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 clichéd 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.

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