This is not an article about a hike covering huge chunks of miles, deep in the wilderness, but rather, this is an article about the contrasts of living in an urban environment, finding solitude in that environment and of the relief that comes from receiving long awaited rain in a drought stricken state The state of California, as many readers will know, has been shriveling under the effects of years long drought.
This past summer, it was so bad, that rather than hiking in and generally enjoying the famous golden hills of California, those hills took on a grayish tint, an ever-present reminder of the parched conditions and, what looked like, the suffering that most living things were going through just trying to survive the long stints without water. When rain finally came this fall and more was promised via el nino, my spirits rose and visions of green, verdant hills and cloudy days danced in my mind. On a cold, cold for this area, day in December, my wife and I drove our daughter to meet a friend in Walnut Creek.
I had not been to the area in years, as I am not much for shopping. Pulling into the upscale mall area, I was taken aback by the amount of traffic. Lines of cars and people were everywhere. Pulling out of the line of cars that were apparently going somewhere at a crawl, we dropped off our daughter and after assuring that she had met her friend, were soon on our way, back into the crawling line of cars. A turn in the opposite direction of everyone else soon brought us to an exit of the sprawling shopping area. Consulting my map, we wound our way through back streets, making our way to an open space park that I have visited in the past.
We soon came upon the spot we were aiming for on the map. Amongst the houses of a residential area, a trailhead emerged, and beyond, nothing but green hills and beautifully gnarled, deciduous oak trees. This is one of the entry points to Shell Ridge Open Space, nestled on the edge of urban sprawl and in the shadow of Mt. Diablo. 31 miles of trails stretch before my anxious feet as I stand on the edge of Walnut Creek’s largest Open Space, named for the large amount of shell fossils found here, deposited by an ancient sea that once immersed the area in water.
It is true that this park can be busy at times, but today, at this entry point on Rock Springs Place, there is no one but us. We stride out along the wide Joaquin Ridge Trail, a small, seasonal creek bed below and to our right. One twisted oak after another provide interest as we stop to take in the beauty of the woods on either side of us. We soon intersect with a section of the Briones to Mt. Diablo Trail, a nearly 12-mile trail that connects Briones Regional Park with Mt. Diablo State Park. We turn right (southeast) and continue with the seasonal creek to our right.
The trail gradually rises, then levels and continues on through a magnificent grassland valley, oak-dotted hills rise on either side of the trail, standing watch on the ridge lines. We turn and embrace the crisp evening air, watching as the sun sinks toward the western horizon. Part of the reason I am here is to photograph, and so, as the light of the sinking sun slowly rises up the surrounding hills, I make my way up a narrow animal trail to the crest of a nearby hill. A tortured oak stretches this way and that, its west facing bark soaking in the last rays of the day.
This tree will have endured extremes in weather and will have been pushed to the edge of existence by the drought of the last few years. Dead branches mix with the parts of the tree that have hung on through the worst of the seemingly endless dry stretch. It stands as a symbol of the hardship that so many plants in the area have endured. Last year at this time, it was dry as a bone and much of the month the temperature reached into the 70’s. January was the driest on record. This evening, standing with its roots firmly in the moist ground, this tree seems strong again.
This is mostly my projection of feelings onto the tree I imagine, but the presence of rain and snow in the high mountains and an actual chill in the air re-energize me and, I imagine, the plants around me. I can almost feel the dry roots of various plants swelling as they take in the moisture from the rain that is finally falling after so long. It fills me with hope as well. The sun casts its last deep yellow rays on the hillside as I open the shutter and expose the sensor on my camera to the beauty of the tree’s silhouette, the gracefully arcing grass bathed in light and the sun, partially hidden behind an outstretched branch.
All too soon, the moment is gone, the sun recedes below the horizon and I wait for the lavender of the Earth shadow to appear on the eastern horizon. While waiting, I wander down to the main trail, and retrace my steps to the junction with the Joaquin Ranch Trail. I continue on the Briones to Diablo Trail and soon intersect with the Indian Creek Trail. As I near the junction, an owl hoots in the distance. The sound is coming from the oak woodland below, along Indian Creek, the namesake for the trail. I descend the trail in the twilight and head into the embrace of the woods.
The owl continues its haunting call as I wander further down the trail. I stop and listen, and soon enough, I spot a dark silhouette on a branch not far away. I watch for a while, taking in the mystery and magic of the moment as the dark begins to close in. Soon it will be too dark to see in this sheltered area of the park. I turn and make my way back up the trail. As I do, I turn just in time to see the shape of the owl gliding past me, only a whisper heard from the air through its wings. It is only feet from me, a reward for my pursuit of its call. I climb back to the open space of the grassland above the creek.
The Earth Shadow is not bright tonight, but to the west, the last, arcing light of the sun backlights some trees on the ridge line above me. I contemplate where I was just a couple of hours before, blood pressure rising as I inched slowly forward in a line of cars. As I stroll back to the car in the gloaming, I feel refreshed by being out in these hills again. I sometimes feel that I am just as refreshed by the rain as the surrounding landscape is. The promise of more rain and snow lies in the months to come, and I have many miles to hike amongst green hills and re-invigorated trees.