A rocky outcrop atop Mt. Diablo’s Eagle Peak. Beyond, Mitchell Canyon Road snakes southward to Deer Flat.

Spring sheds its skin

Summer swooped into Contra Costa on dragon wings, withering the final wildflowers on wilderness hills, evaporating the last pools stagnating in creek beds. Only a week before solstice, the Sun would rise early and set late. The weekend forecast called for the Fahrenheit to hit 104.

I fell asleep as the crescent Moon sank into the west like a dewdrop bending a blade of prairie grass. When I awoke at 3 a.m. the Moon was gone, but so was the heat. I stepped outside. High in the southwest burned the stars of Aquila the Eagle like campfires in a canyon cut by the river of our Milky Way galaxy. The molten gold pendant of Venus hung low in the east; blue-white Jupiter led his retinue of moons west toward Mt. Diablo.

I crossed the mountain’s northern boundary at 4:44, 64 minutes before sunrise. The eastern horizon was dark and the air still. I shot a glance at the Diablo Summit, three miles south, and caught the blur of a darting bat snatching insects. Its work was almost done; mine was beginning. I cut southwest toward Back Creek Canyon and the black silhouette of Eagle Peak.

At the threshold of Eagle’s sweaty switchbacks I shed the skin of my long-sleeved layer. As I escaped the forest of Coulter pine and gained altitude, the subtlest gradations of blue were staining a porous sky low in the east. The threat of sunrise drove me up the slope into warm air falling from the peak like mist from a waterfall. Only 5:15 and things were heating up.

The day before, I’d surfed into a Kinks tune on the radio: “Girl – I want – to be with you – all of the time – all day – and all of the night” and as hard as I tried, couldn’t get it out of my head. Now, hauling my butt up Eagle Peak’s razor ridge, I swung with it: stone-age rock stomped in sync to the thwack of boots striking the rocky trail. When assaulting Eagle Peak, you exploit whatever aid to propulsion occurs to you.

At the peak’s apex, 2,369 feet above sea level, stands a wedge of rock in preternatural isolation, a Stonehenge of one. It has felt the solstice Sun strike it for centuries of centuries as our planet carves its helix onto the marbled cosmos. That morning was no different, except for the presence of human eyes to see it. “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them,” wrote Annie Dillard. “The least we can do is try to be there.” So I stood there, absorbing the miracle of dawn on the rock, night in the canyon below, and the silent glint of dragonflies trawling the peak’s rising warmth.

After shedding its skin, a gopher snake boosts its body temperature in the morning Sun.

On the return, in the cool air of Back Creek Canyon, I crossed paths with hikers headed to the mountain’s hot heights, and was tempted to warn them of the ordeal to come.

The time was 8:15 and the mercury was pushing 90. But some lessons need to be learned first-hand. “Enjoy the climb,” I chimed in gravity-assisted affability.

As the canyon tapered into the open gold of grassland, a shape on the trail’s shoulder caught my eye – at the last moment – and I slammed to a stop, kicking dust in the creature’s face. It was a gopher snake and it wasn’t budging; I’d caught it in the drowse of its morning warming ritual. But something else was going on. Somewhere during the night the snake had shed its skin, and its tender new scales were glistening, hardening in the swelling sizzle of sunrise.

The snake wasn’t alone. I’d watched Contra Costa shed its skin that morning: shed spring for summer; night for the hissing heat of dawn. I’d caught a glimpse of Earth’s essence: transition. Like the organisms inhabiting it, the planet is always in the process of becoming something else.

The shimmering zigzag lay motionless, watching me, its tongue tasting me in the air. Earth was falling toward autumn now; scorching summer was in ascent. Nothing was standing still, not even the snake and I, hurtling as we were around our planet’s axis, around our star, around our galaxy.

As if in a dream I shed my last damp layer, felt it slither against my glistening skin, felt the scales of my cells harden in the hot air. And at that moment I couldn’t shake the thought: Had I just dreamed I was a snake, and awakened to wonder: Am I a snake dreaming that I’m a man?

After all, it was summer, the season of long heat and short sleep. Many would dream strange dreams.