Wednesday, June 15, 2022

BRUSHY PEAK REGIONAL PRESERVE: Homage to a Millennia-Old Sacred Site in the East Bay

Brushy Peak Regional Preserve hearkens the imagination back to another time and place, to a world preserved and untouched by the ravages of urban development and sprawl.
Here nuances of history and prehistory intersect and converge with archaeology, geology, geography, hydrology, botany, zoology, and ecology to shape and influence the natural history of the land. Only a keen observer or expert eye might discern its deep ecological workings.
Or perhaps it's best to leave wonder and mystery to a naturalist's sensibility or a poet's intuition attuned to Mother Nature's grand show  the unfolding majesty of creation and being  to truly understand and fully appreciate the dynamic interplay of forces set in motion to create the unique, ancient landscape of Brushy Peak.
Here imponderable scales of geologic time have elapsed with no one around to bear witness to unfathomable eons of cataclysmic volcanic activity, receding seas, shifting topographies, and the appearance and disappearance in the evolutionary pageantry of megafauna and other creatures and plant communities long since extinct.
Eventually, perhaps extending back 15,000 years or more, the stage was set to provide home, hearth and habitat to generations of humans whose ancient heartsongs, soulful chants and drumbeats still reverberate in the silence of lonesome valleys.
Whose hoary creation stories, medicine dances, invocations and prayers, and laughter and tears are spiritually palpable and mystically imprinted in the collective consciousness of the Ohlone ancestors of the First People who rightfully claim Brushy Peak as their Place of Origin.
I'm eager to begin hiking and exploring this gem of wild splendor tucked away in a parcel of nearly 2,000 acres northeast of Livermore, one of 73 open spaces and parklands (125,000 total acres) comprising the East Bay Regional Park District's vast holdings sprinkled among the valleys, peaks and ridges of the topographically diverse landscapes of the East Bay.
Tom Stienstra, my favorite Bay Area outdoors writer, sums up the exciting feeling of coming upon the unexpected:
"It's a great find when you discover a gorgeous hidden spot that you've driven past countless times without a clue that . . . a beautiful world of ancient crags, little-known sites and American Indian history exists."
Well, I had a clue. I knew of Brushy Peak as a relatively new addition to the park system, but my curiosity was sadly lacking. Brushy Peak just seemed too far out there, too barren and brutally exposed in the middle of hot, dry, lifeless hills, with not much going on, to merit the attention it most certainly deserves.
I couldn't have been more clueless, actually!
On first impression, Brushy Peak appears to be an insignificant bump in the earth, a mere knob kissing the sky at 1,702 feet. It looks familiar, but different; it appears the same, but new. But what did I know, never having visited Brushy Peak before!
I always thought there was someplace else bigger, better, prettier. I always figured I'd get there  someday. Little did I know that someday would not be until today, nearly forty years after I first began hiking and exploring the many splendored wonders of East Bay Out and Bay Area Wild.
For the moment, I'm sitting in my vehicle in the empty parking lot, delayed by an ominous bank of clouds gathering force and darkening the day. I am all alone in a world suddenly turned primeval, about to become a googly-eyed witness to a spontaneous storm rolling in.
There's nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the show as tempestuous skies break loose. A bolt of lightning splinters over a hilltop and a crack of thunder peals, scaring the bejesus out of me. A minute later the angry heavens unleash a cathartic ten-minute outburst of frozen pea-sized pellets.
I can barely hear myself think above the roaring din pounding down on the vehicle, which already suffered $5,000 worth of hail damage three years ago in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The hailstorm is followed by a brief spell of pummeling rain and lashing wind  a magnificent if somewhat frightening sight to behold. Several minutes later, the dramatic meteorological event dissipates, proving to be an ephemeral blip on the radar screen, but providing enough moisture to soak the ground and muddy up the trails.
With the storm clearing out, I check map coordinates and plot my route up, opting to take the long way round on West Side Loop Trail, which meets up with Brushy Peak Loop Trail toward the summit. I'm looking at a "mere" ascent of 1000 feet to attain "rarefied" heights of maybe 1500 feet elevation over a "moderately strenuous" couple of miles.
Dispense with the hubris, Gambolin' Man, because you're about to pay the price of admission!
Once up to the lower ramparts of the peak, the trail skirts the actual 1,702 ft. summit site. My plan is to explore the perimeter of the lower trail and continue on the Brushy Peak Loop Trail to Tamcan Trail to complete an "easy" five-mile hike.
Most likely, given time, energy reserves and shifting weather patterns, I will shorten things by bushwhacking down the steep hillside to check out the alluring pond I spotted earlier at the lower trail juncture near the staging area.
Either which way, it's bound to be a fun, challenging and scenic romp. I load up my pack with water, energy snacks, and as an afterthought, my rain gear, which turns out to be unnecessary cargo (until it wasn't!), and off I trek into the solitary wilds of Brushy Peak.
The initial going is a slog, with gooey mud caking on my boots like heavy plaster. Every so often I find myself having to stop and knock my feet against a rock and scrape off the muck. Finally, it becomes too much, and I ditch the trail and walk along side on the grassy expanse of the hillside.
That improves the mud situation but makes for uneven, rough progress through clumpy, wet patches of prickly needlegrass and foxtails clinging to my shoes and socks while annoying sticky plants scratch up my exposed legs.
Every inch of slow, pained progress toward my goal is worth it. Though my mettle is tested, and nerves are rankled, I'm barely aware of the discomfort, along with the obvious fact that I'm pretty winded already!
But I keep pushing up, up, up along the route, my body infused with the adrenaline of joy and exhilaration, my mind in a transcendent state of unfettered bliss. Such are the benefits and rewards of being outdoors, breathing in fresh air, taking in the grandeur of sumptuous surroundings.
As time slips by, blue skies prevail, transforming the once tenebrous day into a picture-perfect paradise of classic Diablo Range beauty promising heaven-scent breezes and rolling hills carpeted with colorful wildflowers and pretty tracts of wavy golden grasses.
Most spectacular and unexpected of all  the stunning boulder gardens, the eroded remnants of massive sandstone deposits upthrust, tilted and carried along fault lines millions of years ago from an ancient seabed, adding texture, depth and stop you in your tracks supernal beauty.
The first boulder garden I come to is encircled within a perimeter of scrubby oaks sheltering awesome rocks scattered about like crumbled ruins of a fairytale castle.
I am spellbound by weathered old trees richly textured in sweet-scented bark, held captive by lichen-painted rocks sculpted by some unseen magisterial hand, enthralled by their rare beauty, entranced with the antediluvian radiance of their glistening chartreuse, yellow and vermilion tones.
The bright world of sun-struck hills and blue skies is blotted out in this contained little ecosystem, classic and emblematic of the geology and richness and variety of endemic species found in the 150-mile-long Diablo Range, an unbroken chain of mountains stretching from the North Bay's Carquinez Strait to the southern reaches of Antelope Valley in Kern County, described by Eric Simons in Bay Nature as:
" . . . a rugged, remote, difficult realm, a biodiversity ark incised by the San Andreas Fault . . . and nearly unparalleled in ecological significance."
Amen to that!
I stop to breathe in earthy aromas exuding from centuries of duff accumulating beneath wizened trees, gnarled guardians of the hills whose knobby excrescences lend the appearance of stunted gnomelike figures, while others have elbowed out lesser specimens and are able to grow into magnificent stalwart sentries.
It's difficult to pull myself away from the magical setting.
In between photo sessions, I pause in breathless appreciation and submissive awe at the power and presence of gnarled oaks intertwining with rocks in a timeless dance of co-dependence: root and branch wearing down rock  bones of the earth!  to replenish soil nutrients and strengthening the trees to keep them growing.
Totally worth the price of admission!
Whilst the steadfast rocks force the trees to adapt their growth patterns around them in the same way a river adjusts its course around obstacles in a great never-ending cycle of rock-tree / tree-rock symbiosis. Who knows which entity will outlast the other and claim victory in the struggle for survival: tree or rock? Both or neither?
As conditions dry out, hiking becomes easier the higher I climb, but no less strenuous in the continual uphill trudge. Suddenly, the prospect of "bagging" this little old peak seems daunting. It's warming up considerably, and I'm starting to flag a bit. Must be lack of water; certainly, can't be my age and the fact that I haven't climbed 1000 feet over two miles in a long time!
Ah, yes, the price of admission!
From a distance, viewed atop a nearby ridge or from Mount Diablo's 3,849 ft. summit, Brushy Peak appears as a fairly pedestrian topographic feature. But I've come to quickly realize, huffing and puffing my way up, that Brushy Peak is nothing to scoff at, and very easy to underestimate from afar  and up close.
Climbing steadily up the steep, winding trail, the peak changes with each new angle, becomes increasingly impressive with each new perspective as I stop to catch my breath and take in the empyrean surroundings from the perch of this stand-out little mountain whose broad, rugged contours offers up far-flung views of wind turbine-topped ridges and unknown vistas beyond.
I stand atop a rocky promontory, silent witness to this wind-swept world, gazing into the infinite beyond, feeling infused with the ancient vibe of timelessness, at one with the eternal ebb and flow of creation, in synch and harmony with the undisturbed, natural rhythms of life.
Approaching around 1400 feet (estimated), I begin to feel the effects of light-headedness and flagging energy just as the weather starts to turn nasty. I'm sure glad I brought along my rain gear for micro-weather patterns can change things in a second! The temporary bluster is a doozy, just as I'm starting to feel woozy!
Ah, yes, indeed  the price of admission!
Wind whips up and rain begins to fall, sharp pellets stinging me horizontally, so I cut up a small ravine to a sheltering grove of oaks and find a refuge to plop down on a butt perfect rock ottoman and tear into an energy bar and drain nearly the last of my water while riding out the impromptu tempest.
I sit motionless for a while, reverently observing my surroundings, checking out boulders and rocks wondering what secrets they might hold or reveal of the presence of human activity here.
Might I stumble across a cache of acorn grinding holes hidden amidst an overgrown boulder garden; perhaps shards of pottery; or an arrowhead; anything, some clue or object which would indicate competence and ability of semi-nomadic humans to utilize the scarce precious natural resources needed to sustain human existence in harsh environs  life!
Musing over all this, I'm able to restore my energy, my soul bathing in the peace and quiet of this private sanctuary. The rain has ceased, cuing a smattering of life to appear. The symphonic chirping of insects and birds.
I'm hoping to spot one of Brushy Peak's famed residents  a rare shrike, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, burrowing owl, or horned lark  but only a few sparrows, a robin, some noisy crows, and a junco or two make their presence known, along with a few ground squirrels popping their heads out of their tunnel entrances, cute little cusses that they are.
Time to make my way up the ravine hoping to head off the highest point of access before being turned away at the true summit, where a sign is posted warning against trespassing. Without a map, I have no way of knowing or guiding myself except by intuition, and my sense of direction seems all turned around in this unfamiliar (but recognizable) / unrecognizable (but familiar) place.
I come to an expansive "false summit" area strewn with rock piles and dotted with brushy oaks. I notice a side trail snaking the other way west and north, surely leading up to the out-of-bounds summit.
Even though I could easily get away with it  who would possibly know? Maybe I should fling caution and ethics to the wind and go for it! I would just have to keep my photographs secret and not crow about it!
But I follow my better angel's instincts and resist temptation, continuing along on the opposite trail.
Because the right thing to do . . . is to do the right thing.
For decades prior to societal awareness of and sensitivity to Brushy Peak's ceremonial / religious / spiritual / sacred significance to indigenous ancestors, it was a destination frequented by many groups passing through and by people gathering for social events.
Some found practical purposes while traveling the old historic routes, such as using one particularly amenable boulder cave ("post office rock") as a drop box for traveling parties who would leave rolled-up letters and messages in the rock holes for the next party of travelers to find.
Others, like hippies in the 1960s, romped and frolicked in pursuit of fun and frivolity, dropping acid and seeking cosmic connections in their mind-blown psychedelic rites on full moon nights.
At least one famous bandit (Joaquin Murrieta) and other marauders stashed their loot here, hiding out and eluding capture. For a while members of the Brushy Peak Bohemian Club would gather to picnic, romp, and engage in their eccentric rituals and ceremonies  and doubtless a whole lot of tomfoolery.
And most bizarrely, and brazenly, onetime local landowner John Elliott deemed it suitable to arrange for his final resting place to be in a cement-encased tomb of a rock cave that once may have been the equivalent of a cathedral's holiness to original inhabitants and guardians of the sacred.
Whether out of disrespect or ignorance, or both, it was time to do something about Brushy Peak's reputation as a playground for people. In 2008, the park district hatched a plan to build hiking and equestrian trails to the summit site  without consulting local Native American stakeholders about the inviolate nature of their ancestral Place of Origin.
Indigenous rights groups united and fought hard-won legal battles to prohibit further activities and visitations to their sacred summit. Access was restricted to anyone not formally signed up with a guided tour.
It was a landmark decision to preserve and protect the site from permanent destruction. Because think about it: Brushy Peak is a sensitive, unique island in the sky of mega-sized wind caves and sandstone boulder outcrops existing in timeless isolation.
A world high and apart from the sprawling cityscape below, sheltering thick stands of ancient oak trees harboring delicate geophysical features such as eroding rock formations and archaeological treasures, and harboring irreplaceable biological life forms such as delicate bark, lichens, ground nesting birds, and endemic plant, animal and insect species.
Moreover, it is a place of ancestral ritual enactments, a sacrosanct site of supreme magico-spiritual significance. Jakki Kehl, a Mutsun Ohlone activist and "Most Likely Descendant", believes Brushy Peak is the only remaining intact, undeveloped, trail-free sacred site in the East Bay.
A holy spot where Coyote the Creator left his footprint during a primeval supernatural journey to the center of the universe, an integral telling of the Ohlone creation story.
Brushy Peak is of such ceremonial, religious, spiritual and sacred importance that the Berkeley City Council passed a Resolution acknowledging it as "The Ohlone Place of Origin" and urging the East Bay Regional Park District to do the same and set it aside for all time.
Don Hankins, Plains Miwok descendant, assistant professor at California State University, Chico, exhorted:
''They shouldn't put the trails in because Brushy Peak is part of our creation story. It is a place our healers have gone for generations to help in healing ceremonies. There is also a solstice site complex that is associated with these areas.''
Archaeological surveys have uncovered evidence of the area's rich past steeped in tradition, ritual and day to day living, though no evidence of permanent settlements exists  most likely Brushy Peak and neighboring locales, such as Morgan Territory, Round Valley and Vasco Caves, served as seasonal, transitory meeting up places for various groups of itinerant tribelets.
An Alameda County Community Development Agency's Impact Analysis Cultural Resources Report notes that Brushy Peak:
" . . . consists of a Native American village and bedrock mortar complexes . . . located on sandstone outcrops and boulders."
At the very least, I hope to stumble on some "lithic scatters", perhaps non-utilitarian "rock art" cupules, and easy to find (ha!) acorn grinding mortar holes carved in rocks below the peak where hiking is legal. As much as I'd love to see the site, for now I can only imagine the world of wonder that must greet people who are guided up there.
Unique vistas in a bio-diverse, ecologically sensitive environment, seasonal (vernal) pools inlaid in sandstone tinajas harboring precious life forms such as Longhorn fairy shrimp, and remarkable boulder formations of the kind seen at nearby Vasco Caves Regional Preserve.
Yet right where I stand, below the summit by a few hundred feet, is itself a mystical, primeval, silent and vast world of incredible rock outcrops, tree-rich gardens, and stellar views.
Totally worth the price of admission!
After wandering around in a trancelike stupor of awestruck wonder, I am and will forever be amazed at the rocks and trees and grasses and lichens, humbled by the never before seen and oddly alien yet at the same time deeply familiar beloved views.
For now, though, it's time to say goodbye with a tip of the hat, a reverential salute, and a prayerful invocation from my heart to recognize and thank the spirits eternally residing here for the opportunity to experience the magic it offers and the psychic energy it bestows.
But naturally, I am spurred on by an adventurous streak, revitalized by a sudden burst of energy. I bushwhack down a steep hillside to explore more boulders and rock formations.
I chance upon one that could be mistaken for the jagged ruins of a fortress wall in the Scottish hills, and another fifty-foot-high boulder complex that requires extra-special care (slippery from the rain) climbing up and over, around and atop a razor back formation.
I finally circling back to the amazing boulder garden farther below on my first stop where I discover a few arboreal specimens I'd overlooked whose roots and branches insinuate into the malleable sandstone rocks to become remarkable hybrid tree / rock entities.
Down from on high, I'm now standing at the edge of the beautiful pond, pumped with wonder at a precious water scene in a naturally sere environment. The pond is a wildlife magnet harboring and attracting several endangered and threatened animal and plant species.
I hang out silently for a half hour, gulp down some nuts and drain the last drops of my own precious water, hoping against all hope, if I remain quiet enough, to see two creatures who have always eluded me: the California Tiger Salamander, and the San Joaquin Kit Fox.
I spot some baby frogs  perhaps of the red-legged variety  but no sign of the Western toad or Pacific tree frog. I'm also keen to spot, always on the lookout above, for hawks, and in the open range eager to see a rock wren hopping about, or horned larks feed, or Western meadowlarks singing their hearts out.
But it seems most every furry and feathered resident is in hiding today. Reluctantly, never able to immediately pull myself away from a precious spot, I look back over my shoulder several times to take in final glimpses  perhaps for the last time  of Brushy Peak's subtly imposing facade.
Now diminishing in size with each step and transfixed by its gorgeous shimmering reflection in the pond. Fairly exhausted, I'm happy knowing it's the last leg of the hike. I near limp back to the car.
For untold millennia, Brushy Peak and environs served as a vector of human cultural interaction, a natural crossroads, trading post and gathering locale for indigenous peoples near and far in the valleys spreading out toward the Delta and the Sierras.
Here Bay Area Ohlone (the Ssaoam Ohlone in particular), Bay Miwok, and Northern Valley Yokut peoples came together during propitious times to share in elaborate ceremonies, engage in the trading of precious objects and resources, and to harmonize and socialize with one another.
They gathered life-sustaining acorns and buckeyes, tested their luck playing gambling games, and went about their age-old business of doing what humans have done since time immemorial: living in harmony with the changing rhythms of the seasons over the course of countless generations lost to the dim mists of antiquity.
Major respect due and proper homage finally accorded to the sacred formation and landscape encompassing Brushy Peak Regional Preserve. For that, my heart and soul can rest easy now.
Seek out this place, just a short drive from the maddening rush of I-580 and Vasco Road, practically on the city of Livermore's bustling doorstep, and you will be treated to a glorious vision of intact Bay Area wilderness, vast and solemn in its understated presence, holding mysteries and secrets of an ancient land and native heritage to be cherished and protected for all time.

Brushy Peak Bohemian Club, in the early 1900s, atop Brushy Peak. (Courtesy of Livermore Heritage Guild.)
Read Gambolin' Man's posts on Brushy Peak's "sister site" of Vasco Caves Regional Preserve & adjacent sacred ground of Morgan Territory Regional Preserve:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow Tom...amazing story!

6/17/2022 9:33 AM  

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