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 from 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 pretty 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 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. Either way, the tradition must continue. So 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 them 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 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. But smashed or just pleasantly inebriated, 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 complimentary 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.
Lock the doors.

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 out.

*  *  *

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

Instead we were on the phone, and I was thinking about caffeine.

“Are we on for the hike?” 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 it sounded more like an upward spiraling, effervescent "Haaaaaaay!"

“Are we on?” she continued.

Sheesh. These two were beating me to the punch. “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 last night, as she’s also in the biz. My thinking about it apparently lasted too long.


“Yeah, 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 it’s 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 grass-covered, undulating 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 peaks 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; all tinted with a glorious green light filtering though the Gothic redwood trunks and 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 10:00 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 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 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 pond doubling as freeway ramp, 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 40 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 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 eyes 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 so 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, and we had to lean into it to stay upright. A tropical storm wind. 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 idiotic flock of 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, with 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 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 of 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 cartwheeling 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 misty pinpricks 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 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. 200 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 had felt thus far, was suddenly swept off her feet and hurled out to sea…

Okay, no…wait. That didn’t happen.

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 an 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 on 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 hiking buddies.

It didn’t take long for the Happy Place to disappear.

Immediately I noticed two things. One, that portions of the trail were 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 headfirst 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 4 x 4 timbers 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, 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 partway 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, may 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 had heard enough.

Noah sometimes doesn’t 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 said. “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 Stained from Three Doors Down from Green Day 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 an ongoing source of amusement for us both: I’m clueless when it comes to keeping all those grungy, contemporary rockers straight. Linda, however, is totally plugged in to the scene, so it’s no doubt an ongoing source of frustration for her, as well. 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. It’s pretty much the only musical genre I hear in the car as she’s carting me across the bridge for a hike - which is often, bless her soul. 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 was hopeless.

“Hey, Noah…did you get a look at table 32 last night? Check out the boobs 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 had 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 if she had 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.

Rounding a little bend in the trail we crumpled to a stop and confronted our next obstacle, which suddenly brought my petty joking to a halt, which suddenly wasn’t very funny at all. 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 thought, and since then no one had been out hiking. Like us they had 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 and gave the ground a tentative stomp and then leapt back to see what would happen. Thankfully nothing did.

It was six of one - 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 more adventure lay ahead if we decided to continue. 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 had 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: somewhere between the too swollen, too muddy, almost too massive raging torrent in the middle of winter, and a dried up dribble connecting isolated pools of shallow, stale water in high summer.

That said, any month is a good month 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. 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 even more of a hiker’s paradise, 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, their tumble toward the sea punctuated by picture-perfect, lacy waterfalls.

*  *  *

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 10-foot tall wooden ladder that we would have to climb by 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 had already been through exactly what we had, you could have knocked me over with one Official State Flower, 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 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 had 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, ochre colored trail, and the mossy rocks and boulders and granite abutments. 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 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 foggy, steep, 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 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 cool?

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 dirt 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; 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 the last obstacle we would have to tackle. Deal with. Or turn around.

*  *  *

“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 it was significant. It was all gone: history. Well, it was still there, but what used to be the healthy forest was now an ugly expanse of brown and black, naked earth. What used to be the 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 I was going to be able to continue or not, 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, to this day, 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. The ugly scar is 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 a 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 the 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, then try it over there, then 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 my guidebook, was to walk from the end of the 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 had had enough, 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 the (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 wall of the 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 bought it 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 sequence, 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-cliff analogy, but more for the blatant and unambiguous: Boy, now why don’t you squeal around in the dirt like a pig. Didn’t matter, though. I found the book in the library and finished it there. 

So, to wrap up what I’m getting at here: perhaps in the grand scheme of things we hadn’t done 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, still bolted into the rock wall. And thank god for that. Had it been damaged, who knows what other asinine scheme we might’ve devised to get past 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, 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 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 from the handful of men and women who keep the trail open for all to enjoy. A precious reminder of the unique turf we 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, 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 it, 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 was weird, strange for a moment, walking out there, straddling the yellow lane divider. It felt 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 that I was about to get run over; then the other half remembered it didn’t matter. There wasn’t any damn traffic! And there wasn’t gonna be any 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 and 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. 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, drawn out, 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 the 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…well, 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’ve never seen the film, so I had no idea what the hell she was talking about. I think Noah had 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 was secretly inhabiting. I saw only Linda. She looked mostly normal, I guess, 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, cracking himself up in the process.

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 only tumble a short way down until she banged up against a tree or rock or something. Or land in some poison oak, which might be worse because she’s horridly allergic. And on 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. No reason to block off the whole roa…

Hmmm…the 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 20 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 top edge, and 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. 

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

“How the hell should I know,” Noah replied, “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 difference. 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 going. We had seen much, 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.”

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

“Maybe they’re just covering their asses, so they don’t get sued by some idiots who decide to drive in here anyway, then get hurt.” That might have been Noah, or it might have been Linda again. Whoever it was, a lot of the words sounded awfully familiar.

Like the rain, I wouldn’t stop. “That 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.

Yup, there were more. Each successive mudslide, rockslide, landslide got bigger and bigger, and with each successive mudslide, rockslide, landslide the need for the “Road Closed. Hazardous Conditions” blockade became obvious. Quite. No car could have made it through, and none would want to be there if a new one split loose.

We shouldn’t have been there either. The pile 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, we could walk around that crap. The stuff that was still teetering on the embankment above our heads: that was another thing all together. 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. 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 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 ground 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 the 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 bend 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 large landslide - completely covered both lanes of the 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. There was absolutely no way we could walk around it. The only way through was over.

One by one our hysterics dwindled to a breathy giggle, then the rain was once again the only sound. 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 words seem a tad anticlimactic, it’s only because; well…they are a true reflection of how we felt. We were totally exhausted. 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. It was raining.
We were husks.

*  *  *

The drive back to the city was 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 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 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 lights of San Francisco. I try to recall my emotions when we crossed the bridge, when we paid the $5 toll and drove the flooded city streets back to the 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 own apartments.)

Did the three orders for miso soup and garlic broccoli - separate orders but 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: “Hmmm…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 on Mount Tamalpais State Park yesterday, seriously injured when…”

The parade of winter storms that marched 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. The sustained winds on Mount Tam were clocked at 70 miles per hour, with gusts as high as 100. Months would pass before the damage was repaired, before the land healed. And their 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 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
April 2009

*  *  *  *  *

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

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