Tuesday, April 14, 2009


On April 11-12, Easter weekend, I walked, somewhat appropriately though unplanned, from Mission San Jose up and over Mission Peak, all along former Mission lands. Mission lands, infrastructure and roads have helped shape the course of development throughout the bay's history, so I thought it would make a worthwhile stop. I didn't really get much new information from the small museum and church other than a delicate and "politically correct" treatment of the mission's history with the Ohlone, and a sense that the mission fathers were much shorter than I am, as I had to duck through every doorway.

The climb up to Mission Peak was an uncannily alpine experience, in spite of a summit elevation just over 2500 feet. The steep path to the top was made by some unsympathetic planner, as it climbed sharply up ridges with no switchbacks and no shade, making for a slow and sweaty climb that seemed much longer than the mileage suggested.

The path was teeming with people, hang-gliders, and cows, who freely roamed the slopes along the trail where signs specifically prohibited human trespassing. There was even a "trail patrol" officer who found a good viewpoint and whistled at the many walkers daring to venture off trail. Along the trail, I picked up lots of small bits of trash, remembering that sooner or later they'd likely wash to Eden Landing where a wandering villein and a fresh group of internationals would have to wearily bag them up.

Near the top of the peak, the grove trail paralleled the peak, shaped like a large rocky boomerang above. Cliffs overhead could have easily fit in the Sierra (with a little less grass and a little more granite), as could the ground squirrels scurrying below. Again, a place filled with strangely alpine sensations given proximity to the bay.

Side trails led to thick oak groves and wildflower meadows Muir would have gasped over. I wish I were a botanist then, and could have carefully analyzed a square yard of flowers as he did in "Rambles." Such a comparison across 141 years might tell an interesting story.

Finally I returned to the trail, and took a short detour to the windy summit of Mission Peak before descending to my campsite on the other side of the ridge. The campsite was surrounded by barbed wire fence. At first I wasn't sure why, but found out at dinner time. I walked out of the gate to fill a water bottle and found myself face to face with a juvenile cow, looking distinctly unhappy. A look past him and there was a whole herd, not looking much sunnier than the first. I held up my hands pacifyingly, and spoke a few kind shooing words. The cows advanced. I took a few steps back toward the gate, and the cows tracked me. Retreating more quickly and back inside the gate and barbed wire, I watched the cows claim the water spigot, fortify it, and advance again. They lined up in ranks outside the campsite like Hitchcock's Birds, staring balefully at me and my Ramen noodles. One took what a tough-guy piss on the fence, never breaking eye contact. This was less alpine.

More alpine was the weather that night. Sunny all day, clouds rolled in as night began to fall. The wind quickly whipped the clouds over Mission Peak and into the ravine below, trailing moisture through the campsite, and driving me early into the tent. By dark, I was literally camping in a cloud. The scene was a surprise revisit of wet nights past, but offered some truly stunning scenes of Sunol Wilderness and the hills east of Mission Peak, as the weather above the ridges changed by the minute. The setting sun cast its shifting hues over the clouds, which shaded the land below in sharp relief. Flowers and peak above, clouds, valleys, ridges in the distance, a stark and lovely scene. I went to sleep with the wind whipping wildly at the flaps of the tent.

Clouds shifting over the tent and valleys beyond near Mission Peak

The next morning was more peacefully idyllic, with the sun illuminating valleys and peak, flowers and grasses, and birds singing. Throughout the day as I walked from Mission Peak to Ed Levin County Park along the Bay Area Ridge Trail, I was accompanied by birds and wildflowers.

I walked past the radio towers atop nearby Mt. Allison, shown as a small square of private property on the map. At first I felt a little disheartened, thinking, "Give 'em one square inch of private property outta the park and look what happens.... Cancer towers sending waves to the boob tube." Or something like that. But then I thought back to the previous day, the wide trail up Mission Peak, the crowds, the trash. The towers probably require little maintenance and personnel, have a small footprint atop the mountain, and with no moving parts have little effect on wildlife. I could be wrong of course, but perhaps the benefit of limited public access to this private property works as well or better than the park at protecting the surrounding ecosystem. I am going to try to follow up with both EBRPD and someone related to Mt. Allison or radio towers more broadly about the relative impacts of each on the land. But these kind of chance encounters and the thoughts they engender are good reminders of the benefits of walking.

Descending from the ridge to Ed Levin Park, I began to worry. Running from gunshots on Calhoun a few days before, I had badly strained something in my Achilles. It had been nagging me in the following days, but with no real effect on my pace or mileage. On the steep decline, it really began to nag. If I took a bad step or on an especially steep segment of trail, I found myself repeating "Achapatawatapala," some expression of the sensation between left heel and calf. Some linguist will surely correct me, but it wouldn't surprise me if this was how some early words formed. Achapatawatapala. The McInturff dialect for tendonitis.

In spite of worry, the descent from the ridge offered a remarkable scene, with green hills suddenly blooming into suburban and then urban development. In a way John, you got your wish, with the beautiful mountains protected and the valley degraded beyond centuries of repair. But even you had to admit the allure of the valleys in "Rambles," didn't you? It's time to stop trading the high for the low, time to move beyond an exclusively fee simple system that cannot be integrated into lowlands. Take a look from the hills above the bay, perhaps these thoughts will come to you too.

I find myself dialoguing with Muir as a way of thinking, a point counterpoint between tradition and the necessity of a present and future that might not have been predicted by very many. If nothing else, I have read how sharp a debater Muir was, so I know I have to keep sharp myself, think hard, know the subject well, and support my convictions with evidence and observation. In some sense this trip is a grand dialogue between myself and Muir, and between the expectation of the past and the reality of the present. Each has something to learn from the other. At least in the latter case.


  1. ...I enjoyed this post...good read...

  2. Nice post Alex! You've already seen and appreciated more of the Bay Area than most people ever do.