Monday, August 18, 2008

Them Thar Hills!: Along the Tennessee Valley

Last week, I told about my first visit to Mt Tamalpais in over a year and spun a few memories. I didn’t mention that it was quite warm and humid that day, with only a brush of wind on the high grassy slopes overlooking the plate glass, fog-tabled Pacific. From experience, I knew the thick windless forests of Douglas firs up a piece from where I was were humming with hungry bugs, eager to dine on any hapless hiker who dared enter.

And so I drove back down the mountain to another favorite spot.

The Tennessee Valley (named after a steamship that ran aground here in 1853) is a grassland environment. That day, it was combed by gentle sea breezes. The valley, one of Marin County's most popular hiking spots, sits within the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Compared to Mt. Tam, getting there is easy. From Highway 101, take the same Shoreline Highway 1 exit for Stinson Beach; in less than a mile past a slough, there’s a turnoff to the left (be wary and patient; oncoming traffic provides many opportunities for an accident) onto Tennessee Valley for a winding 2-mile drive; the road ends in a large parking lot at the mouth of the valley.

From there, it’s about a 1.7 walk to the beach. The trail splits about a third of the way in; one loop rises to a long mildly muscle-stretching march above the valley; the other, narrower trail, follows the floor through the marsh, leading to the estuary at the end. I like this one, not because I’m lazy, but for its smaller, more surprising wonders.

The frequent fog banks that roll ashore during the summer turn the valley into something like an English moor, redolent of giant spectral dogs and deerstalker-wearing detectives. I first looked down into it from the top of Wolf Ridge, about 800 feet above to the south, during one of my first “epic” walks in the late 1990s; a heart-pumping climb from Rodeo Beach to the ridge, followed by a knee
splitting descent down a twisting ravine into the valley. Then I turned around climbed all the way back up and finished running downhill on the other side to catch the bus back to San Francisco. (My pal Hal, a loyal reader, questioned my sanity with a deep scowl at Frankie’s that evening. “My beer tastes better than yours,” I retorted, with that sneer that only serious hikers can conjure—exhausted body, boosted ego.)

I didn’t really get to see Tennessee Valley until I went with a friend, Alan Brewer, sometime later. As we walked along, I murmured clich├ęd variations on “Oh wow at the high misty hills. We came to a small beach that was framed by two towering cliffs; the waves thumped through me as they pounded the shore like fists and their foam hissed around our feet; a plump handsome western seagull squawked greedily nearby as we ate trail mix (we were too big for it to bully) We said little, busily
soaking up the spare beauty and menacing power. Even with all the people around, I felt like a survivor pushed to the haunted edge of the world.

Aside from its atmosphere, another thing I like about the Tennessee Valley is that it’s home, like the rest of Marin Headlands to one of my favorite avians, the redwing blackbird. This bird’s crimson patch is a burst of molten fire in black space; I saw none on last week’s trip, though I occasionally heard the electronic wheeze of their call; as I walked along the lower trail, pair of Moms pushing baby carriages approached me and flushed a red-tail hawk from the tall brush. It briefly flew out of the trail and vanished back into the reeds. The valley is one of Marin’s most popular spots for families.

Here, two springtime’s ago, my wife and I witnessed one of nature’s bursts of brutal spectacle. Just as we were approaching the beach, Elizabeth pointed up the brushy slope to our right. There stood a tall, elegant great blue heron, its long head and pointed bill all set toward the ground, as still as a lawn statue. Seconds after I saw it, it attacked the ground with one short stab and came up with a plump, furry, undoubtedly unhappy, vole. The heron took to the air on its broad wings and swooped over to where the estuary had cut a small shallow stream through the
black sand on its journey to the sea. The heron landed in the middle of the stream. A crowd of beachgoers gathered around. The heron doused the vole in the stream again and again, short brutal stabs, like a knife, until its prey was close enough to dead for swallowing. The birds tipped its head back. The vole disappeared down its gullet, making a brief lump in its predator’s throat. We all murmured, amazed, awed, maybe wondering about that day when we would become the vole.

Last week, I saw no bloody spectacle, only the brown pelican you see below, missed by everyone else as it plodded quietly, unobtrusively up the beach into the lagoon (its unusual behavior indicates it may very well have been ill); in summer, the lagoon retreats inland and loses contact with the ocean waters; I walked over to where the pelican disappeared behind the long grass; as I took my photos and some clumsy video, it seemed to have had enough of my attention and slowly, almost resignedly,
disappeared slowly into the reeds.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Them Thar Hills!: No Other Heaven.

San Francisco from Rock Spring on Mt. Tam

The East Bay Regional Parks are a string of relatively small pleasures. Running north and south, east of San Francisco Bay, many of them consist of golden grasslands, canyons, and mixed forests of oak, madrone, eucalyptus, and some groves of second-growth redwoods. Redwood Regional Park is particularly appealing as are the grassy heights of Briones, (also a working cattle ranch with a Rawhide flavor). Mt. Diablo has a wild majesty when storms blow by or when the springtime flowers bloom. Yet, wherever I go, I sense the grim hum of urban sprawl, like a snoring odorous bear.

In summer, temperatures rise into the 90s by late morning: this area becomes dangerously uncomfortable. That’s when I turn my bootheels west, toward the coast, mostly to my favorite wonderland of all: Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais.

Though not as high as Mt. Diablo, you can see Mt. Tam from almost anywhere in the Bay Area. The 2,571 peak dominates the titular 6,300-acre-state park. It’s a short drive up Highway 101 from San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, a few miles past the Golden Gate Headlands. From 101, you take the Highway 1 exit to Stinson Beach for a long snaky drive until the road splits in two; you take the right up onto the Panoramic Highway for a snaky ten miles across the mountain’s south slope. Mt. Tam will loom at you on the first rise like a green tidal wave. Most California coastal mountains run north to south, following the coast and the major fault lines. But Mt. Tam is an exception: it runs west to east.

I briefly sampled Mt. Tam in the mid-1980s. In the late 1990s, as I spread into middle-age and my skepticism toward city life deepened, I seized on hiking as the best way to cope with physical change and spiritual entropy. My first hike was to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay; the following weekend, I hopped the Golden Gate Transit bus right by my apartment on Post Street for the 45-minute ride (one transfer) to Mt. Tam’s steep piney slopes.

For over two years I hiked, clambered, climbed, and crawled the 50-miles of trails that braid the landscape, through its delightfully wide variety of ecosystems. Many trails are steep, often rocky, so I started out on short hikes then became more adventurous. The first time I hiked the nearly 3 miles from Stinson Beach up Tolkien-esque Steep Ravine to Pantoll, I raised my fists in triumph but I was really more like a toddler who'd just learned to climb onto daddy's chair.

Radically more daunting was the trudge up steep Willow Camp Fire Road (over 1,500 feet in 3 miles) to the Coast Trail, then over to McKennan Gulch Trail for a 2-mile trip back down, then a long loop back to Stinson where I found the path blocked by a gi-normous eucalyptus that had toppled across the fire road. I bushwhacked up a steep bank on my hands and knees to get around it. I was grateful to learn that I’m not especially sensitive to poison oak.

One Saturday, I started out from Pantoll (park headquarters and the start of most of the main trailheads) and hiked all the way around Mt. Tam’s north side: 8 miles in around 5 or 6 hours. Near the end, I stopped at the top of Wheeler Trail on the northeast slope and checked the map: it seemed to promise a quick trot down to the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail. “Easy,” I sneered and damn near broke my ankles on what turned out to be a rock-jumbled stream bed that would have made a snake weep. At the bottom, I collapsed and was mistaken for dead by several passing hikers. Another memory from that day: the taste of cold beer and watching the afternoon fog pour up over the ridge and down into Muir Canyon. (If you’re up for a truly Gothic experience, nothing beats hiking Mt. Tam in the summertime coastal fog.)

I took risks, but I took them prepared: map, first-aid kit, some food, compass, Swiss Army knife and always always more water than I needed. In those two years I spent most weekends on Mt. Tam, but I only got lost once. It happened like this.

I was single then and joining a hiking group seemed to be a good way to meet chicks. The Mt. Tamalpais Interpretive Association sponsors two kinds of hiking groups: nature lovers and power hikers. I tried the nature lovers’ Saturday hike first but it felt a little slow to me. The following Sunday, I joined the power hikers. And that was how I got lost.

Ten minutes into the hike, I knew I’d never want to go power hiking again. I may walk faster than the Saturday crowd, but I’m still a dawdler, a “oh-gee-what’s that-flower” kind of guy; sometimes I’ll lie down for a nap.

It was when we were stumbling along the foot of the very steep north side of the mountain, that our power hike leader stopped and turned: “Hey! I think we’re lost!” Not long after, as we fought our way back up through thick brush in the heat, she took a look at my beety face and asked, “Say, do you have high blood pressure?”

. . . which of course, did nothing for my blood pressure . . .

I left the
group at that point and was led out on a shorter, alternate route by a forgiving veteran who eased my embarrassment with tales of his own stumbles into danger: “It happens to us all, even old-timers.”

The view from O'Rourke's Bench

For a year, I worked for the association as their volunteer publicist. Not long after, I met Elizabeth (I wanted to stage our wedding here, but it was unworkable). Now that we live in Emeryville, Mt. Tam is a circuitous hour-long drive away. A week ago Friday was the last time I’d visited in over a year. I drove to my favorite area, the west end around Rock Spring. A half mile southwest, overlooking the Pacific you’ll find the bench pictured below. Dad O’Rourke’s words are more eloquent than mine.

(All photos by author)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

THE EMBRACE: BEYOND CATEGORY (Last--Thank God--In a Series

There are two kinds of music in the world: good music and the other kind.” --attributed to Duke Ellington.

When Elizabeth replied to my profile on some dating site or other in early 2002, she mentioned that she’d been a classical pianist. According to my memory, that, more than anything else, inspired me to respond positively.

From the end of the Swing Scene to that time, I didn’t listen to much. The only music from that really lit me up was the (now semi-retired) English duo known as Everything But the Girl. I was hanging out at Frankie’s Bohemian Cafe, a Czech-style beer hall on the same-named street in San Francisco, where well-known local musicians like Jonathan Roniger, Max Bran and record producer David Hampp congregated.

But mostly, I’d stare at my beer and ask wither popular music (including rock n’ roll)? Maybe, as a non-musician and not much of an expert, I should shut up . . . but Elvis Costello is wrong. I’m the audience. Allow me to talk back for once.

And what about you? How many post-pop fans among you hands please thank you! When you hear about the new Coldplay album, do you shrug: “Oh, that’s nice. They’re making a living . . . what U-2 is still around? Hooray, The Beatles never reunited, hooray! Stones take note! There's more sacrilege where that came from!")

Maybe it’s just ‘cause I’m an Old Person (ewwwww!) Who Hates New Things Like Old People (ewwwww!) Always Do. But I insist: This is about more than shaking our canes and clacking our dentures while croaking “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

When my parents and grandparents (born in the early half of the 1900s) heard the Beatles for the first time O the shrieking, foaming and sputtering! They were appalled, frightened, threatened, offended, disgusted, repulsed and disturbed by that . . . that . . . racket.

Move ahead 40-plus years. Now I’m my parents. But when I hear the music of You Young People Today (watch me wag my bony warlock finger), I do something much much worse:

yawn . . . mmmmm . . . nap time!

These new songs aren’t bad, either. They’re well-written, superbly performed (though nobody seems to belt it like Elvis and his Spawn much anymore), have catchy melodies . . . what’s not to like? Trouble is, I spend too much time being reminded of the Old Masters who inspired you: “Oh, Elvis/Dylan/The Beatles/The Ramones/Pink Floyd/ did that lick/melody/lyric twenty/thirty/forty years ago in This Tune on That Album.”

Nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from Old Masters, but I hear nothing new spinning on the CD player, either. That jubilant explosion that started in the mid-1960s sounds absent. I may be deeply wrong, but something tells me even Sir Paul McCartney may have reached a somewhat similar conclusion: there’s only so much a bloke can do with three chords, three guitars and a drum set, even after adding keyboard, synthesizer and 100-piece orchestra. Popular music may promote a deceptive freedom, because, musically, it truly is the most rigid form there is. There may be no color left in the old paint box.

Returning to Elizabeth and Self:

Among our first dates was an Oakland East Bay Symphony concert at that incredible Art Deco palace, the Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland, for a program of Giuseppi Verdi, Marco Beltrami, J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt and Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Six years later, classical music is what I listen to most: we’ve collected hundreds of hours of music encompassing a thousand years, pouring from thousands of minds from so many corners of so many rooms, so many dimensions, an endless effusion of sounds bright and baffling. If the amount of work, both big and small, wasn’t so great, I could become an obsessive like Phil Schaap. Hardly a week passes where I don’t hear something entirely new to me, or something familiar that sounds so new, it takes a minute to remember. You don't hear me say "Oh, just another Bach cantata."

Like all general interest writers, I’m stumped about how to tell you what it is I’m hearing so you’ll take in a concert, buy a CD or link to some of the countless radio stations that broadcast online. (Classical makes up less than 3% of the buying market, but in live venues and online, it thrives like never before. I usually read Alex Ross of The New Yorker for help.)

Classical music is often called “elitist,” meaning it’s only accessible to wealthy snobs who kick their servants while taking their $300 seats; it’s not “real people’s” music.

(So, what am I? An android? This is the reverse snobbery of those “Ha! I Eat Feces and You Don’t!” social critics--for which the classical industry does bear some responsibility.)

But on a strictly human, emotional level the vast majority of it is remarkably tuneful and even rocking (the opening of Beethoven’s
Eroica; the final movement of Schubert’s Quintet D. 956.) Like a great nature trip, it cleans your soul of modern life’s garbage. Its fans will swear to you: it can take you the edge of God and Eternity like nothing else.

Classical music is elitist and non-democratic in one sense: I mean, do you really want to hear me play the violin? All the best music, pop, jazz, and classical is performed by elitists from Ringo Starr to Benny Goodman to Marc-Andre Hamelin, plus the snob in the last photo. They damn well better be better than the rest of us at what they do.

Elite means the best. In art, that’s how it should be. Mediocrity kills beauty like bug spray.

A concluding point: In an early draft of this series, I wrote that I bought the notion that music doesn’t build hospitals, cure disease or inspire people to sign up for Al Gore’s Climate Challenge. This recent “60 Minutes” report below hints I was right to delete that.

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