Monday, January 31, 2011

San Francisco Sights

When I travel I like to get outside and get high.  Outside meaning walk and hike and see the lay of the land, city, town, parks, streets, trails, beaches, alleys, squares.  High meaning up somewhere, on a rooftop, on an observation deck, on a hill or mountain, on anything for a birds eye view of the surrounding whatever.  I like to wander, a lot, and much to the chagrin of some of my traveling partners I do, a lot.  People watch, too.  Sit and take it all in.  Then walk some more.

Below is a list of suggested fun stuff to consider should you find yourself in the City by the Bay, lots of it walkable, all of it doable without renting a car.  The list is in no ways complete, nor is it meant to contain all the official information; you can find that online or in the guide book you probably have.  Instead, it's a brief summary of some of my personal favorite things, whether or not I have guests in town.

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Crissy Field to the Golden Gate Bridge - Walk or rent a bike, and from the East Beach parking lot follow the Bay Trail to Fort Point beneath the GGB.  The southern arm of the trail is paved for bikes, pedestrians and roller blades; the northern arm is hard-pack gravel and is bike/walk appropriate.  Both pathways skirt the new tidal lagoon that was built during a remarkable 12-year restoration of Crissy Field started in 1998.  Lots of fresh air, beautiful views and people watching, sand dunes, native plants and probably some wildlife to boot.  From the entrance gate to Fort Point you can hike up a staircase through the Presidio and continue on, if you like, to the toll plaza at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Coit Tower - Walk from Washington Square in North Beach or catch the #39 MUNI bus at the corner of Union Street and Columbus Street.  Coit Tower is an architectural gift from socialite and amateur fire-chaser Lillie Hitchcock Coit, built posthumously to honor the brave fireman of San Francisco and the city itself.  Some say the tower's shape resembles a fire hose nozzle; others say it vaguely reminds them of another fireman kinda thing-y that Lillie might have appreciated.  Whatever: the views from up top are lovely, even finer from the observation deck of the tower if it's open (entrance fee charged), and on the bottom floor inside are some very handsome New Deal Public Works of Art Project murals painted in the early 1930's.

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Westin Saint Francis Glass Elevator Ride - Absolutely free, and a blast!  Enter through the revolving doors of the historic building on Powell Street (another survivor of the 1906 quake) and traverse the lobby straight back, past a lobby bar area, and to the right.  Unfortunately The Compass Rose - a classic, old-timey San Francisco bar to the left when you enter - is gone, so you will never again get to see it, but on a clear day from the elevators you will be treated to a vertiginous amusement park ride with views of Union Square, parts of downtown SF, the bay, Oakland and the East Bay hills.  Try to snag an elevator car by yourselves, push the top-most button available and bombs away!

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Get on the Bay - Take the ferry to Sausalito, Tiburon, Angel Island, or to Alcatraz Island for a highly recommended cellblock tour.  Take an hour-long bay cruise under the Golden Gate Bridge and back.  Rent a kayak.  Hell, piece together a Kon Tiki-style raft from discarded branches and twigs; I don't care how you do it, but do it!  Pack a camera, hat, scarf and layers of clothing for the ferry, especially if you want to sit outside as I like, and take some sunscreen just in case.  Unless the fog has TOTALLY obscured the view you will be rewarded with a quintessential SF experience, fresh and salty sea air, and maybe glimpse a sea lion or two, a harbor seal or a pod of harbor porpoise (and by the way, I was kidding about that raft idea).

Aquatic Park and Fort Mason - Save the aroma of steaming dungeness crab, the occasional view of Alcatraz and the bay, and your hub for fishing and watery sightseeing excursions (see above), Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 look like they could be anywheres-ville, coastal tourist town USA, lined with tacky shops and mostly "who cares" eateries.  A quick look-see is fine, I guess, as the area does harbor some interesting San Francisco treats: Boudin Bakery for the legend of sourdough bread; historic Hyde Street Pier and the Buena Vista Bar; the Aquarium of the Bay; Ghirardelli Square; some okay restaurants; and of course the noisy sea lions at Pier 39 when they're in the house.  If you haven't before you'll wanna peek around; but do it and get out, because a little further west is one of my favorite bayside spots, and a short walk on a paved trail over the hill will lead you to another.

The curving concrete pier at Aquatic Park is a bit dilapidated, but the unobstructed views of the bay area are utterly priceless: the Golden Gate, the Marin Headlands, Sausalito and Mount Tamalpais; Alcatraz and Angel Island; Coit Tower and the East Bay, back to Ghirardelli Square, Hyde Street Pier, and part of the SF Financial District skyline.  Fantastic!

Historic Fort Mason District has a whole lot to offer.  The old army piers are home to restaurants (Greens, a long-time vegetarian classic, is the anchor), several art galleries, theatre, seasonal shows and fairs, Octoberfest, a Sunday morning farmer's market, stuff for the kiddies, a slew of non-profits like The Oceanic Society and much more.  On a hill above it all is The Great Meadow: a wide open grassy knoll perfect for frisbee, for relaxing, for a picnic.

Baker Beach - There are plenty of good views of the GGB from inside the bay on the northern shores of San Francisco, but this is without a doubt one of the finest from outside the bay looking back.  Like many northern California beaches it is often windy and is not necessarily for swimming, but it is always dramatic and absolutely worth a trip.  Walk, jog or beach-comb; definitely relax on a blanket and picnic; fire up a grill; watch people, dogs, the nudists on the far north end, wildlife and the sunset.  You can drive, huff and puff on a bike or take public transit (consult MUNI for routes).

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The Ferry Building - After surviving both the 1906 San Andreas and 1989 Loma Prieta earthquakes, and after the insult of being hidden for 35 years by a double-decker eyesore called the Embarcadero (Damn-barcadero) Freeway, the historic Ferry Building underwent a 4-year, multi-million dollar facelift and reopened in 2003.  Since that time it has been embraced by locals and tourist alike.  Get down there and embrace it for yourself (you'll love it), and while you're at it take a stroll south along The Embarcadero to the ballpark and China Basin.

Union Square - In 1995 Union Square underwent a transformation from a dirty and dingy old piazza to a modern, open and clean one.  Although some are critical of the design it is now worthy of a place like San Francisco: the anchor of an upscale shopping, dining and theatre district.  On many afternoons the square plays host to arts shows or musical performances.  Unfortunately it also plays host to lots of homeless people and panhandlers.

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Some of the Neighborhoods

Chinatown - A disgrace it's sometimes so filthy, but you should definitely walk around and take in the community and architecture, shop a bit, and maybe enjoy dim sum.  All the merchants (and the residents) should buck up and clean it up.  If they did it would be even more worthy of a city like San Francisco; be absolutely fantastic, the best outside of Asia (it's already the oldest and biggest).  Make sure your visit includes a stroll to the Dragon Gate entrance at Grant Street and Bush Street.

The Haight - Upper Haight is what you want to see.  Tattoos and body piercing; purple hair, green hair; the faint smell of weed; some hip, funky restaurants, shops and bars; way too many homeless people.

North Beach - Beatnik and Old World Italian central.  Washington Square Park for relaxing and people-watching, Grant Street for shopping and snooping around, Columbus Street for the same, Saints Peter and Paul Church, and home to the musical production of Beach Blanket Babylon (which you should definitely see), plus more homeless.

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Golden Gate Park - You could spend a whole day here, maybe two or three, and maybe a lifetime.  Over 1,000 acres to explore, both outside and inside: The M. H. de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the Conservatory of Flowers, Stow Lake for one of several, The Japanese Tea Garden, a Dutch Windmill, the Beach Chalet, the Music Concourse, wide open Lindley Meadow for one of several, buffalo!, and so much more to see and do.  On the western edge is the mighty Pacific and Ocean Beach, a long, wide open and flat stretch of sand where you can walk, jog, watch the surfies and beach-comb to your hearts content.

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Hill 88, aka The LoopOkay, so you have a weekend in San Francisco and love to hike, but you didn't rent a car.  Fret not, my amateur naturalist, because on Sundays and selected holidays the #76 MUNI bus makes hourly trips from the city, across the Golden Gate to Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands.  The bus ride alone is worth the price of admission ($2.00 as of this posting, with a 2-hour transfer window for the return trip), as you will get some spectacular views along the way and just visiting Rodeo Beach and lagoon is enough: classic, wind-swept Northern California.  Should you desire and have the cash for another fare back to the city you should take the time to crank out this hike, one of my all-time favorites.  Anytime of year is good, but in spring you will be witness to one of the best (and most accessible) native wildflower displays in the Bay Area.  Search online and consult the map at the beach for specifics, but what you want is the Coastal Trail north to the Wolf Ridge Trail, Wolf Ridge east (don't go down into Tennessee Valley unless you crave more) to the the Miwok Trail/Fire Road, a right on Miwok back down to Rodeo Lagoon, then west back to the beach.  The last bus returning to SF is early (6:30 p.m., I think), even in summer, so check the MUNI schedule.

The Vital Statistics
Distance: 4.8 mile loop
Time: Allow 2 hours at least, especially if you're a newbie, because you'll want to stop often and take in the beauty (and catch your breath)
Ouch Factor: 900 foot elevation gain, most on the first half of the hike, with some steep sections up and down

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Those who live in San Francisco will already be familiar with the information and sights listed above (a few will probably chide me for leaving some of their own favorites out and for some of my opinions), but as I mentioned at the beginning the list is not meant to be all-encompassing or objective.  It will, however, get you out of doors and working up a good appetite for dinner.  And it will definitely turn you on to a small slice of the natural and man-made beauty of San Francisco.

Happy trails!
Peter J. Palmer

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Maui, Wowie!

Forget the amber waves of grain, forget the green, green grass of home, forget the purple mountains' majesty, forget the Painted Desert and the Black Hills and the Blue Hole - just color America white.

On Tuesday, January 11th, I read that a whopping 49 of the 50 United States had snow on the ground.  Even the Big Island of Hawai'i, way up on the summit of those two big-ass volcanos, reported 6 inches.  Apparently the only one to escape the cloak of winter was Florida.

Huh...interesting, I thought to myself.  I never knew that such statistics were...well, statistics, but I guess people are keeping track.

Being somewhat naturally curious I browsed the web for a past date when, should it ever have happened, all 50 had been documented with some of the fluffy white stuff on a single day.  I figured the search would lead me decades back, maybe to the 19th Century, but lo and behold on February 13, 2010, a tiny patch of lingering snow was photographed atop Mauna Kea in Hawai'i.  On February 14th the headlines in print and online read something like: "Oops, we were wrong.  It was all 50!"

Did I mention Hawai'i?  Okay good, 'cause I adore me some Hawai'i and love to talk about it, think about it, read about it, write about it, go there, plan going there, take people there, and go back there.

With the above in mind - with the freezing La Niña winter of 2011 upon us, and with my tendency to perk up at the mere mention of the Hawaiian Islands - here's another literary blast from the not-too distant past, but one I hope you'll enjoy until the next new installment of The Headlands Report goes to press.

So read on all you ali'i kanake and wahine - all you royal men and women - to more escapades, to more fantabulous stories (if I do say so myself), and to more thrilling, some might say harebrained, hikes.

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Maui, Wowie!

The convict tang is a handsome little tropical fish, the size of a large mango, perhaps, and a silvery white in color, with five or six vertical black stripes that no doubt conjure up the image of a prisoner’s jumpsuit.  My companion and I were happily snorkeling on the surface in one of the small coves at La Perouse Bay, the remote marine sanctuary of blue water and black lava in south Maui, when a school of maybe two hundred convict tangs swam into view.  Already thoroughly enjoying ourselves, already delighted with the diversity and number of fish and coral, the sight of them stopped us in our tracks…uh, swimming.  Below our floating, motionless bodies, the dazzling collection of stripes undulated together as one living, breathing, kinetic, Op Art sculpture, sparkling like a jewel as light filtered in from above, slowly cruising up and down and over the underwater landscape in search of food.  Together we watched the fish go calmly about their business, mesmerized and smitten once again by the beauty of the undersea world.  And by what was shaping up to be a splendid vacation.

I’d like to say how far niente, do nothing, it all was, that September week on the Valley Isle; how we lazed around and read books and sipped mai tais and napped and daydreamed as we moved from the pool to the beach, from the pool to the beach.  I’d like to say how we retired early and rose late, clocking in a solid nine, ten hours a night.  I’d like to say that I don’t feel like I still need a vacation after my vacation.  But it was my good friend and hiking buddy Linda’s first visit to Maui, and I was eager to show her the island.  Plus I had a killer guide book that on a previous trip had led the way to some incredible experiences, so I was ramped up, ready to repeat several of them, and to chalk up some new ones to boot.

We snorkeled once, twice a day and kept our Maui Dive Shop rental gear in the trunk of the car, just in case.  We searched out and enjoyed the recommended best of the spots - Honolua Bay, Black Rock, La Perouse Bay, of course, White Rock at Palauea Beach, Molokini Crater - waking up way too early in an attempt to beat the wind that usually whips up like clockwork late every morning.  I have not snorkeled so much since I lived on Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and though I was a bit nervous at some of the unfamiliar sites it was tremendous.

On several days the 80-degree water was swimming pool calm, with 50 or 60 foot visibility, sometimes greater.  We swam alongside countless green sea turtles: some small, some huge, some dark and algae crusted, some sporting beautifully colored shells of matte green and yellow stripes and squares and waxed-to-a-rich-patina geometric shapes.  One, two, three at a time; gentle and graceful creatures, wary of us at times and utterly unfazed by our presence on others, regarding us curiously and drifting so close we could’ve kissed them.  Other prime aquatic finds included a shy spotted eel exposed as it snaked along the reef, a camouflaged octopus that inked at a fellow snorkeler when he swam too close, regal Moorish idols and pufferfish, blue groupers and tiny colorful wrasses.  Plus the more numerous reef residents: velvety black triggerfish, sleek and shiny crevalle, parrot fish, butterfly fish, needlefish, trumpet fish, the iconic Hawaiian State Fish humuhumunukunukuāpua’a, and finally a gargantuan manta ray at crescent moon-shaped Molokini, emerging from the blue depths and flying in circles mystically before us as we floated in 75 feet of water.

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On Monday, our first full day, Linda and I drove north from Kahana, intent on two sites that I had explored before: We dunked our lily-white butts in the Olivine Pools and watched the Nakalele Blowhole erupt in a misty, 30-foot salt-water geyser from beneath a lava shelf at the edge of the sea.  It had rained overnight, turning the powdery, rust colored dirt into dangerous, slippery muck, so the steep descent to the pools was even trickier than on my previous visit.  Linda bit the dust, I mean mud, landing with a yelp not fifty feet from the car, so we knew we needed to proceed slowly and be extra careful.  The sky was still gray and threatening, pelting us with brief downpours as we descended, but we were already clad in bathing suits so it made little difference.  The less than ideal weather had kept many people indoors, and it was only 10 a.m., so we had the human-sized tide pools all to ourselves for a while, a rare occurrence at the popular attraction.  Soon a nice young couple from the mainland arrived; we struck up a conversation, took pictures of each other in the water, and vowed to meet later in the week for the trek out to La Perouse Bay.

On the drive back to Mahinahina we were inadvertently engaged in a little drama, urgently flagged down by a man at the side of the road.  Linda rolled down her window and together we listened to the saga, thankful that it wasn’t us; reminded by his plight that although the islands invoke a vision of carefree paradise they also harbor plenty of hazards.  We shot each other cautionary looks as he talked but ended up helping the man, a groom from New Orleans, rescue his freshly issued marriage license from an abandoned rental car.  He and his bride-to-be had been caught in a nasty storm earlier in the morning as they drove around the top of West Maui.  A surprise rock slide had them screaming and swerving on the narrow road until they drove over a large boulder that pierced the oil pan, rendering the car useless.  We drove him several miles back to the disabled Mustang to retrieve the documents, avoiding the remnants of the slides that still littered the road, then returned to the 38-mile marker to rejoin his betrothed and the rescue van from the rental company.  The van, just like his rental car he sadly discovered, was not insured past the marker.  Someone told him that it’s good luck to have bad luck the day before your wedding.

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Tuesday I woke up, yes early, and caught a puddle jumper to the island of Oahu for a surprise visit with my sister Thea and brother-in-law Pete. They were also vacationing in Hawaii, celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary far from their home in Cleveland, Ohio.  The covert plan seemed to work perfectly; Thea had no idea that anything was afoot until Pete mentioned the need to stop at the airport after visiting Pearl Harbor.  It was my first time on Oahu, so I was all eyes and questions as we drove out of Honolulu to the North Shore, home of Jaws and the other massive winter surfing waves.  I had envisioned the area much more built up, with multiple mega-resorts lining the beaches, and was pleasantly surprised by the funky, ramshackle houses, the overgrown yards, and the quaint two-lane road that meandered through the area.  It was a nice little tour – they had been up earlier in the week – and I was thrilled to finally experience the renowned destination, but I soon discovered that their motives for a return visit were not totally altruistic.  After tracking down Giovanni’s, the area’s original shrimp truck, and after devouring the menu of shrimp scampi and sambal, I understood why: Heaping, delicious mounds of extra-garlicky or super-spicy crustaceans served on paper plates with white rice, enjoyed sitting on picnic tables, enjoyed sipping a canned guava drink, enjoyed with my sister, and I would’ve returned the next day if possible and the day after that.  Lingering under a tarp with an assortment of other happy folks, a tropical rain shower softly pattering away, I thought: What in the world could be better than this?  The humble, al fresco meal immediately soared to one of my most memorable dining experiences, ever.

After lunch we drove back toward Honolulu, parked at the Manoa Falls trailhead and trekked up the waterlogged path.  The afternoon rain persisted, pelting the canopy of trees above us, dripping down through giant-sized houseplants and onto the trail as we walked.  The impromptu outing turned into quite a nice hike; it was much longer than I had envisioned and a bit tricky because of the slick trail.  And although it was brown and muddy because of the rain, Manoa Fall was nonetheless a lovely setting, probably 50 feet high and surrounded by a grotto of lush green foliage.

Back at the condo we quickly changed into dry clothes and toasted a blinding pink and orange sunset with a bottle of bubbly on their postage stamp-sized lanai.  We spent the evening peeking around Waikiki, briefly watched an outdoor hula performance, and had dinner at Sansei, a Japanese-inspired restaurant with pristine sushi, a very good wine list, and a large, somewhat confusing menu of appetizers and entrees with a definite California Cuisine influence.  After dinner we sauntered back down Waikiki Beach to their abode overlooking the marina; I immediately passed out on the couch as they packed up and readied the condo for departure the next day.  It was a wonderful visit (somebody pinch me); such a blast to be able to meet them, surprise my sister, and share a bit of their celebration.

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The next morning, back on Maui, after Linda retrieved me from Kahului Airport, we promptly drove to mile marker #6 on the Hana Highway, donned our packs, and climbed through a hole in the fence, unsure what lay ahead.  Our destination was the four waterfalls of Na’ili’ili’haele (try to spell-check that!), one right after another, the last supposedly in a gorgeous setting that few people get to see because of the remoteness and difficulty of the hike.  Just our cup of tea, I thought.  My trusty guide book had the hike listed under it’s “Adventures” section, and I had read that section over and over in armchair preparation, so I guess I should have known that it was not going to be a cakewalk.

Well we were certainly not disappointed by the “adventure” part.  In fact, we almost didn’t make it.  Several times.

The trail quickly led down into a valley, and after our first minor obstacle - a short leap across a deep, rushing, water-filled gash in the land - made it’s way through bamboo forest to waterfall #1.  A pretty setting, but the creek was brown and muddy due to recent rains, the landscape surrounding it oddly parched in spite of said rains.  We rested briefly and consulted the book again, preparing for the next leg of the hike.  Onward through more stands of clicking, clacking, noisy bamboo, the light an ethereal and soft, tinted jade, to waterfall #2.  No wait…first we had to scale a nearly vertical incline of bare mud and rock, so steep and improbable at first glance that we thought it prudent not to continue.  But bamboo, we ultimately discovered, is extremely strong and anchors itself fiercely into the earth, and we desperately wanted the prize, waterfall #4.  So we used the plant to our advantage, pulling, stepping, slipping, crawling up and down the steep 15-foot slant until we found a way, sweaty and muddy and panting by the time we reached the top.  Waterfall #2 was also a bit of a disappointment – barely trickling, with another brown, muddy pool at its base – and is as far as most people go, the guidebook stated.  We rested and regrouped.  “If you choose to continue,” I read, “here’s what to expect.”

And here is what we discovered.  Besides the vague trail, slippery rocks and roots, multiple stream crossings, heat and humidity, unfamiliar territory and the like, we were soon faced with what the book described as…"a dilemma": a sheer, daunting wall of bare stone, a cliff, straight up, with no other passage around it. Perhaps 20 feet tall, maybe more it was, with a suspect, free-swinging, off-kilter rope ladder, first rung waist high, last rung just before it disappeared over the top.  I gave the ladder a half-hearted try, felt it start to sway wildly with my fist step, then climbed off.  This is it, I conceded; it’s been fun, but now we turn back.  And we almost did…until we heard voices approaching from above.

“Yeah, I’ve done this hike several times,” the young woman said, peering down over the cliff edge to our unbelieving, upturned faces.  “The ladder looks nasty but it’s really sturdy.  Here let me show you.”  And throwing a leg over she swiftly and deftly descended.  Her companion followed, we chatted about what lay ahead (soon to be revealed), and then they departed, leaving us more determined than ever.

By the time I struggled over the top I was trembling, out of breath, and wondering if this wasn’t just plain, old foolish.  In the back of my mind I could hear my mother’s voice, chiding me as I explained, after the fact, the details of the hike.  “Where’s the smart one in the group, Peter; the sane, level-headed one who says ‘maybe this isn’t such a good idea?’”  But Linda soon appeared beside me, and after some nervous laughter at our accomplishment, and after the somber realization that we would now have to climb down the rope ladder on our return, we enjoyed a relatively level but slippery path (Linda landed on her ass, again) to waterfall #3.

Let me restate that.  We could see the waterfall, gurgling picturesquely, maybe eight feet high, but it was at the far end of a long, narrow pool of ochre-hued, murky river; flanked by sheer moss and tropical plant-covered stone walls.  And we were supposed to get in the stream and swim half a football field to get there, then haul ourselves out of the water and climb up the actual waterfall to the top, where the trail resumed.

Okay, well…it’s been fun, but there is no way I’m getting in that giardia cesspool, that leptospirosis incubator, that nasty looking water no doubt full of invisible, jagged-rocks and tangled tree branches, I voiced.  You see I’m slightly obsessed with microbes and the diseases they cause, plus my imagination gets the best of me when I can’t see what’s below the surface.  Linda, however, was again undeterred.

“Let me just see what its like,” I heard her say as I plopped down and took off my pack, already envisioning the mysterious, flu-like symptoms of nausea and diarrhea and aches and weight loss that would surely flare up months after my return to San Francisco. Plus its fine; we’ve made it further than most, I thought, as she tentatively eased down the riverbank into the murk.  One, two, three steps she descended, then immediately slipped and disappeared from view.  Resurfacing in an instant, sputtering, fully drenched, she found an underwater ledge, stood up and told me that, just like the women from the ladder had avowed, the water was very refreshing.

The sidestroke came to my rescue.  Freestyle would have gotten my head too wet with all the splashing: my mouth, eyes and nose a beeline for insidious, unseen organisms.  And breaststroke would’ve certainly had me bashing my frog-kicking shins or feet or arms or elbows against insidious, unseen rocks, so sidestroke it was.   Fluidly and effortlessly, albeit after a short adjustment period of panic and flailing, I swam my way toward the fall.  The water was, just as they had said, cool and rejuvenating, but as I stared up toward the narrowing walls of the canyon I couldn’t help but wonder, again, what other surprises lay before us.  For the umpteenth time I found myself thinking that the guidebook obviously needed a good revamping, that the seriousness of the “hike/climb/swim” could not be overstated, and that the chapter describing the actual trek could use a whole lot more detailed information.  But then for the first time in my life I found myself scrambling out of a river and scaling a slippery waterfall - successfully, as is obvious by the fact that I’m writing this - and plodding on toward the final push of the hike.

Linda blatantly burst out laughing when we finally, thank god, rounded the last bend in the stream and looked up at our big “prize”, waterfall #4, which turned out to be a meager drizzle of brown, barely spitting, barely trickling down a dehydrated cliff into an equally uninviting, muddy pool.  I just stared up in disbelief, silently shaking my head back and forth.  This was it? And when she discovered that I had left the waterproof camera, bought expressly for the purpose of documenting the scene, back with my gear at the far end of the swim, well, she just about doubled over in hysterics.

The hike back to the trailhead was a relief compared to the initial trek.  It was still treacherous, with slick and uneven footing; still full of the obstacles we had faced on the way up, and Linda remained quite amused by the whole disappointing outcome. Every so often I heard her chuckle out loud, blatantly lampooning the phrase from the guidebook:  “Yeah, walk around the corner and claim your prize,” she would laugh.  “Oh, yeah, what a prize…It was barely spitting.  Spitting!  And then on top of that you forgot the camera.”

But at least we knew what to expect.  We eased back down fall #3, hopped into the dubious stream and swam back to where we had left our packs, retraced footsteps through fragrant wild ginger, boulder-hopped, safely descended the rope ladder, and slid on our butts down the slippery rock incline.  At long last, waterfall #1 greeted our tired and sweaty and dusty and very grateful approach to the trailhead.  Leaping over the earthen gash, finally back in the bamboo forest, we walked up the last hill toward our car.  We had made it, intact.

Well, almost.  On my very last step of the hike, on my final stride back to civilization and safety, I tripped over the wire fence. Viewed from behind, Linda said, it looked as though I was going to vault headfirst into the road, and after all we had survived be crushed by oncoming traffic.  Lucky for me the road was blessedly empty as I lurched toward the asphalt, bit the dust, then stood up and checked my hands and knees for blood. Moments later an SUV full of tourists whizzed around the corner, slowed when they saw us (we must’ve looked like we had been living in the jungle), then continued on toward Hana.  Tada!  It was a most fitting, slapstick finale to the outlandish afternoon adventure: a finale that, of course, for my hiking companion supplied even more delicious fodder for amusement.

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When I was last on the island of Maui, during a very rainy March week, Ka’anapali Beach was wall-to-wall bodies, a jumble of catamarans and parasailers and jet skis and keikis (kids), definitely not my preferred scene.  After one quick look-see I avoided it like the plague, opting instead for the less crowded sands of Napili, Kahekili, Palauea, and Po’olena’lena.  But I had not made it down to Dig Me Beach, the recommended best part of Ka’anapali (yup, that guidebook again), and I still wanted to snorkel at Black Rock, the prominent fist of lava that juts out from the shore.  So after escaping the waterfall hike alive, and after rinsing off our mud-caked clothes and bodies in the sea at Mama’s Fish House, we found ourselves setting up beach chairs and towels just in time for sunset.  Just in time for a spectacular sunset!  The water was a calm turquoise, the offshore islands dark, exotic silhouettes, and the enormous, fiery sky a violent finger-painting of pink and orange and red and blue as the sun sank.

Traditional Hawaiian music wafted dreamily over Dig Me Beach from the hotel behind us, lovers and newlyweds strolled hand in hand, and daredevil cliff-divers vaulted from Black Rock into the sea.  It was a supremely idyllic setting.  Following a brief snorkel - Linda had her first, close up sea turtle encounter - we sat back, uncapped a cold bottle of beer and toasted a most extraordinary day.  After all the fresh air, after the the physical and mental exertion of the hike, after some very good snorkeling and the rejuvenating effects of salt water, a sense of satisfaction drifted over me like the warm Hawaiian trade winds.  The sky turned purple, darkness slowly descended, and on Black Rock a nightly ceremony, compliments of the Sheraton Maui, began.  To a baritone narration describing the legend, one by one a series of tiki torches on the rock was lit by the evening’s designated fire-bearer.  Then, marking the sacred portal where departed souls supposedly escape Earth and cross over into the afterlife, the man took off his lei and cast it from the cliff.  He followed the offering with an easy, graceful swan dive from Black Rock into the blue.

Corny?  Sure, a bit.  But the ceremony is nonetheless very well done, and I’m a sucker for anything that honors Hawaiian custom and legend, both in danger of being lost to the modern world.  I’m now also a sucker for Dig Me Beach: that first evening, plus two more subsequent sunset visits during our trip, blessedly un-crowded and with even calmer seas, has made a believer out of me.  Strip away the circus that can consume the place during busier times, find a quiet stretch of sand during the off-season, swim, snorkel, unwind, and hopefully discover for yourself the naïve, timeless allure of Ka’anapali.

*  *  *

If it’s Thursday it must be La Perouse Bay.  Oh, if only every Thursday could be La Perouse Bay, it would go something like this: Wake up nice and early, corral all your gear – snorkel and mask and fins and guidebook and sunscreen and water and snacks and hats and other protective clothing and sturdy hiking shoes – throw it all in the trunk of the car and drive to the end of Makena Alanui Road.  Then start walking.

But, more than anything, be careful.  Even if you’ve been there before and you know what treasures await, stifle any urge to hurry.  Take your time and watch your step.  The land is a jumble of razor sharp, a’a lava, a vast, rugged peninsula of black rock formed by Maui’s last volcanic eruption some 300 years ago.  The trail is vague at times, the wide-open vistas can diffuse your focus on staying upright, and the wind, when it’s roaring, can knock you down.  One slip, one stumble, and your hands or knees or, god forbid, your face, could emerge a bloody, sliced up, emergency-visit-to-the-hospital mess.  The payoff, however, a series of small coves with evocative names like Fishbowl and Aquarium, far, far removed from any resort, is without a doubt worth all the effort.

Linda and I started hiking a bit later than I had hoped but still arrived early enough in the morning to be only the second car at the trailhead.  Through another hole in another fence we walked along a sandy trail shaded by thorny kiawe tress and then out onto the bare lava shelf called Cape Kina’u.  Although I’m pretty sure that the area is never all that crowded, especially compared with more accessible spots, I was relieved to see that against the stark black moonscape only one lone figure preceded us.

Zigzagging our way over the crunchy path, climbing up and down slabs of brittle lava buckled up like tarmac after a 9.0 earthquake, skirting around oddly colored pools of brackish water, we slowly made our way out to the Aquarium.  I had been once before and kind of knew where I was going, but even so it took a good half-hour of walking before we reached the cove.

The rugged, impenetrable appearance of the peninsula - desolate, bare black stone in all directions - belies an intricate, delicate ecosystem.  Posted signs warn hikers to stay on the trail, stay out of the water at certain spots, and to respect the unspoiled preserve.  The ‘Ahihi-Kina’u Natural Reserve Area, as it is officially known, harbors some of the youngest land on the planet, violently forced from the center of the earth – in geological time - not that long ago.  The weird pools of water, the ones completely cut off from the sea, some dyed a bizarre yellow and ringed with new green plant life, contain fragile anchialine organisms and help support endangered, native birds.  And beneath the surface of the ocean an absolutely pristine landscape, mostly lava but with the beginnings of vast coral communities, with some of the highest fish counts and finest snorkeling on Maui, awaits discovery.

And so Linda and I frittered away our Thursday morning and early afternoon, spending about four hours on the adventure from start to finish.  By the time we climbed from the water, trading excited volleys of “Hey did you see the…”, we noticed that a few other small groups of people peppered the shoreline.  We had unfortunately not connected with the young couple from the Olivine Pools, but sure enough, as we sat on the sharp rocks by the crystal clear water and relished the recent snorkel, they appeared on the horizon, tentatively picking their way toward the Aquarium.  A pair of men swam from the cove, took off their fins and joined us as well.  I asked if they had seen the oh-so-dreamy school of convict tangs, and by the way their faces lit up I knew they had.  As we chatted with our fellow adventurers I felt again a unique sense of camaraderie bubble up inside me.  The isolation and beauty of the place, the effort required reaching it, the stunning scenery, both above and underwater, and the obvious elation of those who make the trek creates instant bonds.  There is no doubt that you are sharing a truly remarkable place.

*  *  *

Our remaining vacation on Maui passed in a similar if slightly less arduous fashion.  My skin bronzed from so much outdoors, my waistline seemed to decrease in an oh-so pleasing way, and muscles from swimming every day began to re-emerge.  In between more snorkeling and exploring I even found the time to read a book from start to finish, and to simply relax on the beach.  Dining on grilled mahi-mahi and ono from Honokowai Okazuya Deli, sipping some cheap, screw cap Aussie wine on our lanai after the sun disappeared, Linda and I laughed over the day’s various escapades and relived the big adventures.  On Saturday, our last full day, we signed on board the Paragon and ventured out to Molokini, a first for both of us.  I had of course perused the guidebook over and over, diligently searching for an outfit that combined the right size (smaller) boat with an ample sense of fun and a prime anchorage at the island.  We chose well.  The boat didn’t have a slide into the water and we certainly didn’t miss it, we ate sandwiches instead of barbecued chicken and didn’t mind, and we gratefully drank cans of frosty Budweiser instead of pitchers of mai tais.  It was perfect.  The crew was refreshingly ribald, our time at Molokini was spent immersed in what we came for, snorkeling, and sure enough, while the other schmucks motored back across Auau Channel on the return trip, our captain hoisted the sails.  The catamaran flew over the turquoise sea and a rush of salty spray drenched most of us on board.  It took a bit longer to sail, tacking back and forth, but obviously no one cared as we whooped, hooted and hollered our way back to Ma’alaea Harbor.

*  *  *

I am always dismayed when people trash-talk the Hawaiian Islands, quickly dismissing them as a tropical, airbrushed, Disneyland destination for couch potato Americans.  The Hawaiian Islands that I know, granted some much better than others, offer a diverse, outdoor playground extraordinaire, a singular and fantastic collision of fire and water and earth.  And don’t even get me started on the thousands of humpback whales that converge on the archipelago during the winter months.

With just a few simple steps, or perhaps a few, slightly more determined strides, a natural and wild Hawai’i remains easily within reach.  Sure you have to want to find it; sometimes you even have to leave the hotel pool or the beach by your resort. But I know its there.  I’ve seen it, just like I know that a spellbinding, surprise school of convict tangs is somewhere in the waters of La Perouse Bay, calmly going about their business and hopefully awaiting my return.


*  *  *  *  *

Although I have more stories and essays from past trips to the Hawaiian Islands, I'll spare you from reading those a while longer.  But only a bit, because if this uncommonly frigid weather on the west coast continues (I can feel people back east rolling their eyes) I'm gonna want to have myself a little trip down memory lane, and if I do I'm gonna want to share it with you, my 18 devoted followers.

Eighteen!  Is that it?  Sheesh.  A full year of scintillating, spellbinding documentary, prose and poetry and I have less than 2 dozen fans?

To channel Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame...Ahh, well, my Little Loves; I'm grateful for each and every one of you!  Let's face it: The Pisces in me wants to create, and I'd be still be writing and posting even if no one followed.

Peter J. Palmer

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Tramp

Greetings my fellow outdoor enthusiasts, Happy First Birthday to The Headlands Report, and welcome Twenty-Eleven!

In honor of the new year—and new decade, I believe—and because I don't yet have anything new penned, here's an oldie but goodie from New Years Day, 2006. Set aside a good chunk of time and grab a cup of coffee, a beer or a glass of wine, because it's a doozie!

*  *  *  *  *

The Tramp

The first day of the New Year is a great day for a hike. That’s what I think, anyway. Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving, Christmas: all the holidays, in fact, are a fine excuse to hit the trail, but there’s nothing like January One to coax the ensuing 364 in the right direction, one foot in front of the other. It’s a great tradition—just getting out there, just doing it, just working up an appetite for dinner—no doubt about it, and happily my core group of San Francisco friends agrees with me. Our roster of holiday favorites includes Hill 88 from Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands; Pirate’s Cove and Tennessee Valley; the Steep Ravine Loop from Pantoll Ranger Station over on Mount Tamalpais State Park; and the Coastal Trail from Rodeo Beach to Tennessee Beach to Muir Beach. They’re all in Marin County, north of the city, and are all varying degrees of rugged; but on the south side of the bridge, even the flat and easy stroll down Crissy Field to the Golden Gate and back will do. Whatever, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that it’s a damn fine way to celebrate the coming year, what with all the camaraderie and fresh air and clearing of the head and stretching of the limbs.

The first day of 2006 was not that great a day for a hike. Most of December 2005 had been cold and rainy, which was good because we needed the water, needed the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada, needed the promise of full reservoirs come summer; but then, on top of the preceding wet, a series of nasty-ass storms pummeled Northern California on the 29th and 30th with gale force winds and buckets of torrential rain. By that time the nightly news and the local papers were already crammed with stories and pictures of soggy, ravaged communities in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in Napa and Sonoma, and in Marin County. Fallen trees and downed power lines, swollen creeks and rivers, landslides, breached levees, sunken roads, stranded people and cars and kittens, sand bagged storefronts, woefully flooded homes and businesses: the entire Bay Area was soaked to the bones. It was the fourth wettest December on record, and the end of the month just made things worse. Hundreds of thousands were without power. Entire communities evacuated. More tragically still, a man was killed when an old eucalyptus tree suddenly crashed to the ground.

On a much lighter note, New Year’s Eve in San Francisco was thankfully dry, giving revelers the chance to strut their tuxedos and fancy dresses without a raincoat and umbrella in tow. Unfortunately, it was just a small break between storms. By sunrise a substantial new one was lurking offshore, spiraling toward the coast, and it was supposed to be another whopper.

Two friends and I had a hike penciled in for New Year’s Day, weather permitting and hangover permitting. Sunshine would be of course be preferable, just like a clear, well-rested mind and body, but I was hopeful that a little rain and a little too much Champagne was not gonna stop us. Any which way, I avowed, the tradition must continue. Thus, come morning January 1st, way too early I rolled from the warmth of the covers and stumbled to the kitchen; found the Peets coffee and a filter. I was thinking that I’d give my no doubt weary hiking buds a half-hour or forty-five minutes, then start calling.

The phone rang.

“What’s up, fucker?” The first words I heard on the first day of the New Year sounded more like "Wazzaaahhhp, fukaaahhh?" It was 8:30 in the morning. It was Noah.

“Happy New Year,” I croaked, surprised that he was already awake.

*  *  *

Noah and I are both in the restaurant business, and we’d both been scheduled as closing managers for the big, eventful night before. Being the closer is usually a thankless job, no matter the date, but New Year’s Eve can be even more tedious and frustrating. On the flip side, it’s also a whole lot of fun. The long day of preparations is followed by an even longer, even more stressful dinner service that seems to stretch on and on, chock full of high expectations and special menus and free Champagne.

And that’s all before midnight.

Not long after, the wait staff is hopelessly distracted and slightly tipsy from all the toasting and well wishing and hugging of co-workers; and the cooks, who are also enjoying the bubbly, are desperately trying to crank out the last of the entrées and desserts. None of it really matters, though. By that time no one is upset by slow food. In fact, most of the late-night diners are blitzed; having a blast, which is good, but some of them so blotto they probably can’t remember if they’ve already enjoyed the lobster and filet or not. Smashed or just pleasantly inebriated, whichever, they sit happily together with friends or family or lovers at the table—swilling the fizz and tooting horns and twirling cheap noisemakers—or zigzag through the dining room in search of any extra tiaras and top hats.

Meanwhile, in the bar, the really serious drinkers, in between sips of Single Malt Scotch or shots of Fernet Branca, slur the words to Auld Lang Syne for the third time. When the shout “Last Call!” rises above the music, the words incite a flurry of last minute cocktails. Twenty minutes later, after more toasting, more dancing, more revelry or more searching for that special someone, the lights are cranked up high and all those half-finished drinks are whisked away. If you haven’t found her by now, you gotta go look someplace else. It takes some more prodding but soon the last protesting, weaving patron is escorted to the street, and the restrooms are checked to make sure no one has passed out on the floor.

The party’s over, finally. Lock the doors. Done.

Time to check on the wait staff again. They’re all in the back of the restaurant, clearing tables and stocking glassware and organizing their paperwork, but way too many of them are still on the clock. And by the looks of it they’ve found a stray bottle of Champagne. Time to focus; time to get the dining room reset; time to get the finances in order and drop the cash in the safe. The explosion of streamers and confetti and cocktail napkins and deflated balloons that carpets the floor will wait until the cleaning crew arrives, but everyone else needs to finish up the task at hand, finish the last of his or her bubbly, and get the hell out.

*  *  *

So, needless to say, after checking the restrooms one last time, just to be sure, and after finally snagging a taxi—neither one of us getting home until 2:30am—Noah and I should have both been in bed, still sound asleep.

Instead we were on the phone, and I was jonesing for caffeine.

“Are we on for the hike?” Noah asked. Hmmm, surprised again…the boy seemed primed and raring to go. I looked out the window. Gray, overcast, slightly ominous looking skies. Some wind in the treetops. Drizzle, but not much.

“For the hike…Yes! Absolutely…but I’m not sure about Linda. Haven’t heard from her yet.” Coffee…I need coffee. “Let me check and get back to you.”

“All right.” It sounded more like "Aaahiiight." Click.

I made a beeline for the kitchen, put the kettle on and fired up the heat. The water wasn’t even boiling when the phone rang again.

“Palmer house…Happy New Year.”

“Hey! Happy New Year!” It was 8:45. It was Linda, and in her usual answer the phone voice the greeting sounded more like an upward spiraling, effervescent "Haaaaaaay!"

“Are we on?” she continued.

Sheesh. These two are beating me to the punch, I thought again. “Yeah, I just talked to Noah and he’s definitely in.”

“Excellent. What time should I pick you up?” Wow, she seemed way too awake. I tried to remember if she’d had to work New Year’s Eve, as she’s also in the biz. My thinking about it apparently lasted too long.


“Yes, hello.” I snapped back to attention. “I’m still here.”

“Steep Ravine, right?”

“Yup, Steep Ravine. It should be gushing after all this rain.”

“Can we make it after all this rain?”

I hesitated. “We can try."

*  *  *

The Steep Ravine Trail is without a doubt one of the loveliest hikes in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was my first hike in Mount Tamalpais State Park, shortly after I moved to California in 1988; it continues to this day to be one that I look forward to and enjoy three or four times a year. The scenery is drop dead gorgeous, the steep part of Steep Ravine gets the lungs and the heart pumping, and, if combined with a couple other trails, it snakes through several different ecosystems inside the rugged park. It’s close by, to boot; takes maybe a half-hour to get to the trailhead, but feels light years away from the city. From the northern part of San Francisco—from, say, the charming Fort Mason District—simply drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, then cruise up Highway 101 for five or ten minutes to the Mount Tamalpais/Stinson Beach/Route 1 Exit. Once off the freeway the two-lane PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) snakes past Tennessee Valley and Tam Junction to the Panoramic Highway. Veer right at the split, and follow the narrowing road as it climbs halfway up the mountain to the Pantoll Ranger Station. From the parking lot at Pantoll, the hike is a two-hour loop.

Mount Tam, as it’s fondly known, is a hugely popular destination, certainly with day-trippers from the city but also with outdoor enthusiasts from around the globe. Over the years I’ve heard a slew of different languages on the mountain, most of them encountered on the well used, usually well-maintained, Steep Ravine Trail.

Our preferred version of the hike begins on the forested Old Mine Trail, emerges from the cover of bay laurel and live oak about a half mile later, and then meanders out onto undulating, grass-covered hillsides on the Lone Pine Trail. Suddenly uber-dramatic views stretch west to the Pacific Ocean and south to the Marin Headlands, where the tippy-top of the San Francisco skyline and one rust-colored tower of the Golden Gate Bridge peak above the hills. I still remember the first time I hiked Steep Ravine with Noah, still remember his blatant, unabashed outburst when he saw the wide-open, panoramic view.

“Oh my god!” he shouted, stopping dead in his tracks. “Oh my god!”

It’s that beautiful.

Five minutes later hang a right, where Lone Pine merges with the Dipsea Trail, heading west toward the ocean, and follow the combined trails for more breathtaking vistas of far off sea, of rumpled hills and valleys, of rippling grasses and scruffy chaparral. After a half-hour stretch the Dipsea Trail leaves Lone Pine and descends into the redwoods and the ravine itself. Down, down, down, the Dipsea drops: peaceful, cool and quiet; as hushed as a cathedral, with multiple switchbacks and hundreds of wooden steps; with the scent of forest and moist, fertile earth; the entire scene tinted with a glorious greenish light filtered though the Gothic redwood trunks and forest canopy. Finally reaching the bottom, at a handsome wooden footbridge that crosses Webb Creek, the Dipsea meets the Steep Ravine Trail proper. Take another right, and from there it’s a sweaty, breathy trek straight up the creek, so to speak, straight up the ravine back to Pantoll. The accompanying stream is spring-fed, so for much of the year graceful waterfalls cascade or trickle, prehistoric-looking ferns carpet the walls, mushrooms and trillium and wild iris poke from the spongy forest floor in April and May, and massive coast redwoods—sequoia sempervirens—soar to the heavens. In the winter months, especially after a good rain, it’s all cranked up a notch or two.

*  *  *

By 10:00am Linda, Noah and I were on the road, stocked up with fruit and trail mix and sandwiches and water and gloves and hats and rain gear and dry socks, slowly cruising north, not really surprised by the lack of traffic. And by 10:15 we faced our first obstacle; the exit ramp to Route 1 was under water, completely flooded.

Now this little hitch in the giddy-up might have sent a less resolute trio back to the city, might have urged us toward Plan B: a movie and a nice, leisurely lunch inside perhaps. Combined with the weather report it certainly should have whispered loud and clear the possible state of things to come, and had we been two people instead of three we might have listened. Instead it began a recurring theme for our quaint little outing: just when our ultimate plan seemed thwarted, just when one of us, or two of us, thought it prudent not to continue, someone else in the group would voice encouragement, or would find the way forward. Company is better, yet sometimes more foolhardy, than being on your own.

Days later, when I told my mother the gory details of the hike she asked me point blank, without hesitation: “Where’s the smart one in the group, Peter? Where’s the one that says ‘maybe this isn’t such a good idea?’”

Obviously that person was not along for the ride.

Linda slowed as we passed the freeway ramp then doubling as a pond, merging left to avoid the expanse of water. I felt a collective, disappointed “hmmm, what should we do now” silently rise from our heads and balloon inside the car like a comic book cloud of thought, fogging up the windows like our warm breath.

“You know, I think if you take the next exit we can double back and try it heading south,” I said from the back seat.

And so there it was. A suggestion, an idea, the initial encouragement to continue, my voice strung out between us like the week’s laundry, waiting to be roped back in or left to dry further until another day.

No discussion ensued. It was now or…well, now or the next time. Five minutes later, crawling south at 35 miles per hour, Linda flipped on the turn signal and eased off the freeway onto the Pacific Coast Highway. The turn signal was superfluous; no cars followed as we drove on toward the mountain. Again I felt the sense of adventure, the excitement of the unknown, bubble up inside me: I love to hike; I love to hike in the rain; I love to hike on off days, on weekdays, on days when less than perfect weather keeps the crowds at bay. This is gonna be so much fun, I thought.

*  *  *

“Damn. This is gonna be a whole lot longer than we planned,” someone said. “You guys still wanna go for it?”

We were standing by the car next to the Mountain Home Inn, a handsome aerie of warm lodging and local beer and wine and food perched on the eastern flank of Mount Tamalpais, overlooking the North Bay and the communities of Mill Valley and San Rafael far below. We were standing in the middle of the Panoramic Highway, 1200 feet above sea level. And we were contemplating an orange and white traffic barrier straddling the road, a sign with the words “Road Closed. Hazardous Conditions” printed in big black letters.

Pantoll Ranger Station, the beginning of our planned hike, lay 2.5 trail miles ahead of us, with a small elevation gain of 400 feet. But double that distance, then add in the 4.5 miles of the actual Steep Ravine Loop, and all of a sudden we were facing close to ten miles round trip, with a 1400-foot descent and a 1400-foot climb back to the car. All of a sudden a very different story.

“I’m cool with it,” Noah said. “I’ve got the whole day.”

“Ms. Ligoooie?” I asked, looking toward Linda and calling her one of the pet names that I’d made up over the years. When I was a kid my father did the same thing; used a constantly evolving string of nicknames for me and for my six siblings. In dad’s world my sister Thea became Degs, or Deg-so-la-doog-so. Molly was sometimes Mims and sometimes Mimmsey. Anne became Yez, and Susan was called Soo-sos. I must have inherited the habit from him, so as Linda’s last name is Liguori—a strong, old-fashioned Italian name from the Bronx—Ligoooie, Ligoooey-goo, and Legoofy-goo all naturally follow. At least in my mind.

I don’t remember how long we stood by the car, or how long we debated if we should or if we shouldn’t. We certainly didn’t have to worry about other traffic, as there was none. The road remained empty.

And we were dry. The wind was definitely stronger on Mount Tam, blowing skittishly from this direction and that, but the rain had thus far held off. It was actually lovely. Sure, not a day that screams “Hey, let’s go hiking!” but in it’s own moody way, lovely nonetheless. We were well dressed and warm, we had food and water, and in a deliciously rare occurrence we seemed to have the mountain entirely to ourselves. We also had six hours of daylight remaining, which at the time seemed like plenty.

Perplexed, reviewing our options, we chatted amongst ourselves, but it didn’t take long or much convincing. One by one we donned our packs and started walking.

*  *  *

From the parking spaces by Mountain Home Inn, where we ditched Linda’s BMW, the Troop 80 Trail is the hiker’s version of the Panoramic Highway; it traces the route from Mountain Home Inn to Pantoll but is hidden in the forest below the road. In clement weather the trail is an easy leg stretcher, and noise from passing cars usually keeps your thoughts in constant touch with civilization. But that’s with sunny skies, with weekend warriors from the city crawling over the outdoor playground that is Mount Tam.

We heard not one motor, not one squeak or squeal as we took our first tentative steps, then a dozen, then a hundred, then a quarter mile, then more, happy at last to finally be out of the car and plain old walking. Leftover water from the previous rains dripped through the canopy of trees above us, pleasantly pattering down on our heads. Memories from my carefree childhood surfaced, as I looked around at the scene, at us wrapped up tight, as we splashed through mud puddles on the trail. Alone, calmly chatting about this and that, we walked. Everything was soggy and slippery, and even though a small wooden footbridge had been wiped out by the back-to-back December storms (we had to go off-trail to skirt the wreckage and had to leap over the tumble of water beneath it) we made relatively good time. An hour later we arrived at Pantoll to a deserted parking lot and a Ranger Station locked up tight as a drum: an eerie sight as the place is usually a beehive of activity, a major hub for park information, and the starting point for several trails on the mountain. Resting briefly to retie shoes, adjust clothes and swig some water, we took in the emptiness and stepped into our original idea for a New Year’s Day hike: the Steep Ravine Loop.

South on the Old Mine Trail we set off anew, quickly passing the sign warning hikers that rattlesnake and mountain lion habitat lay ahead. Quietly talking and laughing or simply listening to the breath in our ears we squished up and down the muddy path, as happy and as comfortable as a gaggle of California quail. Day-to-day worries and deadlines and responsibilities slid off me like water off the back of a duck.

“This is gorgeous,” I voiced to everyone and no one in particular.

Before long, however, a new dilemma, perhaps another harbinger of things to come, presented itself. Ahead of us a short portion of the trail had started to sink down the hillside, finally succumbing to the dual forces of gravity and too much eroding water. The impending collapse looked freshly sculpted, I thought; it looked not really dangerous but bothersome. Stopping briefly to assess the situation, Noah took the lead; he quickly scrambled a detour up and around the dubious ground, with Linda and me in hot, tentative pursuit. Following his lanky, Gortex-clad form for the remainder of the Old Mine Trail we soon left the peaceful, scented cover of trees, eased out toward the vast open hillsides, and came face to face with the approaching storm.

*  *  *

The sudden, surprise fury of it sucked the air from my lungs. Immediately I was thrown off balance by the force of the wind roaring in from the ocean. Immediately a sting of fine mist pelted my face and eyes. I had never felt such wind; I had never felt such raw, Mother-natural power, certainly not so far from the safety of home. It was wind that could literally knock you off your feet, if you weren’t careful, and we had to lean into it to stay upright. A tropical storm wind, I guessed. A hurricane wind, perhaps. Immediately I reconsidered going further.

“Holy shit!” I heard, from somewhere behind me.

I turned my back to the affront and an especially annoying gust shoved me forward like a pissed-off, playground bully. “Wow! Okay, well this is interesting,” I yelled as I stumbled to regain my footing, as talking quietly was now useless.

Fast moving clouds obliterated most of the view that I had come to know and love over the years; a tentative, pesky drizzle screamed sideways with the clouds as we huddled together to figure out our next move.

“This is serious, you guys.”

“What? You can’t hear us?” I could barely hear Linda above the roar.

“No.  Not that…this! This is serious!”

“I know. It’s great!” I think that was Noah.

It wasn’t the best place for a powwow, not of any length. We should have scurried back into the cover of trees behind the mountaintop, retraced our steps and high-tailed it back to the car and back to the city. We didn’t. Instead, we discussed the only other option.

“What do you want to do?” I shouted.

“I don’t know; what do you wanna do?”

Pause. Lots of wind. Lots of lurching back and forth in the wind. Lots of nervous laughter and deep, soul-searching looks into each other’s eyes to see who really was game and who really wasn’t.

“Think we should go for it?”

“I don’t know. It’s not very pleasant.”

“What do you think?’

It was like we were channeling that flock of idiotic vultures toward the end of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book, each one of them bored out of their simpleton skulls in the desert heat, lethargically discussing whether they should swoop down on Mogli for an orphaned-and-all-alone-and-wandering-boy-midday-snack. Or not.


“I dunno...whachawannado?”

“We’ve made it this far, for cryn-out-loud, and it’s not even raining all that hard. Let’s go for it.” I think that was Linda.

Head down, my outer shell of Marmot raingear flapping violently in the onslaught, I led the way. If we could deal with the reduced visibility and the unrelenting wind and the nasty little pinpricks of rain we’d be fine. We hoped.

Was it fun? I can’t really remember. Did it thrill me and stoke the fire of my inner, primal being with a terrible, awe-inspiring sense of adventure? Did it instantly wrench me from my usual comfort zone—riding the bus from my apartment to work and back, to work and back—and leave me both excited and a bit afraid of where we were, what we were doing, and why we were willing to prolong it? Exploring, out in the wild, and out of our minds? Absolutely!

Yeah, I know; it’s probably just some cruel, unintentional twist of evolution, some corollary of Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest (and Smartest). Simply one of the myriad curses of being human and knowing it: seconds before you are struck in the face by a cart-wheeling tree trunk you’re so pumped full of endorphins and adrenaline that the last thing you ever feel is gloriously, wickedly alive.

Now as I mentioned, the Steep Ravine Loop and I are not unknown to each other. I’ve hiked that same trail more times than I can count, with many different people and in many different seasons, but never in conditions so taxing, so all-consuming. Once we agreed to continue, the first steps we took downhill toward the junction with the Dipsea Trail…we had to concentrate on those steps! Focus just to stay upright. Smacked about by the ferocious wind, tormented by the angry needles of rain as the storm plowed in from the Pacific, we were forced to hike with our faces tucked under our hoods, one eye to the ground and one eye on the surrounding mayhem. It was incredible, fantastic, almost laughable, trying to walk out there; and with the low-hanging clouds obscuring most of the view there wasn’t even that much to see. I can’t speak for Linda or Noah, but by that time I was no longer interested in a view, anyway. All my energy and attention went in to just staying on my feet and watching out for trouble. Thus, any familiarity I thought I had with the landscape, with the trail that I could practically see in my sleep, was gone. Kaput! It seemed like totally uncharted territory out there, which is why I subsequently became so confused by the recently rearranged trail system.

To put it plainly, I had absolutely no clue that, since I had last hiked Steep Ravine, the rangers, in an attempt to restore the fragile upper hillside, had blocked off the former junction and let the old trail revert to native plants. Two hundred yards further down the hill they spruced up a new junction, complete with handsome wooden signs pointing hikers in the right direction (which for some reason didn’t help me at all that day).

I’ve thought about the snafu a whole lot in retrospect: there’s absolutely no reason the new layout should have thrown me for such a loop, save the addled state I was in because of the weather. “What the hell’s going on? Why doesn’t this feel right?” I asked, but maybe not so anyone else could hear. I know these trails, I reminded myself, so why does it look all different and shit. “Jeezus, that wind!  Would somebody PLEASE shut that damn wind UP?” That might have been to myself, too.

So let’s just say that for the next ten minutes this happened: we hiked the start of the new, unfamiliar but correct trail, then convinced ourselves (I convinced myself, then convinced Linda and Noah) that we were going the wrong way. And let’s just say that for fifteen minutes after that, this happened: in confusion we doubled back and finally found the old trail junction back up the hill, which was definitely, on purpose, blocked off. Let’s say that for a minute I stood there, smack dab in the middle of the raging tempest, trying to figure it all out. And let’s say that ultimately I did figure it out, and that after I did, this happened: we retraced our steps to the correct trail and re-hiked that same damned trail directly into the full brunt of the storm for a second time. And let’s just say that Linda, in the most violent gust of wind that we’d felt thus far, was suddenly swept off her feet and hurled out to sea.

Okay, no, wait…That didn’t happen.

Together we toiled on, past Lone Tree Spring (again!); for almost a mile we walked directly into the maw of the beast, utterly exposed. It was exhilarating. It was brutal. It was insane; and it was odd that, as soon as I regained my bearings and recognized that we were indeed headed in the right direction, I perhaps just a teensy-weensy bit began to relish the rush of such electrifying surroundings. If I could have safely managed it I might have actually started skipping. I do remember that at one point I opened my arms in a wide embrace, opened my mouth in a smile and my lungs in a roar, imploring the gods of wind and rain: “Yee-ha! Bring it on, baby!” Through the din I heard my trusty companions yell back in support. (Idiots, all three of us.) They followed doggedly in my footsteps, trading places with me every so often until, at last, we left the open hillsides and ducked into the ravine.

*  *  *

The relative calm that greeted us inside the protection of the redwoods, the immediate change in the elements, was almost as shocking as our first taste of the wind an hour earlier. I have always found that specific little transition remarkable, even in calm and sunny, benevolent weather. Even though I’ve experienced it countless times, I’m always dazzled by the difference.

Let me put it another way.

The song of the exposed, expansive, all-encompassing vista bellows its beauty loud and clear for the entire world to hear: a soaring, operatic beauty that leads you to the edge and then pushes you off; a high-tech, cinematic score that stuns you in Dolby THX. The giddying, vast horizon of ocean and mountain and god-fearing sky is like the winning number from Publishers Clearinghouse, ripped open in a blinding frenzy of overwhelming stimuli.

The song of the coastal redwood forest, in contrast, is a soft, stately, intimate beauty that caresses the senses as gently as a lullaby. The redwoods are like a hand-written love letter, slowly and tenderly eased from a scented envelope in private. Peaceful, in spite of the trickle or roar of water; calm, in spite of the rustle of the wind somewhere above, outside; and silent, except for the wooden creaks and groans of ancient sentinels, except for the whispered story of the surrounding forest.

Although they are now scarce, some of the remaining old-growth trees in California are the tallest living things on Earth. The record holders, at least those that are known and have been measured, reach heights of almost 300 feet: taller than Niagara Falls, as tall as a 30-story building! In their heyday they used to thrive in a narrow, almost uninterrupted, towering band of green, hugging the coast from Big Sur south of Monterey to just north of the Oregon border. These days some isolated pockets of the true giants remain, but most of the coast redwoods, like the ones in Steep Ravine, as beautiful and as big as they may seem, are second or third growth. They are mere adolescents compared with their parents, who were logged off the face of the planet before we knew it.

All right…enough of all that. You get my point.

“Thank god we’re out of that hellhole!” Linda said, taking the lead as we started down the ravine.

I pulled back my hood and felt the cool air against my sweaty scalp. It was good to be under the cover of trees again; able to hear each other talk.

“Yeah, I know. Sorry about that. About getting lost…confused there for a minute. I didn’t know they had switched the trail like that.”

“Dude, we hiked that shit twice!”

Thanks Noah. I know. I was there.

“Uh, no…excuse me. Three times,” Linda corrected.

Really? Apparently my befuddlement had lasted longer than I remembered. Apparently we had doubled back not just once but several times while I tried to unravel the new trail layout.

Silently I shook my head in shame. Oh man, I thought; I’m gonna be hearing about this one for a long, long time. But ahead of me I heard both Linda and Noah laugh, a genuine yet somewhat nervous little chuckle of support, and my mood brightened. I realized that they were as stoked as I was and did not to give up, did not want to turn back. We were in this together, all three of us now absolutely, positively sure that we were comrades in a singular experience that we would be talking about for years. If we made it.

In the protected fold of Steep Ravine a renewed sense of safety settled down upon us, and our casual chat returned. We relaxed. We looked around at the shapes and textures and colors of the forest; listened to the surrounding quiet, and breathed in the rich, heady scent of the redwoods as we walked. It was as beautiful as ever. It was as lush as ever. Nothing but different shades of green and brown; nothing but different types of wood and dirt and rock, with healthy, happy, furry, stringy moss clinging to any available surface.

“Wow, look at the bark on this tree,” I remarked, running my hand over the trunk of an especially gnarly, especially beautiful Douglas fir by the trail.

“Very cool,” Linda replied, doing the same.

I tipped my head back to follow its vertical, upward thrust, almost falling backward in the process. Wow, and really big and really tall, I thought, reassured that the tree looked so sturdy and strong. After the tumultuous, disorienting trek on the open hills I was grateful for shelter of any kind. In a weird way I was also kinda proud that we had not yet abandoned ship and thrilled to be in the throes of an adventure with two of my cherished hiking buddies.

It didn’t take long for The Happy Placeto disappear.

Immediately I noticed two things. One, that most of the trail was covered with discarded leaves and twigs and branches and other plant life that had been hurled to the forest floor by the previous, 48-hour monster of a storm. And two, that everything was much, much wetter than I had ever seen. As far as we knew it still wasn’t raining that hard, but leftover water—no doubt also from the previous deluge—dripped, dropped, trickled, ran and pooled everywhere: on the ferns, on the florescent green moss, on the tree trunks and branches, on the trail, on our heads, and in every single, tentative little nook and cranny of the upper ravine. Teeny-tiny rivulets of H2O laced in and out of the flora, tumbled around and over small stones and pebbles, created Lilliputian-sized lakes and deltas and waterfalls: a web of liquid motion everywhere. It was lovely, enchanting, magical, but I knew that as we made our way down the ravine all that water was going to join forces; that the rivulets were going to become fatter, and that deeper they would turn into small, cascading creeks. Deeper still they would weave into small streams, then into bigger and stronger streams; and at the bottom all those big streams were finally going to merge into one gargantuan, raging torrent. I knew we were in for a spectacle.

First, though, we had to get there.

“Be careful, you guys. Just take it slow,” I warned. The path was slick and portions of it were narrow, at times with nothing on our right-hand side save a steep drop-off. In dry weather it’s not too intimidating; you just have to be mindful and watch your step, lest you trip over a root or something. But we were in the exact opposite of dry; it had been raining for a month, the ground under our feet was completely saturated and, as we would soon discover anew, extremely fragile. Landing on your butt if you slipped would be one thing. Landing the wrong way could mean a short slide, a surprise ski jump over the edge and a foot-first sleigh ride straight down. A while later, when we reached the top of the really steep portion of the trail, marked by hundreds of wooden log steps laid into the narrowing descent by hardy rangers over the years, we faced a cracked skull or a broken bone should we carelessly slip.

Ah, yes: the worry-free pleasures of hiking…of the great outdoors!

“So check this out. I just read that the earth hurtles around the sun at 66,600 miles per hour.” Linda and Noah didn’t respond, but from behind I watched them both digest this golden nugget of fun fact to know and tell. At least that’s what I thought their silence meant.

“Did you know that if you took a regular airplane to the moon it would take only 20 days?” Noah turned around to look at me as he walked, to see why I was all of a sudden regurgitating miscellaneous scientific information. Subsequently, he almost plowed right into a large boulder jutting out over the trail.

Ooh…watch out, I cringed. He read the look on my face and turned around just in time.

“Ooh, look…mushrooms!” Linda chimed. She stopped so abruptly to inspect a decomposing log that I almost rear-ended her.

“And you know if you took that same plane to the sun,” I continued, undeterred by her sudden interest in fungus, “it would take a whopping 24 years.” Here I paused for effect. “By that time, however, passengers should be warned that objects in the overhead compartments, and the compartments themselves, might have melted.” This was straight from a book I was reading, and I thought it was hysterical.

“So how was the restaurant last night?” Linda asked. Obviously she’d heard enough of my regurgitated astrophysics.

Noah doesn’t really talk much when he hikes. I think all three of us find it meditative, the trail our own personal ashram, but I was in a chattier mood so I took Linda’s please-lets-change-the-subject bait.

“The usual New Year’s bridge and tunnel crowd,” I responded. “Tons of corkage, but we had some regulars in and a lot of fun people. Most of ‘em seemed pretty happy.”

“At midnight we threw confetti off the balcony,” I added, remembering the sight with a smile. It had been my idea, and it was a big hit, if I do say so myself. Not so much for the cleaning crew that would have to sweep it all up, but a festive sight nonetheless.

“What’d you do? You have to work?” I asked.

“No! No, no, no…No work for this girl,” she replied. “I saw Foo Fighters with Jeannie and Yinka at the Fillmore,” then added, “Awesome show!”

“Hmmm…the Foo Fighters,” I said under my breath, trying to recall who they were and if I could remember any of their songs.

Now I wouldn’t know Foo Fighters from Green Day from Stained from Three Doors Down from pretty much any of the bands Linda listens to if they walked up and smacked me on the ass. I’m still happily mired in the pop music of the late seventies and eighties. She knows this, and I know she knows this, and she knows that I know she knows this. It’s become an ongoing source of amusement for us both, and perhaps frustration for her, because I’m clueless when it comes to keeping all those grungy, contemporary rockers straight. Linda, however, is totally plugged in to the scene. From what I can tell she’s constantly waking up early to stand in line or to get on-line for concert tickets; and lord knows she does her best to fill me in on the new release from an old fave, or the first album from some hip new band. As she’s carting me across the Golden Gate Bridge for a hike—which is often, bless her soul—heavy metal head-banging Rock and Roll is pretty much the only musical genre that plays. (It’s her car, after all.) It’s gotta drive her crazy, my inability to get with the program. Thinking it would help, for a while she even tried to quiz me while we drove. I would queue up a random song on her iPod and try to guess the artist in what she thought should be an appropriate amount of time. It didn’t go well.

“Hey, Noah…did you get a look at table 32 last night? Check out the breasts on that lady?”

I could almost feel Linda roll her eyes. Oh great, she was probably thinking, here we go. Not gonna mention the hair plugs or calf implants on the guys. It’s always the women.

Granted, I was entering unrefined territory, but it perked him up and he laughed in response. “Oyster help on 32!” he shouted, repeating the code words for “Oh my god, will you look at the (fill in the blank) on table number 32.” Of course he’d seen them. Everyone had seen them, along with what passed for the subtle plastic surgery on her spruced up, Botox-ed face. And everyone, including the gay guys, had tried not to stare, but it was futile, like trying not to look at a train wreck as you drove past. Her breasts were stuck out on parade, defiant of gravity and just barely contained by her low cut, spangled party dress, which was so bursting at the seams that, had she sneezed, one of them might have popped out and knocked over a wine glass or something. She and her (much younger) date were well on their way to spending the first day of the New Year in bed, maybe alone or maybe together, but either way comatose and nursing a gigantic hangover, to boot. They were smashed.

It’s not pretty that just about everyone dining in a restaurant is critiqued, for good or for bad, by just about everyone on the staff. It’s just a fact.

“Whoever made those things should get an Academy Award for special effects!” This was a bit boorish and neither one of them laughed, but I thought it was hysterical.

Moments later, rounding a little bend in the trail, we crumpled to a stop and confronted—surprise, surprise—another obstacle, which suddenly brought my petty joking to a halt, which suddenly wasn’t very funny at all. Mouths agape, we stood for a moment in silence and stared at what was left of the trail. The ground beneath a portion of the steps had liquefied. A sizable chunk of the waterlogged, underlying dirt had slid down the precipice to our right, taking some ferns and small plants with it and leaving nothing but air under most of the timbers. Like an exposed ribcage a half dozen steps were hanging out over the abyss, stuck into the other side of the trail like loose teeth.

“Well that can’t be good.”

It didn’t look good. It looked dangerous. It looked like any additional weight or pressure on top of the remaining portion of the trail might cause the steps to give way completely, taking them, and anyone foolish enough to be standing on them, hurtling down the ravine. Like the sink on the Old Mine Trail the damage also looked fresh. It had to be fresh, I thought, because if any of the rangers had seen it the trail would have been blocked off. It was that ugly.

“Shit,” I said, “I don’t know about this.” In my head I heard: Don’t even consider it!

“What do you guys think?”  Linda asked.

“Looks kinda scary,” I offered, stating the obvious, all of a sudden very concerned, all of a sudden sure that our escapade had come to an end. “Looks like it just happened, too; probably in that last crazy storm.”

In a weird way I was excited by the newness of it all; exhilarated by the possibility that we were, perhaps, the first people to see all the destruction. The impending slide on the Old Mine Trail; the debris on the Steep Ravine Trail; the downed trees; the collapse we were now facing; and, if we ever got there, whatever was lurking beyond the “Road Closed” barrier on the Panoramic Highway. All of it had happened in that last doozie of a storm, I was convinced, and since then no one had been out hiking. Like us they’d probably been too distracted by the more urbane pleasures of New Years Eve, but unlike us they were probably still recuperating in bed or enjoying a civilized brunch somewhere in the city.

Linda eased closer to the edge of the void, gave the ground a tentative stomp and then leapt back to see what would happen. Thankfully nothing did.

It was six of one, a half a dozen of the other. Granted it was a pretty familiar six, going backward, versus a totally unknown half a dozen. We definitely knew what to expect if, thwarted, we turned around, but we also knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that, if we decided to continue, more adventure lay ahead. I think we also realized that we were nearing the halfway point of our quaint little excursion, so one by one, clinging to the remaining dirt on the left side of the trail and trying to tread as swiftly and as lightly as our feet could manage, we tiptoed across the protruding skeleton of steps.

Okay, then…more adventure it is!

The carnage continued the deeper we went. None of it was as scary as what we’d just passed, but there was crap everywhere. More miniature mudslides and rockslides on the trail; more tossed-about plant life; more water and more downed trees; more evidence of just how completely saturated the ground was and just how physically intense the previous storm had been.

*  *  *

At just the right time of year the seasonal creeks and streams of Mount Tam and Marin County, of the entire coast of California for that matter, strike a lovely balance between too much water and not enough, between feast and famine. They achieve a complimentary yin and yang, a Goldilocks of just right: somewhere between the too swollen, too muddy, almost too massive raging torrent in early winter and a dried up dribble connecting isolated pools of shallow, stale water in late summer and fall.

That said, any month is a good one for a ramble. The mishmash of colliding terrain on the coast offers tremendous opportunity for exploration, from a stroll on the beach to a walk around a hidden lake to a mountainous trek. And every season has its unique charms. In spring it’s the parade of wildflowers, a riotous explosion of color: purple lupine, yellow tidy tips, blue eyed grass, orange poppies and monkey flower, lavender iris, pink checker bloom, white milk maids, fuchsia shooting stars. In summer the ethereal fog returns; so beautiful and fleeting (or relentless) it almost seems alive. And in September and October: the warm, golden days and golden hills of the Golden State.

For a brief stretch, however, the coastal valleys are transformed into that hiker’s paradise—not too wet, not too dry—a virtual cornucopia of watery delight, and a photographer’s dream. The land is green and moist and sparkling. The forest is reborn with plush, healthy new growth. The streams are filled with clear, fresh runoff, and picture-perfect, lacy waterfalls punctuate their tumble toward the sea.

*  *  *

When we finally reached the bottom of the ravine we saw a picture, all right, but Ansel Adams hadn’t photographed it and Claude Monet certainly hadn’t painted it. If you ask me it looked more like a snapshot of Hell, or more like The Scream by German artist Edvard Munch. Well before we even got there, long before we could actually see it, we could hear the thunder; almost feel the ground quaking beneath our boots. Just as I had suspected, Webb Creek was out of control.

“Oh my god, I have never, ever seen it like this!” I said, though I doubt anyone could hear me above the din. Linda and Noah joined me on the bridge: one on my left, the other on my right. We all gazed upstream.

“Holy shit!” they yelled in unison. Hmmm…stereo surround sound; loud and clear.

Noah quickly added another one, in a whispered mono: “Holy shit.”

Side by side we stood for a while, stunned into reverent silence, and simply stared at the scene; awed by the amount of brown, muddy whitewater rushing toward us and under the bridge. We had spent well over two hours hiking down from Pantoll, which usually takes one, but we had thankfully arrived at the nadir of the trek intact. No one was blown off a cliff; no one had slipped and cracked a skull; no one was stranded on some inaccessible ledge with a broken arm; and no one was crying. The remainder of the hike was a mile and a half straight up through the heart of the ravine: with mega-monster redwoods; with switchback after switchback; with a zigzag of footbridges above Webb Creek from one side to the other; and with one 20-foot tall wooden ladder—yup, a part of the trail—that we'd use to scale an impressive rock wall, right next to what I realized was gonna be one hell of a waterfall.

“Okay, time to pay the piper,” I quipped. I was, of course, referring to the significant incline we all knew lay ahead of us. The beauty of Steep Ravine is undeniable, but we love it for the pure lung and buttocks and leg muscle workout it delivers as well. When it comes to hopping on a stair-master for an hour, I think we’d all choose the ones on Mount Tam any day, not the ones surrounded by four gym walls.

“Let’s do this!” I heard as I stepped off the bridge. We were pumped, stoked. Amazingly we were still dry, all things considered. We were primed and raring to wrap this bad boy up!

We were not five minutes into the ascent when, low and behold, I looked up and saw two hikers coming down the trail: a man and a woman. Well I’ll be damned, I thought…People! If they had been a mirage and I was smack-dab in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, I would not have stared more unbelievably at their approaching figures. If it were any other time in any other weather I would have taken no notice, probably just flashed a Peace Sign and mumbled a requisite, friendly greeting as we passed. But because it was exactly that time and exactly that weather and we’d already been through exactly what we had, you could have knocked me over with one Official State Flower, with one bright orange California poppy.

In spite of my initial shock—Hey, look!  More harebrain humans out in this god-awful mess!—I recognized that their appearance was important for two reasons. The first, reassuring one was that apparently the pair had safely made their way down the ravine from Pantoll. The second was that they could tell us what lay ahead. Which they did, and which—we should have seen this coming—didn’t sound very appealing, or safe.

“There’s a big mudslide up there.”

Linda, Noah and I looked at each other. “How big?”

“It’s huge,” the woman began. “The trail is wiped out.” Almost in unison he said, “It’s fucked up.”

“The whole side of the ravine is wiped out,” she added.

We looked at each other again.

Me: “How’d you get down, then?”

Linda: “But you two made it through okay.”

Noah: Silent, but no doubt taking it all in.

They looked at each other and tried to explain how they’d hiked around the impasse; first him then her, then her then him.

“About a hundred yards before the…Below the slide area…Back on the trail…Right below this big rock you have to duck under…You’ll see it if you double back…If you can cross the river…You’ll see a path…Kind of an area…Where the plants have been kinda…Where someone has been through already…You can get up the other side of the ravine from there.”


“The other side?” I asked, already sensing trouble.

“Yeah, you have to cross the creek,” he repeated alone, trying to wipe the confused look from my face, “but it looks like someone has been through over there. There are some plants kinda schmooshed down. A faint trail that someone made.”

“You get back on the trail right by the next bridge,” she added. “You can see it way up there. The next bridge…on that opposite side.”

“You can barely see the path, but that’s the way we came down.”

“It’s rough going, but it’s do-able.”

They were finished, I hoped.

“And you meet the trail again on the other side, higher up?” I was trying to get all this gibberish straight.

They looked at each other and ended with:  “Oh yeah…way up.”

As much as I wanted to I really couldn't picture what they were describing. Not so much the ravine itself: I could envision the gargantuan redwoods, the spongy forest floor, the explosion of ferns, the narrow brown trail, the mossy rocks and boulders, the impressive vertical thrust of exposed sandstone and shale cliffs. I just couldn’t picture how we were gonna cross any part of Webb Creek in its current condition. And if we did cross it, then I didn’t think the chances of us finding some makeshift pathway through the thick tangle—where one had never, ever been before and wasn’t supposed to be—were very good. And even if we did find it, I could not imagine what it would be like to somehow scale the opposite side of the ravine, which is called Steep Ravine for a reason, until we met up with the main trail again.

We chatted for a while longer; told them what we could about the damage on the Dipsea Trail and what to expect when they met the wind out on the open hills.

“So where are you heading?” Linda asked.

“We’re gonna hike down to Stinson Beach, then…I don’t know, take it from there.”

Hmmm…sounds familiar, I thought. Not the “Stinson Beach” part, as we were headed in the opposite direction, but the “I don’t know…take it from there” part.

“Well good luck,” I said. “Be careful.”

“Thanks, you too.”

“Happy New Year,” I added. For some reason everyone thought that was hysterical.

Our progress quickened as we continued up the ravine, into the home of the really big redwoods, into the steep, foggy, creek-side, preferred habitat of the giants. Although it’s obviously more of a workout trudging uphill than down, especially hard on the lungs and quads, the possibility of serious injury should you trip or slip is mitigated by the handy placement of your hands and your arms. They are conveniently there to break your fall.

Yes, things fall.

Leaves fall. Snow falls. Toddlers fall constantly. I fell down the steps when I was a kid; fell out of bed another time and got a concussion and three stitches by my eye. My younger sister Anne asked if the doctors were going to screw my head off to fix the concussion, then screw it back on. I almost fell over laughing when she reminded me of that one.

Water falls and erodes the land. Rocks fall. Trees fall. Big rocks and big trees fall all the time. Sure, maybe not so much during the fleeting span of a human-sized life, but in the geologically longer life of a forest, stuff is constantly in motion. Shit does happen. Sometimes the changes are barely noticeable, and sometimes the changes are cataclysmic.

If I ever stopped to think about it, if I ever really looked around at all the visual clues—really noticed all the evidence from some of the major, bad ass upheavals that have, over the millennia, transformed the depths of Steep Ravine—I would never set foot in there. Not in any weather, and certainly not when the land is so obviously close to the tipping point. Sure, at first glance, like I said, it’s stunning: impossibly beautiful and thick and green and lush and ancient and all Lord of the Rings looking. But pause for a moment and wrap your head around the pick-up-stick jumble of trees suspended over the creek, the crisscross hatch of colossal, fallen redwoods and boulders that adds to the primeval, Jurassic Park appeal of the setting. Notice the upended root ball of a coast redwood; the snarl of shallow roots that anchors the tree into the ground and that was apparently ripped out of the earth when gravity or too much wind or too much water took its toll. Take in what that really means. All those trees, at some point in the past—maybe a long time ago and maybe recently—all those trees came crashing to the ground. Look at how gigantic some of those fallen trees are. Why, they’re almost as big as that one standing by the trail. What is that one…Six, seven feet in diameter and a hundred feet tall? More? Oh and look at that one on the other side of the creek. See how some of its roots are sticking out over the edge of the stream, like the runoff has eroded the edge of the riverbank? See how it’s leaning ever so slightly over the water? Isn’t that gorgeous?

As we made our way into the bowels of the ravine, which also, thank god, meant higher and closer to freedom, every majestic, towering redwood that in the past had filled me a mind-numbing appreciation for the wonders of the natural world looked like just another way to die. Every mammoth boulder above our heads looked like it was attached to the earth with Scotch Tape. Everything seemed like it could, in a moment’s notice, turn Linda or Noah or me, or all three of us, in to the next day’s headlines.

I couldn’t wait to get out.

Don’t get me wrong; it was as hypnotic as ever. Even more so, as we were totally alone, and part of me wanted to plop right down and sit by the side of Webb Creek, linger for a spell and soak in the extraordinary web of life surrounding us. But I couldn’t shake the idea that all that vertical-ness was just potential energy waiting to be converted to kinetic energy, and a big part of me couldn’t shake the idea that very soon we were going to come face to face with the antimatter of what matters in a forest: the tearing down just to build up again; the inevitable cycle of birth and death and rebirth. With every step we marched closer and closer to what our hiker friends had tried to describe: the next, the biggest and hopefully last obstacle we would encounter; the last we’d have to tackle, or the one that would force us to turn around and head back the way we came.

*  *  *

“Oh my god,” I whispered.

“Oh my god,” Linda whispered.

“SON OF A BITCH!”  Noah didn’t whisper.

We had arrived.

Sometime very recently—disconcertingly so—an enormous slab of the ravine had come sliding, careening, crashing down in a wall of mud and grass and ferns and trees and roots and stones and rocks and earth and…hillside. 100 feet high, 200 feet high and 40 feet wide: I have no idea, but the slide was significant. It was all gone. History. Well, it was still there, but what used to be healthy forest was now an ugly expanse of brown and black, naked earth. What used to be forest was all piled up in the middle of Webb Creek. And the trail, well, that was nowhere to be seen.

I literally had to sit down on a rock and stare; just stare at the wreckage. I literally had to think—think hard—about whether or not I was going to be able to continue, whether or not I thought it was even remotely safe to continue. Linda and Noah were already walking back down the trail, searching for the big rock, searching for a place to cross and pick up the makeshift trail—whatever the hell that meant—on the other side.

“Hey Noah!  Linda!” I yelled.  “Hey…we should talk about this!”

A part of me wishes I could have seen it happen, been there when Mother Nature threw herself a big, fat, hissy fit, a temper tantrum extraordinaire; watched the walls come tumbling down, but stayed safe at the same time. You can still, years later, make out the area of the slide, the collapse: the utter destruction that probably lasted no more than a few seconds but changed the face of Steep Ravine.

Changed it but didn’t stop. It’s always changing, just not so drastically. By the time we next hiked the trail the Old Gal had already swooped in to fill the void left by the missing forest. The slope was blanketed with resilient, bright green grass, and on subsequent visits, newly sprouted baby trees were soon poking above the grass, reaching toward the hole in the canopy, toward the sky. Before long the ugly scar was gone, but if you pay attention as you walk you can still see just how gigantic it was.

I’m not proud of what we did to get around the obstruction. Not in the least.

“Trampling the Coastal Flora,” is the phrase I coined that day. If you think those words sound taboo—like something you shouldn’t do inside a State Park—you’re right. If you think they sound just plain old foolish as well—like scaling a completely saturated, practically vertical ravine wall (directly across the creek from a ravine wall that has collapsed due to those same conditions) is one enormously, stupefying-ly bad idea—then you’re right again.

The first part, the first hard part, was just getting across the river. I’m not usually skittish about leaping over some boulders, fording a stream, but our circumstances were anything but usual. The creek was way too wide; it was way too powerful, and if someone fell they wouldn’t just land on their ass, but might land on their ass and be swept downstream for a while in a bone-cracking, watery tumble.

For who knows how long we scoped out the situation, walked up and down the bank of the angry cataract looking for a hopscotch series of rocks and trees to the other side. Ease out here; try it over there. Retreat to stable ground, then talk about what we should do. I was convinced it wasn’t gonna happen; repeatedly voiced my concern and still wanted to sit down and agree on a cohesive plan, which in truth might have been to give up, but finally Noah found the right combination and leapt across. A little further upstream Linda followed him.

Which left only me?

“Yeah, right there. Try those ones right there.” From the opposite bank they shouted encouragement and pointed directions, but it didn’t help. Hell, I could barely hear what they where saying, anyway. I had to figure it out by myself, but I was frozen, and I knew that, once I committed myself, any hesitation could spell b-a-d n-e-w-s. Maybe I should look for another way, I thought for the umpteenth time.

One, two, three…GO! It happened so quickly the next thing I knew I was on the other side. Like an electron making its fabled quantum leap from one energy level to another, first I was here—looking at Linda and Noah, staring across the void and wondering what in the name of Allah we thought we were doing—and then I was here, standing beside Linda and Noah.

“Hey, when did you two jump across?”

*  *  *

I’m almost positive we never found the actual “schmooshed-down path” that Mr. and Mrs. Outback had described. I am, however, positive that what happened next was one of the craziest things I’ve ever done: right up there with hiking the barren, south coast of Kiluaea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i by myself.

The idea for that adventure, at least according to the guidebook I had at the time, was to walk from the end of the Chain of Craters Road over a crunchy shelf of old lava flows for almost two hours, straight toward this huge plume of toxic steam that was visible for miles. The idea was to hike it as the sun set, then sit in the dark and watch as the newly-belched-up-from-the-center-of-the-earth, molten version of the stuff poured through a lava tube hidden underground and into the ocean, exploding back into the night sky as blazing, red-hot fireworks. The idea sounded phenomenal, right up my alley.

By the time I reached the recommended viewing area it was getting dark, and I was starting to freak out a little. Okay, more than a little. The ground was warm to the touch; steam rose from cracks in the hardened crust as I walked; and peepholes winked back at me with glowing, fiery eyes. The lava, I realized, was literally beneath my feet. Not just the old pahoehoe lava from previous eruptions, but the magma that oozes out of Kilauea Volcano at 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. My guidebook had also warned that if the wind shifted and suddenly blew back over the land instead of out to sea, the noxious mix of gas might overwhelm an unlucky spectator, possibly with lethal results.

Sounds delightful, eh? 

Spying two other human shapes in the darkness, I crept toward them and asked if could sit close by for a while. The show was electrifying, but I was scared shitless. When I decided that I had seen enough—that I’d had enough adventure for one night—and that I could wait no longer for a big, fat beer, maybe two, I still had the return hike in complete, star-studded darkness. Breaking out a (also guidebook-recommended) flashlight from my backpack, keeping the crash of the surf on my left side so I knew where I was headed, but not too close, I very slowly made my way back to the car.

*  *  *

For a half-hour—probably more, probably much more—we painstakingly scaled the forested wall of Steep Ravine, totally and embarrassingly and illegally off trail. We climbed, scrambled, crawled, pulled, clawed, went up, slipped, went back down, traversed, paused, surged ahead, gained some ground, gave directions, followed the leader, became the leader, groped the ferns, stood on the ferns, groped any available tree or branch, and rested on any available tree or branch. We helped each other up; we pushed each other up; we went our own way and then the same way; we ran into dead ends and called to each other when we discovered an opening that would take us a few feet closer to our destination. It was absolutely ridiculous. It was an intense, face-in-the-dirt, you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me scramble up, up, up: all in an attempt to gain the requisite elevation, then traverse horizontally for a ways, squeeze beneath an enormous rock outcropping and finally meet up with the main trail.

Did I mention that it was ridiculous?

We were muddy and sweaty and plain old wiped out by the time we stood on the upper bridge and looked down at the devastation below. Quite frankly, I was surprised that no one had been injured on the ascent.

“That was really, really stupid.”

“Did you see how big some of those ferns were?”

The ferns were, in fact, huge, and a whole lot stronger than I would have ever guessed; really anchored into the ground, so sturdy that at times I rested on top of them, at times used them to haul myself up. The roots and trunks of the redwoods were solid as well, thank god, but all the in-between spaces were a thick, spongy mattress of organic detritus accumulated throughout the ages. The completely undisturbed feel of it made me even more ashamed of our actions.

“Oh my god, I had my face in those ferns,” Linda yelled. “Literally, in them!”

It was, indeed, an intimate, slow motion scramble. Thinking back on the foolhardy escapade I was reminded of the passage in James Dickey’s novel Deliverance where the one good guy, in search of the remaining nut-case bad guy, climbs a sheer cliff above the river where previously all that nasty hey-you-sure-do-got-a-pretty-mouth stuff took place. In the book his slow, exploratory upward progress is likened to a prolonged, sensuous lovemaking experience, but the object of his affection is the cliff, not a woman. I was so not allowed to read the book when I was young. Maybe my mother’s objection wasn’t because of the heterosexual man-on-a-female-cliff analogy but more for the blatant, non-metaphorical boy now why don’t you squeal around in the dirt like a pig passages. Didn’t matter, though. I found the book in the library and finished it there. 

To wrap up what I’m getting at here: perhaps in the grand scheme of things we didn’t inflict any lasting damage as we climbed, but I felt certain that we had defiled the ravine nonetheless. Virgin land should stay that way, discovered and enjoyed and explored from the trail. If everyone trampled the coastal flora there wouldn’t be much left.

*  *  *

The remainder of our ascent was blessedly crisis free. The wooden ladder was still in one piece; wet and slick but still bolted into the sheer, 20-foot high rock wall face as part of the trail, right next to an always impressive (for this hike, freakin’ raging) 20-foot high waterfall. And thank god for that! Had the ladder been damaged, who knows what other asinine detour we might’ve devised to get beyond it, past it, over it? As we walked higher and higher the forest started to thin and sky crept in. The giant redwoods were once again replaced with bay laurel, with manzanita, live oak and poison oak, and through gaps in the trees I could see the open slope of grassy hilltop. In normal circumstances making it to the top of Steep Ravine is cause for mild celebration, so when I saw the good-old Ranger Station just where we had left it a lifetime ago—that fabulous, comforting, beautiful, rustic, reassuring, oh-my-god-did-I-say-fabulous Ranger Station—I had to restrain myself. I wanted to whoop and holler and jump around for joy. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the energy.

Even though my partners in crime and I had witnessed its more savage side, the Steep Ravine Trail is truly a gift for those of us who live nearby: an ongoing source of delight and recreation made possible by the handful of men and women who keep the trail open for all to enjoy; a precious reminder of the unique turf we Bay Area folk are lucky to have in our own backyard, and one of the reasons people travel from all over the world to experience the renowned, rugged beauty of Northern California.

I couldn’t wait to return.

*  *  *

Finally, the parking lot and the road! Finally we were back on solid ground, and I could have knelt down and kissed it! Finally out from under the ancient, rickety redwoods (called widow-makers for a reason); out from the creek slash stream slash river slash angry, raging cataract; out from the waterlogged, unstable, obviously treacherous ravine! Nothing but blessed sky above—albeit still gray and threatening, drizzly sky—with easy to walk on asphalt underfoot.

Oh, but this is lovely, I rejoiced; on our way back to the car, to the city, to home, to warmth, and to a hot shower. I could feel it, taste it, and started to revel in the fact that we had made it…intact. Muddy?  Yes. Tired? Yes, but unharmed and still pretty warm and dry, all things considered.

Although we briefly discussed the option, there was no way in hell any of us wanted to retrace the Troop 80 Trail back to Mountain Home Inn. We wanted the open road. We felt the need for speed, so happily we took our first steps on firm, safe, recognizable blacktop, automatically hugging the curb like all good pedestrians do. Slowly, though, as we walked, and once I remembered that the road was closed, I eased into the center.

It felt all weird—totally alien for a moment—walking out there, straddling the yellow lane divider. It felt downright naughty, like something your parents told you not to do. I felt a bit like Nemo, swimming out from the safety of the reef to touch the Butt on a dare.

“Hey, look at me…I’m gonna walk right down the center of the road!”

Half of me was sure I was about to get run over; then the other half remembered it didn’t matter because there wasn’t any damn traffic! And there wasn’t gonna be any damn traffic as anyone with half a brain cell was hunkering down inside. It was liberating, like bungee jumping or skydiving, and I soon embraced the feeling, the freedom, the devil may care attitude, the flaunting of convention. This is kinda cool, I thought. We’re The Mod Squad. We’re The Three Musketeers. If we were reincarnated as some hip new contemporary rock band—one that Linda adored but I couldn’t recognize to save my life—this could be our album cover.

I was just about to speak those words aloud when the heavens opened up and it started to rain. Like, hard.

Ironic, then, how I immediately found myself wishing for the cover of trees to escape the biblical downpour that ensued, that continued unabated for the next hour, that lasted all the way back to the car. Within minutes the open road became a quaint little river an inch deep. Within minutes the water breached the tops of my shoes and flooded the insides. Within minutes we were completely drenched.

Noah and Linda burst out laughing. It was coming down in buckets.

“You gotta be kidding me!” one of them yelled.


There was nothing we could do but walk on, squishy socks and all.

Walk on and listen to Linda, who for some reason began a lengthy, pay-by-play, verbal re-enactment of, I guess, one of her favorite scenes in the movie Clash of the Titans. Noah and I were soon well ahead of her, glancing nervously at each other as she laughed and yelled and rehashed in excruciating, alarming, microscopic detail some climactic confrontation toward the end of the film. It was hard to understand her demented soliloquy, but she rambled on and on, and eventually I got the gist of it, I think. Apparently a mortal or a god or—okay, maybe I still have no idea—gets their head ripped off or sliced off or sawed off or blown off in the epic battle. And when it’s over, the victor—whoever that is, though I thought I heard Harry Hamelin’s name mentioned—triumphantly holds the decapitation aloft while thunder and lighting pierce the background sky. Apparently it’s quite the spectacle: very Hollywood. But I’d never seen the film, so I had zero idea what the hell she was talking about. I think Noah had, tho, and remembered the scene, but after about—oh, I don’t know—twenty or thirty minutes of Linda’s diatribe, his interest in the unfolding drama waned.

“She’s lost it," I whispered. All the stress and mental and physical exertion of the hike has finally gotten to her, I thought, and now, with the end almost in sight, she’s finally snapped.

“And the head has all these stringy bloody veins and arteries hanging from it and OH MY GOD it’s so fucking cool and gross!”

I turned around to look, just to make sure she wasn’t foaming at the mouth or lurching like some lunatic sci-fi creature that had, unbeknownst to either of us, recently burst through the skin of the human body it secretly inhabited. I saw only Linda. She looked mostly normal, I thought, but she was obviously deeply entrenched in her own world; wielding what seemed to be an imaginary sword, swinging her arms back and forth in combat and holding them above her head in triumph.

“At least she’s enjoying herself,” Noah replied, laughing as he turned to look.

We were making good progress, in spite of Linda’s dawdling, celluloid Trip Down Memory Lane. It was raining cats and dogs, but the wind was strangely calm again and we were still ecstatic over our recent escape from the ravine. Yes, the Panoramic Highway was turning out to be exactly what we needed at that point in our journey: an unobstructed, free-flowing avenue of easy to walk on…

Hey, wait a minute. Unobstructed?

“I don’t understand why they blocked this off,” I said, gesturing with arms open wide, almost smacking Noah in the face in the process. “It’s totally fine.” I didn’t know he was right behind me.

Parts of Panoramic are barely wide enough for two passing cars. All of it is narrow and hairpin curvy and alternates between dense forest and views that are so sudden and so absorbing I’m surprised people don’t constantly drive right off the road. But we were walking, walking (still walking!), so that wasn’t really a threat.

To our right the hillside dropped off steeply, all the way down, down (way down!) into the vast basin of Muir Woods National Monument, but that wasn’t much of an issue either. Even if I pushed Linda, shoved her off the pavement in an attempt to stop her infernal ranting and Clash of the Titans raving, she would’ve only tumbled a short way down until she banged up against a tree or rock or something. Or landed in some poison oak, which might be worse because she’s horridly allergic. And to our left, above a cross section of blond cliff left behind by the road’s construction, the rest of the mountain rose toward East Peak summit, 2600 feet above sea level. Nothing wrong with that, I thought, no reason to close the whole road…

Hmmm, that cliff…that cliff could be the problem, I thought, noticing it as if for the first time. Definitely more of a threat, I quickly started to worry, especially in this weather. It loomed above us 30 feet high, maybe more at times, and we were wedged beneath it on the narrow road. It was actually pretty daunting, the more I looked, with that same old worrisome rim of tall trees perched on the tippy-top edge; with more of those damned, Medusa-like roots poking from the wall, no doubt weakening the tree’s grip with each erosive drop of rain.

I suddenly didn’t trust that cliff one bit. Even though it was still standing I wanted to get away from it soon. Very soon. Thankfully the open road was under my feet. Everything was fine. Unobstructed. 

Yet I persisted. “I just don’t get it. We could’ve driven in here, all the way to Pantoll.”

“How the hell should I know,” Noah replied, annoyed that I wouldn’t just leave it alone. “Maybe there’s something up ahead?”

There certainly was something up ahead. Lots of something up ahead.

The first rockslide we came upon was not that intimidating. Maybe it was a mudslide, or a landslide; I don’t know the technical difference. (Is there one?) All I know is that we were laughing or cursing the rain or trudging on in silence or listening to the never-ending movie review when we came round a bend in the road, looked at a large pile of debris that had tumbled down and blocked off part of the road, and kept walking. We had seen, and experienced, much worse.

“Ha! That’s nothing,” I sputtered, still wondering what the big deal was. “The car could have made it around that.” I was tired of walking.

“Well maybe they didn’t want people going into the park any further.” I swear I heard Linda’s voice. “There’s some fucked up shit in there, don’t forget.”

Well I’ll be a son of a gun…She’s back!

“Maybe they’re just covering their ass so they don’t get sued by some idiots who decide to drive in here anyway, then get hurt, and then have to be rescued!” That might have been Noah, or it might have been Linda again. Whoever it was, the words sounded suspiciously pertinent.

Like the rain, however, I wouldn’t stop. “That puny little slide was no reason to close the whole damn road.”

The next nine or ten of them, however: now that would be a most excellent reason to close the whole damn road.

Yes, there were more. Many more. Each successive mudslide, rockslide and/or landslide got bigger and bigger, and with each successive mudslide, rockslide and/or landslide the need for the “Road Closed. Hazardous Conditions” blockade became obvious. Quite. No car could have made it past them all, and none would want to be around if a new tumble split loose.

We shouldn’t have been there either. The piles of boulders and dirt and sticks and stones that had already sloughed off and lay in the road was one thing. Big as they were, as hikers we could walk around that crap. The stuff that was still teetering on the embankment above our heads: now that was another concern all together. Looking up, I couldn’t figure for the life of me how some of those trees were still hanging on, but it didn’t look like it was by very much. I began to fret again. The rain continued, unabated, but now it was getting dark. Around every curve I expected to see our destination, the end, but around every curve we found only more chaos, more slides, more destruction. I began to hate that cliff and all those monstrous trees. In my fatigued, drenched, shell-shocked mind their roots reached out from the earth and became the arthritic fingers of the dead, desperately trying to scrape free from the mountain like a body that’s been buried alive in a novel by Edgar Allen Poe.

See the little humans passing our way? Let’s get them!

Okay…that’s it! I screamed to myself. I’m getting just so sick and fucking tired of being scared shitless by every single thing out here. That’s it…I’ve had it! I’m tired, I’m wet, and I’m over it! Enough straddling the yellow lane divider for me, enough of those demonic trees and the wind and this damn rain! I’ve fucking HAD IT!

Luckily this was all in my mind, otherwise it might have been Linda and Noah shooting each other sly, sideways glances; the both of them wondering if I was gonna make it or not.

On the outside, though, I carried merrily along and tried to become one with the sustained wet, with the road that stretched on and on, with the threatening you-know-what, with the hike that wouldn’t end, and with all the ensuing mudslide after rockslide after landslide we encountered. On the outside I said, “Well at least we can still walk around them, thank god.”

I swear to an all-knowing, all-loving Buddha: those words had barely left my mouth and had not yet splashed to the asphalt with the rain when we walked around a hairpin curve in the road and stopped dead in our tracks. The words were still lingering in the mountain air when we took a gander at what lay there, around the bend, and doubled over in great big, gut-busting hee-haws of laughter. Noah almost dropped to his knees, he was laughing so hard, and when I looked over at Linda she was wiping tears from her eyes.

In front of us a landslide—not a mudslide, not a rockslide, but an unambiguously massive landslide—completely covered both lanes of Panoramic Highway. It dwarfed those we had already passed; so big it tumbled over the edge of the road and down the hill to our right. Talk of cars and driving and “not getting it” became moot; the blockade was so large there was absolutely no way we could even walk around the thing. The only way through was over.

One by one our hysterics dwindled to a breathy giggle until, once again, unrelenting rain was the only sound to be heard. One by one we slowly started to climb.

*  *  *

Linda and Noah and I did eventually make it back to the glow of lights issuing from inside the Mountain Home Inn, back to the lonely BMW parked by the side of the road. If those written words seem a tad anticlimactic, it’s only because, well…they are a true reflection of how we felt. We were totally exhausted, you see. Spent. We were certainly relieved, of course, and beyond ecstatic, but any type of celebration would have taken too much energy.

We were pooped. It was dark, it was cold, and it was raining. We were husks.

*  *  *

The drive back to the city was kind of a blur. We may have talked and listened to music. We may have rehashed some of the highlights from our outlandish New Year’s Day, from our adventure on Mount Tam. You know: the gory details of the hike, the gist of the trek. The tramp. And then again…maybe not: maybe we drove mostly in silence. I can’t really remember. I know we were hungry, very hungry.

“China King,” Linda said, deciding in a flash. “A bowl of miso soup and garlic stir-fried broccoli.”

Soup sounded good, right about then. “How’s their food?” I asked, “They use MSG?” China King, I thought. Gotta remember that. Soup sounded perfect.

Noah agreed.

The Golden Gate Bridge appeared in all its moody, Art Deco glory as we emerged from the tunnel at the top of Waldo Grade. On our left the black expanse of the Bay, and in the distance the twinkling, welcoming lights of San Francisco. I try to recall my emotions as we crossed the familiar bridge, when we paid the $5 toll and drove the flooded city streets back to the charming Fort Mason District. What I felt. What I was thinking. I try to recall if the sight of the bridge was immensely reassuring, or just like any other time. Was I relieved to be safe and sound and able to hike another day? Were Linda and Noah thinking the same? Did I feel lucky? Did I just want to take a shower? Did Linda and Noah? (Not with me, but in their respective apartments.)

Did the three orders for miso soup and garlic stir-fried broccoli—separate orders received within minutes of each other—make the woman who answered the phone at China King pause and think to herself, perhaps remark aloud when she passed them one after another to the cook: “Huh…look at that. Interesting.”

We were home.

*  *  *

January 2, 2006 may have dawned sunny and bright and alive with the colors of a peaceful, benevolent Earth, or it may have dawned with severe winds, overcast skies and a 95% chance of more rain. Although I can’t personally recall, I think it was the latter.  I think the weather was even worse than the day before.

It didn’t really matter, though.

What mattered was that the Channel 2, Fox News Report didn’t contain a segment sounding something like this: “In a related story, three hikers were found clinging to life in Mount Tamalpais State Park yesterday, seriously injured when…”

The parade of winter storms that barged in from the Pacific Ocean—the biggest ones ending 2005 and starting 2006 with a bang—had indeed been significant. The devastation made national news, and Arnold the Govern-ator declared a State of Emergency for several counties in Northern California.  (Oregon was pummeled as well.) Sustained winds on Mount Tam were officially clocked at 70 miles per hour, with gusts as high as 100. Months would pass before the damage, both local and further afield, was repaired, before the land healed, and the storms’ fury would not be equaled for another two years.

What mattered was that I rolled out of bed as usual. What mattered was that, after my initial wobbly steps on really, really sore legs, I made my way to the kitchen, found the Peets coffee and a filter and fired up the kettle. The water wasn’t even boiling yet when the phone rang.

As I made my way from the stove to the couch to see who was calling, I felt certain that the first voice I would hear on the second day of the New Year would belong to one of two people. The celebration would now begin.

“Hello…Palmer house,” I chirped, surprised by the cheerful sound of my voice when, at the same time and with every move, my aching muscles barked in retaliation.

The nanosecond of silence on the other end of the line left me just enough time to add, simply because I could: “Happy New Year!”

Peter J. Palmer

*  *  *  *  *

As you can see from the above date it took me three years to get The Tramp on paper, as it were. Sitting in the warmth and safety of my apartment on the blustery, rainy evening of January 1, 2006, though, I realized immediately that I had to preserve the details of the outlandish escapade. Mostly for me, but also for Linda and Noah - so we could all have a little memento, a little literary keepsake, a little trip down memory lane. At the time it was a major undertaking for me to write as I had never attempted such a lengthy story, nor one so complex and with so much dialogue. Don't know if I got all the punctuation correct, what with all the quotation marks, etc., or if my attempt at character development succeeded, but nonetheless I hope you enjoyed the tale.

By the looks of the weather outside it appears we may have more watery adventures in store. Scientists say La Niña is here. It's been raining cats and dogs, and the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is above normal for this time of year (even more so in the southern Sierra). It's also cold, cold, cold! The streams and waterfalls of Northern California—on Mount Tamalpais, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in Napa and Sonoma and Mendocino—are probably gushing. The news reports are staring to pile up, as are rainfall totals for the record books.  

So who knows? The Tramp: Part II - Coming Soon to a Headlands Report Near You? The year is young and fresh and new and chock full of places to explore: with paths to wander, with surprises around every bend, through winter, spring, summer and fall, and through a landscape constantly in motion.

Stranger things have happened.

Best wishes for 2011, everybody.
And Happy Trails!
Peter J. Palmer