The Headlands Hike

Sunday, April 23, 1995

I am walking on a narrow muddy trail cutting across a steep hillside meadow in the Marin Headlands. It is spring, and every plant is in bloom. I am wading through chaparral and chemise and lupines and orange monkeyflowers. The ground between the shrubs is covered with daisies and buttercups and paintbrush and a hundred more flowers I don't know. The meadow is a tapestry of purple and red and yellow and white, dotted with the bright jewel-like glow of California poppies. Black velvet butterflies with splashes of indigo flutter about my head. The plants are covered with swarms of bees or ants or beetles, stuffing themselves with pollen and nectar as they go about their pollination. Worms and centipedes and pillbugs slide or scamper in the mud of the trail, free at last from the long winter rains. The air is filled with a thousand scents and buzzes. Heat shimmers above the lichen-covered rocks thrusting up through the brush.

I round a shoulder of the mountain and a small dell opens up before me. Its floor and walls are round and smooth and velvety, a spherical concavity carpeted in bright green chaparral and mottled in purple lupine, like the inside of a colored Easter egg shell. The trail dips into it, crosses a board bridge over a tinkling stream, and climbs out the other side. Lizards scuttle from my boots, and the tail of a snake slips off the trail as I approach. The snake must be fresh from hibernation and is probably looking for breakfast after his long sleep. The mice and lizards and voles scampering though their secret paths should be wary. I spot a skunk waddling along the trail ahead of me, and I pause to let it move away. It doesn't take many skunks to make a meadow feel crowded. He ambles along a few yards, then turns into the brush. After a few minutes, I continue walking. There is a sense of great solitude here, as if I am the only man on the Earth. The animals I meet seem unafraid, accepting of my presence.

I climb out of the dell and approach another ridge. A new sound thrums through the air, drowning out the whir of insect wings. It is a deep wooshing sound, like a giant's exhale after a blow to the stomach. But it pulses and grows ever louder. Then something reddish appears above the ridge top ahead, blinking in and out of sight as I walk. I watch it, puzzled. It is orange-red and square, clearly man-made. Perhaps a rusty shed or sign? The wooshing grows louder. Then I reach the top of the ridge and stop in amazement.

My sense of solitude is shattered as the horizon opens up like a stage curtain to reveal the sweep of San Francisco Bay, dotted with whitecaps and hundreds of boats. The red object is not a small shed a few yards away, it is the top of the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, four hundred feet of massive art nouveau steel. The rushing sound has become the roar of traffic on highway 101, almost directly below. Six lanes of heavy traffic thunder by, intent on mysterious errands that require countless cars to be exchanged between Marin and San Francisco. The northbound lanes hurtle across the bridge, wind up the slope, and disappear into the rainbow arches of the Waldo Tunnel like a multi-colored snake disappearing into its hole.

The Bay is vibrantly alive, a swirl of motion and sound and light and a million people. Huge freighters and tankers move through the throngs of sailboats like geese paddling among water-striders. Sightseeing planes and helicopters dart about below me like dragonflies. The foam-flecked sweep of the tide swirls between the Tiburon peninsula and the cone of Angel Island, and in the distance the Oakland Hills rise green and spangled with windows flashing in the sun. A dozen cities line the far shore, fading into the distance to the south. Jets crisscross the sky. To the right, beyond the submarine shape of Alcatraz and the long sweep of the Bay Bridge thrusting like a spear through Yerba Buena Island, lie the crowded towers of The City, draped like a shimmering blanket over its many hills. Lines of cars move sparkling down the steep streets of Pacific Heights like waterfalls tumbling down to the sea. Twin Peaks rises behind, and above everything else the Sutro Tower thrusts its Martian invader head into the fog sweeping in from Sunset Beach.

I stand and drink it all in. Now that I know what it is, the roar of sound fades away, and I can hear again the buzz of insects past my ear. My sense of solitude and separation returns. I am an unseen voyeur, a tiny bump on a high ridge, unnoticed by those hurrying multitudes below. I gaze affectionately at The City. The towering point of the Pyramid makes that skyline unique, instantly recognized anywhere in the world. How I love this place - its resistance to conformity, its love of the bizarre and the absurd, its tolerance, its intelligence.

I stand watching and musing for a few moments more before I start down the hill to rejoin that hum of life. How very perfect that this mountain wilderness with its wave-lashed cliffs, secret coves, crumbling gun emplacements, redwood groves, forest waterfalls, and steep flowered meadows - should be only an hour's walk from the most beautiful city in the world.

copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford