discussion of why I was carrying so much, "Be prepared for anything, expect nothing." That means carrying fifty, sixty pounds!)

Well, they were on their ultra-light, minimalist kick, which I don't knock, because there's a legit place in my book for that! I admit, too often I overload myself with the unnecessary weight of frivolous creature comforts, which is sort of Yiannis' point: you can get by without, or with much less, than you think you need. Okay, well, if this is so true, then why not strive for the ultimate, and leave it all behind, let it all go, no sleeping bag, no food, no water, just you, a knife, your wits, and hello tooth and fang world. That would have even been a relatively easy thing to do as an "experiment", set off on the hike in resolute ascetic minimalism: no sleeping bag, no fanny pack, no food even, since it's for only a day or two. Anyway, I said to Yiannis and Colleen, "The ancient ones lived here, danced here, ate here, played here, loved here, fucked here, died here, and how nice, we get to camp here! We are not those people. It's a fantasy to think you can come here and be them, live like them. . .go ahead, try!"

Five or six miles down trail seemed like an eternity with all the weight and the intense sun bearing down on me. To make things worse, the blister on my right little toe was killing me! (Yiannis had an old country remedio: tomato! At a rest stop, he took my toe in hand, brutally manipulating it as he rubbed part of a tomato on it, then wrapped it in a band-aid; it was agonizing, but Mary said I was getting a taste of my own medicine!).

We had passed seductive pools and rivulets of water, an old homesteader's cabin, some Ancestral Puebloan ruins, and two spectacular arches (Angel and Wedding Ring), but where was the famed "All American Man"? We finally came to it — a five foot tall pictograph tucked high up in a reliquary shelf, painted red, white and blue (looking cartoonishly Martian) with flag-like stripes emanating downward from his garment. We speculated endlessly as to its meaning: a magico-religious representation of some colorful deity? I "jokingly" said it was a drawing of a future time-traveler from the USA! Maybe it was just a fanciful depiction, simply art for art's sake? (I contend much of prehistoric rock art is just that!) Yiannis threw down his pack and nimbly climbed up the rock wall for a closer inspection. Before leaving, he placed a pair of smooth antlers lying nearby in a niche as an offering, a bestowal of our presence and passing at this sacred site. Nearby were other intriguing pictographs of faces — four bizarre visages — bearing a strong resemblance to African and Chinese people! (But, how, you ask, is it possible?)

Finally, past Upper Jump, we made it to camp. I had to put my pack down and go assist Mary — a short distance from All-American Man, the trail disappears up a wedge of towering rock, and then resumes its northward course to Peekaboo Spring and into the heart of the Needles. Then, maybe 1500 feet, is the camp! We had it to ourselves, thank God! The way it's set up, it's a restricted space designed/designated for multiple parties (maybe two or three parties of two or three people each) We coulda ended up having to share it, horrors!

At the tinaja, lucky for all, I had my lightweight SweetWater Guardian filter! Because Mary and I had 100 ounces each in our Cambelbak bladders, we still had some water left at the end of our hike, but Colleen and Yiannis had a great need to filter water as soon as we hit camp. Imagine: flowing water amid harsh, arid surroundings; nothing more precious than water in the desert!

We first offered up humble prayers of Thanks and Praise, to Tlaloc, to all Rain Goddesses and Water Spirits, and then, deeply grateful and reverent, I filtered the life-sustaining substance into our bottles as Yiannis held forth on some highly evolved topic in the stratosphere of his consciousness (he was fond of saying, "Don't bring the conversation down to here, Tom."), while also intent on protecting a spinning spider from my bumbling shifting about while filtering water ("Watch out for her, Tom! Be careful! Your leg! Look what you did!" Sounds facetious, but Yiannis was dead serious about thinking I was going to take out the busy little arachnid with one swoop of my foot!)

The dying light of day reflected in the small pool, coloring it in translucent sheens of lavender and earthly hues of fuschia, Christ, it was so beautiful, Jesus, it was so serene! We reveled in our lesson in humility — without water, we would die! (Filtering water is also a great zen-like practice, a surefire lesson in patience as well!)

In the early evening, a luminescent full moon rose! Poor Mary was having her period and pretty much passed out in the tent with cramps and nausea, poor baby, couldn't enjoy the pale night's splendor. I suggested a Midnight Moonlight Meditation, but only managed to stay up for a while, just long enough to appreciate the elephantine shapes of the rocks taking on indescribable hues! As the moon illumed the surreal surroundings in this, Heaven's Back Forty, I became enveloped in a psychotropic-like shamanic vision, in the albion glow of a déjà vu dream. My sight began to play tricks on me — gargantuan piled up boulders were upheaving and quavering like Jovan behemoths. Stars twinkled and twittered like hallucinogenic tracers. A moment of silence seemed an eternal solitude; Yiannis said it was so great you could hear the earth spin. Well, of course, I was crashed in my bag by the time the moon really rose. . .Yiannis later said he got up around midnight and walked to the water holes and checked things out. I was pissed he didn't wake me or Colleen to go with him, to experience that powerful moment together.
After getting back from Salt Creek Canyon, we were so exhausted, I was nearly delirious. The hike out kicked my butt. At Cathedral Butte, where we parked the car, I was never happier to see that contraption of metal and rubber! On the drive out, on that bumpy road through Beef Basin, we thought we were lost. Nothing looked familiar out there in that vast surreal landscape, with its inhospitable red ridges and deep maze of canyons, and snow-capped La Sals dominating to the east. It was formidable, I was very happy to be driving along in the Outback, even though I thought we had taken a wrong turn!

We finally we made it to the main road and decided we had enough energy and time to stop at Newspaper Rock. There, Yiannis banged his knee up good on a rock for yet another bloody abrasion-cum-souvenir! In Moab, we took showers at a hostel Colleen knew about (ah, hot water, felt so good! washing away a pound of red dirt, gathering in tiny dunes at my feet in the groty stall.), then decided to eat out (at some dumb pub) rather than cook ourselves. Stuffed with the mediocre food and a beer or two, it was all we could do to get back to Castle Valley and pass out.

That night, around eleven o'clock, all of us deep in the throes of dreamland, Turiya drives up with urgency in her step and wakes up Colleen and Yiannis to get them to go with her (at "very special invitation") to the private sweat lodge ceremony being held down the road with a well-known Lakota medicine man. They had promised to attend with Turiya, and no backing out now. Colleen, though, sleepily shooed her away: "Oh, Turiya, sorry, we're too tired to go, we just hiked 12 miles." Turiya left but ten minutes later came storming back and woke them up again. "Colleen, I just drove seventy miles per hour to come and get you so you won't miss this incredible ceremony! I won't take no for an answer!"

At that, Colleen and Yiannis felt guilty (or inspired) enough to rouse themselves from their cozy slumber to go with Turiya. Next morning, relating the story, Colleen expressed how difficult it was, how it was "hot as hell," all that steam rising from the red hot rocks, everyone packed in, sweating profusely, but energized by it all. Colleen said it blew Yiannis away. I know I would not have been able to get up and do that after our long, tiring day.

Finally, the time came to bid sweet sorrowful adieus to Colleen, Yiannis, Vijali, Turiya, the Land. Seemed like the time just whizzed past in a blur of excitement, and now we had to head back home for California, and make our pit stops at Capital Reef National Park (on whose outskirts we luxuriated in small pools of the fast-flowing Fremont River and espied through the binocs some interesting, very high-reaching rock wall art!); Calf Creek Falls (where I wanted them all to myself!); Kershaw-Ryan and Cathedral Gorge State Parks (unexpected delights in nowheresville nevada!); our restorative "secret" hot springs at Travertine, near Bridgeport (where we blissfully soaked away our aches and pains of the past two weeks, not encroached upon by a single human, gazing dreamily westward to the snowcapped peaks of our beloved Sierra Nevada!); a stop off Hwy. 108 to sit by the roaring waters of the Clark River where it forces itself through a deep, narrow gorge before plunging into the Stanislaus River; and, our final adventure, an off-beat search for the same river below Sonora, in the Diablo range-like hills (where we did find a scene nice enough to get in, and I remember feeling it was the most refreshing thing in the world after the tormenting hot drive in 100 plus degree weather!)

Sunday, May 29, 2005

STEBBINS COLD CANYON RESERVE: Exploring A Little-Known Gem in the Vaca Mountains of the North Coast Range

This is another example of "Uh, say where?!” or "How on earth did such a jewel of nature ever escape my attention right in my own back yard?!”

And yet Cold Canyon has indeed remained unknown about and undiscovered until now. . .despite nearly a quarter century of seeking out new sights and exploring the varied wonders of nature in the greater Bay Area. How is it that not once did I think to give this area—the lower watershed lands of Putah Creek—even so much as a passing glance? Well, one look at the utterly nondescript map and it was obvious that nothing of any possible interest or appeal could be found there, right? Plus, it just goes to show you how much there is to see and do locally / regionally. (Twenty-five more years may pass, and may I still be discovering new places!) Finally, stop mistaking the map for the territory!

Cold Canyon and the Vaca Mountains are situated in the southern and eastern most ridges of the North Coast range, where it sort of peters out a bit north of the delta lands of our great bay system. How many times had I zipped by there and looked out at that Big West ridge extending far north like a monstrous spine, wondering what lay beyond? Certainly, I had explored the Cache Creek wilderness farther north in Lake County (sister watershed to Putah)—but figured there wasn’t much really going on in the lowly “Cow” mountains. After all, I-80 and the bustling suburban sprawl of Fairfield and Vacaville were situated so damn close!

I had always mistakenly aligned this area more with the Diablo Range. But it is an ecologically and geologically distinct zone. With its unique flora of varied plant communities well adapted to a drier climate, and its wide-ranging fauna, along with its rugged geology, and human history of the Southern Patwin inhabiting the region as far back as 4,000 years, Cold Canyon turns out to be one fascinating place I’ll always return to. And it will always be there to return to, because it is one of 26 University of California natural reserves.

According to the informative web site you’ll find posted at http://nrs.ucdavis.edu/stebbins/technical/hiking.htm, Cold Canyon has been around in its present incarnation for nearly a million years. It is a geologically dynamic area created out of vast and imponderable forces of an earth in upheaval, eroding and depositing layers of sediment over untold millions of years, then more catastrophic continental uplift, more erosion, and voila, you have Cold Canyon. These profound geologic processes are active to this day, continuing to shape the canyon in ways we can only surmise.

Cold Canyon’s vegetation is healthy, rich and diverse, with several plant communities dominating and interspersing—savanna, grassland, riparian woodland, live oak woodland, and chaparral. Big leaf maples, cottonwoods, blue oak, interior live oak, manzanita, buck brush, foothill pines, willow trees, California bay, Western redbud, and the thickly blooming buckeye populate the canyon with lovely specimens, providing habitat for Black Phoebes, wrentits and bushtits, Spotted Towhee and assorted hummingbirds, sparrows and warblers.

And so on a hot Spring day, we set off on Homestead Trail, an easy one-mile hike along the lower reaches of Cold Creek just before it spills into Putah Creek. I grab a pamphlet, "Hiking in Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve", which serves as an interpretative guide for 32 markers of interest. We would save the high ridge loop hike for another time.

Marker #1, "Outlet of Cold Creek", points out that just upstream is a spawning area for wild trout. Marker #6, "Landslide", informs us of the major earth movement in 1995. Marker #24, "Bedrock underlying Cold Creek", refers to the shale bedrock and grey layers of the Yolo formation. Marker #30, near the end, deep in a shaded forest well above the creek, is "Homestead", the only remnant of the Vlahos' former farmhouse built in the thirties.

All in all, an edifying, easy and leisurely stroll, and, surprisingly, not many people at all. But now, I suggest, let’s delve deeper into the higher reaches of the canyon, where the stream flows gloriously through big, remote hill country, and where I suspect we will find lovely little dipping pools amid stunning bird watching and riparian landscapes.

At marker #22, "Cold Creek", we learn about a variety of flora on display along the banks of the seven-month "live" creek. There, we duck off the path and begin our rock hop escapade a thousand yards up to higher elevations.

Cold Creek flows magically through these enchanting canyon stretches, originating from springs deep within the big hills looming due north. No, "it ain't the North Fork" nor is it any number of other more grandiose streams of wild California; what it is, is what it is, though. And that would be sweet, charming, beautiful, and flat-out gorgeous. If I never had another stream to explore, dip in, or meditate by, I wouldn’t care. . .of course, I say that about nearly every stream I know.

We hop, prance and cavort from boulder to boulder, occasionally splashing through the water or following a deer path along the side. We check out the water striders, and see a few frogs, a snake, many lizards and tons of glittering multi-colored dragonflies. It is a world plush with life, most of it unseen.

The brush becomes thick in places, and we have to crawl, twist, bend, duck, curl and do the limbo to get to our destination—a small but adequate and extremely pretty pool / waterfall scene of exposed vertical rock presided over by a pleasant and shady cottonwood tree. The water is perfect on this hot day. The view of the big peak on the far ridge highlights the sense of remote and splendid isolation we find ourselves in. The trail is now high above us. Although there is carved evidence of people having made it here, it seems apparent that only a rare hiker would engage in the effort to get so far upstream from the trail marker. Mary and I test this theory out by making love right then and there, and most certainly in this case practice proves theory absolutely correct.

I leave Mary to her whiles and whimsical thoughts and go exploring farther upstream. I can’t help it, I always have to explore farther upstream. The creek narrows, then opens up, flowing swiftly through channeled rocks in perfect little zen gardens, riotous with wildflowers and other plants I don’t recognize lining the banks. I push it higher, harder, farther, pouncing and bouncing from one rock to the next, jumping over pools, and stopping often to just stare and appreciate the wildness of where I was--lost in Cold Canyon, vulnerable to the ravages of nature, lunchmeat perhaps for a mountain lion.

Nothing of the sort. Just clear flowing water and birdsong, whispering breezes and humming insects, all music to my ears and soul. Just tremendous views of Blue Ridge and Pleasants Ridge, and not a shred of evidence that any human has ever been here. I hoped to reach Wildhorse Canyon, but don’t make it, instead beating a hasty retreat to where I left Mary, at our sacred and secret site. She admits to being spooked and hallucinating meowing lionesses creeping up on her.

We kick back for several more hours at our lovely spot in the upper reaches of Cold Canyon, wishing that all of our friends could be here with us, to see and appreciate the simple wonders of this precious canyon that we’ve just begun to know and exlore.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

SAN PABLO CREEK: An Unusual and Fascinating Adventure Exploring A Largely Unheralded and Unexplored Local Watershed

Say where Creek? Say, the creek that flows into the super-popular fishing spot of San Pablo Reservoir. Say, the creek that remains unknown to all but a very few. Say, the invisible little creek just down on the other side of the Berkeley Hills / Tilden Park ridges.

From Inspiration Point, overlooking the watershed lands, Wildcat Canyon Road winds and curves to the juncture of Bear Creek and San Pablo Dam Roads. It’s a popular meeting spot for cyclists, who congregate to discuss their adventures in Three Bears Country, or rest before tackling the big hills; they’re mostly clueless about the precious natural resource area that is just below them, out of sight and out of mind. After all, what could possibly be of interest down there? I myself have completely overlooked (viz., ignored) it for twenty years.

Unnoticed, I take an enchanting path down to the little known riparian corridor. First, I sign in at Oursan Trailhead. This is the water barons’ land belonging to the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD), so you need a permit to hike. I see that in the past week about five people have signed in.

I head off with no particular destination in mind other than to explore stretches of the creek before it dumps into the reservoir in a long, snaky drying-up estuary. (EBMUD engineers have determined that a large earthquake would sink the western earthen dam and flood the communities of Pinole and El Sobrante, so they are in the initial stages of draining it to refortify the embankment. It’s not yet clear how the land would be used during the two-year project, whether the public would have access, etc.)

I sense something special beckons in this unremote country, but what? EBMUD headquarters is practically right up the hill from where I plan to reconnoiter. Heavily trafficked San Pablo Dam Road runs nearly parallel to the creek in some parts. I hear cars rushing along and trucks grunting and belching in the EBMUD maintenance yard. What am I doing here?

Once down in the riparian corridor, though, the change is quick and dramatic. The thick oak forest and vegetation blots out the noise. The melodious flow of water soothes my soul. Birdsong fills my heart with joy. Rays of early morning sunshine filter through pine trees. I feel like a little boy in summertime. Where on earth am I?

Getting to the creek proves to be a difficult challenge. I go off-trail, a violation punishable by fine if caught, I must point out. The terrain is not the most inviting—thickets of brambles, thistles, poison oak, stinging nettle ten feet high. Now, I find myself having to get down on my belly and crawl through rotting willow branches and upturned roots—it’s an impenetrable green wall of foliage, bark, vine. It smells like summer in the Midwest. I proceed as though doing a penance. Only Tomdog would do this. Nowhere to go but on my belly, following deer trails, trusting my instinct. I’ve got my daypack on, camera and binos strapped to my chest. It’s awkward. I persevere. Soon I emerge, scratched and welty, into a bright and unexpected world.

This cannot be. . .I’m too close to the highway, to civilization, for it to hold any secrets, joys, mysteries and magic of “real” nature. Yet, I feel transported to another realm, to a place very near the unnatural world, but paradoxically existing as a pure and natural slice of paradise far removed from all signs of human incursion or presence. Does such unexpected beauty make sense, I wonder? Hell, no—so nothing to do but revel silently in it.

This part of San Pablo Creek is really “nothing more” than perhaps a mile of broad, meandering water, a big burbling creek elbow-bending its way through a big green scrub meadow. It reminds me of Indiana or Oregon. No, there aren’t any boulders lining the banks, no spectacular outcrops, no bedrock channels to swoosh the water through. This is “nothing more” than a country “crick” with gravel and sand bars, thick streamside vegetation, abundant and colorful wildflowers, and hidden views of lazy water flowing to its humble destination—San Pablo Reservoir.

I approach the sweet, clear, and surprisingly bracing water, splashing it on the stinging nettle welts all over my arms and legs. (Yeah, I’m in shorts.) Suddenly, I hear a helicopter and quickly duck for cover. Not only is it illegal to be off-trail on EBMUD land, it’s doubly illegal to make contact of any kind with the water. The helicopter passes uneventfully. That’s the last I see or hear of one. Now, it’s just me and the animals.

I admire the flat-out beautiful scene. . .deeply appreciating this little secret, yet another “discovery”, a gem of a place, right in my back yard, overlooked for years, until just now. I remain motionless, reverent, entranced by the myriad calls of birds. This place is a teeming aviary. I look up, see many high fliers, including nestling pairs of herons retreating to tall pines, geese and ducks shooting across the blue firmament, encircling vultures and hawks. I close my eyes and sit back. Oh, how I wish I knew each little bird by heart, understood her song, knew her name. (I ain’t no ornthologst, just a “word botcher”!) Then I think of Whitman’s proscription about not knowing too much scientific detail about the natural world; tis far better to admire and enjoy than to it is to catalog and identify.

Now, I’m drawn to a fine sighting downstream of a big herd of deer—a buck, a couple of does and some fawns, maybe eight of them, frolicking and browsing, now swimming! I engage them through my binoculars. I’m thoroughly enjoying watching them thoroughly enjoy their swim! The fawns get out several times, as do their doting mothers. Then the little Bambis decide they’re not finished, and go on splashing back in for more. Dutifully, Mama Deer follows. This goes on and on, until she's had enough and then spends the next few minutes grazing on something delicious, no doubt, before the lot of them hightail it into the brush. I, too, am ready for a swim and a bite to eat!

Where, I wonder, is skulking lioness? Things are very wild-seeming in this insular reality; if she appears, I won’t be surprised. I’m half-expecting to see a fox, a skunk, a weasel, a bobcat, a coyote. I hear snapping and crackling in the brush behind me. I jump up, just in time to see more deer peeking through at me, seeking their water source. Please forgive me, little deer, if I am momentarily disturbing your day. I know, I am just a stinking and trespassing human. . .maybe the first you’ve ever seen?
I round a bend to find a secluded pool to dip in. By now the day is blasting hot for early May. Aaah, such refreshing water! I soak for several minutes, all along feeling guilty and skittish as a deer for fear of being caught where I’m not supposed to be. But nothing to worry about. The EBMUD men, only a few hundred yards up the hillside, might as well be a few thousand feet away. The road may as well not exist. Judging by the lack of beer cans, cigarette butts, candy bar wrappers, and footprints, I suspect not many, if any, make it to this spot.

Oh, yeah, I keep forgetting: it’s illegal to be here. But so what! I will not be denied my private paradise. I wish I could share this spot with everyone. Alas, you will have to be content to experience it in writing and see it in the photographs. That is, unless you want to take your chances on getting caught, or really have a burning desire to brave the poison oak and the stinging nettle. Then, you too can see and appreciate this unheralded place on its own simple, down to earth terms.

Say Where Creek? Say San Pablo Creek. See what I mean.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

MARIN COUNTY: You're Off to Carson Falls

It’s a lovely Spring day after refreshing rains, you’re feeling energetic, ready to let loose after a week of work. An early warming sun beckons. Your plan is to hike up unmarked Liberty Trail to check out Carson Falls on Mt. Tam’s northwest rugged contours.

Doesn’t seem like much, you’re thinking, no big deal, really. Pack a lunch, secure a few essentials, including binoculars and camera, in the Camelbak (your Hawg, of course), and you’re there in an easy and scenic 40 minutes!

There being western Marin county. You might as well be in the Sierra foothills, it’s so beautiful, so rural, or maybe somewhere in the big north country, you’re thinking, shaking your head in awe, looking out at big Pine Mountain with praise and gratitude filling your heart. How lucky, you think, to live in a megalopolis and yet so quickly be able to leave it behind.

You’ve passed Liberty Trail many times on the winding 15 mile Bolinas-Fairfax Road, but you were always on your way somewhere else—Cataract Falls, Alamere Falls. Now it’s finally time to get to know Carson Falls.

It’s not much more than a pull-off for a couple of cars at a hairpin curve in the road. You’ve got to know where you’re going, where you’re stopping. The trail leads up a gully to the fire road at the crest. You begin hiking along a prosaic little freshet that burbles its sweet melody for the first twenty minutes through dense forests of redwoods, bay, and madrone, with the most incredibly giant western ferns you’ve ever seen.

You stop occasionally to listen–you hear the calming zen fountain gush of water channeling through bedrock, you hear the plaintive twill of an unknown bird; to observe–you notice the softest, greenest moss you’ve ever seen; to reflect–you sing a sacred song of blessing for peace; to cleanse your mind–you stop thinking and become a part of your surroundings; to wring out your soul–maybe you cry over a lost loved one. Must be something about a pristine, heavily wooded, lush ravine with sunlight dappled trails that does that to you.

At the crest, you emerge into another brighter more expansive world. You stop to bask in the sun atop a rock-strewn, wildflower- mottled meadow. You’re gasping at the spectacular views of Mt. Diablo in the east, maybe 50 miles away; you’re loving the Scotland-like gigantic hillocks all around.

You continue on to the falls you’ve never once visited, to your astonishment, as though you think you know the Bay Area so well. Carson gorge is now agush with water, providing a breeding habitat for your friend, the beleaguered red-legged frog. A couple of water district volunteers are taking a survey, so you cheerily answer their questions about your knowledge of the red-legged frog, do you obey the "Keep Out" signs, are you opposed to them, is your wilderness experience diminished because of it. In no way, you merrily proclaim, while praising their work and trying to spot one of the little endangered critters. All you see is their eggs.

Carson Falls is truly a magnificent sight this time of year! You’re amazed how that little nothing of a creek cutting through the meadow above can produce endless chutes of glistening water tumbling through a gutted out gorge, descending perhaps more than 200 feet in layering falls, pools, falls, pools, until finally plunging to a semi-hidden, shaded basin of dark emerald water surrounded by jagged slime-covered rocks.

All of it is so breathtakingly beautiful! You take a zillion too many pictures with your new digital camera. You know the photos won’t do it justice. You snap away regardless. You prance around fearlessly on the slippery boulders, trusting your inner billy goat. You don’t want to leave. At one point, you just plop back in the grass on a sunny hillside, unconcerned with ticks, and while away a good hour doing absolutely nothing. A most healthy activity, you know! Except maybe all that sun, you’re thinking.

Alas, got to bid adieu to the falls, make the trek back to the artificial confines of the car, to your home, your job, all that. Something about the place compels a deeper response. You fling a prayer to the wind. You prostrate yourself and cry. You give thanks and praise such places exist. You want to share it with all your friends who never find time or desire to accompany you on these “weekend warrior” outings. You still can’t pull yourself away. You return to a special vantage point for another twenty minutes of doing nothing more than staring at water falling over rock, looking up at trees, listening to symphonic birdsong, closing your eyes, breathing in deeply the sweet pine-scented air. Now, it really is time to go, time to go. And you’ll be back. And you never really left.