The Writer

I write personal essay. I write to find out how I feel about something, an aspiration I learned from the poet May Sarton. I sometimes picture myself as a grizzled prospector leading a forlorn, burdened donkey into the trackless waste of basin and range country, looking for riches that might be only a few bright flecks in a stream.

These essays explore my world, from the hiking trails of California to the Java Sea and the Silk Road, from school days to retirement, from my backyard to my bookshelves. I invite you to read them—with this caveat from the Persian poet Hafiz:

Listen: this world is the lunatic's sphere,
Don't always agree it's real,

Even with my feet upon it
And the postman knowing my door

My address is somewhere else.

*The quote above about the fish is from Pablo Neruda.

December 30, 2013: Kelham Beach

A number of years ago, when we last had a couple of stormy winters in a row, the trail to Kelham Beach out at Point Reyes National Seashore was washed out. It had been very steep and, without any semblance of a trail, it was quite dangerous to go down from the cliff to the water’s edge. I just learned that the trail had been restored, so I decided to return to one of my favorite places.

I started out at the Bear Valley Trailhead at about 9:50 a.m. on the Monday before New Year’s. The parking lot was toasty warm, but I knew the forest would be cold so I wore both my new fleece jacket and a sturdy windbreaker. And as soon as I entered the forest a bone-chilling cold enveloped me. I spotted a few antique-yellow leaves still hanging on to the hazelnut bushes, but the alders and willows were bare. Things looked pretty bedraggled, but there were also lots of green sword and polypody ferns and new shoots of watsonia and cow parsnip. Forget-me-not leaves crowded around, but no flowers yet. The trail was damp even though there had been no rain for over a month—the fog and the ocean provide a steady supply of humidity. Two puddles were even covered with ice that made a loud cracking sound when I tapped with my boot.

I heard winter wrens, chickadees, and jays off in the understory and caught glimpses of those tiny little winter wrens and many wee sparrows along the edge of the trail. Bear Valley Creek was not high, but it bubbled along noisily. Divide Meadow was full of sunshine and a light mist. It was so warm I took off my coat and wrapped it around my waist.

I began to meet groups of backpackers returning from camping out at Coast Camp and Wildcat Beach. They said it had been a great weekend. Along this stretch of trail the wild ginger grows and I did see lots of new green leaves, but searching underneath them, I did not find any of the weird-looking flowers. Perhaps in a month of two I will see them.

At 11:13 I reached Coast Trail, where it was quite sunny and warm, with only a bit of an intermittent breeze. Off came the fleece jacket. I turned north and in half a mile came to the junction of Sky Trail. Along this flat stretch of trail I saw my first dandelions of the day and also one lavender beach aster and one California poppy.

I heard the pouncing ping-pong ball call of the wrentit, a secretive denizen of the coastal scrub, which I recently learned is the most sedentary bird in North America. It does not migrate or disperse far from its birthplace. Wrentits, both male and female, sing year-round and always occur in twos.

In another quarter mile, after crossing a wooden bridge, I reached the turnoff to Kelham Beach, at a large eucalyptus tree next to a rock formation. There is no sign right on Coast Trail. A bit past the horse rail there is a small sign for the route down to the beach. It is now a series of steep wooden steps with no railing. At the bottom, a wide swath of beige sand and, to the north, a golden ridge plunging into the blue sea, very calm today, making hardly a whisper. Drakes Bay and Chimney Rock were just gray smudges in the distance.

At 12:10 I started back. I am never bored returning the same way I came. This time I saw many things I had missed on the way out: a group of yellow boletes, scatterings of English daisies and Siberian montia, and, in one place, a bunch of small gray feathers strewn over the trail. I met many people headed out to the coast, also bikes and horses.

At ten minutes after two I returned to the parking lot. I did between nine and ten miles, mostly flat, an easy hike, and a wonderful way to end the year.

September 16, 2013: Coast Trail

            Can I pick ’em or can I pick ’em? I chose the least windy day of the week to do an eight-mile out-and-back stretch of Coast Trail south of Limantour Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore. I started at the hostel, which I reached by following Limantour Road to the signed side road on the left. I parked along the road near the metal gate labeled Coast Trailhead and a new blue Tsunami Hazard Zone sign.
            What a fabulous day! The few thin puffy clouds disappeared soon and the sky became a dark translucent blue. About 70 degrees with a slight breeze. Shorts and tee shirt were the order of the day.
            I hadn’t been on this section of Coast Trail for about two years, not after that winter’s day when I encountered a huge muddy lake about halfway from the hostel to the beach. No warning sign at the trailhead, so it must have just happened. It looked impossible to wade across without mishap, so I followed a faint make-shift trace that led around it, up a steep muddy hillside through coyote bush and other tangled shrubs and vines. I knew poison oak would be one of those vines and tried my darndest to be on the lookout for it. Sure enough, two days later I developed an itchy rash on my left arm, probably because I had tried to steady myself on the slippery soil.  Since then the trail has been repaired and looks good to go for this winter with the rains we all hope it will bring.
            Not long after beginning the hike I came to a sign indicating this area is part of the Philip Burton Wilderness, an area of the seashore that is dedicated to the California Congressman who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1964 to his death in 1983. He had worked tirelessly for the enactment of the California Wilderness Act and on other environmental protection projects, such as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. He was a colorful personality with strong opinions and he’s worth a Google search.
            Although it was the end of summer, I found a fair amount of flowers along the way: twinberry, wild honeysuckle, coyote bush, sticky monkey flower, bird’s-foot trefoil, wild mint, pearly everlasting, beach aster, madia, yarrow, California poppy, chamomile, and poison hemlock as well as sword fern, Bishop pine, alder, willow, and the ever-present dandelion.
            At first, to the left of the trail, an extensive wet area appears crowded with alders and willows. I think this is an extension of the marsh out at Limantour Beach. Then the trail dips and crosses over through an overgrown passage of horsetail, cattail, hydrocoytle ranunculoides, coast hedge nettle, willows, and lots of scrambling vines: blackberry, salmonberry, thimbleberry. Now the wet area is on the right of the trail and is filled with lovely alders that lean out over the path. Chickadees and other avian chatterers can be heard but not seen in the woods.
            Soon the trail opened up on the coastal bluff, where I saw bluebirds, goldfinches, and black phoebes flitting around in groups in the coyote bush. The ocean was calm, a very dark blue, with turquoise streaks, and waves as if on a lake. Gulls in leisurely packs followed the shoreline, beneath them the water glittered and sparkled in the bright sun. No Farallones in sight all day, so there must have been a cloud bank stationed way out there. There was a bit of a breeze, but it was not cold.
            A fat finger of white fog reached out of the sea and tickled at Coast Camp, about a mile away, my destination. I sat down on the edge of the bluff in a bouncy patch of ice plant and decided to try making a few watercolor sketches of the sight. Not too successful. The real thing can’t be duplicated.
            I headed off again toward Coast Camp and at the lone eucalyptus tree took the path that leads down to the beach. This side trail was overgrown with blackberry, blue bush lupine with few flowers but lots of seed pods, and masses of vines, willows, stinging nettle, and grasses. The beach was empty of humans and birds. I turned south toward the black rocks beneath the tall sandstone cliffs, where the tide pools just peeked out at high tide. I found deer and raccoon tracks in the wet sand.
            The cliffs are steep and come right down to the tide pools. At their feet were lots more greenery than I expected: yellow lizard tail and lavender sea rocket, plus seaside daisy and common monkey flower. A lovely purple sea fig was in bloom.
            A sandy patch between the tide pools was strewn with a mess of kelp of all kinds and colors: dark red, beige, green, smooth, frilly, crinkly, and fringed. The most interesting were the short black paddles covered with a sort of pile, rubbery, bumpy projections. Finding out exactly what this is called proved to be frustrating because my field guides at home and the Internet were ambiguous. I think this is Gigartina canaliculata or G. papillata, with a common name of Turkish washcloth, a dig at the Turks who are imagined to be unaware of the possibilities and delights of softness.
            My companions on this stretch of beach were a raven snacking on the body of a dead gull, a live gull trying to make a lunch of a lively crab, and three beautiful black oystercatchers out on the rocks.
            On the way back—I retraced my route—the breeze had picked up in to wind, not quite the gale at Limantour Spit a few weeks ago. As soon as I left the beach and got up on the bluff, it toned down and was quite enjoyable. I spotted a colony of goldenrod that I missed on the way out, and a winter wren in the baccharis. I saw about ten people the whole day.