Visions in grey

Stillness but for the motion of breath in steam. Silence but for the call of a distant owl, a smoke ring of sound disintegrating into heavy air. I was standing still and silent, hoping to spot a bobcat scouting for an ambush site among boulders hidden in mist, or a coyote loping warily through an arroyo laced in haze.

It was morning at Round Valley Regional Preserve, but it could have been evening. The Sun’s disc, wherever it might be drifting in the cerulean blue, was veiled by a wave of grey saturating East County like a storm surge in slow motion. I was standing inside a cloud.

I hike in the fog not merely for the eerie imagery, for the vision of oaks drifting wraithlike in and out of view; I hike in the fog for the awareness of my own form drifting wraithlike in and out of view. I come to wear grey like a garment.

But I’d come to this place for more than the grey. I’d come to steal a glimpse of the hidden – a view denied the several hundred thousand folk below. I’d come to see if the park’s 1,220-foot summit stood above or below the fog’s rippled plateau. If above, I’d be able to rotate through the panorama of Mt. Diablo’s twin peaks in the west, the broad brushstroke of Morgan Territory’s ridgeline southeast, south 25 miles to Ohlone Wilderness, and east 100 miles to Sierra’s granite spine – all floating above a sea of fog.

Round Valley’s interior hills are a maze of ridges, ravines and escarpments. Take your pick: from the trailhead you can assault the park’s apex from a variety of approaches displaying a variety of scenery and compounding a variety of sweat equity. Since I was anxious to discover the state of the fog at the top, I opted for speed. I chose the fastest (and therefore steepest) route: Discovery Ridge.

“I feel more comfortable with that which is nameless,” wrote Rilke. There was a time in East County – before the arrival of Midwestern snow fugitives and Mexican farm laborers, Welsh miners and wheat magnates; yes, even before humans braved the land bridge across the Bering Straight, tacked south and earned the title Native – there was a time when nothing here had a name. A nameless mountain ruled the western horizon; a nameless plain stretched east to nameless snow-capped peaks. And a nameless creek cut a silver swath from the mountain to a nameless delta.

You won’t find the label “Discovery Ridge” on the map you snatch at the trailhead. Few of the park’s features have been given a name, and the interior hills are devoid of trail markers. But since I, unlike Rilke, feel more comfortable with that which has a name, my unofficial map of Round Valley Regional Preserve is scribbled with terms such as Arroyo Grande, Antler Ravine and Coyote Ridge.

Thoreau believed that winter promotes an inward life. Standing on the banks of a frozen river, he imagined the human brain as “the kernel which winter itself matures.” As December winds clear leaves from branches, winter clears the mind’s clutter, giving our intellectual landscape a transparency that allows us to see through things. “The winter,” Thoreau maintained, “is thrown to us like a bone to a famished dog, and we are expected to get the marrow out of it.”

The irony of fog is that it aids, not inhibits, perception; helps us gnaw out the marrow. The fog ahead seems utterly opaque but with each step we’re able to resolve nearby images with remarkable clarity. We’re trapped in a bubble of the immediate. There is no ahead; there is only here.

I arrived at a summit drowned in fog. That vision of Diablo, Morgan Territory, Ohlone and the Sierra I’d hoped for was denied. No trace of bobcat or coyote. The visible universe had collapsed to a sphere 50 yards in diameter. What lay beyond was the stuff of theory; not evidence.

But I was in good company. That miniature cosmos, that fog-encased bubble I was dragging around resonated with the energy of creatures committed to the immediate task: cicada and butterfly larvae, great-horned owls and kit foxes; some dormant, some busy outwitting the cold Sun and long night. They don’t need fog to make them aware of the grass beneath their feet. Their existence is free of the riddle of existence, of melancholic musings over the uncertain promise of spring. They aren’t mesmerized by metaphors. They are metaphors.

And so I count among the season’s many blessings the grey – yes, even the cold Sun and long night that are its inseparable companions. May they pass into and through us, and lead us to find on the other side of winter a place – perhaps on Discovery Ridge – where the first wildflowers grasp for the growing light, a place that without winter would be less sweet.