Friday, September 11, 2009


Now that we have moved from Berkeley to Orinda, I am taking my hill walks in the park instead of the street. Our new rental house is a short drive away from three Regional Preserves: Tilden, Redwood and Briones.

Our new address is on other side of Wild Cat Peak, the hill overlooking North Berkeley. At the top of that hill is Tilden Park, with its Eucalyptus and Pine groves, stables, a petting zoo, a little lake for swimming, steam trains, post-card views of the bay and Nimitz Way, a wide, relatively flat asphalt trail favored by bicyclists, old folks and dog owners.

Twenty minutes away from the Orinda house, Redwood Park lives up to its name, boasting several groves of the huge trees. Redwoods seem to always grow in groups, like conversational clusters at some somber, druidic gathering. Originally, the forest at Red Wood was tall, vast and dense. Back in the days of clipper ships, sailors entering San Francisco Bay avoided submerged rock by lining the tip of their vessel between Yerba Buena Island and two redwood trees 16 miles off, trees so outsized, they could be seen from the mouth of the bay. These historic giants would still be part of Redwood Park had the logging industry not destroyed the original forest in the mid 1800s.

Briones Park consists of a series of low hills with mammalian contours. Here and there, patches of scrubby woods shade the trails. There are mini canyons and shallow gorges and ridge trails with views of hills, hills and more green hills. Briones is pretty in a low-key way, but almost creepily generic. The landscape is uncannily quiet and feels like it's outside of place and time. You could be in Ireland or Tuscany, Russia or New Zealand. As the path ahead of you curves around the hillside, practically anything could be coming your way - a rusty depression-era jalopy, a knight on a muscular steed, a Gypsy peddler dragging his overloaded donkey, a happy-go-lucky group of hobbits. You will certainly see hawks swirling on the almost constant wind, and you may encounter a mother raccoon and her unruly pups. Unlike the Berkeley deer, calm and complacent as cows, the Briones deer are truly wild. They burst out of the woods, bound across the trail and disappear, unnerved by the presence of a human on their turf.

Walking through the understated Briones terrain has a meditative quality. Even with a dog in tow, it's easy to get lost in your thoughts when there's nothing but blue sky and bald hills to distract you. This is the state I was in on my most recent hike, worrying, reassessing, reevaluating, planning, pondering, flogging myself for past mistakes and personal inadequacies. In short, not paying any attention to the here and now. I was yanked back into the present by a sudden, assertive hiss directly on my right.

I spun around to face an angry rattlesnake, as startled by my presence as I was by his. The serpent's upper body rose straight up from a pile of concentric coils, his alien, triangular head pointing straight at me as he sounded his rattle. It was surprisingly loud, but then, he was only about four feet away. I can't have looked for more than a second, yet the picture is seared on my brain, like an image on a piece of film.

Forget fight, it was flight all the way. I tore down the trail, dragging my bewildered yorki behind me. When I stopped to look back, the snake was frozen in strike position, still facing the exact place where I had stood just moments earlier. Dangerous but dumb as the dirt beneath him, he didn't seem to realize I had moved on. I am hardly the fearless type, but it all happened so fast, I didn't even have time to get an adrenaline rush.

That night I told my husband about the rattlesnake encounter. As a result of a steady diet of cowboy shows as a child, he has the worst case of ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) I have ever seen. I learned this years ago, during Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of our very first movie dates. The man kept his eyes squeezed shut for the entire snake pit scene. I had been trying to talk him into joining me on my nature walks, but Briones is now out of the question. We've renamed it Rattlesnake Park.

Bay view from Tilden Park

A young grove at Redwood Regional Park.

Briones. Stole all of these off Flicker.

Say hello to my little friend.

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