Friday, January 22, 2010

Twenty-Two and Counting

January 18, 2010

The arrival of El NiƱo storms, various work obligations and injured hiking buddies have kept me away from the Marin Headlands since my last foray a couple weeks ago, but not to worry. California sorely needs the rain, so bring it on; and I know the land waits patiently for my next visit, which hopefully will be during a supposed break between the wet on Sunday, January 24. Until then: no death, no destruction (and alas, no pictures). Instead: some related musing of a different ilk, kinda.

* * * * *

On January 18, 1988 I flew west from Ohio to California. I was, of course, much younger and much skinnier: with shoulder length, all brown hair and a lingering tan from a year spent working the tourist circuit on Saint Thomas and Cape Cod.

As the plane fell from the sky toward the runways of San Francisco International Airport I remember staring out the window, wondering with excitement what lay ahead and soon becoming quite concerned as I noticed the murky green water of San Francisco Bay getting closer and closer. Like many before me and many since I thought - with an escalating sense of alarm - that the captain had made some grave mistake, and that we were certainly about to touchdown in the middle of the Bay. But at the last minute the runway arrived under the wheels. We landed safely.

I had one duffel bag full of clothes and $200, which I think I borrowed, to my name.

My younger brother Steven and his weirdo friend David something-or-other met me at the airport. Together we drove into the city and made our way to Tai Chi on Polk Street for my first meal in San Francisco, then went to some sleazy, Polk Gulch gay bar called The Giraffe for a last and final.

I stayed for a month with John and Sarah Caine in their apartment on California Street at Hyde (they swear three months), quickly got a job waiting tables at Julie's Supper Club and soon - after a couple weeks with Lori and Holly - my own place: a studio apartment on Pine Street at Polk. My rent was $465 a month.

I remember hearing back then what others paid for studios and one bedrooms in, shall we say, tonier neighborhoods of the city and swearing to myself that no way would I ever pay that much for an apartment!

Well it's 22 years later, and I shell out a whole lot more in rent every four weeks. Still, I know I have a great deal; if I ever leave the landlord could probably double the price. And I still have that duffel bag, just in case you wondered, but now it's now buried beneath an unimaginable closet-full of clutter.

My, but what a difference a couple decades can make.

The question for today: Why am I still here? The answer for today: Read on.

* * * * *

City and Wilderness, Side by Side
In fifteen minutes by car (and on Sundays by the #76 MUNI bus) I can immerse myself in the seaside vistas and beach and scrubby, coastal hills of the Marin Headlands (ah, yes: there's the link). So close, yet still a bit wild and untamed, it’s our outdoor, neighborhood playground of hiking and biking, of raptors and coyotes and deer and bobcats just across the Golden Gate. The Loop, or Hill 88, as we call it, is over there: a 2-hour, stair-master hike I tackle solo, or with friends, sometimes two or three times a month. A little further north is Tennessee Valley for more of the same. And in a quick half-hour the forested slopes of Mount Tamalpais State Park await, with miles and miles of secluded trails, with bay laurel and oak and moss and ferns, with lakes and gurgling streams and waterfalls and fantastic rock formations, and with the massive old-growth redwoods in Muir Woods. Beyond is Point Reyes National Seashore, but we’ll get to that later.

The Restaurant Biz
Julie’s Supper Club, Bizou, Kuleto’s, Boulevard, Farallon: I haven’t had many jobs in twenty-two years, but I have been fortunate to corral some really good gigs and to prove myself in pretty much the only profession I’ve ever known. Who knew, especially after my somewhat tumultuous and misguided teenage years, that I would turn out to have such a damn fine work ethic? I still very much enjoy the live theater of dinner service, and the unexpected travel opportunities associated with my position as Wine Director have led to some amazing wine-related trips: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa. I only hope that my feet hold out as I work the dining room floor beyond age 50.

The Weather
Rarely too cold. Rarely too hot. The wind and the fog, although they can be a bit tedious at times, usually combine to create beautiful, moody, ethereal skies that are always in some animated state of flux. February and October are the Indian Summer out here and can be clear, blue and absolutely spectacular. If ever I miss the snow I can find it (a lot of it!) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, just four hours away. Even the winter rains, which every year I dread before they arrive, can be dramatic and exciting and only end up painting the hills green again, stoking the waterfalls and streams that abound in the area. The four seasons may appear different and not as obviously clear cut as back east, but they’re here, and each one holds its own, unique charm.

The Mighty Pacific
It’s no surprise that people want to live by the ocean. The soothing, restorative, mesmerizing sight and sound of wave after wave crashing against the shore has for millennia attracted mankind, and I am no different. I love the varied faces of the ocean: violent or calm and dreamy, slate gray or deep blue or green, rippled with windy whitecaps or lulled into sluggish, molten swells. And now that I know what’s going on out there, in two decades seen for myself the plethora of wildlife that calls the productive coastal waters of Northern California home, I have a newfound respect and admiration for the big briny.

Marine Mammals
Gray whales, humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, minke whales, the occasional killer whale, harbor porpoise, Pacific white-sided dolphin, Dall’s porpoise, Risso’s dolphin, harbor seals, California and Stellar sea lions, elephant seals: Lake Erie eat your heart out!

As I mentioned in the previous post, the annual parade of spring and summer wildflowers is always a sight to behold and always inspires in me a sense of rebirth and renewal. From the first tentative Footsteps of Spring in February to the pink and purple explosion of Farewell to Spring on the dry hills in July and August, the procession of color and size and shape never fails to delight. Lupine, Blue-eyed Grass, Ithuriel’s Spear, Indian Paintbrush, Trillium, California Poppy, Douglas Iris, Cow Parsnip, Queen Anne’s Lace, Checker Bloom, Man Root, Foxglove, Forget-Me-Not, Cala Lily, Chicks and Hens, Pussy’s Ears, Lilac, Sweet Pea: it makes for a riotous explosion of local fireworks.

Our Avian Friends
During the summer months the mere presence of the brown pelican is enough in my book to make living by the bay more of a joyous spectacle. I never tire of them. And every time I watch one glide into the Bay Area in late spring I remind myself what a miracle it is that, after the horrors of DDT and other assaults on their habitat forced them almost to extinction, they are still with us. Throw in the herons and egrets and terns and hummingbirds and hawks and falcons and grebes and geese and ducks and puffins and auklets and loons and cormorants and parrots and snowy plovers and owls and you’ve got a recipe for bird watchers heaven.

The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary
Twice a year I venture out to the Farallon Islands, twenty-seven miles west of the Golden Gate. It’s no secret how much I adore these 8-hour, maritime excursions, and it’s no secret that not everyone shares my devotion to the Oceanic Society and their naturalist-led voyages (nor my iron stomach and sea legs). No matter what the trip brings it’s always a supreme adventure.

The Sierra Nevada
Lake Tahoe, Downieville, Sardine Lake, the Sierra Buttes, the North Fork of the Yuba River, Yosemite and Sequoia National Park. The hiking opportunities are simply endless; the stargazing superb. The mountain rivers are cold and sparkling clear; the summertime mosquitoes irksome. Totally different than the coast, and totally worth the drive.

The Sunset
I’ve enjoyed my share of spectacular sunsets throughout the world, and I usually stop to admire them and thank (insert your god) that I’ve made it through another day. There’s something though about watching the big fiery orb sink directly into the sea on the western edge of the continent. And its not only the impressive view to the ocean, but also the way the waning sun lights up the buildings and hillsides of San Francisco in a blaze of pink and orange as it dips toward the horizon. It’s hypnotic.

It’s still five hours away, but it’s only five hours away! You can leave at 9:00 AM and, with the time change, find yourself on a cream-colored sandy beach and in the turquoise water by 3:00 PM. Maui, Oahu, The Big Island, Kauai and the rest: a fantastic collision of fire, water and earth in the middle of the Pacific.

Wine Country
Duh. Considering my profession this one's a no-brainer. It just happens to be beautiful, to boot.

The Epicenter
You want it; you got it! Mountains of tasty bread; world-class California wine; artisan cheeses from cow, goat and sheep; organic fruits and vegetables; and heritage breeds of beef, poultry and pig. French, Italian, Spanish, German, Mexican, Peruvian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai: a cornucopia of worldwide cuisine peppers the streets of San Francisco. And because it’s such a globally important market, the rest of the planet’s fine food and wine and other importable goods are found side by side with all the local stuff.

The Arts
Okay, so I don’t take advantage of the scene as much as I should, but every time Cirque du Soleil rumbles into town and slaps up their iconic blue and yellow big top I remember how fortunate I am to live here. The best of mainstream and independent film, the Best of Broadway series, the comedies and dramas of ACT and the Curran theaters, MOMA, the de Young, the Palace of Fine Arts. One more resolution for the New Year: Note to self...get out there.

Cultural Diversity
The city can be frustrating at times, and often I wish it was mandatory for everyone who makes the Bay Area home to learn some English, but there is no doubt that the melting pot of humanity in San Francisco only adds to its world-renowned flamboyance and appeal.

Getting Older
Along with all the creaks and groans and gray hair and expanding waistline comes the fact that my siblings back east, as they send their own kids off into adulthood, are finally able to sneak away and come visit me way out west. One by one they are starting to make the pilgrimage, and I get show them first hand all of the above, show them the wonders of Northern California and the City by the Bay.

* * * * *

Until we meet again,
Peter J. Palmer

Monday, January 11, 2010

Perfection on the Marin County Coast

From Fox News, Channel 2.1
January 4, 2010

Three hikers were buried alive on the western flank of Mount Tamalpais State Park yesterday when a waterlogged, 200-foot high section of the popular Steep Ravine Trail collapsed, trapping the unfortunate souls in a tangled New Year's grave of mud and grass and rocks and bay laurel and Douglas fir and toppled sequoia sempervirens, the stately coast redwood tree native to the area.

The trio was first reported missing by a female friend who was supposed to meet them after their hike. She was waiting at the entrance gate to the Steep Ravine Environmental Campsite and Cabins on Highway 1, a short distance south of Stinson Beach in Marin County, California.

"It was a beautiful winter day with sunny skies, light winds and almost warm coastal temperatures," the woman said, "and our plan was to spend the night at one of the rustic yet highly coveted cabins maintained by the park service. Reservations go on sale seven months in advance, and they're so popular with outdoor enthusiasts that even then the chances of getting one are slim."

Unfortunately, when the hikers had still not returned two hours after the appointed rendezvous time, the woman drove into Stinson Beach and sounded the missing persons alarm. She told police that she tried to call even sooner, but her cell phone couldn't get a signal.

"I have reception down at the cabins, but up here by the road...nothing. It's so weird. You know what I mean?"

Park rangers, firefighters and emergency personnel quickly arrived on site, hiked into the remote, muddy ravine, and soon discovered the catastrophic mudslide just below the section of trail with a 10-foot ladder next to a lovely, cascading waterfall. From official reports it didn't take long to determine what had happened to the missing hikers: a dark brown and beige, striped knit hat and an iPhone containing pictures from the doomed trek, both discovered at the base of the slide, immediately hinted that the gruesome truth lay somewhere beneath Mother Nature's cloak of destruction.

The names of the deceased have not yet been released pending notification of their families.

The female friend, whose name is also being withheld, apparently left the scene when the first body was unearthed and spent the night by herself in Cabin #4. An unconfirmed eyewitness account heard her mutter under her breath as she turned and hiked back down the trail to her car:

"I'm sorry people, but there's no way in hell I'm missing out on a cabin at Steep Ravine."

*  *  *  *  *

Happy New Year friends, family and countrymen, and welcome to The Headlands Report. That this monthly adventure-log is gonna contain more than just the facts should by now be obvious; a 150-year old teetering coast redwood hasn't smashed me...yet. And that the newsletter is titled The Headlands Report, but the first installment regales the pleasures of Steep Ravine and Mount Tamalpais, is no mere fluke. The Steep Ravine Trail was my first hike on Mount Tam after I moved to San Francisco from Cleveland, Ohio in January of 1988. The park, the cabins, the coast and the mountain have for 22 years inspired me, made me smile, made me sweat, kept me sane, kept me even less out of shape, helped me slow down, and left me continually amazed by the raw, physical beauty so close to my home in San Francisco. I remain smitten.

Those of you who receive my emails on a regular basis will probably remember the series I sent last spring and summer. To recap the details: I have never, in over two decades of hiking the hills north of the Golden Gate Bridge, seen an explosion of wildflowers as mind-bogglingly spectacular as in 2009. For three straight months the display of color, of shape and of number grew bigger and better. And for three months I was there to watch the fireworks, the dazzling scope of which I attribute to the following. One: like it or not, the park rangers have been hard at work ripping out invasive species (some of which were very pretty), allowing the native ones to flourish. Two: a flurry of late winter storms dumped a good amount of rain in the coastal hills, and the ensuing weeks saw plenty of warm, sunny days. Three; 20 years of protection can make a difference, and this I witnessed with my own eyes.

In response to the enthusiastic emails last year, in which I named some of the wildflowers that I can recognize, my sister Susan wrote: Where's the pictures?

So now, with The Little iPhone That Could in my hand, I hope to document life accross the Golden Gate: life in the Headlands as the year unfolds. The majority of images, food for thought and other miscellanea will come from one single hike: The Loop, or Hill 88, as we fondly call it. When my friends and I are in cahoots we this 4.5-mile/800-foot elevation gain trail a couple times a month. It takes just under two hours and is literally 15 minutes from my apartment in the Fort Mason District. I hope to capture in words and in pictures the ever-changing mood of the landscape as the sun climbs higher in the sky, as the days grow longer, as the winter rains (lets hope for some more) baptize the land anew, and as the sleeping hills stir toward spring.

Weather permitting our first New Year foray to the Headlands and our first circumnavigation of Hill 88 will be Sunday January 10, but for now...Steep Ravine. It's just the way it's gotta be.

Facts, figures and information abound when it comes to Mount Tamalpais and Steep Ravine: Wikipedia has a detailed entry online, covering history, geology, flora and fauna; and the websites,,, to name a few, offer a plethora of advise on hiking, biking, camping and the like. We'll skip the official data, as it's easy to surf for yourself should you want to learn more, and concentrate on a more personal roster of memories, then get to some photographs of the joint.

No matter the weather, Steep Ravine is a wholly satisfying place. I've stayed there when the sun has been so hot and the wind so still that we couldn't wait for darkness to descend, when violent winter storms have rattled the cabin to its foundation, in full moon and in new. With friends I once helped rescue a badly injured California sea lion; he was nursed back to health and released by the Maine Mammal Center, and as far as we know is still out there doing sea lion stuff. From the shore I have watched firsthand the environmental success story of California gray whales swimming north to the Chukchi Sea in Alaska. In 2000 two baby whales washed ashore south of the cabins and died; while exploring our usual trails we smelled the almost asphyxiating stench of their decomposing flesh before we even realized they were there. Months later, I held their bleached bones in my hands; it was all that was left. I have seen a red-tailed fox, raccoons and countless deer; three-foot long rat snakes, tiny garter snakes and red-bellied newts; red-tailed hawks, herons, egrets, terns and grebes; harbor seals, sea lions and harbor porpoise; a 200-pelican feeding frenzy. I have skinny-dipped and rock climbed in the nude (the former a chilly experience and the latter one liberating, to say the least). Over and over I have stopped everything to watch the sunset.

The Steep Ravine Environmental Campsite and Cabins are, for me, perfection on the Marin County coast. There are surely places in California that rival the beauty, the peace, and the mind/body rejuvenating allure of Steep Ravine, but none are finer. Together with Mount Tamalpais State Park, Point Reyes National Seashore and the Marin Headlands, they make life in San Francisco a better one.

*  *  *  *  *

A view of the cabins from a trail heading south along the coast, with #4 Rocky Point in the foreground right and #10 Whale Watcher on the left. All the cabins are good, but these two, in our humble opinion, are the most coveted. The small cove in the background fronts a rocky, rumble-tumble beach (sandy during the summer months).

Here's another view of Cabin #10, with Stinson Beach in the background (in January!). Inside each cabin is a wooden picnic table with benches, 5 elevated sleeping platforms (air mattresses are a must), a counter for food preparation, a wood burning fireplace, and that's about it. No stove or sink, but a grill is outside each cabin and taps with running water are located here and there; no bathroom, but and outhouse is on site, as are two new flush toilet, handicapped accessible restrooms by the parking lot.

A shot of the Steep Ravine Trail, a 4.5-mile/1,100-foot elevation gain hike we usually tackle before checking into the cabins. On New Year's Day 2006, two friends and I were some of the first people to stumble upon an enormous landslide inside the ravine. Pushed to the tipping point by a series of nasty-ass winter storms, a huge slab of the ravine wall had collapsed overnight, taking the trail with it and leaving a tangled mess of trees, rocks and earth in the middle of a very angry Webb Creek. We made it out alive, but the trail was subsequently closed. The storms were so severe most of the mountain was closed for a week; it took park rangers several months to clean up after Mother Nature and reopen the trail.

One of the many footbridges on the trail, spanning Webb Creek, and one of the massive coast redwoods found inside the ravine. This is probably 2nd growth, not one of the original behemoths that can stand over 370 feet, the tallest living things on Earth.

Inside Steep Ravine. After a good string of winter storms that waterfall is 10 times bigger, actually wetting the left side of the ladder.

A view from the Old Mine Trail as it leaves Pantoll Ranger Station and heads out to the exposed hills. 30 minutes of hiking remain before you head back into the ravine and back down to where you started.

Nite-nite from inside the cabin.

*  *  *  *  *

Official State Symbols of California
Motto: "Eureka!"
Nickname: The Golden State
Animal: California grizzly bear (Ursus californicus), 1953
Bird: California quail (Lophortyx californica), 1931
Fish: Golden trout (salmo agua-bonita) 1947
Marine Fish: Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus), 1995
Marine Mammal: California gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), 1972
Insect: California dogface butterfly (Zerene eurydice), 1972
Flower: California poppy ((Eschshlozia californica), 1903
Grass: Purple needlegrass (Nessella pulchra), 2004
Fossil: Saber-toothed cat (Smilodon californicus), 1973
Mineral: Gold, 1965
Genstone: Benotoite, also called blue diamond, 1985
Rock: Green serpentine, 1965

Peace out, cyber-hood.
Peter J. Palmer