Category Archives: Hiking

Amboy Crater

There are clouds thin as sage smoke over the Bristol Mountains. The lava rock is comfortable against my back. A zebra tail, the twelfth today, regards us sidelong.

A dozen years ago, just up the road a couple dozen miles, I felt at home here unexpectedly. Today is the same, but inside out. I am surprised at the memory that I ever felt at home anywhere else.  Surely I have been here forever, at least since the crater a mile south did spume my backrest. Twelve years or twelve thousand? A gnat’s wingspan. A flea’s eyelash.

An hour of good conversation with an old friend, sitting here at the BLM Amboy Crater National Scenic Area parking lot, and that followed two hours of good conversation with a dozen new friends, and that on the heels of yet another hour of conversation I’d had in the truck with myself, Shadows lengthen in the Bristols, the Marbles.

How many turns of the wheel to bring me here? It doesn’t matter. A normal, pleasant afternoon, and all my life conspired to bring me here.



Mojave yuccas in bloom in JTNP.

Having decided to renew my attention to this blog, I spent a little time tonight looking through some of the hundreds of posts I’ve written here in the last 13 years, each one a little time capsule from a time before my life splintered.

I got what I longed for back then, though it took a while to sink in after I got it.

There was so much about movement then, lists of miles hiked and feet of elevation gained, as befits a life lived where the summers are seldom deadly and the winters mere damp hindrances. Here, even my intrepid pit bull wilts at the thought of a walk after 9 a.m.

I have joined a gym. I put on the miles on treadmills and Adaptive Motion Trainers. About six and a third miles today, counting those spent at one end of the leash.

Surprising how good it feels to move. All these years spent sitting in chairs, and I’d forgotten. Credit the dog with my being able to still do it at all.

The other day said dog and I, and our significant other visiting from out of town, hiked into a canyon that cuts through a small mountain range north of my house. We stopped after a mile or so when the way got a little rockier than we were prepared for. It turns out we were just a hundred yards or so from a spot where the canyon clears, and widens, and starts rolling downhill on the other side of the mountain.


I have made my share of mistakes in this life, errors manifold and sundry, and lately I think the worst one has been to expect unhappiness and strategize accordingly. I have assumed disappointment and planned only to maximize the value I could extract from it.

Steadfastness and loyalty are fine traits, but too often I have used them to prolong situations that I should instead have ended. Lean into your work, force that plow past stone and stump, and for all your diligence? At the end of the season you have still rended the breast of the earth.

It is harder to heal that soil than it is to plow it. Grass roots may infiltrate for centuries, sequester the carbon of a hundred ages, then die after one pass of the moldboard.

At some altitude last week, I hiked through a meadow of native grasses, Muhlenbergia and Hilaria grown ancient and yet still green. I would have liked to infiltrate my fingers among their roots. I would have liked to feel their seeds take root in my heart, to be sequestered securely in that meadow in the San Bernardinos.

I have assumed too much unhappiness. I have spent too much of my life in the furrows. It is time for Hilaria and Scirpus; time for stolons and leaf blades and the slow drift of windborne pollen.

A piece of paper

We went to REI this past weekend, because my old hiking shoes hurt my feet a little bit more than I find enjoyable. Got new shoes. Got a pair of socks to go with them, and a new Nalgene water bottle. Got to the checkout and realized that I’d taken my membership card out of my wallet a couple months ago. That was no problem: the cashier found it online. REI’s database people know what they’re doing.

Got home, tried the shoes out on a couple walks, got curious about where my card went to. Found it.

The REI card

I moved out of Apartment 1 at 218 Frisbie Street in Oakland California in 1991.

By the time I took it out in April or so to store away, I had been carrying that flimsy piece of paper in my wallet for 22 years. Actually at least three wallets in that period, come to think of it.

I don’t think of myself as the kind of person who’s able to hold onto things that long. Cutting boards, sure. Come January I’ll have held on to one particular rock for fifty years. But not pieces of paper in wallets that accidentally go through the laundry at least once a year. That seems so… grown up.


north ridge of Teutonia Peak

It is raining, a little. The wind off the little storm front brings the temperature down to a positively comfortable level. It’s almost cool. Not even 80°, and the scent of wet juniper and rock hangs in the air.

How long has it been since I’d climbed Teutonia Peak? Probably that day I was here with Matthew in the wake of the Hackberry Fire, which would put it at the last few days of July in 2005. More than three years. It was eleven years ago I first made this little hike, three miles out and back at most unless you bushwhack around the west face of Teutonia the way I did that first day, and I don’t remember even once noticing, hiking back down from the saddle beneath the summit, how just utterly beautiful the north ridge is. Perhaps it’s the slanting, cloud-filtered light, or the temperate air after an oven summer. Maybe it’s that juniper tang in my nostrils or the slow ebb of the heartbreak that’s preoccupied me these last months. Maybe I’ve noticed it before and just forgot.

Whatever it is, the sight is a fixative. I am suddenly embedded in the moment, a fly in desert amber. The clichéd sensation déjà vu has a lesser-known complement, jamais vu, the sudden feeling that one has never before seen the thing beheld. The sundered rock before me seems wholly unfamiliar, a spectacular surround entirely new.

And of course I recall earlier visits, hiking down into the rocks there with Sharon eleven years ago, clambering over fall after dry fall, marveling at the coffee ferns and lush moss in a desolate desert canyon. Alone a few years later, I dropped down into one of those little defiles before me there between the boulders and found a stripe of wet sand. There was a bighorn sheep hoofprint in the middle of the sand. I watched it fill with seeping wet, my hair standing on end: the print could not have been more than a few minutes old. I do remember being here, and yet I am wholly certain I have never been here before. I am split in two, two selves momentarily occupying the same space.

There is Ephedra growing here, and Echinocereus. The ground is covered in bright quartz gravel. I walk along the little trail, picking my way down the slope. My heart is full and I am content and yet I know this feeling will pass, will become one more memory of past happiness. I regret that for a moment. It is one more ache in an uncountable string of aches, this desire to take this spasmodic stroke of beauty and preserve it in some metaphorical solvent, to fold myself somehow into the landscape and never leave.

Pinyon jays raise a tumult in the Joshua trees. I watch a small flock of them work their way south along the base of the hill. I have no idea what they’re looking for. The closest piñon pines I know of are a dozen miles away, in the Mid-Hills. And are they even there anymore? I took a quick look last year, my first visit to the Hackberry burn since the fire went out, and I couldn’t look closely enough to tell whether any of the pines I’d known had survived. There were a few stands of juniper still living, islands in a charcoal sea.

There was a day I had wanted to become that landscape too, to forever grasp the moment and the smell of sagebrush, the tail of the fat coyote trotting across the rutted dirt of Wild Horse Canyon Road, the loud jays in the piñons and the long view north toward Teutonia and Kessler Peaks, and of all those things I longed to become that day the view still remains. A wall of fire took all the rest, turned sagebrush to smoke and coyote to calcinated ash. Though the jays were likely among the few animals that could outrun the front — at its worst, on June 26, 2005, it advanced five miles in an hour and a half — the trees they fed on were somewhat less able to run away. An animal may escape, but an animal is nothing without the habitat that feeds it, houses it, envelops it as a fossil cast contains its mold. There are piñons in the New York Mountains, the Clark Range, in the McCulloughs; settlement camps for Mid-Hills refugee jays.

Had I become that landscape, my heart would be char and smoke today. Instead I watched from 400 miles away, heart breaking by increment with each bit of bad news, a week that is, in the clear light of retrospect, the commencement of that long slide that culminated in the dissolution of my home and family. Distinct from the incinerated landscape, I survived with no visible scars.

That separation saved my skin, but that separation was as inevitable as breathing. By its very nature self-awareness implies a separation between self and not-self.  Beauty, a transaction between the perceiver and the perceived, could not exist without that separation. It is the obverse of longing’s coin.

Mastamho, the Mojave culture hero, after he summoned Coyote to bring fire for his father’s funeral pyre, after he created the Colorado River, after he apportioned the land and sent the various peoples — the Yavapai, Hualapai and Havasupai, the Chemehuevi, the Kumeyaay and Quechan and Ahamakav — each to their own places, after all his labors, he was tired. He became a fish eagle, according to the story, and now flies back and forth above the river he freed from the sand with his staff. In the process he relinquished his memory, his identity. One cannot merge with the landscape without making a similar though certainly far more prosaic sacrifice.

What would be the point? All is as it should be. I am that part of the desert grown aware of itself, these walls as natural as the chollas’ gloriole of spines. We long the way coyotes howl and ravens quark and datura blossoms clasp themselves closed until the night arrives. And this mountain too will burn, and preventably so. One beloved landscape after another will be lost, and we mourn, and we resolve to fight the next looming loss as inevitably, and as inevitably we will long for the staggering chaotic beauty that replaces them.

Surfeit of sore feet

Platystemon californicus, a.k.a. “cream cups,” El Sobrante Ridge 3/6/2005. Matthew and I hiked 14 miles today if you believe one map, 13 if you believe another. I believe 14: I am sore.

It was a slog. The rain stopped a few days back, but the mud remained on the trails. In places we were glad we’d laced our boots tightly: it was a good six inches thick where declivities had funneled extra rain onto sections of the trail.

But what good are weekends if you can’t spend them slogging through 14 miles of boot-sucking mud with an old friend?

We followed the trail around the north shore of the Briones Reservoir, with its lake-like fringe of tules and cattails. Coots and grebes sang from the astonishing blue-green water. A mile or so in Matthew gasped and pointed: a giant appparition floated in the air, crossing the reservoir without flickering a muscle. “So Matthew,” I asked, “what do you suppose that great, bluish, heronlike bird was?”

A small frog huddled in mid-trail in an inch of water, waiting for us to pass. Matthew scooped it up. We examined it, gave up deciding whether it was a bullfrog or something else, let it go. Later on we’d see two Pacific chorus frogs likewise in mid-trail, these obviously identifiable by their bands of Cleopatra mascara. One’s khaki skin was suffused with gold flecks. Matthew stroked its spine softly with a fingertip for a moment, then it left. We tried to catch the second for a minute, not particularly effectively.

Also seen: several lizards and change. Most were fence lizards, or (as we renamed them for the hike) Fent’s lizards, so called for their discoverer the famous if imaginary naturalist Dr. Fent. Matthew saw a skink. I did too, if noticing a flash of bright blue tail constututes “seeing.” “And change”? Toward hike’s end, I found a two-inch section of blue skink tail, likely shed to distract a predator. The tail now sits in the zinc pot on my front porch where the cardon cactus lives: that’s where I put all my lizard tails.

Oh, and an eagle, and a rodent tooth like a scimitar among the trail pebbles, fields of miners lettuce and cream cups and bright soapy orange poppies and blue brodiaea, feral cranesbills and filaree, sunburn on the back of my neck and on the teenaged girls smiling as they passed on horseback, sandwiches on the north shore as we headed up Oursan Ridge and trail mix and chocolate at Disorientation Point — where I signed the geocache register “Ed Abbey.” We crossed the Bear Creek inflow into the reservoir just before we got back to the truck, a couple inches deep to wash the mud from our boots. Call it 72 miles hiking for me since January 1.

P.S. Oh, yeah: A snake too. I only saw the tail, but I suppose it might well have been an Alameda striped racer — if said snakes have a dark variant with inconspicuous red-orange longitudinal stripes. Anyway, it was coal black.

A walk with Becky

Photo: Trillium chloropetallum, Bear Creek Trail, Orinda, today. We hiked about six miles, 58 total for me so far this year. I know none of you care: this is just the easiest way for me to keep track. We saw things charming, things sublime, and (don’t look at this next one if you’re squeamish: you have been warned) things grotesque.

One of the things I like best about my companion of the last 16 years is that she finds stuff like that last as fascinating as I do.

Back at home shuttered against the rain, I think it’s time again to post some reciprocal links (the official currency of Blogsylvania) for some of the folks not currently in my blogroll who’ve linked to Creek Running North. A few I’ve been meaning to add to the blogroll for some time.

Name This Thing
Under a bell
Older and growing…
River Tyde
a tech monk speaks
Wild Thoughts Blog
WolverineTom: A geologist…like Randy Marsh
Flop Eared Mule
Swerve Left
Sacred Ordinary
Mute Complications — a Weblog
Keats’ telescope
Hoarded Ordinaries
North Coast Cafe
Arbitrary and Capricious
Having chosen to swallow the red pill…
I Speak of Dreams
Cat Out Loud
.:bird on the moon:. love is the greatest law. boo-yah!
Howling At A Waning Moon
Only Connect
Slow Reads
Raised By Cats
Random Musings
making contact
L a u g h i n g ~ K n e e s
Beathra �an
Hoarded Ordinaries
Writerrific: Sit up straight and sharpen your pencils.
Gato Felix Infelix Regatta
making contact

Addendum: The estimable Hank Fox thoughtfully provided a link this month as well, and Technorati didn’t pick it up for some reason. Hank’s got a great site. Even just seeing his logo is worth a click.

Not that I’ll enjoy taking more time off work, mind you…

So I’ve set up the new household wireless network, encrypted to defeat all the thousands of Pinole wardrivers, and am enjoying Teen Girl Squad wirelessly from the comfort of the bedroom, listening to BB King being streamed up a firewire cable to the G5 and through the air to the base station and through the air again to the laptop without any skipping or hesitation, and replaying fond memories of the Moroccan lamb fettucine I ate for dinner, when I decide to check my email. Ah, life in the 21st century.

In my email is a note from a friend in Arizona. She and her husband are hiking across the Grand Canyon, North Rim to South Rim, over five days in May. This is a trip that requires hiking permits obtained well in advance and like that.  They have a permit for four hikers, but the couple they planned to hike with dropped out. They have one friend who’s leapt into the breach, and need one more.

Becky can’t go, though she needs a trip like that more than anyone I know. Damn shame. I’ll miss her.


I’ve been sick for about a week: a bad cold, but just a cold nonetheless. A couple days of swollen glands and tonsils, a couple days of fluid-filled chest cavity, a couple days of feeling like I could almost scrape up the energy to walk the dog if I concentrated. Over the weekend I slept. Woke up to greet the morning with Becky, kissed her as she left for her errands, and went back to bed to sleep until three.

Last night walking home from BART I noticed in the cool night that I felt energetic and fully oxygenated. How wonderful that feels.

I am going to hike on Diablo again this weekend. Probably not to the summit: perhaps another visit to Eagle Peak. I didn’t get nearly enough hiking in in the Mojave to suit me, a mere thirteen miles or so over the week. Call it thirteen, and include the night walk at Mesquite Spring, five miles over the floor of Death Valley under the moon. The payphone was up the road at the ranger station, and I wanted to call Becky. The quarter moon was bright enough that I needed no flashlight, though the verge between pavement and gravel blurred amusingly at times. Creosote by moonlight is a lovely thing. I reached the phone after an hour and called just as Becky walked in the door. An hour later I walked back. That night I camped at the lip of Death Valley Wash, a ten-foot cliff a short stumble from my tent. At half past asleep two coyotes sang not more than a dozen feet away. I lay frozen in my sleeping bag.

Waves in the desert

Lake Manly, Badwater, Death Valley. January 17, 2005.

Last Thursday I sipped coffee, the sand cold against my sandaled toes. The muddy, foam-flecked Mojave River flowed before me. Twenty years of visiting and I had seen water in this part of the river only once before, and then without stopping.

The truck engine clicked cooling in the morning air.

The river was swift and shallow. Small standing waves covered almost every square inch of its surface. A line of ripples before me like tiger claw marks on brown corduroy pivoted upstream and down. Standing waves’ key characteristic is that they, well, stand. They stay. They are static. I decided that the river’s flow must be fluctuating to make these ripples dance. Cubic feet per second on the Y axis and time elapsed on the X: waves within waves.

The full flow of the river right before me. Upstream, a dozen braids converged, to split again downstream. Water sounds echoed off the old Fred Harvey building. Houses are scattered among the red rock hills on the far side, up towards Old Route 58. In 1856 Illinois sent two delegates to the first Republican National Convention. One went on to the White House and martyrdom, the other moved here and built a mill across the river for his silver mines. Robert Whitney Waterman’s workers later remembered him treating them well, and their wives appreciated his ban on liquor, gambling and whoring. When the price of silver dropped, all scattered to the four winds. Little trace remains of the mill.

A man in an impossibly run-down house on the south bank rummaged through one of five cars in his yard, shouting at his dog. A Barstow cop drove by, waved at me, smiled.

The night before I drove through downtown Barstow after the sun had set. Scattered groups of men huddled around brown-bagged bottles. At a stoplight corner three of them stood facing me, no eyes nor noses visible, only gaping, questing mouths. I thought it a hallucination spurred by driving and peripheral vision. I dared not take a second look.

Waves in the desert. Chart most anything out here and you find troughs, breakers. In Death Valley on Tuesday I hiked up into Coffin Canyon, a high-walled slot carved out below Dante’s View. A hundred yards in I was stopped by a dry fall, fifteen or twenty feet of smooth vertical rock. I turned to face down-canyon. Ten feet above me, pasted to canyon walls, a bathtub ring of leaves were stuck still drying from floods of a week before. The newscasters called the storm “unprecedented,” the most rain ever recorded in two weeks in Southern California. At the mouth of Coffin Canyon the flood had carved a small notch into a broad alluvial fan, exposing layers of head-sized rocks moved by ancient storms. On the floor of Death Valley old Lake Manly had returned, a foot or so of water covering the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level. It would dry up within a month or so, leaving a thin layer of mud and salt.