Wednesday, October 16, 2013

MORGAN TERRITORY: Adventure & Exploration in Mount Diablo’s Black Hills Seeking Vestiges of Proud, Strong Volvon / Ohlone / Yokuts People

August 20 arrives with soaring mercury levels, zero humidity and red alert conditions would dissuade most sensible minded folk from choosing Morgan Territory as a playground today.
The sprawling parkland is not exactly a place where two-legged critters (operating two-wheeled contrivances) want to be finding themselves on a powder keg day. You could spit and set brown grassy fields ablaze.
It’s been a terrible drought year, a perfect storm of catastrophic fire conditions – the Sierra Nevada Rim Fire burned an unimaginable 400 square miles of pristine National Forest land and part of Yosemite National Park, while the local Mount Diablo fire, also caused by a careless individual, consumed over 3000 acres on southeast tinder box dry flanks.
Up in the Redding / Shasta area, what’s happening is scary, and Colorado’s Black Forest apocalyptic inferno incurred $300 million in damages. Luckily, deaths – human deaths, that is – have been few.
The animal toll must be in the tens of thousands.
Fire devastation has greatly intensified in the past decade, owing to the increasingly deleterious effects of global warming and, to a critical degree, decades-long forest service mismanagement of fire suppression tactics.
As of this minute, they are scrambling to rectify their budget-deficit caused wrongs. And, things will recover, they really will, won't they, recover . . . over time . . . over time . . .
And yet here you are, bucking the elements, sufficiently deluded to have chosen the searing plateau of Morgan Territory as your recreational venue. Okay, so it’s your birthday, but to drag Gambolin’ Gal out here?
At best, a shady woodland stroll on the air-conditioned side of the East Bay Hills ‘long side a burblin’ creek might be in order, but not pedaling away in 90 degrees heat a blistering 2000 ft. above sea level.
You're drenched in sweat, and fully exposed for long stretches to ozone depleted rays mercilessly beating down on you in a microwave bombardment of skin cell damaging UV radiation. (And of course, you forgot your sun block, and, dammit, your lip balm, too.)
All with the going made extra tough by having to negotiate tangles of roots and jumbles of rocks, while rutted out stretches and downed branches and cowshitgreen bovine paddies splattered all over the place add to the detraction of your mission at hand.
But you don’t let it deter you from enjoying the place!
Which is to enjoy a swell(tering) mountain bike outing on the roller coaster ridge top trails of Morgan Territory. (Usta be, back when it was your very first mountain bike ride, a ball-busting all out tear ‘em up adventure; today, lung-busting, yes, but that’s about it, Old Sport.)
Of all the East Bay Regional Park District lands held in trust for our recreational enjoyment and spiritual nourishment, perhaps nowhere else exerts a greater mysterious presence and power of place (over you) than Morgan Territory.
Right here, and in a surrounding 100 square mile area, a thriving Pre-Columbian population of Bay Miwok and Costanoan peoples lived in vital, creative, settled communities.
The direct ancestors of today’s various extant groups (Ohlone) left behind barely discernible remains and clues of their inter-connected cultural presence in and around Mount Diablo. Archaeological research / evidence has supported a continuous population settlement pattern going back 400 generations, or 13,000 years.
Malcolm Margolin, author of the seminal The East Bay Out: A Personal Guide to the East Bay Regional Parks (1973), revels in Morgan Territory’s:
“ . . . airy, top-of-the-world feeling.”
And, in true Gambolin’ Man fashion (!), he compares the difficulty of getting here with Nepal and Bhutan back country roads!
(Only a slight exaggeration, but you gotta love it! Have you forgotten already how you compared Lake Berryessa to Lake Titicaca?)
Atop Bob Walker Ridge, elevation 2000 ft., Volvon Trail offers up island in the sky views of golden voluptuous hills and deep cleft valleys with a very dominant Mount Diablo framing many a breathtaking vista. Except for a couple of radio towers, there’s no hint of anything resembling civilization, present or past.
If it were a clearer day, you could see the Sierra Nevada Range of Light eastward, and, northerly, a striking view of the 4341 ft. tall Mount Saint Helena, known in the local native tongue as Wappo: Kanamota, "Human Mountain".
In the exaggerated way you love to portray East Bay topography as more grandiose than it is, you’re doing your best impression of Mr. Optimist to convince your skeptical riding mate how beautiful and awesome things are.
How precious the moment is.
How incredibly wondrous and unusual to be singularly out here with nobody, nothing around except hawks and lizards and ground squirrels and rattlesnakes and woodpeckers and tarantulas and – well, the rest of ‘em, they’re wisely hidden away in their outta sight cool dens.
Truly, you are alone out here. (Can it get any better?) (But wait! What did that sign at the unpeopled staging area say about back country hazards and precautions?) (Are you hydrated enough?) (Do you have a tube repair kit?)
Indeed (despite red alert conditions), (in your mind) what could be more precious (you keep insisting to your flagging riding mate) than THIS fairytale forest of stunted moss-draped Blue Oak trees, such tough and admirable little Quercus specimens.
Or THESE epic Manzanita trees, the most impressive Arctostaphylos you’ve ever seen. Or THIS landscape – chaparral, grassland, oak woodland riparian – protean thorough the seasons, now harsh and arid until the next paltry rains fall.
This ridge is beautifully dotted with multi-colored lichen-crusted, oddly shaped boulders – garden sculptures situated atop small eminences offering up far-flung views of largely unknown Delta and Valley lands, beyond the familiar purlieus of your beloved Diablo Range.
And (you go on and on), what could be more soul-satisfying than worshipful visions in all directions of sacred Tuyshtak (Mount Diablo), the center of the universe for the Bay Miwok tribes who coveted the sweet creeks and waterways of the inland valleys.
Finally, (you win her over), how much more attuned can you possibly get to the spiritual force field of the Ancient Ways vibe, emanating and felt right here in the ecologically sensitive and archaeologically rich (but largely unnoticed) Black Hills of Mount Diablo.
Yeah, what could be sweeter? (You admit, after all, that it WOULD be a hair nicer if it were a springtime day after a good rainy spell.)
You don’t last long on your mountain bikes, opting instead, with little resistance from Gambolin’ Man, for a truncated route (back the easy way) after a seriously lame attempt to drop 850 feet in under a mile on a god-awful rutted out trail.
You kept thinking what the hay you might just make it down to Round Valley and could check out the recently dredged and refilled Los Vaqueros Reservoir, and who knows, spot an endangered Kit Fox.
What are you, nuts. You’re goddamn near sixty years old. Look at you – panting like a wildebeest dying of thirst in the Sahel, having just descended a super-tough 100 ft., and now you’re paying the price, off your bike, grunting, pushing the Sisyphean beast back uphill the way you came, with not one but TWO bum feet, and not one but TWO bikes, for now your riding mate is really feeling it, as in heat struck.
In an impetuous burst of energy, though, you’ve torn off a quarter mile out of sight before realizing (stopping to observe her through your binoculars) that she’s waylaid in the spreading shade of a giant Valley Oak, deep breathing trying to regain her equilibrium.
You race back in time to minister soothing salves of commiseration; you pour water on her wrists and dribble dabs of warm liquid on her nape, bringing her back from the dead. Soon she’s ready to roll again and you’re back on the rollicking crest trail, with relief surely somewhere in sight. Meanwhile, it just got three degrees hotter.
You’re (mosdef) baked.
You roll into an Oak-dense, Manzanita-rich Forest, dropping the bikes to bird watch for a moment and check out the most impressive sentinel Manzanita you’ve ever seen, anywhere, right off the trail. It might be residing in this sanctuary like a guardian of the ages for the past 300 years.
Who knows. Nearby Manzanitas deign to compete in girth, height, textural richness and sculptural complexity, but fall short of measuring up to this arboreal Mama wonder  – an absolutely epic specimen, reddish-chocolate, thick bodied, and gnarled-branched.
You can’t take your eyes off of it, circling it repeatedly, touching and stroking it, lost in rapt admiration, more even than you would for a prized sculptural masterpiece in the Louvre.

But you're still toast. Assessing your surroundings – deathly silence comes to mind – you bask in the bone-penetrating isolation of Morgan Territory’s vast scale – undulating hills, sprawling meadows, long, high ridges, literally soaking up the presence of those who came before.
Home to mountain lions, golden eagles and rattlesnakes, this cradle of Bay Area civilization once provided hearth, home and shelter to Native Americans, the "First People" – some who lived in permanent settlements, others passing through, areas perhaps abandoned now and again owing to micro-climate changes.
But always returning (or staying) to feast on the edible bounty of the land: wild plants, acorns, herbs, berries and fish in the streams of the headwaters of Marsh, Tassajara and Kellogg Creeks.
Evidence abounds of the presence of a dedicated established culture – bedrock mortar holes, pit house structural remains, and burial sites (elsewhere). Robert Bardell, author of The Lost City in the East Bay Hills, confirms what obscure geo-archaeological field research over the years has proven, that the:
“ . . . lost city of Volvon was a veritable Shangri-La in the prehistoric Bay Area.”
You continue on, badly needing a rest, but spurred on in the hopes of finding some of this in-plain-sight yet oddly difficult to locate evidence. You take a side trail leading to a shady copse of Oak and Rock, a quiet place, not even the sound of a plane, where you kick back and enjoy the crisp, crackling fresh aromatic environs.
Sensual hot smells are unleashed from bushes that you call “that Yuba Smell” and “the Ogre’s Cum”. A listless relieved feeling washes over you of having barely escaped the brutality of the elements – a feeling as good as revival soak in a hot springs or a rejuvenating dunk in an icy river pool.
Yep, that’s how you feel, lying there all sprawled out with a rock as a head rest and the hard-soft acorn-littered ground as your mattress – and wow, are they ever some big bullet acorns.
A blissful interlude ensues – not a care or worry or complaint or wish or urge. Secure in the knowledge that the parking area is a laughable fifteen minutes away, you can finally chill a bit and enjoy the austere, rugged magic of Morgan Territory.
A perfect breeze flutes by, and, now fully recovered, you come to realize how very pleasant it is here in this Blue, Valley and Interior Live Oak copse. And come to understand why this place, situated in a spring-laden valley high above the plains, attracted the Ancient Ones to settle here.
The tough Oak are perfectly adapted to arid soil conditions, having provided the Volvon people with a staple (and stable) food supply (along with Buckeye), evidenced by dozens of bedrock mortar holes found in banks of rocks adjacent to evidence of permanent settlement patterns (house pits).
Springs and seasonal creeks provided all you needed. A grinding, rhythmic existence, this lifeway carried on for – it is possible, you contend – 100,000 years, up until just a couple of hundred years ago when the last of the Volvon (and other tribes) were completely and ultimately subjugated, vanquished, assimilated and otherwise driven to cultural and near-physical extinction.
You’re trying to imagine those who came before you, weary bands of travelers who also found relief on a hot day. Somewhere around here, scattered among sandstone boulders, you hope to find some mortar holes used for grinding acorns, or some rock-solid evidence of community.
Bardell claims a “Volvon Village” existed here, nearby, but what remains are just tantalizing shreds of evidence to prove it. But you agree, he makes a strong case for:
“Volvon – the lost city in the Bay Area’s own backyard.”
Your reconstructive imaginings take a dark turn; alas, pity the poor Volvon – a once thriving, proud, free and independent people reduced to a speck of insignificant, defeated, brutalized humanity, a vanquished people who once laid claim with their tribal brethren to vast land holdings including adjacent Round Valley, the source of their existence, the beginning of their cosmo-poetic creation myths.
Original squatter rights prevailed for millennia . . . until the U.S. Inquisition of Native Americans (your term) did them in. But imagine – 10,000 years ago living peoples’ ancestors buried a human being near present-day Los Vaqueros Reservoir in what is the oldest carbon-14 dated grave in the San Francisco / Bay Delta region.
You conjure up images of an idyllic lifeway, a peaceful society, well-fed, semi-nomadic (or is that semi-permanent), highly artistic, creative and animist, with shamans ruling in magico-spiritual benevolence behind facades of Spirit, Herb, Deer, Rattlesnake, Bear Doctors.
Ready for a bit of action, you trace an easy line uphill, inspecting the undersides of unusual rock formations, kicking leaves aside hoping to find something, anything. No such luck, and just as well, since the practice of “daylighting” Indian mortar holes has East Bay Regional Park officials frowning; they consider it a form of vandalism of in situ cultural resources.
Other guardian organizations, such as the American and Bay Area Rock Art Research Associations, are also up in arms over the publication of GPS coordinates, and have formally requested that Native American site hunter James Benney, author of Native American Indian Sites in the East Bay Hills:
 “ . . . reconsider the potential harm your activities may cause to these sites” and “to PLEASE remove all site location information, including directions and GPS coordinates, from your website.”
Both Benney and Bardell, though, ardently believe the public has a right to know about and access such cultural resources; even Tom Stienstra, Outdoor writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, agrees. Stienstra acknowledges it’s a good thing:
“ . . . because exploring parks and discovering artifacts connects the visitor to the past and instills reverence. We conserve only what we know and love. What we don't know, we don't love, and hence, don't care enough to protect.”
Benney, Bardell and their ilk – you may even fall into that category, or may not, depending on your mood du jour on the issue – believe it’s perfectly fine to expose the past, uncover the lid, blow the dust off, respectfully, of course:
" . . . the need for increased public awareness and an appreciation of Native American history outweighs the need to hide some sites in order to protect them." (Benney)
A casual reconnaissance, you’re lost in a fantasy of hopeless serendipity, thinking an obscure deer path up a brush-tangled eminence will lead to some definable remains of Volvon or one of five contiguous villages in the immediate area identified by Bardell.
It’s gotta be right here, with those stellar eastern views of Brushy Peak – isn’t this the area where the main village structures existed? You take purchase on a VW bug-sized rock, breathing in views of a ghostly blue reservoir on one side and looming Diablo on the other, trying to imagine what it was like.
Through Benney’s eyes:
“Gather around water. Gather around food sources. Defend territory. Conduct ceremonies to maintain interconnectedness. Procreate. Recreate. Births. Deaths. Famines. Floods. Earthquakes. Times of peace and prosperity. War.”
In short, very much like Present Time.
But you’re unable to locate any sign of prehistoric activity. You’re too Old School for global positioning system technology, and dumbly forgot to take note of Benney’s and Bardell’s directions to the “Village”.
Most of Morgan Territory’s 4708 acres comprise a matrix of bike-friendly trails, but certain off-shoot pathways lead to sacred and sensitive areas, strictly for two-legged critters not operating two-wheeled contrivances.
On past occasions, you’ve explored some of these intimate trails named after favorite Volvon companions: CONDOR, RAVEN, HUMMINGBIRD, PRAIRIE FALCON, EAGLE, FOX and COYOTE. Some awfully beautiful stuff to be found in the nooks, crannies and hollows of Morgan Territory’s Animal Spirit trails.
All for another time and place. For now, heart heavy with unrequited allure, you say sayonara, give thanks and praise, take one more glance around each way, hop on your bikes . . . and take an hour to get back because the bird watching is so damn compelling.
 Thanks, Gambolin’ Gal, for indulging me!
Check out more Gambolin' Man posts on the magic, mystery and majesty of Mount Diablo & environs: