It’s spring. A heavy barrage of hail last night and 49 degrees this morning, mountains of clouds are scudding across the East Bay hills, southward, and rain is expected. A light snow has fallen in Ukiah, two hours north of San Francisco Bay, which it does every other year, usually in March. But in the high Sierra, deep in snow, spring won’t come until July. Here at near sea level, the wildflowers are beginning to spread in carpets across the hills greened by abundant rainfall–this year an inch more than normal.
My friend Sylvia prevailed on me last week, when we then wallowed in sunshine and warmth, to take a day trip to Marin and Mt. Tamalpais across the bay. It’s not far but it’s easy to forget about the pleasures that are slightly farther away than the ones that are near. Her enthusiasm for a hike in the spring hills infected me and we planned a midday jaunt on the coastal side of the mountain.
After a stop at the Juice Bar Collective in Berkeley for lunch fixings–polenta lasagna with black beans, tomatoes and cheese–we head west across the Richmond Bridge toward the Sleeping Maiden’s shadowed bosom, the distinctive rise of Mt. Tamalpais that is said to have been named for a mythological slumberer. The actual name is a decidedly Spanish hyphenation (tamal + pais) that more likely described the land of the people the Spanish Mexicans found when they arrived here.
Barely 40 minutes later we stop the car on the slopes of Mt. Tam and sit down on the edge of the gravel turnout to eat our lunch. The mountain rises on our right, and the nubby dark green of the steep ravines and razorback ridges spread out before us to the still invisible sea. The faint but distinctive aroma of wild lilac wafts by and the air trills with birdsong. We are headed to the Pantoll ranger station barely a mile down the road but the road winds and dips and plunges through the wooded canyons for what seems like nearly an hour. Finally, rounding a bend, we see the broad blue horizon and, far away down, the hazy coastline.
We pay the shockingly high fee of $8 (recently raised due to state budget woes) to park in the tiny lot of the ranger station, and head across the road to the Matt Davis trailhead.
Within minutes I spy a single shooting star–the wildflower Dodecathon–along the dirt trail. Mounds of wild lilac drape the rocky outcroppings which are themselves brightly painted with orange and blue-green lichens. A lizard basks on a chunk of serpentine rock, blending invisibly with the mottled stone. Before us the open path plunges into the shady woods and, as we near them, a tripod- and bag-laden photographer is coming out. He greets us and, probably having seen the copy of “Marin Flora” in my hand, is quick to inform us that the Calypso orchids are out. He tells us to look along the sides of the trail, in the pine duff and fallen tree limbs. We forge ahead happily with expectation.
As instructed, we find the tiny fuschia-colored orchids on the steep wooded slopes, their bright petals like a cockatoo’s crest, rising from the clutter of fallen leaves and rotting wood, over a delicately spotted pouch–the “slipper” of Lady Slipper, the orchid’s common name. We scramble down soft slopes that are more like new snow than old detritus, sinking into the leaf litter and crouching low for the perfect snap which largely will result in blurry photos, but we are intoxicated with the hunt and can’t stop our shutters.
Finally tiring of orchids, I begin to note the other wild flora: sky-blue Cynoglossum or Hounds Tongue, a few unfurled buds of Douglas iris, barely opened crimson Larkspur, and the ubiquitous ferns: brake, chain, deer, goldback, maidenhair, sword, shield, and more. The nearly vertical creeks spill their thin silver ribbons down narrow clefts and briefly level to cross our path before plunging down and down to unseen destinations. We meander, constantly distracted by a potential orchid sighting. Peering at the low banks of goldback ferns along the trail my eyes rivet on a gleaming golden blob. Banana slug. Inert, huge, strangely appealing in it’s edible coloring.
Emerging abruptly from the dark woods, the trail opens on a bi-color landscape of velvety neon green and robin’s egg blue: treeless hills undulate in grassy roller coaster waves against a cloud-printed sky. We are stunned by the light. From within cavernous tree-gnarled shadows we step into the Plains of Oz, a brilliant, primary-colored landscape where our yellow-dirt road curves into the horizon; no Emerald City at the end but a sapphire ocean. The fields of grass brim with a million tiny buds, leaflets, and fiddlenecks on the verge of their spring debut on this green stage, this perennial production of earth’s primavera.
Winding my way up the hill to a craggy eruption of a gold and russet rock I wade through silvery scrolls of last summer’s bracken fronds, the new green fiddleheads still crouched in the grass. A blast of blinding orange from the rock cairn is a solitary poppy. Along the path one sapphire blue larkspur, one satiny pink hollyhock, one blue-and-white lupine, one blue brodaeia, and a single stem of blue-eyed grass signal the masses of bloom yet to come.
Sitting on my rock throne I can see to the four corners of my little world. To the east the hills roll up to the maiden mountain, perpetually dreaming. West of me is the sea and white hem of beach in the curve of Bolinas Bay; the misty ridges fade away to north. On my south, the alabaster city spreads out upon low sandy hills beyond the iconic breach John Fremont named Chrysopylae and we call the Golden Gate. It is impossible not to slowly turn and wonder, in this moment, how near is paradise.