It is a cool windy early spring day. I am in Tennessee Valley in the Marin Headlands. I just checked out the small backpacking camp called Haypress and am now bushwhacking my way up a steep shoulder of Coyote Ridge. It is not a maintained trail and I suspect it may be closed, but I didn’t see any signs. I started climbing beside a small farm pond, surrounded by cattails and a cacophony of red-winged blackbirds crying the advantages of their nest sites. From the valley I could see a huge jagged rock formation high on the ridge above and I am trying to reach it now. With a thought to the questionable legality of the trail, I hurry up over a shoulder and take a break in a small meadow out of sight from below. I take a pull from my water bottle and study the rock outcropping above me. It is quite massive and rugged, but there are two steep cracks that offer challenging but possible routes to the top. Each one has a constriction half way up, jammed with loose boulders the size of outhouses, and I don’t like the fresh look of the talus slopes at the foot of the cracks. I decide I will take the safer course and clamber up the steep slope beside the rock rather than attempting any free climbing.
Before starting up again, I look across the valley at the steep slopes of Wolf Ridge. The hills are green, dotted with early wildflowers, and cut by several trails switch-backing up to the ridge top. I compare them to my map and determine that I have walked every one I can see. The ridge ends on a high summit called Hill 88, topped by the ruins of one of the command posts from the old Harbor Defenses, part of the Ninth Coastal Artillery. During World War II, soldiers spent many years up there, watching nervously for the Japanese fleet to be out there one morning. Thinking of them, I look out at the sea. From where I sit, eight hundred feet up a steep slope, the ocean is a broad blue vee framed between the two ridges of smooth green chaparral. The day is preternaturally clear, and the deep blue of the sea is like a boat’s boot-topping line painted across the robin’s-egg blue of the sky. There are no whitecaps on the water; no clouds in the sky. The motionless shapes are like paper cutouts.
As I sit gazing at this still life, a schooner appears from behind the right-hand ridge. It is tiny in the distance, fully two miles offshore and another mile from me. But the air is so transparent that I can see detail on the yacht. It is big, over fifty feet, with the foremast considerably smaller than the main. She is close-hauled on the starboard tack, her masts heeling toward me. When the wind puffs she lays over, and her sails flash with a buttery, golden light. She’s clearly trying for the Golden Gate before dark. But she won’t make it on this tack, and she faces another long beat offshore before she’ll clear Point Bonita Light. They’ll still be on the Potato Patch when it gets dark, and won’t be happy about it.
Seeing her heel and toss a wave from her starboard bow, I know just how it feels to be aboard. I’m always struck by how peaceful and silent sailboats appear from a distance, a picture of serenity. Sailing is nothing like that. It’s noisy. The sounds of rushing water, wind in the sails, the creak of rigging, the endless discussions about when to tack. They’re looking upwind, trying to gauge the trends in the wind; then turning back to watch the lighthouse, estimating the tide, the leeway, wondering how close they could safely cut it, whether there’s more wind offshore or along the bluffs.
My nautical reminiscing is abruptly terminated by a huge black shape, a hundred times bigger than the yacht that suddenly rises to blot out the entire sea. I refocus, and find myself eye to eye with an immense raven. He is enormous, his glossy black wings stretching nearly four feet, and not much further away than that. He has risen on a thermal coming up a small side canyon, swept up by the sharp shoulder of rock where I sit.
Clearly he is as surprised as I to find another so close. It is a surprisingly intimate moment. We regard each other curiously. He sees a portly old hiker in a disreputable slouch hat, scribbling furiously on the back of his map. I see a statue of a bird, suspended in mid-air a hundred feet above the ground. Now and again one ebony feather rises like an airplane flap, but it is only the vacuum above his wings as he hovers. He seems to be using no muscles at all, but then he lifts the near wingtip one millimeter and he’s gone.
He dives down the wind, slicing off across the gulf of air between my meadow and the huge rock formation opposite. He raises his shoulders and sweeps his wings back in his delta speed formation. With the stiff wind behind him, he is soon going insanely fast. He is like a kamikaze, plummeting straight toward the base of the rock outcropping. The chaparral blurs behind his hurtling body. The sun gleams off his arced beak. Then he flashes into the dark shadows at the foot of the rock and blinks off.
Did I just see a raven commit suicide? Did he make a terrible miscalculation? Then there is a flare of black wings at the top of the pinnacle, and he is there. His landing gear swings down smoothly and his talons clamp firmly on the lichen-covered rock. His wings disappear like a fan, and he is motionless on the rock, looking down at me. I imagine a superior gleam in that onyx eye.
I have some crackers and another swig of water, then walk on up my ridge to where I can traverse across to the outcropping. I angle toward a swale about halfway up the rock that appears to offer the easiest way up. The hill is very steep, but the footing is good. Once on the rock, it is but a short walk out to the main overlook. I pass the raven’s pinnacle, and he seems to accept my approach calmly. Perhaps he feels that he knows me. Perhaps he does. He turns as I pass, keeping one eye always on me.
I admire the sublime view. The farm pond is a shining triangle at the foot of the hill, ringed in a dark green aura of cattails. The road I walked up winds off across the flat floor of the valley, through spills of yellow buttercups and purple lupines and orange poppies glowing like stars. Beyond is a grove of very tall eucalyptus trees, their thin angular upper branches gesturing in the wind off the sea. In the distance, I can see a lone hiker descending the fire road on Wolf Ridge, silhouetted against the sky.
I climb the five highest pinnacles, all walk-ups and all different. As I clamber about the huge boulders, I am watchful. A few years ago, at just about this same time of year, I saw five snakes in one day, more than I had seen in twelve years of hiking Marin. It is a cool day after the first extended warm weather of the year, and I can imagine snakes recently out of hibernation feeling very grumpy about the cold snap before they’ve had their breakfast. I check the tops of the rocks before climbing up. I’m also mindful of lions. There were warning signs at the entrance to this canyon, and I am on a trail-less hillside where people rarely go. They nest in rocks high on hillsides, I remember, and I give a wide berth to a dark cave mouth below one pinnacle.
Further up the hill, I soon come on a well-beaten path traversing along below the ridge top. I turn right through a flower-strewn meadow, and soon come out on the Coyote Ridge Fire Road. A few more minutes and I strike the Miwok trail, which leads back down to my car.
I have seen no one else since leaving the floor of the valley, and I am startled to hear the phone ring. I stare about in surprise, thinking vaguely, “why doesn’t someone answer that?” Then I realize that it’s coming from my pack and I sheepishly answer, feeling ridiculously out-of-place talking on the phone as I hike. Linda asks me to pick up some groceries on the way home, and I tell her I’ll be back before six. As I put the phone away, it occurs to me that I’m like Dick Tracy with his “two-way wrist radio” in a little arrowed caption.
Two-thirds of the way down, the trail descends a steep exposed ridge of grass with a deep canyon on the right. It is already in deep shadow, though the top of the ridge is in intense white light, as am I. As I jog down the steeper parts, I study the brushy canyon below. It is a dense tangle of treetops, and I suspect impenetrable. It is very quiet, only the crunch of my boots on the loose gravel on the trail. Then a roar of sound comes up the valley to me.
The grove of gums toss their long branches in a sudden gust, their silvery leaves gleaming and clattering a dry and distant applause. It is the evening wind, when the valleys fall into shadow and cool suddenly, and the air is drawn up to the still-warm hilltops. The puff of air sweeps up the canyon, and the trees send up constellations of white stars.
I stop and stare in wonder as the stars form a swirling galaxy and drift up the canyon. It is the cottonwood spawn, the weightless seeds glistening in the light against the dark trees beyond. They ascend like an inverted paratroop invasion, an unstoppable cottonwood army rising up to do battle with the chaparral above. They make the gust of wind visible, a great round-nosed beast slithering up the canyon.
When it has passed out of sight, the air is clear for a few moments, and then another wind raises another army. They are so thick they evoke the night sky, with dense clusters and trails and strings. But this sky is constantly moving and changing, constellations forming and reforming before they can be named, or even seen. The constellations in the night sky are no less random and transient than these - only slower.
This cottonwood arabesque is also clearly three-dimensional. The lucid air and resplendent light render each floating gossamer distinct, even those by the far hill, six hundred feet away. Their relative distances are readily apparent, their swirls and currents twining about like mating snakes.
People would be more impressed by the night sky if they could see it like this, in all its depth and complexity, with our sun hurtling recklessly through a dense cloud of stars.
copyright 2000 by Brian K. Crawford