Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Onward and Uphill

We don't know a soul in the Bay Area, but we do have some deer friends. That's "deer" as in Bambi, not dearly beloved. Since moving to the Berkeley Hills, we've been visited by a four point buck, a doe and a truly impressive six pointer that would send my brother-in-law running for his rifle. These creatures are larger than the East Coast deer I used to see around Rock Creek Park back in DC, and they're grey rather than tan. I affectionately refer to them as Bucky, Mrs. Bucky and Big Poppa.

Deer encounters drive Winston, my neurotic Yorkie, nuts. His brain oscillates frantically between fight and flight. " Grrrrr! Kill! Kill! I must attack. No, wait a minute. This thing's way bigger than a squirrel. I think I'll hide behind my mommy. No, doggonit! I'm gonna kill that thing. Wait, hold on. There's a tree on its head. I might get skewered! Save me, master, save me!" Still, judging by the assortment of droppings I pick up in the yard, Winston and our deer friends manage to coexist when we're not around.

Most of my walks with Winston are short and devoid of deer sightings. The truth is, taking a stroll in this vertical environment leads to knee pain, oxygen-deprivation and very unladylike ring-around-the-arm-pit. And since the streets are laid out like the tunnels of an anthill, you also have to have faith in your sense of direction, or be a Catholic and pray to the patron Saint of the lost. (This is confusing - I looked it up. Saint Anthony covers lost property and Saint Jude covers lost causes, but it didn't say who to turn to for just plain lost). Still, I can get motivated to take a hike. A few afternoons ago, I caught a glimpse of my butt in the mirror and, fueled by self-loathing, headed for the hills, dog in tow.

The first law of hill hiking is to save downhill for the home stretch. I started walking up. Within a quarter of a mile, Winston had filled two poop bags and was panting like Marion Jones on steroids. Rivulets of sweat ran down my forhead and into my eyes and my legs were starting to burn. I kept a steady pace, past eclectic hillside homes, each wildly different from the next, the antithesis of "little boxes on the hillside". I could catch snippets of people's lives. A hippy couple barbecuing ears of corn. Two men in their middle years discussing George Bush's shortcomings over cigars. An old lady trimming a rosebush. A black lab watching me from a window while a fat gold Budha watched him.

The street was winding more now, and there were no sidewalks. Deciding which side to walk on required constant calculation in the event a car should come around a blind turn. By this time, I was in the zone. I was walking up as long as there was an up. I reached a fork in the road and randomly chose to turn right. The street dipped down a little and then climbed back up before deadending onto a steep patch of grassy mountainside, overlooking the Berkeley campus, the town, and San Francisco Bay.

We were well into the late afternoon golden hour, when everything starts to look like a Maxfield Parish Painting, minus the nymphs and faeries. A trail began where the street stopped, curving steeply down about 200 feet. Momentum pushed me downward, with Winston dragging behind. The path petered out over a steep drop overlooking a couple of administrative buildings that probably belonged to Berkeley University. I took stock of my position, looking up from where I'd come. Next to the trailhead was a long fence that ran the width of the clearing. Where the fence ended, I could see a street. It might be fun to go up there and explore a different way back.

I scrambled up the hillside. This time, the dog took the lead. Four legs beat the heck out of two on an eighty degree incline. As the slope got steeper, I made like Winston and got down on all fours, grabbing large handfuls of grass to steady myself. By the time we reached the top, the sky was pink, and sunset not far off. I found myself at the opposite end of the fence that bordered the clearing. Someone had a very private property with a big chunk of land and a panoramic view. There was a little gate in the fence, with a mailbox next to it. Fifty yards away was the street I had seen from below. On closer look, it had a fair amount of traffic, and again, no sidewalks - probably not ideal terrain for walking after dark with a small dog. I realized I had no idea where I was, or how to get home from up here. The trailhead was visible at the other end of the fence, but the terrain was too steep to cut across. The only logical move was to go back the way I had come.

As I turned to retrace my footsteps, the little gate swung open. A tall, trim, craggily good looking fellow emerged with a big golden retriever. He nodded. I nodded. The dogs nodded. And then I noticed the state park sign next to the fence. It read: Warning: You Are Entering a Mountain Lion Habitat.

"Excuse me!" I called after Mr. Handsome. "Are there really mountain lions up here?" He shot me a look of disbelief and kept walking, his answer trailing behind him. "Where there are deer, there are mountain lions." Subtext: " idiot."

Of course. How could I be so ecologically naive? Our deer friends had predators big enough to eat me, and if not me, certainly an oversized, overweight Yorkshire terrier. I looked down at Winston. In the deepening twilight, he was starting to resemble a bratwurst with hair. I wished my brother-in-law were here. With his rifle.

As I started down the hillside, it came back to me: the second law of hill walking. Never go up unless you're sure you can get down, especially if you don't like walking sideways in near-darkness, doing your damnedest to avoid a 200-foot tumble. They say animals can smell fear, or perhaps it was a whiff of mountain lion pheromones, but Winston started to panic. All that dog knew was that he wanted to go home. Now. And the best way to let me know was to yank on his leash until he pulled me off the mountain.

The second time I lost my footing, I decided my feet were not to be trusted. I was going down this hill on my butt, the same butt that had gotten me into this mess. By now, my heart was pounding so loudly, I'd never hear the mountain lion's warning growl. Probably just as well. The end would be quick, and I'd never know what bit me.

Finally, my feet touched on a flat area. I had reached the trail! I jumped up, dusted myself off, pulled a few burrs off the seat of my pants and hoofed it back up the path, Winston scampering cheerfully by my side. I kept him on a short leash: You never know when you might have to placate a hungry mountain lion.

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