Tag Archives: Hiking

Lichen on pallid manzanita

lichen on manzanita

There are two places in the world to which this manzanita, Arctostaphylos pallida, is native. One is a small part of the Oakland hills in and near the Huckleberry Regional Botanic Preserve. The other is where Matthew and I hiked yesterday, on Sobrante Ridge.

I haven’t been there in so long.

The species’ habitat is mostly protected from development, though some of the Oakland Hills stand is on private land, and a few got cut down to the ground by utility right-of-way brush clearers in 1992. (I found the amputated limbs lying by the roadside a day later. I don’t think anyone ever paid for that particular crime.) But a couple good fires with bad recovery conditions following, or a five degree increase in average temperature combined with more summer precipitation (a strong possibility on the coast) and these plants could be in serious trouble.

Those are possibilities, though. We sat beneath the current reality yesterday:

Pallid manzanita berries
Seeing new growth and a new potential generation on an endangered species: a good feeling.



Running is wrestling.

Running brings the demons to the surface, the doubt, the defeatist self-loathing. It reveals them more quickly, more reliably, than weeks of the most skilled therapy.

I ran fairly well last night, an unathletic 5K for those of us who quantify such things, and a fifth of the way along I had already persuaded myself twice to keep going. A demon manifests and points out the sore knee, the stitch in the side, the sudden hungers literal and metaphoric, the likelihood of something better happening somewhere else. They suggest, rather pointedly, that I stop.

They are angry bees. Stop to address them and you feel their stings, but if you keep running they will only follow you a little way. I pick a landmark a hundred feet ahead, a hundred yards. I tell myself to run at least to that lamppost ahead, to the bridge over the creek where the swallows build their nests, to make it at least that far and then decide whether to continue. If I stop there, it is a victory of sorts.

More usually, I remember hundreds of yards past the mark that I was supposed to make a decision of some kind. At least in this one way I can make the attention deficit work for me.

Distraction is armor against the demons. Last night, rumination on a friend’s recent note about the notion of “redemptive grief” got me much of the way up two kilometers of hill. What is “closure,” after all, but the expectation of conclusive redemption? Crating Zeke between book covers did nothing to prevent the muddy paw prints tracked across my mind, the claw scratches at the back on my neck as he asks to be let in. It was a night like this 18 months ago that the inevitability of that loss sank all the way in, and the Futility Demon suddenly sucked all the oxygen out of the bay-side air as I ran. I stopped short that evening without conscious thought. Any path I choose to run leads back to the demons eventually.

The hilltop is only three blocks away. Make it that far, 2.5K, and then decide.

At one block from the top I meet the end boss, the demon most difficult to beat. My ankle starts to ache, and I think without intending to of that time in 1997 when I ran on a sore ankle and limped afterward for months. This demon is suave, a fighter native to my internal territory. He knows the terrain well. His voice is comforting, nurturing. “Are you overtraining, Chris? You shouldn’t be forcing yourself to run if it hurts.” He plays all the angles. “What’s with the ridiculous stoicism, the macho? You’ve done great already. There’s no shame in stopping here.”

I tell him to get back to me in a hundred yards. A hundred yards won’t make all that much difference to an overtrained ankle unless I twist it, which I could do just as easily walking home.

Twenty yards on, as I run down a narrow walk cloaked in overgrown oat and mustard, a rustle comes from my left. This is skunk country. I am hypervigilant these days. Every hair stands on end and then I see the source of the noise: a black-tailed deer.

We run together for a hundred yards, my pace feeling the way hers looks, a long series of slow, buoyant arcs.

I am demon-free for another mile or so.

Divorce is looming, though, and displacement, dislocation as of bone from socket. This is a perfect run, I think, even running into this tree-shattering wind, even running into this North wind driving tall whitecaps on flat San Pablo Bay, and after June when wilI I see the Bay again? My laps through this neighborhood are numbered.

I stop running then, without even thinking about stopping, at around 3.5K. I walk a little.

I turn around and walk past the spot where I stopped, about a hundred yards past, and turn again, and when I am ten feet from the demon spot I begin running again, a hundred yards at a time. Again I approach the swallow bridge, a quarter mile away. I will stop there, I promise the demons. Let me make it there and I will stop. That’s 4.5K. I can live with 4.5K. Let me get that far and I’ll let you win.

At the far end of the bridge I turn, ready to stop.

An enormous red moon is rising. It hangs low over the hills only eight hours before it’s full. The wind shifts a little, blows my hair off my back and over my shoulder. It streams in front of me.

I force myself to stop at 5K.


Rabbitbrush guards the entrance. There is ice on the wind, and yet my shirt is soaked through in front. The blinding cold sun does not enter the cleft but I do, pushing through a wall of scratching stems. Burrs coat my clothes and I am through.

The path is black, basalt sand sloping softly down into the fissure. The walls are three feet apart, thirty high. Then fifty. Then eighty. The walls at length seem to close over my head.

It is cold here under the earth.

I once walked down into the earth, chamber beneath deep chamber, until the path I was following disappeared beneath a cold, black pool. There was no light, no way of knowing how deep beneath the water the path continued, and almost certainly no air at the end of it. I felt reluctant to turn back nonetheless, momentarily ashamed at how easily I gave up.

It is cold here under the earth, and the fissure’s sloping floor surprisingly devoid of life. No animal sign, few plants. Seventy feet above me spiders have built desultory webs across the opening, silk strong as bridge cables, and one of the webs has caught a clump of feathers: a quail, perhaps, or a grouse caught by a hawk, and striped feathers tumble across the desert before the wind in the aftermath.

The walls are smooth, embedded fist-sized clumps of basalt, improbable granites. I round a twist: before me the way is blocked, twenty feet of sheer boulder to climb were I to continue.  A side path dwindles to a four-inch cleft, less than a hand’s breadth wide running fifty feet to the surface. I consider making myself small enough to pass, or — even better — wedging myself in tight, embedded in the earth for good. The feeling passes.

On the surface I jump across a narrow ditch, 18 inches at its widest, and turn back, suddenly curious. The ditch has no bottom. I find a small rock, toss it in. It makes no noise.



The problem with going through the motions is that finally, at long last, you look around to find you have gone through all of them. There are none remaining for you to go through, you discover, and then the question arises: what next?

I walked eleven miles Sunday. I walked briskly, almost at a run. I was in no particular hurry. It was just that I kept finding myself in places I have been in for far too long.

There are no blind alleys in the hills around here, but I find them anyway.

Weight has been falling off me. I have, four or five times in the last month, realized that I had eaten nothing the previous day. One of those times was in the middle of a run, at twenty past midnight on a dark street. I was suddenly utterly hollow. I ran only three K instead of five. By the time I got home, the hunger had passed.

I eat when I remember to eat.

There are pomegranates in the refrigerator, untouched, and persimmons ripening on the tree. On Sunday a boisterous dog covered my shins in mud. She paid close attention to me in a way instantly familiar and wrenching, and when her people caught up we talked. Full-grown, almost, and she was not yet born when Zeke died.

He comes to me each night these days, whole and wholly present. The dreams are sweet, and kind, and most nights I stay up rather than risking even one more. Awake, there is at least the solace of solitude. There is espresso and dried mango and the creek flowing to the bay. I drink. I eat. I run. I write. There are motions and I go through them. The question arises: what next? Asking the question is itself an old, worn motion, and the answer plain enough. Nothing is next. There is no next.

Terminal velocity

The earth shook when she died. No metaphor, that: a person who has fallen three thousand feet hits the ground with considerable force, and the lip of the cliff at El Capitan stands that far above the meadow. She set off car alarms. Those who watched her fall felt the tremors through the soles of their shoes.

She was no suicide. Three had jumped before her, had touched down lightly in the meadow to applause. From the ground, her lover watched her fall. A thousand feet fallen and no chute billowed out behind her. Then two thousand, and then?

Then the earth shook.

I have watched her jump two dozen times the last few days, three dozen, replaying her last steps again and again. There is something in the way she jumped that compels me, and I have watched the way a mouse might watch a snake, an infatuated horror in me. Advance it a frame at a time or let it run undissected: no matter. No delicate swan dive, this. There is no focus on tight form or presentation, save that needed to get to the edge without stumbling. (You do not want to trip on your way to jump off a kilometer-high cliff.)

The void was there and she flung herself at it, flung herself hard and unhesitating, as if the void was her last chance.


Eight years this month since Jan Davis fell, eight years since she flung herself into a well of air. Eight years since the earth rose up to take her. Which of us can equal her grace in meeting it? The void comes around to snatch each one of us in turn. I fling myself up at mountains rather than down from off them, but my end is as inevitable as hers.

The trick is not to hesitate, to step off deliberately and strong. The earth rises up and one must greet it.

No end intended

Went out running as the sky turned dark, and at about the one and a half kilometer mark I did not turn away from the Bay where I usually do, but instead, on a whim ran up a bayside hill. A few blocks on well-lit streets to a trail that snaked around behind the houses, and I ran that trail around a duckweed-choked pond, through a copse of eucalyptus. There were muledeer there, flanking the trail as they browsed. They looked up at me, started as I passed, paced me easily. We ran together for a few yards: They stopped when they realized I meant them no ill, went back to trimming the coyote brush.

Past a tule pond and catttails, up a long, sloping trail behind more houses and back onto the streets, and I ran breathing hard through sterile suburban streets named Titan and Olympus and Zeus. My hair kept out of my eyes by a bandana, it streamed back over my shoulders. I watched it in the streetlight shadow, a distraction from my burning lungs.

And then the intersection with my usual route, a few feet shy of my usual 100-foot “summit,” up and down toward the railroad and the stable, and back again into the streets. Three blocks from where I usually reach the bay again, on a long slope downhill toward the levee, I eyed the hill I’d just come down. The wild hair stood on end again. I ran uphill, away from the bay again.  When I reached my starting point, at 6K and change of solid running and a climb a bit shy of 200 feet, I felt no impetus to stop except my judgment, which I heeded.

I won’t run tomorrow. I have a walk in mind.

Breathing in, breathing out

I ran, Tuesday night, probably the fastest 5K I have ever run. I don’t know how long it took. I didn’t time it. But I know that I started out at a good clip and thought “I’ll have to slow down to make 5K,” and then I didn’t slow down. I didn’t slow down, and I was at the top of the hill and running down the other side before I realized I had been climbing, and was a little disappointed when it came time to stop at the 5K point.

But stop I did, because it’s best not to over-train. That’s how you get the shin splints, the pronated ankles and blown-out knees, and I’m beginning again to think in the long term. The common advice is that when you’ve just started being able to run 5K, that each long run be followed by a day of rest.

So I only ran 2.5K on Wednesday afternoon. I ran a little slower, knees aching a bit at first, calves throbbing, and then — as usually happens when I’m not already distracted by work, or love, or heartache — my breathing rhythm filled my mind, and before long my legs felt loose and comfortable.

I time my breaths to my hoof beats. I start out at a measured pace, breathing in for four steps and out for four. When I feel a little bit of anoxia I move up to a three and three rhythm, IN (two three) OUT (two three), running and breathing in waltz time. These days I’m usually about a kilometer down the path when I again feel shortness of breath, and I move up to what has become my default, long-haul respiring rhythm, drawing deep breaths in for three steps and then exhaling forcefully in two. The hard exhalation raises the air pressure in my lungs, thus raising the partial pressure of oxygen, I tell myself, and I thus increase the efficiency with which my lungs extract that oxygen from the ambient air. I have no idea if that’s true, but it feels good. Heading uphill I will often find myself breathing faster still, a two-steps-in, two-steps-out rhythm, or even one and one if I am pushing myself too hard. As soon as the trail levels out I drop back to the three and two, usually without thinking about it.

It is often said, counterintuitively, that a man can outrun a horse. It seems stupid on the face of it, and in fact Olympic athletes have lost demonstration 100-yard dashes to near-senescent horses. But as PZ pointed out in a post about three years ago, that equine advantage dwindles when you lengthen the track. Quadrupeds are often excellent sprinters — I once, based on dead reckoning and guesswork, figured that the young Zeke’s “not really trying” fun sprints averaged around 25 mph — but not so good at the long haul endurance running thing. It is indeed quite possible for a well-conditioned human to outrun a horse in a race of ten miles or so.

The difference between sprinting and endurance running? Oxygen. In sprinting, you use up oxygen faster than you can breathe it in. It’s anaerobic exercise, and no animal can exercise anaerobically for very long. Endurance running is aerobic: you use only as much oxygen as you take in. Barring injury or hunger or stoplights, human endurance runners can keep going a very long way.

PZ’s post was spurred by a paper in Nature that postulated that much about the human body’s morphology could be attributed to selection for endurance running. He offers, in table form, a long list of human physical features that make endurance running easier, along with the service they offer the runner and the possible evolutionary points of origin for each feature. Of course, whether it was selection for running that sculpted each and every such feature is open to conjecture. It’s tempting to speculate as to the selective advantage of being able to run at moderate speeds for a very long time. It’s not much help when confronted by a jaguar 20 yards away intent on crunching on your temporal bone: the jaguar would find it fairly easy to outpace you, knowing it could relax and reoxygenate once it had made sure, by collapsing your trachea, that you couldn’t reoxygenate. But it’s easy to see advantages in running toward animals rather than from them (a.k.a. hunting), in warfare, perhaps in traversing bleak Miocene landscapes with miles of baboon-infested veldt between spots of suitable habitat.

Anyway, it’s a good post, and you ought to take the time to read it, perhaps ignoring the usual assortment of wise-ass Pharyngula commenters.

But I’ve been thinking, as I run, about one of PZ’s assertions in that post:

Just walking bipedally is a precarious exercise, and running amplifies the problem.

It’s true: compared to precarious bipeds, quadrupeds rarely find themselves doing face plants (though again, there are some Zeke anecdotes relevant here) and running makes the falling not only more likely but more spectacular. Some of the adaptations listed in PZ’s old post address the issue, such as our relatively larger inner ear organs.

But I wonder if our bipedalism might not be the reason we can run for such long distances relative to quadrupedal mammals.

This isn’t my insight, or it least it wasn’t until I borrowed it. In Peter D. Ward’s Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, And Earth’s Ancient Atmosphere, which I have been reading in between runs, Ward proposes that atmospheric oxygen levels throughout the history of earth have had dramatic effects on animal life. It’s a good read, so far, though it suffers a bit from the “one thing to rule them all and in the hypothesis bind them” syndrome. Ward proposes to explain a whole lot of stuff with atmospheric O2, enough to trip one’s inner skeptic.

But some of what Ward proposes seems fairly sensible. Take the early Triassic, for instance, and the astounding change in animal life that took place back then. Before the end-Permian extinction, the therapsids — once called “mammal-like reptiles,” but called that no longer since they were neither — dominated the land, with gorgonopsians as perhaps the top predator in the late Permian. Then whatever it was that caused the end-Permian extinction happened — three guesses what Ward suggests it was — and the gorgonopsians died out along with 95 percent of all the species on the planet, and with conditions pretty damn bleak for those who survived.

Atmospheric oxygen levels in the early Triassic were as low as they’d been since the invention of photosynthesis, Ward says, and the Triassic air at sea level might have offered as much oxygen as modern-day air at 11,000 feet. You and I can survive indefinitely at 11,000 feet: it just takes acclimation, a bit more lethargy relative to life at sea level, and if we’re lucky, coca leaf tea. But our lungs are much better at wresting oxygen from the atmosphere than were the standard-model surviving Triassic therapsids. It’s likely that therapsids spent much of their time breathing hard, eking out a living as herbivores and ambush predators in habitable pockets along the Triassic coasts. Elevations higher than about 3,000 feet would likely have been unpopulated, even by plants, which need sufficient oxygen to diffuse into the soil to keep root cells alive. This low-oxygen climate lasted for tens of millions of years.

And then the first dinosaurs showed up, and ruled the earth. Their lungs were likely far more efficient than the therapsids’. Their present-day descendants, the birds, can fly at altitudes far higher than those humans can reach without canned air. They could get enough O2 from the Triassic air, Ward suggests, that they could hunt cursorially — by running, like wolves and cheetahs, instead of by laying in wait to ambush like moray eels. Not only could they outrun their prey, they could run around all day looking for it. This gave them a huge advantage.

Part of this, Ward suggests, was due to those highly efficient, innovative lungs, which allow them still to dominate the earth to this day: with 10,000 known species, their bird descendants make up the most diverse group of terrestrial vertebrates.

But another part of the reason for the dinos’ advantage, offers Ward, was their good posture. The first dinosaurs were bipeds.

Horses are excellent runners indeed, for quadrupeds. They’ve evolved strong and sturdy streamlined legs, shock-absorbing and tough hooves, pretty flowing manes, the whole gamut. Here’s a famous set of photos of a horse running quite fast, taken by Eadweard Muybridge, collated into animated gif form. Enjoy it for a moment — it’s an important document in the history of visual representation of scientific information — and then we’ll continue.


OK. Now if you will, please watch the horse’s thoracic area for a bit. You’ve got the scapulae and associated muscles working to bring the forelegs forward and then to use them as levers against the earth for forward motion. You’ve got the hips and gluteal muscles doing the same thing in the posterior part of the horse with its rear legs. But there’s something else going on between those two ends. The horse’s trunk is extending, when the legs are at their furthest extension either front or back (which characterizes a gallop) and contracting when all four legs are tucked beneath the horse and off the ground.

It’s a good way to increase power to the legs. There’s just one problem with it. Another bodily function depends on extension and contraction of the trunk: breathing. Unless the rhythms of breathing and running are meshed, at least one of those functions is going to be performed at less than peak efficiency.

For sprints, that doesn’t matter, and horses cover a mile just fine at a gallop, and they can breathe hard later and catch up. It’s a great strategy for escaping predators. But if you need to run for very long distances at a somewhat more moderate pace, doesn’t it make sense to decouple the breathing motion from the locomotion?

I run using my gluteals and hips and legs, and I breathe by expanding and contracting thoracic muscles and ribs, and the two actions are related but not chained together. I can give breaths and paces strict one-to-one parity if I wish, and I do some nights when the jaguar eyes me a bit more intently than usual, but that’s not necessary or even usually advisable. I can run through the usual measured, distracting breathing routine I followed today. I can match my respiration rate to the music in my head.

Or I can let my autonomic nervous system take over and disengage breathing from pace entirely, using a complex and mysterious algorithm based on blood CO2 levels, engaging in a millions-of-years-old family tradition and a signal human talent, a trick we share with the oldest dinosaurs.

Which also frees my mind for the detached contemplation of jaguars. As long as you run toward the jaguars instead of from them, the advantage is yours.