Tuesday, June 29, 2010

GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA: Pedal Powerin' Across the Golden Gate Bridge, from Berkeley to San Francisco to the Marin Headlands and Back

Conventional wisdom says that to live a quality, outdoor-oriented lifestyle amidst the Bay Area’s one hundred and one cities, owning a car is an absolute necessity; otherwise, how is it possible to get away from it all, to escape the metropolitan madness and get out and about and into the heart of nature? How? Easily. With a bit of creative planning, an imaginative spirit, the right attitude, and plenty of time on your hands, all you need is a little help from public transportation - BART, bus and ferry - and a good set of wheels (only two required), and you're ready to go, secure in the self-empowering knowledge that you can rely on your trusty bike to get you to the brink of almost anywhere in the Bay Area, on the purlieus of open spaces, to the edges of wild places, where a get-away experience is within reach, involving limitless fun, unbridled adventure, and rewarding physical exercise while taking in - as we do on this particular outing - incomparable scenic wonders and historic attractions rivaling anything on the planet for sheer exotic sensorial bombardment. All by bike.

Nearly a year and a half ago, we decided to partake in the great eco-friendly experiment that not many are able or willing to join - giving up the slavish car-centric lifestyle and living a cleaner, greener, healthier existence, free of being addicted to oil to the extent possible in this modern age. Now, unless you're a hardcore PlanetWalker like John Francis, you can't expect to ever completely sever the umbilical cord that yokes you to oil dependency. But the amazing John Francis did. In 1971, on the heels of a calamitous oil spill – two tankers collided in the fog off the Golden Gate, releasing nearly one million gallons of toxic goo into the then-pristine bay - the young Marin County hippie / musician / drifter was jolted out of a complacent lifestyle and decided then and there, once and for all, to renounce cars altogether - a decision that many condemned with cries of surprise and whispers of disbelief, while others - rednecks driving down the road - mocked and physically threatened and verbally abused him. An even more radical act would follow when he forsook all forms of petroleum-based transportation, refusing to board any motorized oil-dependent contraption - boats, buses, trains or airplanes - and so embarked on a twenty-two year long walking odyssey (talk about time on your hands!) across the United States, during which time he also took on a seventeen year long vow of silence while - get this! - managing to earn a Masters degree in environmental studies AND his doctorate in land resources. (Makes you wonder how he defended his "orals"! Read his fascinating account in his lovingly rendered and lyrical book PlanetWalker to find out.)

Nowhere close to being PlanetWalkers, we nonetheless have reduced our reliance on cars / oil, and in this simple renunciation that many could make just as easily, we have dramatically minimized our carbon footprint - and we're healthier for it and the planet is a wee bit better off for it, too. Thinking at first giving up our car would be a monumentally difficult commitment, imagine our surprise - and relief - to discover just the opposite occurred. From day one, practically, we never looked back. Apart from the huge monthly savings of no premium, no insurance, no gas, no maintenance or repair costs or depreciation - hard dollars in the pocket at the end of the month - what can top being self-reliant on your own two legs and trusty two-wheeler to get around? It is truly an empowering act of countervailing resistance, capitalistic disobedience, a flip of the middle finger to the conventions of the ordinary and capitulations to the expected. But what if we really need, really want a car? In such instances - and heaven knows, I love the ease, comfort and convenience with which a car can get us places! - we have signed up for CityCarShare, or we rent a car for weekend camping getaways, or a friend has generously loaned us his vehicle on more than one occasion. So, to the extent that we're able, being car-free means we bike nearly everywhere out of necessity for our daily errands and normal "around town" lifestyle - to get our groceries, to do laundry, to get to work, to get to our nearby parks in the Berkeley and Oakland Hills, and to visit friends. And - it bears repeating - we haven't looked back. But when, you want to know, will we end the experiment? When, you wonder, will we tire of the "inconvenience"? When, you figure, will we break down and buy a car when the novelty wears off and the pressures of conformism bear down ever harder? As Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener was apt to say, "I would prefer. ..not to."

And so it goes that I suggest to Gambolin' Gal, “let’s get off our lazy duffs and haul our bikes over to the city on this perfectly gorgeous day and bike across the Golden Gate!” This is a singular escapade that everyone must experience at some point (and it sure seems like everyone in the world has decided to experience it all together at the same point today). At first, she demurs, but I press her and describe what the fun and adventure, the novelty of it – and, oh, the horrors and hassles of it! - entails, and it doesn't take much more convincing than that, before she leaps up off the sofa and prepares for the impromptu outing. Hey, why not, embrace the day! Seize it! With the morning already half wasted away, we hurriedly pack provisions, hop on our bikes and ride over to the North Berkeley BART Station, where we catch a thirty minute train to the Embarcadero Station at San Francisco's waterfront. (If the train compartment's not crowded, it's a breeze, but when it's packed with people, as it is on the return, dealing with your bike can be a minor bitch.) Once spit out at the Waterfront, we're in one of the world's great cities, us and our bikes, and well, we feel like we can set off in any direction, go and end up anywhere. . .a sensation of pure freedom courtesy of our Trek and Gary Fisher bikes.

The near twenty mile round trip excursion bends the mind and slackens the jaw, for its wealth of contrasting experiences - shifting weather patterns, variable urban and natural scenic attractions, wildly different ambiences; and for its fantastic scenery, dishing up one fabulous view after another, on the approach, from on high, looking back, from whatever your vantage point may be, of the iconic, world-famous, hugely admired and photographed Golden Gate Bridge connecting San Francisco to the rugged Marin Headlands. And what a bridge it is – described in a 1937 poem by chief engineer Joseph P. Strauss, “Resplendent in the western sun / The Bridge looms mountain high / Its titan piers grip ocean floor / Its great steel arms link shore with shore / Its towers pierce the sky.”

The Waterfront is electric with people strolling through aisles at an outdoor fair, gathered around a mercurial drummer performing a blazing hot routine in the plaza bangin' on a motley assemblage of pots and pans, and the boulevard ambience is hoppin’ with rollerbladers, skateboarders, joggers, bicyclists, Segue operators, and pedestrians all out enjoying the lovely day. In a way, I'm amazed (aren't YOU?) at my pococurante attitude of just going along with the flowing logjam of humanity, accepting without a whimper the hubbub, and dealing so mellowly with the intermingling masses of people – for it's the absolute last place on earth you would expect to find Gambolin' Man (isn't it?) on a brilliant spring day, dodging hordes of tourists and playing chicken weaving in and out of insane traffic. But it's all part and parcel of what makes this adventure the memorable experience it is; this urban four miles or so covers a good stretch of the Waterfront, from the Clock Tower to one pier after another to famous Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf, and various parks and fields, with outstanding views of the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Angel Island, the red tiled roofs of Fort Mason, and gradually, lifting a tantalizing orange spire out of heavy fog, the Golden Gate Bridge coming into view by the time we roll onto Crissy Field, a former airfield named after Major Dana H. Crissy, who died in a plane crash in 1919. Much of Crissy Field's pristine features - marshes, dunes and shoreline - have been restored to a 100 acre waterfront beloved and enjoyed as a sanctuary and playground by residents and tourists from around the world. (As well as critical wildlife habitat for many animals and plants that thrive in this urban oasis, this refuge of littoral nature.)

Much of this part of San Francisco is renowned for its inclusion in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a multi-sectioned swathe of preserved federal lands encompassing nine different natural features and ecosystems - beaches, forests, intertidal and subtidal zones, oceans, prairies and grasslands, rivers and streams, sand dunes, scrublands, and wetlands, marshes and swamps. All this amidst a heavily urbanized, highly populated, tri-county area, spread out over 75,500 acres in Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, and laden with historic significance and ecologically sensitive zones. The historic attractions include military installations, forts and hillside bunkers dating back to Spanish colonial, Civil War, World War II and Cold War eras - strategic locations perfectly situated for coastal fortifications on the lookout for enemies unseen, imagined and otherwise. Much of the land has been preserved in its natural ecostate - the GGNRA and twelve adjacent protected areas are UNESCO designated as part of the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve. Crissy Field, fronting a stunning view of world-famous landmarks, along with Muir Woods, where ancient groves of redwoods have survived, Stinson Beach, Olema Valley, Sweeney Ridge, and many, many other places encompass sixty miles of bay and shoreline and harbor nearly 1300 plant and animal species, at least 36 of which are considered threatened or endangered. With the prospects of upwards of thirteen million visitors yearly, the concern is that sensitive species will be impacted, habitat loss accelerated, and bio-diversity diminished. But what are you gonna do other than "manage" it? And hope for the best. And be prepared for the worst.

Arriving at the entrance to the bridge crossing is a bit of a let-down, as the wind's blowing fiercely and everything is drenched in a thick pea soup of San Francisco's famous fog - yet another marked contrast from the brightly lit day we leave behind along the Waterfront. Unable to see a thing except our immediate surroundings, we're mildly disappointed, but I also suspect it will be just the opposite on the way back, later in the day. Many cyclists are making the crossing, a majority of them international tourists on rented bikes (nice business I should be in!). Others are casual riders like ourselves, not in any hurry, and of course, there's always the handful of hard-core, get outta my way, I'm comin' through types who are too inconsiderate to slow down, breathing down your neck or zooming dangerously past a tight lane of single-filers just out enjoying themselves in a leisurely fashion. Given the obscured scenery, I guess there is no real reason to linger, but we manage to dawdle here and there, peeking over the bridge railing to a dizzying view of a scimitar shaped, barely seen rocky beach or a patch of abstract whitish blue water lapping in an aqueous bed below us. ..with a glimpse here or there of wispy fog rising to reveal green hillsides in splendid isolation rising high above the tide, and crazy discorporate parts of the bridge - curvaceous spans and towering spires - appearing and vanishing at the whim of the dancing fog.

Once off the 1.7 mile span, with its maddening river of mechanized vehicles roaring by in a ceaseless rush of traffic, we're relieved and happy to find ourselves pedaling in sunnier climes up the steep and winding main Headlands thoroughfare, Conzelman Road. Up, up and away, into the fogless altitude, we ride, pulling off at all the designated spots to take in the world-famous views of - now standing out in full polychrome relief against a stark blue sky - the Golden Gate Bridge, with its twin 746 ft. tall spires jutting skyward in their art deco glory, and that shimmering vision of urbanity - Baghdad by the Bay - and beyond, beyond, to the East Bay Hills and the faint triangular eminence of Mt. Diablo itself probably thirty-five miles distant on the hazy horizon.

Continuing our ascent, we’re suddenly stopped in our tracks about a mile up by a serious road barrier with a NO BIKES sign posted. Looks like they're repairing the road higher up toward Point Bonita Lighthouse, but no matter to us, since our plan all along has been to ditch the road for the spur shortcut, Coastal Trail, a stretch of legal dirt single-track that suddenly transports us off the asphalt world of cars, cars and more cars, and into an entirely different realm, yet another contrasting world of hills, hills and more hills, partly enshrouded in a veil of lifting fog to create a mysterious ambience as such you might expect to encounter in Scotland's Southern Uplands region (at least how I imagine it might appear), and to the west, it's clear enough to catch a glimpse of a gleaming patch of tantalizing blue ocean stretching to the infinite horizon - Rodeo Beach in our shimmering dreams.

The sense of liberation from all earthly cares and concerns is intoxicating. Freedom shoots through our veins as we whiz down the rocky trail in this suddenly pristine, wild setting; long gone, light years behind us, is any and all traces of civilization. Now hemmed in by the unbounded hill country of the glorious Marin Headlands, the sudden and immediate contrast couldn't be greater. One minute city, steel and concrete, the next nature, big open sky, plants and earth. California poppies, Indian paintbrush, monkeyflower, sweet purple vetch, and silver-leaf lupine abound, the latter an endemic species critical for the larva of the endangered and also endemic Mission Blue butterfly. Many other "lesser" unidentified wildflowers are in bloom, a smattering of color creating a painterly vision of paradise along the trail and across the hillsides. We stop to admire a small bluffside, decorated with succulents popping with tiny yellow blooms, and happen to look up and see a big doe standing motionless staring down at us during a pause in her grazing routine. Nonchalantly, she continues chewing and chomping on her little cud, then saunters behind some boulders.

The route continues another mile or so down to the flats of Rodeo Valley, a winding descent where it's easy to pick up speed at a dangerous clip. The trail conditions are slippery and rocky, with ruts and holes, so we moderate the thrill of an unbridled whooshing reckless descent – the thrill of the “downhill bomb” in mountain biker parlance. But what's the everlasting hurry, for goodness sakes? Every step - or revolution - of the way presents an eternal moment to take in the sights, to observe our intimate and long-view surroundings. We’re down sooner than we want to be, and from there it’s an easy haul. We come to a big meadow off Bunker Road and the first thing we see are two stiffly frozen, elegant statuesque blue herons on the hunt, probably for snakes. Unconcerned by our presence, we drop our bikes for a few minutes of viewing. They begin to unwind in stealthy motions, taking on awkward gestures, craning their long, curvy necks forward in exaggerated fashion, lifting one spindly leg high and then the other, stepping deliberately in a slow stalking trance. I could watch them all day in their patient diligent search for a tasty appetizer. Only once have I seen a heron snatch a snake and fly away with the dangling prize.

This side of the Marin Headlands is where the forts and military installations and scientific establishments are - historic Forts Cronkhite and Barry, the eerily abandoned Nike Missile Site, the Marine Mammal Center, Headlands Center for the Arts, and the Marin Headlands Visitor Center. The other side - approaches from Tennessee Valley - is pretty much all open space, miles and miles of interconnecting trails for endless hiking and biking and horseback riding, leading to high ridges with stunning pay-off views of the ocean and Mt. Tamalpais, and secluded immersions in back hollows where coyotes howl and bobcats prowl, where hawks and harriers soar, and, if lucky, where you might hear a mountain lion roar.

We end our ride - actually, it's the halfway point - at Rodeo Beach, a very pretty, curvaceous stretch of brown sandy shoreline fronting a cobalt blue, roiling ocean whipped up by strong winds and crashing white-tipped waves popular with wet suited surfers. We sit on a bluff with legs dangling over the edge, enjoying a well-earned lunch and watching the dudes ride the waves - mostly just enjoying the sensation of being where we are, right here, at the very edge of the West Coast, staring out into the Pacific void - and relishing in the satisfaction of having gotten here by our own means, of our own volition and human-generated pedal power. We could linger forever in the magical light of the late afternoon, but it's time to gear up for the long ride back.

As we're passing by Rodeo Lagoon, Gambolin' Gal lets out a gasp of excitement when she spots a skulking young female coyote slinking around a picnic table (sadly scavenging for some scrap of victual to whet her corrupt appetite). I move in, probably too close for comfort, for a more intimate look and photo op, and she seems very unconcerned, to the point of nonchalance, about my presence, so obviously, the little "ki-yote" has been around this block before. Snapping away (my camera, not her gnashing teeth), she delicately lifts herself up on the table to scoop up in her jaws a discarded half of an Oreo cookie. Not good. But she thinks it is, judging from her lip-smacking approval. She's really a beautiful creature, sleek if a bit gaunt, with piercing eyes that radiate an intelligent and sensitive nature. This is probably the closest I've ever been to a wild animal. (The park service, of course, would have a conniption fit over it, but I have done no harm and the animal does not seem bothered or testy.) No sooner does she figure she's scavenged the lot of potential bounty around and off the picnic table, than off she scampers, across the road, up into a nearby field, and out of sight to, hopefully, happier hunting grounds.

The climb back up the trail isn't as bad (hard) as we suspected, and in no time, we summit the crest of the ridge and are back on Conzelman Road. The fog over the bay and bridge has completely dissipated giving way to a blinding cerulean brightness, revealing from our high vantage point the full panoramic spectrum of the prettiest and largest bay in the world (some, those from Rio and Hong Kong harbor, would protest), from nearby Bird Island Overlook and Point Bonita Lighthouse, across the expanse of open ocean to Land's End, China Beach, Baker Beach, the Presidio, the Shining City, and, of course, exposed now in all its naked glory, the great span and towers and cables of the Golden Gate Bridge. Truly breathtaking stuff - which explains the log-jam of cars inching slowing up and down the road, looking to pull off at Hawk's Hill, Spencer's Bunker, or some other spot to get out and soak up the views.

By now we're really tired and butt sore from so much seat time, and the day is getting on - it'll be 7 pm before we make it back to our doorstep in Berkeley - so we opt against our original plan of taking the Sausalito ferry to the SF pier, and instead retrace our route by cycling back across the bridge to enjoy the prevalent views denied us on the approach. For some morbid reason, I stop to inspect the signage and emergency phone for would-be suicide jumpers to call for last-second help. This is the dark side of the beautiful bridge. I peer over the edge of the four foot high railing, my eyes falling 250 ft. in a dizzying plunge of speculative fright, trying to imagine the pain and horror over 1300 individuals have experienced who have made the terrifying four second long, seventy-five miles per hour jump - "Bones shatter, ribs are snapped like they were twigs, internal organs are ruptured, blood gushes out of bodily orifices, and the body keeps going down, deeper and deeper, into the hellish water. For those still alive, the plunge to the frigid water has decimated their body, but now they are so deep underwater that they drown." (http://www.suicide.org/golden-gate-bridge-suicides.html) Notwithstanding such a horrific, certain fate, about thirty people have survived. I freeze in my tracks for several moments of spacey contemplation, my gaze oddly rapt at the blanket of awaiting sea below, a pacific calm that greets jumpers' bodies like "a truck smashing into a brick wall." It’s hard to imagine, but this beautiful setting is the most popular place in the world to self-destruct – averaging one every two weeks.

On that grim note, we ride on, and I send out a last-second thought and prayer on the wind for the poor depressed souls who come to this spot for a very different reason from most of us. Soon, we’re back at the Embarcadero BART station, no longer charmed and enthralled by all the urban activity and frenetic comings and goings and doings. Reflecting on the day's expansive and diverse adventure, it will be difficult to ever again feel "trapped" or "bored" by same old routines, or passing laments of "being stuck" without a car. For in such moments, I will recall Arthur Conan Doyle's words to the wise: "When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having [DON'T JUMP OFF THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE, GAMBOLIN' MAN!], just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking."

Amen - stress melts away, worries and cares are vanquished, problems dissolve, and the batteries of hope and optimism are recharged, and the shrinking spirit is emboldened to face the coldhearted and brutal world with courage and fortitude another day counting.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BIG BASIN REDWOODS ST. PARK: Biking the Skyline-to-Sea Trail Along Waddell Creek to the Immaculate Waterfalls in Pristine Old Growth Forest

Beginning at Rancho del Oso, the sea level outpost of Big Basin Redwoods State Park - a parcel of historic land situated about fifteen miles north of Santa Cruz, on Highway 1, across from the Pacific Ocean -- you can hike ‘n bike sixteen miles round trip and enjoy a super-fun, not overly strenuous outing to a series of three (depending on how you count 'em, four) renowned plungers known as Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls, Golden Falls and Golden Cascade. The sister falls are found in one of California's last great vestiges of preserved old growth redwood and fir forests, adding a touch of the magnificent and a whiff of the sublime to the adventure.

Being a mostly flat out 'n back with only about 400 ft. of total elevation gain, it’s a breeze getting there, tallying a little over six miles to the point where bikes are not allowed. Throw in an additional three or four miles (round-trip) of hoofing it up steep trails to view the water show, and you've got yourself a memorable day hike / bike ride for the ages. Knocking out the relatively “nondescript” miles on the first part on a leisurely mountain bike ride makes perfect sense, because although there is beauty and intrigue along the way on the "boring" fire road - it's actually the western terminus of the thirty mile long Skyline-to-Sea Trail - the real pay-off comes seven miles in when you get to a series of successively prettier waterfalls plunging over raggedly cliff faces and cascades streaming down colorful, smoothly slanted bedrock, courtesy of the abundant flow of the West Fork of Berry Creek, winding its way down the rugged mountain high up from some unimaginably difficult to reach, no doubt occult source.

Some observers – notably Chron outdoor writer Tom Stienstra and indefatigable waterfalls chaser and photographer par excellence Leon Turnbull - deem these falls, and Berry Creek Falls in particular, to be their personal favorite or hands-down the best found on the central coast / Bay Area. The majority of hikers - many surprisingly unprepared looking - reach the falls area via the main entrance at Big Basin headquarters off Highway 236, trekking up to twelve or more hard round trip miles, up and down varied and steep terrain, with the added bonus of taking in the biggest residents of the park - the 2000+ year old, 300+ ft. tall Father and Mother of the Forest giant sequoias. Many others, though, us included, prefer to avoid the huge crowds at the Visitor Center and nearby trailheads, and opt instead to mountain bike in. This is Big Basin, after all, maybe California’s most popular State Park, so it’s no small wonder that the place is swamped today, let alone it being Memorial Day weekend. Notwithstanding, it’s still not quite Yosemite-like, where crowds are packed in like drupelets; here, owing to the falls' multi-tiered layering, the hoi polloi hiking hordes are dispersed enough so as to make you feel not too, too cramped. But I speak too soon, for out of nowhere, seemingly, at the prettiest spot in the park, a group of fifteen admirers, along with several other smaller parties, suddenly show up, plop down for lunch, and engage in unmitigated chatter and constant laughter. . .nothing wrong with noisy merriment and an amusement park mentality, I suppose, unless you're seeking quite the opposite: isolation, tranquility, serenity and quietude, which is what this cathedral of a place deserves and demands. Or at least speaking in hushed tones. I often wonder. . .is it lack of respect that compels people to palaver away, or just giddy human nature, when in groups, to engage the muscles of the tongue instead of the heartstrings of silence and meditative reverie? Oh, well, it is a holiday weekend, I keep reminding myself, so what can I expect? To have the place all to myself, like my very own private confessional? I do find a sacred nook here and a spiritual cranny there to offer up some crude form of prayer and good tidings for the suffering earth and its suffering creatures.

Somebody, though, needs to confess to the possible murder of the place’s namesake – one Tilford George Berry – an eremite who lived a Spartan life at the base of the lower falls back in the 1870s. He sold a parcel of his land to one Jacob Eberhardt before leaving for business out of Boulder Creek, having left his rifle for safekeeping with a friend, one Jake Perkins. Several weeks later, Berry returned, disheveled and wild-eyed, grabbed his rifle, and stumbled off into the woods, never to be seen again until twenty-five years later when a “well known Boulder Creek physician” found his rifle in the brush leaning up against his sun-burnished skeleton, with a clean bullet hole to the head. The mystery of who killed ol’ Tilford George Berry - or was it suicide over some unrequited business or lovelorn interest? – might never be solved, but perhaps his ghost haunts the premises to this day.

At the beach, the wind is blowing maniacally, perfect for the expert kite and wind surfers frolicking across white tipped waves like colorful kinetic statues. We watch them maneuver on the great blue expanse of ocean, and then set off on our bikes. Once we're cruising down the trail, inland less than a quarter mile, we are sheltered by a wind break of trees and the day transforms in a matter of seconds from sand in your eyes blustery to still, beautiful and summery. The first stretch takes us through lovely marsh lands framed by big country hills – a tranquil and pleasant scene to behold. Sweet flowing Waddell Creek – West Waddell Creek, actually, which drains the several creeks in this twenty-four square mile vicinity of the Santa Cruz Mountains - gurgles alongside the trail, keeping us merry company the whole way in. Everything feels right, good, natural, free of stress, and a lackadaisical sentiment pervades our hearts. The creek - anonymous and understated in its demurring passage through the thickets and copses, and oft hidden by thick brush and obscured by rampant foliage – is easily ignored by many making this trek, in a single-minded pursuit of the main attraction, but we view the matinee marquee as a double feature.

As is our wont to do, we stop often to look and listen in silent appreciation, tune into the breathing pulsations and living energy of the thriving ecosystem. Moving slowly and deliberately through nature, no quicker than a banana slug it seems, we are intent on looking at the familiar things in a new light, through different eyes and with a renewed perspective, so that the miraculous bursts to life in the smallest and most insignificant of details, so that the commonplace is no longer such a common place, so that the mundane transcends, the predictable transforms, and the prosaic transmutes. Witness: a shiny acorn ensconced in a tiny cupola, riddled with pinholes, becomes a miniature work of sculptural art; silky lacings of spider web strands become filaments in an intricate woven pattern of fractal magic; tiny flowering weeds standing out in bold relief against a patch of red dirt like an arrangement of ikebana artistry; a barely noticeable side freshet induces pangs of the heart and a welled up sentiment of the spirit that moves in all things; a postage stamp size moth camouflaged like a maculation of lichen on a fallen log; elegant water striders dancing on the mirror of still water – all of this, at the edge of the miraculous, as Henry Miller wrote, we sense and glean the indissoluble connection of all things in life.

The creek chuggles along, purring and humming, vibrant with scintillating life forms, wending a shady what's around the next bend trajectory through robust stands of red alder and bigleaf maple, its sensitive stream banks adorned with lovely five-fingered fronds of fern, masses of willow and wavy stalks of horsetail, one of earth's most ancient plants. Naturally, it takes us double-time to get to the falls, because every fifty feet we're dropping our bikes to stop for a closer look, to seek a more intimate communion, eager to discover something new by looking at “the same old thing” in different light. On the verge of capturing an ephemeral moment of poignant composition, my camera battery suddenly zonks out, dammit, but luckily I’ve brought along my handy Flip camcorder – so all these photos are translated from video stills, hence their odd, muted quality. Oh, well, at least there is some visual reminder, but hopefully the anvil of my hammered words will burn the true lasting images in your mind’s eye.

Ah, what joyous relief – free from anxiety or hurry or commitment - to simply revel in the simple, underappreciated majesty of a back woods creek forming the basis of a healthy riparian corridor underpinning a robust ecosystem supporting a variety of amphibians and lizards, birds and mammals, plants and wildflowers, and, of course, the great Redwood and Douglas Fir trees. It’s in these old-growth dendro-giants where one of ornithology's great mysteries was solved - not until 1974 - when the nesting grounds - rather, the nesting branches - of the Marbled Murrelet was discovered to exist high in the canopy branches of the tall, old trees. Amazingly – maybe only from our perspective - this shore bird uses Waddell Creek as a prime flyway to seek out nesting sites in Coastal Redwoods and Douglas Firs as far as fifty miles inland. The Marbled Murrelet, although not endangered (yet) has long been on the decline in the Pacific Northwest owing to indiscriminate logging, and so is considered a "flagship species" to watch in the forest preservation movement. I would suspect the bird is doing just fine in these protected parts. . .but didn’t see a-one.

The ride is fun and invigorating, but not so challenging, with only a few rises and one hairpin, slippery, muddy section – nothing to get worked up over - and barely noticeable elevation gain over six miles to attain about 200 ft. in elevation where the bike trail ends. So, continuing along in our pococurante approach - no hurry, what’s the rush – we’re supremely enjoying the fresh air, the pretty forest, the soul-calming water flowing alongside. How many people, rushing to get to the falls, are missing what’s all around them, hidden in plain view? Although we're nowhere near the star attractions, we come across several arboreal specimens that blow our minds along Waddell Creek and farther up on Berry Creek Falls trail, where princely Douglas Firs and kingly Redwoods grow together in stately soaring harmony.

At trail's end, we dismount, lock up our bikes at the rack, and set off on Berry Creek Falls Trail, eager to see the main act after the sideshow “skits”. We first have to ford Berry Creek to access the foot trail - an easy hop over boulders and a small wooden bridge. The creek is churning and roiling here, dashing over boulders and logs, gathering additional momentum from several forks joining it. After about a mile of semi-serious uphill trudging, we hear the sound of plashing plinking water, getting louder and louder, until it becomes a relative roar - the plummeting force of Berry Creek Falls, tumbling over a mountainside cleft to a pool about 70 ft. below. It is a dazzling sight, and only a hint of what's to come. From my last visit here six long (short) years ago, we had run out of time and had to turn around, but now we’re relishing the anticipation of seeing / comparing Berry Creek Falls with its sister falls higher up the trail. But first, despite more than several people soaking it up at the viewing platform, we detour down to the redwood hewn observation deck to take it all in, revel in this bountiful waterburst, hear it with eyes wide shut, and let the symphony of gushing spray pound and soothe our soul. Berry Creek is in semi-full force – a wide curtain of white water endlessly dropping. I observe its nuanced flow, the quirks of geology making up its rock face, giving it dimension and texture and character. Many tend to assign to Berry Creek a five-star rating over its “lesser” sister falls, when, in fact, I think the “lesser” falls have greater charm and magical ambience, owing to – to – to nothing more than my own bias and prejudices and aesthetic preferences.

Silver Falls - if it's possible – really is prettier than Berry Creek Falls! A winding stairstep, with a cable running up its length to keep you anchored to the narrow path of trail, leads up to the brink of the 60 ft. glistening – Silver - plunger. But first we detour down to the base of the falls and find a place with a take-it-all-in view to repose and eat lunch. If there are dozens and dozens of people passing by on the trail opposite our vantage point, we'd never know it except for an occasional laugh, cough or muffled cry of delight or shout-out to a hiking companion.

Here, in a wilderness setting, the magnetic appeal of the falls induces a sheer inexpressible awe and joy at Mother Nature’s ephemeral creation of powerful, magical flowing water. (Where doesn't it?) Introspectively, musing in silent wonder, lost in contemplative reverie, we could easily pass the rest of the day here and not move another inch, or say another word, just kicked back in admiration at the primal scene unfolding before our eyes, of this silver curtain of water pouring over the broad lip of a cliff face in a subdued roar announcing its ever present drama, drowning out all other sounds of the forest - a steady droning of crashing symphonic aqua melodies. Although ample spring rains have replenished the watershed, the discharge, while impressive, is only considered moderate, nothing like snow melt creating outrageous roaring gushers you’d find at Yosemite or the Snoqualmie. But after a rainstorm, my oh my, imagine the transformation! But there I go again - imagining what might be instead of appreciating what actually is. (Not true, else all I write here is false blathering.)

Finally, we tear ourselves away from our little patch in the sun, filtered through a high canopy of spreading redwood branches, and leave our rusticated perch at the base of the log-jammed falls, and scamper across the creek and begin the climb up the staircase trail to reach the upper brink, where it's possible to reach out and touch the water - galvanizing in full force on the verge of a gravity-defying free-fall – letting it flow over your outstretched arm, feeling its clean, crisp, cold, pure quality. Peering over and down, the view is dizzying as a ton of water plunges and evaporates to mist and spray, creating an overpowering surging natural force out of such a seemingly small discharge from the creek’s narrow contours feeding the falls.

We clamber up and over the rock ledge and an amazing sight greets us – a carved out depression in the rock slide, comprising the bottom portion of what's known collectively as Golden Falls / Golden Cascade. A crystalline pool, mostly shaded, forms at the base of a drop-off shelf, with another one above that, leading down from a slickrock sandstone bed of shooting water. It’s totally incongruous – resembling a scene out of some Southwest vision of water on orange desert rock, but transplanted to a redwood forest. Higher up, another, wider orange colored cascade completes the series of falls - and despite earlier sentiments about judging which of these three sisters is the most attractive, there's something exotic and unusual about the Golden Cascade that immediately makes it my favorite – maybe it’s because I’m looking at something brand new, never before seen or imagined in this part of the Bay Area. How'd I ever miss this one for so long? Although lacking Berry Creek Falls’ and Silver Falls ' free falling length and tour de force spectacle of water plunging over cliff walls – qualities that make them the favorite of waterfall chasers and lovers – for Gambolin’ Man, Golden Cascade exerts another kind of power, imbues a simpler watery charm, has an approachability and immediacy enabling you to get up close and personally immerse yourself in the lush growth of dazzling green ferns and moss framing and contrasting the scene of bubbly white water running over the orange rock – stained by brown algae growing on the sandstone bedrock – all in all, an immensely satisfying be all end all destination for the day - creating an aesthetic visual sensation of incongruous forest beauty.

Plenty of people are gathered at the base of the 30 ft. upper tier cascade, eating lunch, setting up their photographic equipment, sitting and watching and admiring, as all nature lovers do everywhere. Selfishly, I just wish they'd vanish so I could enjoy and have it all to myself, this perpetual encore and never-ending curtain call of such a memorable sight. Eventually, only a group of Asians remain, about nine in all, seated all together, tightly packed in a row on a log bench as though comprising a single organism. I chalk it up as an interesting lesson in proxemics – defined by Merriam-Webster as “the study of the nature, degree, and effect of the spatial separation individuals naturally maintain (as in various social and interpersonal situations) and of how this separation relates to environmental and cultural factors.”

For our part, the day's getting on, so we take one long final look at the tropically reminiscent tableau, sigh, with a tinge of remorse somehow at having to leave it behind, and bid it adieu, until our next visit, whenever that might be. As with destinations of singular natural beauty, or places with iconic monumental wonder that tend to attract people in globs and blobs, such as Yosemite or Muir Woods, I unfortunately don't get to Big Basin very often (four times in thirty years). . .and so I'm feeling as though I’ve come from Indiana to see it and might never get another chance.

On the way down the cables at Silver Falls, two guys are blocking the way, setting up for some photography. I squeeze past one fellow, and announce my presence to the second guy – and, small world, it turns out we know each other! Marcelo is from Brazil, but has lived in the U.S. for many years, and teaches open source operating systems courses at UC Berkeley Extension. I didn’t know it, but he’s an avid outdoors adventurer, nature lover, photographer, yogini, and who knows what other secrets, passions and talents the man harbors. He’s elated (and very surprised, as I am) to see me, and we hug and high five as he pulls out his wallet and shows me his just-issued permanent Green Card – which, he reminds me with pride and gratitude, I happened to be instrumental in helping him get, the “turning point” in the convoluted process. I had forgotten, but I guess I did, at his behest, write him a letter with some key points of consideration that swayed Homeland Security to grant him permanent residency status. I guess you really never know how your selfless actions influence people in life. . .until you know. Tudo bem, rapaz!

It’s been a full day of taking in the big and the ancient – towering redwood and fir trees; confronting the striking and spectacular - 200 ft. worth of amazing waterfalls and cascades; engrossed in the sweet and gentle – gurgling creeks winding their way to the sea; and endless marveling at the mundane, contemplating the commonplace, and observing the overlooked; a full day of observing things on a grand scale; a full day absorbed in the intimate details of the small and unnoticed. If you aren’t quick or observant enough to stop, look and listen, such things can pass you by, never to be seen or enjoyed, in what at-first-glance appear to be of a puny sphere of being, but ultimately they resonate with a deeply profound spiritual significance. So let’s rejoice in the slimy yellow banana slug inching its way across the colorful mosaic of earth, doing a vital ecological job of cleaning up the forest floor and breaking down detritus; let's hear it for the animatronic newt methodically mobilizing toward the safety of a fallen branch carrying a snail in its mouth; let's cheer the six inch long skink, motionless and nearly invisible under an overhang of creek bank were it not for its metallic blue tail shimmering in the sun; let's give thanks for the slithering garter snake disappearing quickly into the brush; let's praise the nameless little birds flitting to and fro from branches; let's humbly bow down to the rotting log supporting a world unseen; let's give it up for all manner of tiny, quiet creatures who are as much a part of this great forest ecosystem as the venerable trees and sacred rushing waters and the people who come here to enjoy it all and cleanse the lens of their soul, the mirror of their heart, even if they don't realize this is the sole purpose of their visit. Let's sound our barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.