Coyote and the black box

Coyote in Murphy Meadow, Round Valley Regional Preserve.

A nightmare

There was nothing ominous about that morning. No warning signs. It began like most of my adventures at Round Valley: I stretched out at the trailhead – Achilles, hip flexor, lunge – and fired up my GPS. In two hours, 6½ miles and 1,760 feet of elevation gain I’d be standing on Wek-wek Ledge off Morgan Territory’s Prairie Falcon Trail, gazing at Mt. Diablo veiled in the hot haze of distance.

The Miwok Trail westbound ushered me beneath the shadows of blue oaks anchoring the lower lobes of spurs rippling toward the valley. The shade was welcome; the forecast called for the mercury to hit 98 F. I crammed my pack with all the water the pack’s finite cubic space would allow.

Water would be the least of my concerns.

I came to the familiar Miwok/Hardy Canyon split. Not the least bit unnerving. A mile and a half south towered the hunter-green oak and maroon chaparral of Bob Walker Ridge: my staircase to splendor at higher altitudes. I lowered my gaze and heard the valley’s tall, dry grasses seethe in a southeast breeze like shale hissing in retreating surf.

A mile later, just short of the Los Vaqueros gate, and still oblivious, I saw him: a solo coyote loping toward steeply cut Arroyo Grande, which skirted my trail on the right. He was about 200 yards southeast and moving with a purpose, probably to trade the withering light for the darkness beneath valley oaks and California buckeye. It was clear the coyote hadn’t seen me: he kept coming. I’d also gotten lucky – the southeast breeze kept me downwind of his nose and ears.

The moment he disappeared behind the trees, now about a hundred yards distant, I bounded off the trail toward a massive valley oak on the arroyo’s east bank and set up my shooting zone. Out came the camera. On. Exposure: minus two clicks. White balance: shade. Mode: scenery. Zoom: full. I trained the lens on the only open area across the arroyo: a rock spattered with white lichen and dormant brown mosses. Then I scanned the scene for my quarry.

Animals are infuriatingly uncooperative photo subjects. My dog and cats, for cryin’ out loud, rarely hold a pose. Out in the wild, I’m lucky to get close enough to a coyote, bobcat or golden eagle – and be quick enough with my equipment – to bag a single respectable snapshot.

But lo and behold, this Round Valley coyote trotted out from behind the bramble, hopped onto the rock and into a photogenically optimal dappling of sunlight and shade and stood there while my shutter went ka-CHEE, ka-CHEE, ka-CHEE.

As if he knew the last shot was as good as it was gonna get, and the photo-op was over, the creature hopped off the rock and disappeared behind the cape of an arroyo willow. Still leaning against the valley oak, I reviewed my shots and shook my head at the colossal blindness of my luck.

Time to go. I turned on my heel to high-step it through the thistle back to the trail – and jumped straight back. “Yow!” The shock lasted only a moment, but it was a moment of heightened electrification, a single synaptic flash short of panic. The next moment, crouched in a defensive pose, I heard myself laughing at myself.

Some guy was standing right behind me. Arm’s-length behind me.

“God Almighty! You scared the crap out of me!”

“‘God Almighty?’ Ha.” He raised his right eyebrow, lips pursed, suppressing a smile.

He was tall and spindly, as if he’d skipped a few meals. The ravines in his face were chiseled deep. A scraggly, rust-brown mustache flared across his cheeks. His long face was leather. But the eyes: the eyes were narrow and grey – and something else, something that sent a thin shiver up my neck. I took a step back. In all my wanderings I’d never seen anything as terrible as those gaunt and hungry eyes. They were not human.

“Nice scenery,” I said with a forced nonchalance.

“I believe I did a pretty good job,” he said in a voice softly growled from the back of the throat. A canine voice. So fixated was I on the eyes that it took a moment to register another disturbing fact: the hills behind him were undulating like a desert background blurred by heat ripples. The effect formed an oval just behind his head, like the halo of an Eastern Orthodox icon.

He must have registered my disorientation. “I have that effect on people,” he said.

I resolved that this encounter was not happening. The procedure was simple: I’d keep the conversation mundane and dispel this bad dream through sheer tedium.

“Did you see the coyote?” I asked.

“Did I see him? Hm. I would not put it that way.”

Geez, this guy is hard to distract. “Ger Erickson,” I said, extending my hand.

I stood there, arm obstinately outstretched in empty space. Hey, this is my dream. I get to choose the vignette that makes me look least undignified.

The guy looked at my hand as if it were radioactive, raised his arm and pinched the wide brim of his hat, the crown of which was tapered upward to form two pointed … wings, leaves, ears? Definitely not a Stetson.

“Olétte,” he replied, returning the introduction. “You stole my image with that black box,” he said, his eyes boring a hole through my camera. “Now give it back.”

Uh-oh. Olétte: Coyote deity of the Native American Miwok. Creator of the world. Trickster. I am so screwed.

“You know why we are here,” he said. It was a statement, not a question.

Hey, this is my fevered fantasy and I’m gonna get my entertainment-dollar’s worth. “Let me guess,” I said. “I committed a cosmic offense: last night I paired Dover sole with cabernet.” I took a sideways glance at his malnourished eyes and decided to get off the subject of things digestible.

“You recognize my name,” he said, ignoring my sarcasm. You recognize your transgression, you recognize the reparation. Fine. But that device slung around your neck – it holds more than a portion of my spirit. Give it to me and I will tell you what it is trying to tell you.”

Before I could prevent it, my hand was peeling the camera strap off my neck. Wait a minute – I bagged some nice shots. Why should I surrender my camera without a fight? “What makes you think I stole a piece of your spirit?” I asked, stalling for time.

“If you understood that,” said Olétte smoothly, “you would never have taken that black box out here in the first place. That is why you are here: to learn what the box is telling you.” And he locked eyes with me for what seemed about a decade. “Ah, but I believe you do understand. That image of me adds to the sum of the world. It takes something that is and makes from it something that has never been, as when I shook the tules and the land rose from the water. You also are a creator – of sorts. The question is: to whom does the image belong? You or me? I say me.” And he stretched his arm, palm up.

I felt like a ground squirrel stalked by a … well, a coyote. If I couldn’t outrun his single-minded pursuit of my camera, I’d dive into the nearest ground-squirrel hole. “So you’re saying I shouldn’t be out here taking pictures, stealing the world’s spirit? Why shouldn’t I steal that spirit and share it with others?”

He stifled a chuckle, recognizing my ruse but willing to play along. Then he knelt, scooped a handful of dirt and let it run through his fingers. “The people who once walked this valley had a word: ‘wachichu’: ‘to take the fat.’ Here is the fat of the matter,” he said. “That you stole my image merely offends me; it threatens nothing. That thing that hangs from your neck like a talisman: it is a greater danger to you than me.”

Coyote pictograph by CampPhoto/iStock/Getty Images.

Before I could digest his thought, he stood and said, “It is not only what you see but what you fail to see that creates your world. You are like Wek-wek the falcon – always darting around; always in a rush. Your black box makes you hurry to crest a ridge so you can steal an image before the light fails; hurry home to tell the story. You spend too much time marking the passage of time. You look at and seldom into what you see. It is your own spirit that is trapped in the black box.”

I looked away, to where the landscape wasn’t a wavering halo behind Olétte’s head. I knew he was right – right about the camera and me. “You’re saying the picture is an instrument of falsehood, not truth?” I said, pressing my disadvantage. “Hey, you’re The Trickster. Which am I supposed to believe: you or the picture?”

Olétte licked his thin lips. A terrible intelligence and hunger crouched behind those eyes. I knew I was playing a dangerous game. I also knew from mythology that the gods aren’t omniscient. They can be deceived by other gods – even humans. But tricking The Trickster? Is that possible? And if possible, is it such a bright idea?

I took the plunge: “If I tell you a story, a story that pleases you, will you let me keep the black box?”

He raised an eyebrow. I’d struck a resonant chord. “I’ll make it a story of cosmic significance,” I said. In keeping with my previous remarks, I had no idea what I was talking about. But I had a plan: something about removing the memory stick from my camera while The Trickster was distracted. You can keep the camera.

Olétte stretched out his arms and raised his head. “A story of cosmic significance, eh? When Silver Fox and I danced the world into being,” he said, and lowered his eyes at mine, “that was of cosmic significance. When I stole the Sun from the Mountain People, that was of cosmic significance. I have heard many stories, and told many more. My standards are high.” He smiled, and I caught the glint of saliva on one of his fangs. “Tell me your story. And make it – how do you say? – a humdinger. I might even spare your life.”

Olétte strode over to a hollow log and sat down, grasped his knees and bent slightly forward as if to say, “You’re on.”

My camera was resting against my chest. I slipped my left arm through the loop of the strap, shifted the camera to where it hung a few inches below my left armpit, and crossed my arms, grasping the camera with my right hand, shielding it from view. Olétte’s narrow grey eyes followed the whole operation.

I widened my stance and cleared my throat as prelude to a pronouncement weighty and wise. “Many are the tales of the world’s beginning; few of its ending. Hearken, Olétte, and I will tell you how the world ends,” I declaimed while opening the memory stick hatch with my right thumbnail and feeling for the stick with my index finger.

Now for the real trick: the tale. Assuming Olétte had heard it all, I needed to maneuver him into unfamiliar territory. I needed a story so outlandish, he wouldn’t know whether to devour me or deify me.

With a nod of my head, I gestured to a nearby hill. “You see the large oak on that hilltop?” I said, ever so gently pressing the memory stick against its spring-lock release, feeling it come loose and pinching it out while Olétte’s gaze was diverted to the hill.

“When evening falls, a star will rise above that oak. We call the star Bingle-Dworp 677. Around it circles a world called Whygo. On it dwell the Whygons.”

Olétte was looking at me now with an expression not overly favorable. I tiptoed farther out toward the precipice: “Whygons have been monitoring humanity from Earth orbit for 1,500 years, waiting for a positive trend,” I said with a scientific solemnity. “To a Whygon, 1,500 years is practically a lifetime.” Uh-oh. Where do I go from here? And how do I get this memory stick from my hand to my pocket? It’s too small to palm.

“Now, the Whygons are divided,” I said as my fingertips perspired onto the stick. “Factions A and B want to destroy Earth right now; Faction C wants to spare us for another century or two.”

Olétte cocked his head and lifted an eyebrow. I could almost hear him forming the thought “don’t screw with me.”

“And how, you must be wondering, would the Whygons destroy Earth? Well, I’ll tell you how,” I said, padding the narrative for all it was worth. “Faction A wants to see Earth explode in a messy though expressionistically pleasing fwoof but Faction B claims that would leave a debris cloud in solar orbit ‘in clear contravention of the Space Littering Act of 200913.’ Faction B would rather plant a small black hole in Earth’s core and watch the planet get sucked right out of the space-time continuum.” (Need I mention I had no idea what I meant by “the space-time continuum”?) “Faction B calls Faction A ‘contrarian barbarians’ while Faction A calls Faction B ‘a bunch of neat freaks.’”

I felt my tether running out fast. Time to drive this train wreck home. “Faction C, comprising an overwhelming minority of Whygo, wants to watch humanity self-destruct a bit longer before the plug gets pulled. Factions A and B call Faction C ‘disgusting voyeurs.’ Oh, and then there’s Faction D, which –”

“Enough!” cried Olétte. He leaped from the log, I uncrossed my arms reflexively and found that the memory stick was poised smack above my pant pocket. I let go of the stick and it obeyed the law of gravity. I’d done it.

What else I’d done came as a shock. “I have not granted the Whygons permission to destroy Earth!” Olétte howled. “I shall journey to Bingle-Dworp 677 with Kélok the North Giant and slay the Whygons utterly. Molluk the Condor shall feast on their rotting flesh.”

Holy crap. He’s taken my story for fact, not fiction. And so, standing on the hangman’s drop, I said gratuitously, “Better not tangle with the Whygons; they’re pretty nasty hombres. Let Whygons be Whygons.”

Under normal circumstances I’d be miffed to see a perfectly serviceable quip go zinging over the head of its intended victim. In this case, I was counting on Olétte’s unfamiliarity with modern English – despite his earlier use of “humdinger” – to prevent something truly icky from happening to me.

“Your tale was … sufficient; your life is spared,” he said to my surprise. “But I require your black box.” No surprise there. I surrendered the camera and he turned to leave.

I couldn’t believe my stupid luck. I was home free. A dozen prime jpegs of the Miwok god Olétte were etched on my memory stick, safe in my pant pocket. Life was good. Then the god stopped in mid stride and made a half turn.

“One more thing,” he said, and for the first time I saw a gleam in his grey eyes. “As your medicine men are accustomed to saying: ‘Take off your pants.’”

Epperson stokes embers of the heart

Roger Epperson in May of 2006. Photo by Scott Hein.

It was winter. The last ember of sunset burned in the southwest, a shallow dome of scarlet receding tidally into tones of barn-red above Morgan Territory. Eight miles northwest stood the jagged and black contours of Mt. Diablo’s Summit and North Peak. I was standing on the topmost hill in Round Valley Regional Preserve, a place made magnificent through the efforts of a man named Roger Epperson.

As supervisor of Round Valley, Morgan Territory and Black Diamond Mines regional preserves from 1986 to 2008, Epperson bequeathed a body of work that I and tens of thousands of park-goers enjoy, our attention focused on the beauty – not the vision, skill and persistence that made possible our immersion in the beauty.

Epperson died 10 years ago this month in a kayak accident in Hawaii, leaving behind wife Carol Alderdice plus myriad friends and admirers. It’s tempting to exclude myself from this story. I never met Epperson; never felt the ache of his absence. But one thing is certain: I’m one of the people he had in mind when he did his work. I and tens of thousands of hikers, runners, campers and cyclists; exuberant families and solitary pilgrims who visit the places he designed and maintained – we are the people Epperson had in mind. We see him everywhere. “I bequeath myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love,” wrote Walt Whitman. “If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.”

“To remember Roger on the 10th anniversary of his death,” said Alderdice, “our group of friends went on a campout [in Black Diamond Mines on Dec. 8, the date Epperson died]. We were ready to blame Roger for whatever weather we encountered, hoping for anything other than rain. We got fog. A beautiful, wet, thick fog that blanketed the valley, obscuring the ridge tops. It was magical.

“It reminded me of a wet New Year’s Day in the late ’80s, working alone at Black Diamond Mines,” she said. “My assignment from supervisor Roger was to walk through the Stewartville valley, off trail, looking at drainages, picking up litter and noting maintenance needs for future projects. Roger’s love of the land hadn’t really hit me until that day, when I spent hours in the silence of the valley, soaking wet, watching trees drip, manzanita glow in the mist, smelling the wet grass and hearing the occasional hawk cry.”

Bob Doyle, who serves as general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), was a close friend of Epperson since high school. “Roger actually took my ranger job at Black Diamond when I moved to the HQ,” said Doyle. “In addition to all the friends and fun (both of us got to live in funky park residences, me on Diablo and Roger at Black Diamond), we had the incredible opportunity to get paid as young men to explore all the best wild places in East County.”

By the ’90s, when Doyle began spearheading the EBRPD’s acquisition of land (as assistant general manager for Land and Planning), Epperson was making that land optimal for park-goers. The sanctuaries of beauty we now enjoy were once obscure and inaccessible – right up Epperson’s alley.

Roger Epperson in January of 2007. Photo by Bonnie Watkins.

“For me, growing up hiking Mt. Diablo, this was a special ‘local yokel’ treat,” said Doyle. “It was our back yard. The fun was always having Roger at my side to explore every nook and cranny of a new property and old barn or other finds. Roger collected reptiles from a young age so he was always turning over rocks and boards to find a new snake or lizard; always carefully putting them back.

“Roger’s contribution to all those parks,” said Doyle, “is much more than working so hard managing the parks. He loved every parcel, and when we were more than tripling the parks in East County he would always say, ‘Just keep buying them and I’ll keep making them parks’ – cleaning up old refuse piles, reshaping old roads and putting in fences, gates and trails.”

Epperson’s taste for the obscure wasn’t confined to local landscapes. Jim Rease (aka “Roger’s other wife”) remembers his friend’s attraction to what Rease calls The Good Obscure, whether expressed in a passion for rare cars and motorcycles or rare art forms. “Roger and I had a phase when we went to a lot of hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurants,” said Rease, “and watched a lot of black-and-white samurai films with subtitles. We wouldn’t go to the multiplex; we’d go to Japantown.

“Before we’d take a trip to our favorite parks, Roger would research the back roads – always a very circuitous, less-traveled and scenic route. The routes were as good as the destination. We’d take the longer route – maybe an extra hour and a half – just to discover places along the way.

“We’d listen to a lot of music. When we’d take a road trip, Roger would hook up a headphone splitter to overcome the road noise. He’d arrange the CDs in a particular order, or – back in the days of cassettes – he’d record the road-trip soundtrack. It was never random.”

Epperson occupied a special status among his friends. “As our group gathered on the 8th,” said Alderdice, “we all were very aware that it was always Roger who was the glue that held our group together. He had the skill to blend intellectual debate, goofy play, eclectic music, potty humor and naturalist docent at any given gathering. And was he ever funny. Roger never shied away from getting a laugh, even at the expense of his ego.

“He was forever changing the words in songs,” Alderdice remembered. “Creedence Clearwater’s ‘There’s a bad moon on the rise’ became ‘There’s a bathroom on the right’ and Counting Crows’ ‘I belong in the service of the Queen’ became ‘I belong in the cervix of the Queen.’ He made eye contact with you when he sang it for the hundredth time – just to make sure you got it.

“We owned two fake foam bricks that looked incredibly real,” Alderdice added. “Roger delighted in carrying them like they weighed a ton, then throwing them full force at the windshield of arriving guests. Friends, of course.”

The view from Roger Epperson Ridge, Morgan Territory Regional Preserve.

“I miss the way he would convulse in laughter and drop to the floor,” said Rease, who recalled a moment when Epperson, who at the time was wearing shoulder-length hair, was spotted by a friend who hadn’t seen him in a while. “She said, in astonishment, ‘Roger, look at your hair!!’ He got this sad, hurt look on his face, lowered his head, and said, ‘I’ve contracted DHS.’ And the person wondered, ‘What the hell is DHS?’ but said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ And Epperson replied, maintaining his pained expression, ‘Delayed Hippy Syndrome.’”

“He was Puck in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” said Doyle. “Lighthearted. Not just fun loving; he was the creator of the fun. He’d walk into my office, blow past the secretary, come in and do whatever he wanted. He’d sit at my desk with his feet up on it – muddy shoes – completely inappropriate. I really miss that.”

To his friends, Epperson’s death left a void impossible to fill. “Bob and I are always cursing Roger for having the gall to die and wreck everything,” said Rease. “We still do our guy trips. But every time we go to do something, we’re thinking “put another chair at the table, set another place there.”

Take a trail map at the Morgan Territory staging area and you can find your way to Roger Epperson Ridge, its gentle undulations flowing toward Mt. Diablo like ocean swells. On the north terminus of the ridge stands a monument. The inscription chiseled into the stone reads “In memory of Roger Epperson (1954-2008) in recognition of his significant and lasting contributions to the East Bay Regional Park District and the landscapes he loved.”

Back at Round Valley, as I watched the final ember of sunset dissolve into dusk, more monuments to this extraordinary man came to mind: the embers that burn in the hearts of his friends, embers that burn long after the flame died, testifying to the light and heat the flame radiated. 

And so are the palpable monuments of trails, roads, campgrounds and benches where vistas are framed and moments are etched in memory. It’s fitting that Epperson’s friends, to remember his life, roam these places he nurtured. Being out there in that glory is where we feel most alive, and most at peace: these vistas, these moments, enhanced by this man. Peace, Roger.

Golden age of lunar equilibrium

New Year’s Moon 2010, when reflected sunlight made the quarter-million-mile journey to Earth and was refracted through a thin layer of cloud above Brentwood, California.

Like an angel of heaven, she’s a creature of reflected glory; you can gaze on her and not be blinded. She’s a lesser power, yet she rules the domain of night unchallenged, delivering us from darkness but troubling our imaginations. She can blot out the Sun or blush the color of blood. She has conjured images of werewolves and goddesses; fascinated ancient astronomers and enticed modern astronauts. The Moon – Earth’s eternal mistress.

In the course of roughly 300 solo night hikes, most guided by moonlight, I’ve seen Luna in countless moods from countless angles: the slenderest of crescents suspended featherlike in the delicate updraft of dawn, or as fragments of pale gold flashing randomly through gaps in trees as I stride through the forest. I’ve seen her as a pearl glowing from the Milky Way’s river bed as clouds flow past her like leaves caught by the current. And I’ve seen her in eclipse, an angry queen robed in red, majestic and terrible.

No matter your take on the Moon – adoration, trepidation or indifference – consider yourself lucky she’s up there. Without the Moon in our equation, Earth would be devoid of human life.

Our Moon is unique. Several other planets in our solar system are circled by moons (Jupiter’s number 79), but none boasts a moon so large relative to the parent planet. And that’s good for us. Over the eons, the Moon’s mass has exerted a stabilizing force on Earth’s 23½-degree axis of rotation. Without that consistent tilt, Earth would resemble Mars, wobbling like a top in collapse. Earth’s axis wobbles only slightly, allowing our planet to develop consistent climate patterns that make possible the development of larger, more complex and fragile organisms – organisms like you and me.

The Moon hasn’t always been a pearlescent orb subtly gracing our sky. Fast rewind 4½ billion years: Earth is a red planet, not blue; a molten globe seething in the blackness of space. Then it happens: Earth is sideswiped by a planetoid half its size, which shears off and spews into Earth orbit a huge glob of that magma mantle. The debris forms a ring, and through the force of gravity gradually coalesces into a sphere.

In that original state, the Moon was the ultimate NEO (near-Earth object). The modern-day Moon orbits Earth at a distance of about 240,000 miles. The primordial Moon’s distance from Earth was a scant 12,000 to 18,000 miles. Imagine the Moon 15 times larger in the sky than she appears today.

Moon over Murchio Gap, Mt. Diablo State Park.

But nothing in the universe stands still. In the ages since that colossal impact, the distance between Earth and Moon has been increasing. Right now is a good time to be alive: viewed from Earth, the Moon and Sun are roughly the same size, providing us the awe-inspiring vision of the solar eclipse. Eventually the receding Moon will appear smaller than the Sun, and the solar eclipse will be a vague memory buried deep in human DNA.

One image buried deep in our DNA is the face of the Moon – “the Man in the Moon.” Since our ancestors first looked up at that haunting image in the night sky, we’ve seen only one hemisphere of our planet’s satellite – what we call the “near side” – right up until A.D. 1959, when unmanned spaceships snapped the first photos of the far side. In December of 1968, human eyes finally gazed at the far side as the Apollo 8 astronauts made the first manned lunar orbit.

Ever wonder why only one side of the Moon faces Earth? Well, just as the Moon has stabilized Earth’s axis of rotation, Earth has stabilized the Moon’s period of rotation. As the eons rolled along, Earth’s mass slowed Luna’s rotation until it equaled her period of revolution. The Moon is now tidally locked (“phase-locked”) with Earth: it takes Luna 27.3 days to rotate once on her axis and 27.3 days to revolve once around Earth, preventing us earthbound Moon mavens from viewing the heavily cratered far side.

This week, the crescent Moon – the bow of the goddess Diana – is waxing low in the west at dusk. By the first week of November, early risers get to view the mirror image: a waning crescent low in the east before sunrise. In either case, tonight or the morning of November 4, step outside and enjoy the spectacle of “earthlight”: the light of the Sun caroming off our planet and flooding the lunar disc with a muted radiance.

If you say it’s crazy to roll out of bed early on a cold November morning, I say: exactly – it’s the golden age of Luna. Earth’s Moon. A good time for lunacy.

Raven talks man onto the ledge

A nightmare in three parts

Photo by LongQuattro/iStock/Getty Images


The sound startled me, as if someone had crept up from behind and flung out a sheet of canvas like a bedspread. In that exposed and windswept place, it could be only one thing: the sound of a bird’s wing. A large bird. I turned and saw a raven’s silhouette disappear behind the near foreground of sage and chamise; heard a raven’s crusty caw swing west behind a cluster of buckbrush and trace an arc southward. I followed the bird with my ears.

But before the raven swung behind the chaparral foliage I registered a disturbing impression: the raven was way too large to be real. A normal raven’s wingspan is a hair short of 5 feet. This thing’s wingspan was at least 10 feet. I’d been T-boned by an optical illusion or I was in for an eventful evening.

The raven reappeared about 50 feet away, sailing on a northwest wind:  a black, eerily-large presence cast on the purple-grey backdrop of Marsh Creek Canyon. Suddenly it wheeled toward me, hung at the wind’s edge and spewed a stream of staccato clicks like the noise of a woodpecker hammering on a resonant sea shell.

I reached for my camera, flipped the power switch, boosted the magnification and lowered the exposure a click – all while keeping eyes riveted to the raven. It hung there, kiting. I raised the camera to my eye and peered into the viewfinder. The raven was gone.

Twenty minutes earlier I’d settled into the sandstone contours of what I call Wek-wek Ledge in Morgan Territory late in the day in late January. Since the trail skirting the ledge is named Prairie Falcon, I named the ledge after the Bay Miwok word for Prairie Falcon: Wek-wek, which mimicks the sound of the falcon’s call. Prairie Falcon was the son of Molluk the Condor and grandson of Olétte, Coyote-man and creator of the world, confirming the rumor that the Miwok gods had practiced flagrantly unbiblical sex. All bets were off; these gods might be crazy.

Due west a mile and a half across the canyon rose the apex of Highland Ridge, elevation 2,300’, masking the low Sun. Above the ridge hovered swirling bands of lenticular clouds the color of cream atop flowing down to peach. My perch stood at 1,950 feet above sea level and fell 200 feet nearly straight down a sandstone escarpment into the steep east slope of the canyon. The canyon, carved by the headwaters of Marsh Creek, traced a snaking descent from below my perch to the foundations of Mt. Diablo and its twin peaks seven miles north.

The gibbous Moon had just cleared the foliage behind me; the Sun would set in a half hour. By the time moonlight would overpower the light of dusk and set Mt. Diablo aglow in pale pearl, I’d be headed for a place on the far side of the canyon: Roger Epperson Ridge, its bare undulations cresting beneath Diablo’s North Peak like ocean swells, lit by the Moon. The wind faded to a breeze. I closed my eyes.

When I opened them I realized I wasn’t alone. To my right, 10 feet away, sat someone staring at the sunset sky. My scalp turned to ice. The stranger had popped onto the ledge and sat down without making a sound. Or had I fallen asleep?

He wore a black poncho; its wide hood pooled on his shoulders. The garment, stippled grey in a design suggesting feathers, cascaded over his knees; its ragged hem brushed the floor of the ledge. The man’s skin was ebony, his chin long and thin. A goatee spread to thick black throat hair. He cocked his head my way like a bird, with a quickness that made me flinch. His eyes were small and circular, his irises bright amber, his pupils large. That’s when I knew I was in trouble. Those were bird eyes.

“Beautiful sunset!” I said with strained enthusiasm.

He jerked his head back west. “Beautiful” was his reply. But the word wasn’t enunciated; it was croaked. He pulled back his hood and black hair jetted back like feathers. Damn.

If ignorance isn’t bliss, I don’t know what it is. Were I ignorant of Native American myths I’d be merely hyperventilating. What I knew of those myths graced me with the calm of certainty that I was about to die a picturesque death. In the silence of familiar dusk on a familiar ledge above a familiar canyon I realized I was sitting in the presence of Kókol, raven god of the Native American Volvon.

Or I was dreaming. Before I could fully form the thought “I vote for the dreaming thing,” Raven said, “Do you have the time?”

Were I given 100 chances to guess what he would say, “Do you have the time?” would have snuck in at around 83.

I looked at my watch. “Yes. It’s 5:37.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“So what time is it?”

“The time is always now. Right now.”

Raven delivered “right now” with such authority that I swallowed hard and poked my hand into my pack for my flask of bourbon. Dreaming or not, I needed a jolt of liquid anesthesia. I threw back my head, felt the spirits burn down my throat and grabbed my hiking pole. In its folded state it made a respectable club. I might have little chance against Raven’s assault, but it would be a fighting chance.

For a moment we sat there, Kókol eyeing me more in amusement than malevolence. “What is it that you drink?” he asked.

“Bourbon,” I replied. “It’s a barrel-aged distilled spirit that –”

With an outward thrust of his left hand, Raven cut me off. Then he dropped all but his index and middle fingers – more talons than fingers – and curled them back and forth as if to say “gimme some.”

I tossed Raven the flask. Still staring at me, he unscrewed the cap with a practiced deftness and took a long quaff, letting the bourbon swirl in languor down his throat. He took another swig and said, “Don’t imagine that my fondness for this liquid offers you any ray of hope.”

So discombobulated were my senses that “ray of hope” flashed through my brain as Ray of Hope – a name, like Joan of Arc. Then I knew what I must do to prolong my stay of execution. The Miwok believe Raven is a jokester.

“I’m not Irish,” I said. “So if you insist on calling me Ray O’Hope, I insist on calling you Baril O’Monkeys.”

Photo by xochicalco/iStock/Getty Images


Raven’s eyes blinked and his head shook, as if he’d swallowed vinegar, not bourbon. He whipped a glance at me, paused a moment, then burst into a hybrid caw and snort. He seemed to smile – the man-bird face was hard to read – and said, “No. I insist on calling you Patakasu.”

A long silence followed. Had I given Raven the impression I was some sort of Bay Miwok linguist? Then he croaked in exasperation, “Patakasu: tiny ant that bites hard.” And leaning toward me, Raven rasped, “Surely you can bite harder.”

What on earth did “surely you can bite harder” mean?

“I challenge you to Kamata,” said the god.


“Game of risk. You believe yourself clever; you believe you can abuse me better than I you? Ha! You suffer from delusions of adequacy.”

It took a moment for the sarcasm to sink in. Hey, not bad for someone for whom English is decidedly a second language. Then it struck me: if Raven is a jokester, could this be the Kamata? A Silly Insults contest?

“You call me Baril O’Monkeys,” he croaked. “But since you are human, Ips O’Facto, I call you Mired in Illusion.”

Yikes. The Volvon god speaks Latin. Fine. If he wants a Silly Insults contest, I’m in. But “Mired in Illusion”?

I leaped back into the fray: “Your voice is the mating call of two pieces of chalk,” which had the virtue of being accurate as well as descriptive.

Raven shook his head with the rapidity of a dog shaking off water. “Your insult is Lokni,” he said and paused, staring a hole through a spot precisely in the middle of my forehead. Then his pupils rolled upward. “Rain dripping through a small hole in the roof.”

Not the most withering criticism I’ve heard. Depended on your domicile, I suppose. We’ve got the roofing guy’s cell number on our fridge.

My turn. “Speaking as an outsider, what’s your take on ‘wit’?” I asked.

Raven snapped his head down and sideways, absorbing the drift of the quip. “Ah, I see,” he said. “Mere Notaku.” I shrugged in ignorance. “You are the growl of a lazy bear as I pass by,” he said and flung the flask vaguely in my direction. I dove for it, scarily close to the edge of the ledge.

I hung on to the flask – not the ledge. The first few vertical feet, as I road-rashed my way over small but edgy speed-bumps of sandstone, were exhilarating. No time to pee the pants; time only for a lunge at a scraggly manzanita sapling anchored in the escarpment. It held.

I looked up and saw the silhouette of Kókol looming above the horizon of the ledge. “Need you my help, Patakasu?” he said.

When your life hangs by a handhold, it’s best not to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “In all likelihood,” I said after careful thought. Is the contest still in session? Better take no chances.

“I challenge you to a Silly Names kamata!” I yelled while clinging to the manzanita like Harold Lloyd clinging to the minute hand of a clock 12 stories above a New York City street. Silly Names: in a world populated by D’Claude Katz and Dr. Loki Skylizard, I shouldn’t run out of material.

“Call me Claire Voyant,” I said, “but I’m about to fall to my death.”

“Well played,” croaked Raven. “And call me Miss Ann Thrope, for I might not care.”

The silhouette of Raven’s head disappeared. I heard a swoosh of poncho and a crunch of sandstone. Raven reappeared, closer and on his knees. He held out his hand. My flask was firmly clamped in my left hand; the flora of deliverance in my right. I lunged upward with my left, assuming Raven would catch my wrist. What he caught was the flask, picking it cleanly out of my hand. My arm swung back down and I nearly lost hold of the manzanita. I could feel it begin to pull away from the rock face. Raven threw back his head and put the flask to his lips – if you could call them lips.

“Help me up!” I yelled. “Help me up, you Fractal Pterodactyl!” was the best I could do under the circumstances.   

“C.C. Señor,” Raven cawed cheerily and spread his arms. The poncho billowed into wings. He leaped off the ledge and vanished above and behind me. I felt a talon like a curved dagger slide beneath my left armpit; three talons grasp my right shoulder. Suddenly I was hurtling upward, twisting and landing atop the ledge with a lung-scrunching thwomp.

I hoisted myself to an elbow. The light of dusk had contracted to a small dome of coral in the southwest. Below, moonlight like a tide began filling the depths of the canyon. A flotilla of high clouds drifted over from the east, dimming the Moon. In the lustrous but muted light I couldn’t tell if Raven’s mantle had returned from feathers to fabric.

What I could tell: Raven was quaffing bourbon like a guy about to get cut off by – well, by any bartender on Earth. “You are now in my debt,” he said, referring, I suppose, to saving my life. Never mind that my dangling from the escarpment was entirely Raven’s fault.

“But,” he said squinting and eying me sideways, “‘Fractal Pterodactyl’?!”

“That was a stretch,” I conceded, still panting and groaning.

Ah, well. Since I haven’t been able to shake this stubbornly vivid nightmare, I might as well swing with it. Who knows? I might find a way to avert catastrophe and suffer mere fiasco. The thing training its neon-amber eyes on me, whom the Volvon call Kókol, evidently is in no danger of dematerializing. I’m stuck with him.

Photo by Maksim Ratomskikh/iStock/Getty Images


“I accept your challenge,” said Raven, slurring the words. “Make it a Silly Sobriquet kamata. Now compose yourself or I’ll dub you The Archdeacon of Freakin’.”

Oh, no; here we go: nicknames. Okey dokey. If Raven’s getting drunk, it’s time to fry his circuits and make a snappy exit.

“Oh, yeah?! I dub you The Sibyl of the Crossover Dribble,” I said, more or less at random. Raven’s neck convulsed; his mouth spewed at least two ounces of bourbon into the moonlit air. Waste of a good small-batch product. And a pretty hackneyed sight gag.

Raven dragged himself to a small boulder and lay against it, head down. In a tone of queasy contentment he brawked, “You are truly The Marquis of Obloquy.” And his belch echoed down the canyon.

I waited what seemed a century – probably eight seconds – to see if Raven would raise his head and demand a comeback; to see if he was still conscious. No movement; no sound. I waited some more, what seemed an eternity – probably a minute. Raven began snoring.

Then, of all the evening’s remarkable events, the most remarkable occurred: I stayed. Instead of high-tailing it out of there, I sat and watched the final embers of light in the west die in a smudge of violet. I traced the canyon’s charcoal course north to a mountain paling in the slow crescendo of lunar light. A great-horned owl’s whoo-hoo hoo hoo hooooo rose from far below like smoke in a gentle updraft.

I looked at the dark heap of Raven slumped against the boulder, an odd posture for the god reputed to interpret visions and reveal mysteries deeply hidden. What insights had I gained from this crazy deity? What wisdom lurked in his dismissive quips?

An intense sensation of buoyancy rose from my core to my extremities. My bones felt light, as if hollow. I stood, walked to the edge of the ledge, spread my arms and bent my knees. Poised to launch. It seemed perfectly reasonable: surely the canyon’s dense air would support me. I leaned over the ledge’s edge and took a look straight down.

Then it hit me: I’d hiked to Wek-wek Ledge a hundred times; every time I stood on the drop-off, my knees would wobble and I’d retreat. Not now. I realized, to my astonishment, that I wasn’t afraid.

Were this a dream, I could choose to fly like a bird, push off the ledge like a cliff diver, see the umbrella-shaped crowns of oaks speed toward me, then recede as I thrashed upward on impossible wings. Was I a man who fell asleep and dreamed he was a raven? When I awaken, will I wonder: am I a raven dreaming I’m a man? I leaned forward and gazed into the canyon once more. The bleached branches of buckeyes glowed in the delicate white fire of lunar light.

Decision time: should I fall to my knees, crab-walk my way back from the edge and take flight down the trail, forever wondering if I could have taken flight off the ledge? Or should I take the plunge and risk doing something truly interesting with the last six seconds of my life?

A bank of cloud passed beneath the Moon, throwing a shroud over the ledge. I stretched out my arms; from my sleeves flowed the faint form of feathers. I couldn’t be sure. From beneath the back of my jacket protruded feathery wisps vaguely resembling a tail. But it was dark. Then I watched myself, as if from a distance, take three steps backward and without hesitation two long leaps forward.

Arms spread, I floated into the canyon’s moist air, falling with the drowsiness of a leaf in autumn. But I was a bird, and knew that by the time I reached the treetops I’d have lost the momentum needed to make a swift ascent; I’d be forced to flap furiously back up. I yanked my arms back to my torso and became a projectile.

My body, whatever it had become, obeyed laws of physics. I gained speed toward the treetops, spread my arms and began carving a shallow arc upward like a tower-buzzing stunt pilot pulling 6 G’s. When I finally lost momentum and started flapping my way back up to the ledge, fear overcame the urge to explore – fear of sinking so far into the fantasy of being a raven that I’d become a raven. Permanently.

Besides, flapping is hard work.

Photo by Homunkulus28/iStock/Getty Images

Exhausted, I spotted the ledge, overshot my landing spot and nearly crashed into Kókol. The racket of skidding on sandstone and plowing into the crackly sage didn’t matter. Raven was still out for the count.

I grunted my way to a standing position. Time to get outta here. But first I would get the last word and in terms the jokester would understand. “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening – but this wasn’t it,” I whispered, quoting Groucho as I tiptoed past Raven.

That settled it: I must be dreaming. No way in a waking state would I risk rousing a drunk demigod. A lightness of spirit spread over me. “I know the debt’s in arrears,” I sang softly to myself, paraphrasing the Dead song. “Raven’s not been fed in years. It’s even worse than it appears.” The ledge glowed in Luna’s silver sheen. “But it’s alright.”

From behind I heard a rustle. “Don’t be so sure,” croaked the god. I stopped. “Tonight’s ledge merely prepares you for tomorrow’s.” And a whoosh shattered the stillness. I looked up and saw a thousand edges of feather reflect a brief but searing flame of moonlight, heard massive wings whap straight up and cut back toward the canyon. Something heavy struck my shoulder with a splat and I realized Raven would get the last word.

Bird poop. With a whiff of bourbon.


Memories of Dad painted in pastels

On my desk stands a photograph of my father sketching a snowbound farmhouse in Trondheim, Norway. It was 1938, and Victor R. Erickson was a 19-year-old art apprentice.

Thirty-seven years later Dad led me and brother Randy through the fjords, where we craned our necks at thousand-foot waterfalls rushing off mountains vaulting straight out of the sea; absorbed the sonic shellacking of tons of winter melt thundering through boulder-strewn creeks. We were never out of earshot of the whoosh of water, never out of eyeshot of terrain hewn by the axes of stone giants. It was clear Dad was thrilled by our thrill.

Our fathers. How can we be objective about men so powerfully ingrained in our psyche? What tribute to them can run the gauntlet of emotion accrued over years of affection and resentment, submission and defiance? That godlike sheen they cast on our infancy gets tarnished in no time. In toddlerhood we have no choice but to submit to the king; by adolescence we have no choice but to mount an insurrection.

By adulthood we attain, if we’re lucky, a balanced view: our father is human, the equal of every righteous and flawed human in the history of our race. He’s an icon, but he’s us. In the cosmic scheme: just another guy. In our private scheme: something between a retired dictator and favorite teacher. He no longer calls the shots but his impact resonates in our bones like the toll of a bell.

The view west from Eagle Peak, Mt. Diablo. January 19, 2011.

We can’t be blamed for harboring illusions about our father, for mistaking the honeyed or bitter taste of memory for insight. Once in a while, however, we’re blessed with a vision that puts the memory in perspective.

It was 2011, eight years after Dad’s death. The month was January but the air mimicked April. The mercury had climbed to the upper 60s and I had climbed to the 2,370-foot apex of Mt. Diablo’s Eagle Peak. Far below, stretching west 30 miles to the coast, fog had settled into the hollows, painted the landscape in the peach and teal pastels of evening. A lariat of lenticular cloud spiraled above the Berkeley hills. Far below, the undulations of Clayton, Concord and Walnut Creek slithered through the mist like a squadron of sea serpents.

Something in the human spirit leaps in response to art that imitates nature. “Wow. That painting of sunset makes me feel like I’m right there.” We value representational art – especially when the subject represented inspires awe. But sometimes the awe-inspiring subject turns the tables and represents art. I stood on Eagle Peak snapping shots of a scene swept by the watercolor brush of fog and setting sun. My camera was documenting a painting. And my thoughts turned to Dad and that photo.

One of his retirement ambitions was to paint in earnest. As a commercial artist dogged by deadlines, as a father of four labor-intensive children and as a resident of the flatlands of Chicago – far from the monumentality of Norway – he dreamed of the day he could set up an easel along Sognefjord and capture the mystery of light and shadow shifting through the furrowed face of a mountain beneath the slow rotation of sky.

But his choice of media was curious. I remember hearing, way back in the ’70s, of his desire to concentrate on watercolors. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but the watercolor aesthetic was an odd fit. Here was a man of sharp edges and boldly outlined borders. No grey areas clouded his outlook; no pastel ambiguities. If you’d heard him preach on the state of the world, you’d have pegged him for a practitioner of the black-and-white philosophy of pen and ink on Bristol board.

But before Dad found time to break free of the grind and set up his easel, something happened. Misery with a twist of irony. His eyesight began failing, and his superhumanly steady hand began trembling – macular degeneration plus a symptom of onset Parkinson’s. The penmanship of his handwritten letters, once silky perfection, became increasingly contorted.

Though he never complained, the loss must have hit him hard. His watercolor dream would never be fulfilled; he’d never get to pass along in subtle washes of color his love of the natural world. What he passed along he passed in genes and words and adventures outdoors: the urge to stalk and share the wonder.

Why do we so tightly embrace the vision of an afterlife? Is it to see our loved ones in the future? I can think of another reason: so that I can see right now, can picture right now, the artist known on Earth as Victor R. Erickson – with steady hand and penetrating eye – expressing in images the mystery of searing light and inscrutable shadow shifting through the landscapes of eternity.

Mom metaphors struggle to bridge the gap

I feel her embrace as I walk the fog-wreathed hollows of the Vaqueros Hills in March; catch a whiff of her fragrance in buckbrush blossoms on Murchio Gap in April. The pitch of her laughter is on my mind in May, when the air in Mitchell Canyon timbrellates with a thousand bird calls. And as I roam the exposed hilltops of Highland Ridge in June, I imagine the southwest breeze as her breath reigniting the embers of my spirit.

It’s fitting that Mother’s Day falls in spring, when birth and beauty and nurturing warmth fill the air. As a metaphor, spring helps bridge the gap between memory and the present moment. But try describing your mother’s impact on you, and metaphors fall short. If metaphors are comparisons, what our mothers mean to us is beyond compare.

No fog-wreathed hollow could have nursed me back to health as Mom did when as a kid I suffered from rheumatic fever. No bird calls could have stimulated my interest in astronomy by giving me binoculars for my birthday. It’s correct figuratively and literally to call Yosemite’s awe-inspiring mass of granite called Half Dome “unwavering.” It’s not eroding in a hurry. But unlike Mom, Half Dome could never show me unwavering loyalty and encouragement all these years, despite my deserving less. “Mother Nature” is an equivocal image. Like unwavering Half Dome, nature can represent a good mother. But Half Dome is indifferent to my well being. Mom could never be that.

Ella Erickson in 1938.

Ella Erickson grew up on a farm in Klevenville, Wisconsin, and her love for the natural world – the open sky, the creek she loved to explore – influenced my desire to connect with nature. Even now, from her 10th-floor view of Lake Morton in Florida, she reverts to farm-girl lingo when describing the floating swans and pelicans as “critters.”    

As a kid raised in the city and suburbs I never brushed a cow or plucked a chicken. I was never required to collect eggs or shove a hay bale down a hole in a ceiling. As a teen I never rode a horse bareback. As an adult I never served in the Women’s Marine Corps (I couldn’t pass the physical). But Mom did, and was stationed in Washington, D.C. during World War II while waiting for the man who would be my father to return from the campaign in Italy.

Mom was a working woman. She raised four kids while holding demanding jobs at Wheaton College and Central DuPage Hospital in Illinois. But she carved out time to pursue her passion for reading, which inspired me to crack open books that lured me into realms of wonder. The particular aroma of Wheaton’s Adams Memorial Library – a musty mélange of wood, leather and old paper – is etched deeply in memory. Take a wild guess who chauffeured me, for years, to the library.

Mom stood beside me in our front yard the night of my 12th birthday as I trained my brand-new binoculars on the Milky Way: stars behind stars dissolving into a haze of farther stars. I later learned that as a kid, Mom would step outside at night, lie against an incline near her house and gaze at the heavens. Nine decades later, in her east-facing apartment, she’s up before dawn, savoring those same lights. In our phone conversations she’ll ask about the celestial wonders she observes. My ability to provide answers is her accomplishment, too.

In 2019 Ella Erickson turns 99. Her voice is less strong than before; less fluid. But in it I hear the voice I’ve known from the beginning, a voice for which metaphors struggle to bridge the gap: a voice warm as the wind that swirls through Murphy Meadow in May, gentle as the water that flows down High Creek in March, uplifting as the ruby bursts of clarkia blossoms adorning Castle Ridge in June. A voice – and a woman behind the voice – like spring.

A rattler in the bramble flashes its patented glare in Mt. Diablo’s Back Creek Canyon.

Unfazed by the fangs

The man, outward bound, reached for the gate at the Round Valley trailhead. Then he paused and said, “I hear there are rattlesnakes out here. Is it safe to hike?”

Inward bound, I said, “Yep. I’ve taken a couple hundred hikes out here and spotted precisely two rattlers. Besides, It’s not easy to get bitten by a rattler. It’s possible – but you’ve got to work at it.”

As the solstice approaches, and summer’s sizzles sets in, I’m struck by the number of folks singing the following tune: “Oh, I’d like to go hiking, but hey, there are rattlesnakes are out there. I’ll take a pass.”

While no one can be blamed for spurning the opportunity to get snakebit, my experience with rattlers cuts the other way. My problem with rattlesnakes: they slither away before I can get a good snapshot.

Trust me, rattlesnake bites come in only two flavors: carelessness and foolhardiness. The careless hiker thinks “Ah, that looks like a comfortable boulder … with some sort of, hmmm, squiggly thing on it” and proceeds to take a seat right beside Mr. Rattler. The foolhardy hiker thinks, “I’d like to get a tight photo of Mr. Rattler. I wonder how close he’ll let me get.”

Popular mythology puts the Northern Pacific rattlesnake on the ornery quotient somewhere between Attila the Hun and Chef Gordon Ramsay. The reality is more prosaic. Sure, the rattler wields intimidating incisors, but it’ll use them on a human only if it senses a threat and only at close range. The overriding principles in dealing with a rattlesnake: be aware and remain calm. And by all means, do not attempt to pet it.

A non-venomous gopher snake hisses a warning at Los Vaqueros Watershed.

First you need to spot the critter and identify it as a rattler. A rattler’s cunning camouflage makes it hard to spot even at close range. As you round a bend or crest a hill, make a visual sweep of the trail ahead before diverting your attention to scenic splendor. When rock climbing, don’t grab a handhold till you’re certain what’s up there. And watch where you sit. You might have company.

Chances are you’ll run across a different slithering creature out on the trail, a creature that’s paid a heavy price for its resemblance to the rattler: the non-venomous gopher snake. The key to distinguishing it from the rattler lies in the head and tail. The rattlesnake’s head is a large, triangular wedge, and its tail ends in the rattle. The gopher snake’s head is smaller and more rounded than a rattler's, and its tail is pointed.

One of the gopher snake’s stratagems for warding off large creatures is to impersonate a rattlesnake. When a gopher snake feels cornered, it’ll hiss, flatten its head and shake its tail in the grass like a maraca player in a rumba band. It’s a clever but sometimes counterproductive adaptation. When the large creature in question is a human bent on killing a rattler, the gopher snake can be its own worst enemy.

Should you find a snake commandeering your picnic area or campsite, keep your cool and get the creature’s ID. If it’s a rattlesnake, don’t chase it off. It might return. And don’t try to kill it. You’re putting yourself in danger – and breaking the law. Notify park staffers; they have the expertise to remove it.

Let’s say you get unlucky and run afoul of the fangs. Again, don’t panic; call 911. If you’re in a cell phone dead zone, send someone for help and sit down, keeping the bitten area below heart level. If you’re on a solo hike, you should walk – not run – back to civilization. The puncture marks of a rattlesnake bite will feel like they’re burning. No burning sensation suggests that a different snake has bitten you, or that the rattler (as sometimes happens) didn’t inject any venom.

A coiling rattler eyes me with suspicion on Black Diamond Mines’ Corcoran Mine Trail.

There are two misconceptions about rattler bites. The first is that a snakebite kit will save you. Don’t count on it. Applying tourniquets, cutting around the puncture marks and sucking out the venom – these can cause more harm (such as nasty infections) than the venom itself. A rattler will rarely inject a human with a large enough dose of venom to cause death. It’s a skilled hunter. It knows it can’t swallow you, so it doesn’t waste precious venom warding you off. At least 25 percent of poisonous snake bites involve no release of venom.

This relates to our second misconception, that a young rattlesnake packs more potent venom than its elder. It doesn’t. But it can be more dangerous precisely because it’s young. Lacking expertise as a hunter, the young rattler will prolong the injection of venom into its victim. A small rattler looks less menacing than a large one, but don’t be fooled; don’t get cute and try to pick it up. If it sinks its fangs into you, you could get a full dose.

And don’t let these dire scenarios deter you from getting out onto the trail. Every single rattler I’ve run across in my wanderings has left me alone. That’s because I left it alone. Armed with knowledge, aware of your surroundings, relax and enjoy your hike. You’re out there for the scenery, right? You’re out there to look for things. Well, now you have one more thing to look for.

Rooted in mystery of mortality

A quartet of my gnarly friends, clockwise from upper left: Knight, Alien, Oliphaunt and Samurai.

I arrive in darkness. And when dawn breaks, I remain in darkness – the darkness of fog smothering Round Valley’s topmost hill like a charcoal-grey shroud. As impending sunrise turns the shroud from charcoal to ash, skeletons appear: the bony arms and fingers of trees. Most are dormant, lost in dreams of burgundy buds and emerald leaves.

But some of the skeletons sleep for eternity: trees decimated by disease or blasted by lightning. My gnarly friends. Anchored in the landscape like historical markers, Oliphaunt and Samurai wait with wry detachment as I trudge Round Valley’s hills to pay my respects. I go out of my way on Coyote Ridge to check on the progress of Alien’s decomposition. Six years ago the twisted intimate I call Knight (à la chess piece) lost his snout to the force of gravity.

Dead trees provide more than habitat for lichens, mosses and lizards; they provide companionship amid the solitude of the trail. Make no mistake: the solitude is good. On the trail I escape the noise of communal life and enter, as Thomas Mann put it, the “mental experiences that are at once more intense and less articulate than those of a gregarious man.” Gregariousness can be jarring. Who wants to hear campers and hikers hootin’ and hollerin’ in the placid grandeur of Murphy Meadow, or on Mt. Diablo’s Prospector’s Gap overlooking the mist-flooded hollows of Morgan Territory in the pale violet of dawn? No, the silence of trees – even dead ones – makes good company.

My first encounter with a gnarly friend occurred on a creepy moonlit night at Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin in the mid-’80s. I dubbed the gnarly one Smaug. A 60-foot pin oak, Smaug had toppled parallel to a path snaking through a dark ravine and been smithied by years of wind, ice and rot into a giant reptile. Under the extreme contrast of moonlight and shadow, Smaug’s sunken eye sockets and uncannily symmetric ears – two broken limbs angling off the trunk – stopped me in my tracks.

The ancient bristlecone pines of Inyo National Forest. For Methuselah's protection, its location is kept a secret. Photo by hlnicaise/iStock/Getty Images.

But whether in darkness or the light of day, the image of a dead tree touches a nerve. It’s a statue on exhibit, yet unlike the statues fashioned by human hands, it was once alive. Suddenly the trail becomes a graveyard where the bones of the departed aren’t buried but put on display.

A dead tree is disturbing in another way: trees are assumed to represent the gold standard of longevity. From its vista atop the White Mountains of Inyo National Forest, a bristlecone pine named Methuselah has felt the rain lash and the wind scour its branches, has watched impassively as the winter stars inched overhead, for 4,850 years. Some trees will go on living into the next Ice Age, long after the human race has abandoned the planet. Or vice versa.

Yet all trees, like the creatures we imagine they mimic, are mortal. Their transfiguration might take a century to complete, but the end is the same for all organic creatures. Today we marvel at the fluky artistry that makes a monster out of dead wood. In a decade the nutrient cycle, aided by weather’s dull chisel, will have sculpted the finely etched carcass into something that reminds us of nothing. In a century even the wood will be gone, digested like flesh into the shrewd economy of Earth. How readily in this voracious universe does food for thought become food for worms.

Old One greets the winter sunrise atop Round Valley Regional Preserve.

A blue oak can live up to 400 years. On Round Valley’s topmost hill stands a blue oak I call Old One. Her trunk, bent by centuries of prevailing northwest wind, points toward the winter sunrise. Her canopy forms a perfect umbrella of limbs reducing fractally to twigs. Whenever I arrive at my summit sanctuary I lay my pole and pack on lichen-spattered boulders, walk up to Old One and say hello. I place my palm on her trunk, hoping to sense a pulse measured not in seconds but years.

“A tree says: ‘My strength is trust,’” wrote Herman Hesse. “‘I know nothing of my fathers, I know nothing of the thousand children that every year spring from me. I live out the secret of my seed to the utmost end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.’”

I don’t own Old One. Though located on a remote hill, she’s doubtless been admired by many hikers. Perhaps some day, as my ashes are absorbed into her roots and partake of her holy labor, she will care for me. For now, I’m grateful to accept her shelter from the wind as we bend together toward the winter sunrise. Arriving in darkness; departing in light.




Saving splendor in the nearby middle of nowhere

Cattle crop the frosty grass on an autumn morning in Murphy Meadow.

There was a time in East Contra Costa – before the arrival of Welsh miners and wheat magnates, Mexican farm laborers and Midwest snow fugitives; yes, even before humanoids crossed the land bridge of the Bering Straight, headed 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 nameless hills cradled a nameless valley like a mother’s arms.

That valley now has a name. Its splendor is invaluable but not inevitable. Thirty years ago, these acres were in danger of becoming a garbage dump.

Those of us who tread the trails of Round Valley Regional Preserve rarely meditate on the people who made the trails possible. We focus on falcons and flowers, distant ridges and intimate ravines. But those trails don’t burst into existence out of the blue. They’re envisioned, paid for, shaped and maintained by the efforts of many.

Two key players in the rescue of Round Valley are Jim Murphy and Bob Doyle. In the mid-1980s, farmer and rancher Murphy – grandson of Irish immigrant Tom Murphy, who in 1873 bought the land we call Round Valley – learned that Contra Costa County had nominated his beloved 700-acre spread as a candidate for landfill status. East Bay Regional Park District General Manager Doyle, who back then served as the district’s assistant general manager of land acquisition, was tasked with convincing Murphy to sell the land to the EBRPD.

“All I knew was that he’d shot at somebody,” said Doyle, stipulating that Murphy had fired into the sky. “They were going to do the peripheral canal in the ’70s, looking to acquire all this area for the big reservoir. Jim Murphy wouldn’t let the biologists on his property. He loved this valley – no question about it – got very protective of it.”

The rusted remains of a harvester combine belonging to rancher Jim Murphy, former owner of Round Valley, are among the many vintage farm implements scattered across Murphy Meadow.

Doyle’s first trip into the valley wasn’t his first view of it. “I’d looked down on it from Morgan Territory and lusted after it,” said Doyle. Among the park’s many virtues: it’s the only fully enclosed valley in the EBRPD – a district that operates the largest urban regional park system in the nation.

Round Valley is also a strategic piece of the area’s zoological puzzle. It occupies the center of a wildlife corridor that runs from Shell Ridge in Walnut Creek all the way through Mt. Diablo, Morgan Territory, Round Valley, Los Vaqueros and Brushy Peak. Residents of the corridor range from golden eagles to vernal pool fairy shrimp; bobcats to kit foxes. At dusk you can hear the Round Valley and Los Vaqueros coyote packs howl and yip before splitting up for the evening hunt. 

But in 1986, few East County folk were aware of the existence of Round Valley – fewer saw it as the optimal site for a regional preserve. As Doyle put it, “Nobody thought, ‘Why not have a park out here?’ It was too far from everything.”

When Doyle showed up at the red gate surrounding the Murphy residence in Round Valley, he had no idea how the encounter would go. “This was the first chance I got to meet the property owner,” he said. “And if I said the wrong thing, I wouldn’t have gotten through that gate. He was standing at the gate – he didn’t open the gate.”

Despite his short stature and advanced age (he was approaching 80) Murphy cut a formidable figure. “He was a scary cowboy; hated everybody,” said Doyle. “He was a champion rodeo rider and horse breaker – the Jack Roddy of his time. Always wore his cowboy boots, always wore his big cowboy hat and a big buckle.”

Tule fog slithers through oaks in east Murphy Meadow.

And it was hard to ignore the rifle Murphy toted at that red gate.

Whatever dialogue Doyle had prepared for, he hadn’t prepared for Murphy’s opening line. The rancher eyed the park district guy and said, “What do you think of mountain lions?”

Murphy was a rancher; ranchers aren’t fond of creatures that prey on their livestock. No one would have blamed Doyle for pegging Murphy for a mountain lion hater. But the park district guy replied, “I don’t know. What do you think?” and held his breath.

“Well, I like mountain lions,” said Murphy.

“And that was it,” recalled Doyle. “I’m sure he’d shoot coyotes; I’m sure he hunted deer. But he didn’t have a problem with protecting mountain lions.” Who knows? Maybe the tough, solitary Murphy felt a kinship with the big cat. 

“He told me his story,” said Doyle. “He was very cautious, very anti-government. He’d had lots of ups and downs in his life; never had a lot of money. Most all of these longtime ranching families were only ‘land rich.’ Many of them were getting tired of ranching or needed to sell because they wanted their kids to go to college.”

Measure AA, the $225 million bond on the ballot in 1988 – earmarked for the purchase and preservation of 34,000 acres of prime East Bay open space – was vital to the negotiation between Murphy and Doyle. “The original 700-acre purchase was based on a pre-Measure AA promise,” said Doyle, “which was: ‘Mr. Murphy, if you give us an option on your property for $40,000, we’ll pay you $1.4 million if the measure passes. If it doesn’t pass, you keep the $40,000.’ We really wanted to see his property protected.”

A California black oak greets sunrise over Murphy Meadow.

Measure AA passed in ’88, the district bought Murphy’s 700 acres and over the years acquired 1,300 adjacent acres from the Murphy family. Doyle recalls that “within the first six months (after the initial purchase), as soon as I could get permission, I got Roger in here (the late Roger Epperson, park supervisor). And as local guys, we both thought, ‘Wow. This place is phenomenal.’”

Epperson launched into extensive preparations for the park’s public use: old houses and cabins were dismantled; trails were carved into hillsides; poorly placed roads were “disappeared,” as Doyle put it, and new roads created; the parking lot and main bridge were built – all elements we park users take blissfully for granted.

In 1998, a year after Murphy’s death, an entrance gate on Marsh Creek Road was flung open, ushering the public into a place that would have made a perfect setting for a landfill. But ask the runners, campers and cyclists; ask the exuberant families and solitary pilgrims who visit Round Valley – and they’ll tell you it makes a perfect setting for a taste of the splendor of the world. 

Constellation Arrowhead – connecting the dots

A fleeting vision in our night sky: the constellation Arrowhead. Graphic by Ger Erickson.

Beneath a night sky of diamonds scattered across the black velvet of space, our earliest ancestors looked up and saw patterns. They connected the dots: a group of stars became the diagram of a lion or bear, a queen or a hunter and his dogs. Those patterns were permanent. From millenium to millenium, the position of the stars never strayed, the diagram was never distorted.

But some heavenly objects did stray. The astronomers of ancient Greece named those objects planetai, wanderers. The planets. The star constellations are set in stone, but the planets wander into formations of their own that, like star patterns, remind us of familiar images. One of these temporary constellations is visible now. Let’s call it Arrowhead.

Step outside at 10 p.m. Pacific Time and look south. Across the horizon hangs the constellation known to the Babylonians as Mul Gir-tab, the creature with the burning sting. We call it Scorpius, the scorpion. Some civilizations have juggled two metaphors: the star pattern reminded the Indonesian Javanese people of both a swan (Banyakangrem) and a leaning coconut tree (Kalapa Doyong).

But in July of 2016, people of all cultures can savor the sight of a new, though fleeting, constellation. The planets Mars and Saturn plus the star Antares trace the pattern of an Arrowhead. The point of the arrow is Mars. The arrow’s lower barb is Antares; its upper barb, Saturn.

Scorpius and its current retinue of planets plus permanent retinue of star clusters. Graphic by Ger Erickson.

Arrowhead or no Arrowhead, the southern night sky of 2016 is rich in delights to the eye and imagination. Mars sweeps past Antares every two years but stargazers have linked the two reddish objects for millenia. “Mars” is the name the Romans gave the red planet, but the ancient Greek word for Mars is “Ares.” The Greeks considered the reddish star in Scorpius to be Ares’ rival: thus the name “Antares” – anti-Ares. The god of war, Ares, and the heart of the scorpion, Antares: a clash of formidable and forbidding powers in the heavens. 

Mars “sweeps past Antares” in only a visual sense. The light of Mars that strikes your retina takes 4½ minutes to make its current 50-million-mile journey to Earth. The light of Antares takes 550 years. How can a star so distant shine so brightly? It’s easy – when your radius is 883 times greater than the Sun’s and you shine 12,000 times brighter than the Sun. Were Antares to replace the Sun at the center of our solar system, it would engulf Earth and Mars.

Mars and Antares share a reddish hue, but the hue springs from a radically different source. Stars generate their own light; planets reflect the light of their parent star. Antares’ reddish light is the fire of an enormous thermonuclear furnace burning at a cool 6,500 F. The red of Mars is sunlight bounced off a few million square miles of iron-rich minerals – a big desert.

Got binoculars or a small telescope? Swivel over to Scorpius and you’ll be treated to the vision of some of the finest star clusters in our local cosmos – the M7 cluster and the Northern Jewel Box in particular.

The planet Saturn. Photo by 3quarks/iStock/Getty Images.

And let’s not space out on that golden planet way out in the solar suburbs, the farthest planet visible to the naked eye: Saturn, which completes one orbit of the Sun in 29 Earth years. Saturn is a prime example of the strangeness of the cosmos. The ringed planet is large enough, minus its rings, to fit nine Earths across its diameter like pearls on a string. Yet as a “gas giant,” Saturn is so light it would float on water. And as telescope owners are well aware, Saturn’s ring system is approaching its maximum tilt toward Earth. Late 2016-early 2017 is prime time to view one the wonders of our local universe: the golden rings of the golden globe we call Saturn.

Stargazing is more than an aesthetic pleasure. From the beginning of our species’ days on Earth, the ability to make the connection between patterns in the physical world and the world of the imagination has helped us survive and flourish. When we gaze into the night sky of A.D. 2016 and see a scorpion – or an arrowhead – we’re re-enacting an ancient and impactful feat. May you enjoy keeping that tradition alive this special summer by stepping out beneath the stars and connecting the dots.

Earth's oceans thrive in lucky Lane 3

Sunset at Stinson Beach.

Does an 800-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath condo going for $950,000 sound like a good deal? If its back yard is a beach on Monterey Bay, it might. Only five miles inland, in Watsonville, you can move into a 1,440-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath single-family dwelling for a mere $189,000.

Ever wonder why oceanfront property is so expensive? Of course not; it’s self-evident: we humans love big bodies of water. The rumble and hiss of surf, the panoramic sweep of the sea, the galvanizing salt breezes all make an oceanside stroll hard to resist.

It’s no wonder the ocean soothes our spirits; we’re drawn to it as a weary wanderer is drawn home. When eons ago our aquatic ancestors dragged themselves onto the enticing strangeness of the land, did they never look back? Hardly. In a remote corner of our unconscious, we’ve never forgotten that the ocean is the womb from which we came.

We’re also drawn to the ocean by its otherness. Stand on its shore and see it recede and meld with the ocean of sky. Sail into its heart and feel lost in a vastness more featureless than outer space. Plunge into its depths and discover the cold, the crushing pressure, the creatures more outlandish than the monsters of sci-fi.

If you’re a well-adjusted Homo sapiens and love the ocean, thank your lucky star – the Sun – that it’s the right star at the right distance: 93 million miles. What makes that distance special? It falls within a range of 74 and 148 million miles, also known as HZ, the habitable zone. Of all the lanes in our solar speedway, Lane No. 3 – Earth’s lane – is the most conducive to water. Outside Lane 3, oceans boil off or freeze solid. End of life as we know it.

Luckily for us, Earth is in no danger of going off the deep (or shallow) end and wandering mindlessly out of the HZ. We’re safe for now. But how privileged is our status? In the last half century, speculation regarding the likelihood of life on extra-solar planets (exoplanets) has taken some curious turns. And the jury’s still out.

Before the era of space exploration it was assumed that planets covered by large bodies of liquid water must be common in our universe. We took our cue from the polar caps of Mars and the tropical paradise we imagined would lie cloaked beneath the clouds of Venus.

The Pinnacle, Point Lobos State Reserve. 

Closer inspection by interplanetary probes gave us a jolt: Mars’ polar caps consisted not of frozen H2O but frozen CO2 – dry ice. Mars was a frigid desert. Venus, we learned, was hell – a greenhouse machine radiating surface temperatures of 800 F.

But that’s only our solar system. Considering the billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of galaxies in the universe, it stood to reason that although Earth’s surface oceans are unique in our solar system, they’re common in the cosmos. With few exceptions, we imagined, all planetary systems must sustain their own HZs. Surely somewhere around the myriad stars out there must orbit millions of exoplanets adorned with life-giving oceans.

Only in the last few years have we developed the tools – such as the Kepler space observatory, launched by NASA in 2009 – to conduct a serious search for planets orbiting other stars in our neck of the galactic woods. 

As of June 1, the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia listed 3,422 confirmed exoplanets. Their sheer number, plus the fact that many of them reside in their star’s HZ, has led some enthusiasts to believe that Earthlike exoplanets are a dime a dozen.

Problem is, HZ is more than a matter of distance. Size matters. Large stars sustain broad HZs but are subject to short lifespans, and small stars live long but sustain narrow (or no) HZs. Were the sun less than 83 percent of its present mass, it wouldn’t radiate enough heat to counteract runaway glaciation on Earth. On the other hand, were the Sun 20 percent more massive, it would have consumed all its hydrogen fuel before it reached its billionth birthday. Earth would have gone dead 3½ billion years ago.

The same principles apply to the size of planets. Were Earth only 10 percent more massive, it would have produced a jailbreak greenhouse effect. Had it been 6 percent less massive, it wouldn’t have developed a sufficient ozone layer to shield it from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. In either case, kiss life on Earth goodbye.

Our single-minded search for water worlds has also made us realize that too much water can be a problem. A computer modeling study suggests that two Earthlike candidates – Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f, 1,200 light years from Earth – are probably covered by seamless, global oceans. Lacking reasonable access to fire and metals – not to mention electricity – whatever life forms take hold beneath those endless seas would likely be strangers to technology as we know it.

Pescadero State Beach.

Factors such as orbital eccentricity, axial tilt and rotation, the influence of a moon or giant planet in the vicinity, atmospheric pressure – even the density of the galactic neighborhood – also need to be finely tuned for a planet to be hospitable to our form of life. That, plus our meager understanding of the processes that govern the makeup and evolution of exoplanets’ atmospheres, have led some experts to conclude that Earth might be a special case.

Imagine the citizens of Earth, centuries in the future, on a quest to find an earthlike planet somewhere in our galaxy. Were they to visit a million worlds, their chances of finding a grand total of one world graced with oceans and continents would be remote. When our spacefaring descendants leave the nest and flutter into the cosmos, they’ll likely never again get to enjoy a simple walk by the sea.

We Californians are doubly blessed: blessed to live on the edge of the mighty Pacific Ocean and blessed to live on a blue planet. The next time you take a sunset walk on the beach, don’t leave till the stars come out. Look up, and know that in all that immensity you’ll not find many gems like our sapphire Earth. The color of water.

Yosemite space measured in time

Half Dome at sunset, viewed from Mirror Lake.

The same sunlight that awakens the hollows of the Diablo foothills awakens Yosemite Valley. But that’s where the comparison ends. There is no ordinary light here; no ordinary marking of time. You feel it most acutely at dawn and dusk, when in summer the sun rises early and sets late. The horizons in this place are outlined by granite walls thousands of feet tall. You must look way up to see the sky.

The last morning star had been washed from the east long before Chris and I rolled into Yosemite Valley for our climb to Vernal and Nevada falls. The sun was up, but something was blocking it from view, something standing 4,800 feet above the valley floor: the fortress of granite called Half Dome, its sheer face stained in blue-grey shadow. No wind shredded the morning stillness.

As we approached the bridge spanning the Merced River at Happy Isles, the stillness was dispelled by a slow crescendo of rushing water and the chit-chat of the day’s first hikers headed east to Mirror Lake and south to the Mist Trail. The scavenging bears had retreated from parking lots and campsites and were headed for the sanctuary of Tenaya Canyon and the trees below Ribbon Fall, far from the distressing two-legged creatures.

As we hoisted ourselves up the trail skirting the Merced River’s perpetual thunder, I was struck by how Yosemite puts large matters into perspective. The scale of this place is measured not only in space – in the loft and mass of its walls of stone and daring plummet of its waterfalls. It’s measured not only in the canyon-carving force of its rivers. The scale of this place is measured in time: 15 million years ago the Merced was a mere creek zigzagging through a shallow valley half its present elevation. As 10 million years passed, the Sierra’s granite backbone drove upward and the Merced engraved a V-shaped valley. Half Dome rose to 5,000 of its present 8,800-foot mark.

In the chill of dawn, as the shadow of the valley’s south walls rappelled down the north walls across a mile of space, I tried to visualize the next chapter of Yosemite’s tale. A million and a half years ago, a river of ice filled this valley to the brim. The millennia unfolded and the glacier retreated, sculpting the battleship prow and pilothouse of Washington Column and North Dome, chiseled a slit beside Yosemite Point that would become the spout of the tallest waterfall on the continent.

Crepuscular rays shred a rainbow above the Mist Trail.

I closed my eyes and fast-forwarded to 12,000 B.C., to a Yosemite I’d still not recognize. Half Dome had grinded skyward to its present level, but the valley was deep underwater. And I was standing on the residue of the silt that filled the bottom of that lake: the valley floor of the 21st century.

My existence had been put in perspective, but so had Yosemite’s. Sure, I’d lived a paltry 66 years of the valley’s 15 million years on Planet Earth. A wisp. But wasn’t Yosemite’s paltry 15 million of Earth’s 4½ billion a wisp? I came to the Vernal Bridge and watched the river, like time, race beneath my feet – like time, inch beneath my feet.

But Earth was rotating beneath Sun; day was in relentless ascent. Pressed for time, we hadn’t the luxury of meditating on the nature of Time. If you target Yosemite’s Mist Trail in May – waterfall prime time – you start early.

We struck upward and eastward where far above, on the fall’s rim, the risen Sun glared through gaps in the silhouette of redwoods. Only a handful of hikers, some bound for Half Dome’s famed perch, joined in the ascent.

When we reached the trail’s first granite stair, it was clear that the winter-spring of 2015-16 had unleashed a beast. Heavy snow had become heavy water in these high places of the world. Droplets had converged with trickles; trickles with rivulets; rivulets with streams; streams with creeks; creeks with rivers in a crescendo of mass and momentum. The Merced was set on full boil.

It was my fifth trip up the Mist Trail, a mile and a quarter of tall, steep and slippery granite steps to Vernal Fall; 2 miles more to Nevada Fall. Now, in 2016, Chris and I watched in awe as the Sierra’s winter melt rocketed down the riverbed, ricocheted off boulders like sparks in a foundry, fumed like steam off a kettle. The Mist Trail had morphed into the Suffocating Torrential Downpour Trail. We donned our ponchos. This climb was idiotic enough to be really appealing.

Like kids in a splash park we giggled and groaned our way to the sun-dried sanctuary of the top. Along the way, rainbows exploded through sheets of wind-whipped spray. Below Vernal’s broad launching ramp the fall was barely visible through the monsoon of moisture; my thoughts barely audible through the barrage of water – tons per second – slamming onto the rocks below.

It wasn’t till later that day atop Glacier Point, as we gazed far down across Illilouette Gorge to the falls we’d climbed, that we came full circle. From stillness to stillness. The voice of the river of time had fallen to a whisper. I sat on the warm granite 3,200 feet above the valley floor and closed my eyes; felt the past and future fall off me like a garment. I existed in the naked now, the now of rock and water and the consciousness to know them.

I opened my eyes and time flooded back into the cosmos. Another world was calling, a world of obligations, deadlines, the tick of clocks. But a world of memories – good ones. We gave the valley, spread beneath us like a banquet table, one last taste.

The Merced River below Vernal Fall.

When rivers run wild

The San Joaquin River slips past Antioch with the stealth of a mother past her sleeping child’s bedroom door. Beneath the grey surface where bass boats hover, the current is slow. A breeze raises ridges like wrinkles on a bed sheet, not high enough along the bank to hinder a heron’s solemn search for dinner.

But the river is not what it seems. Far upstream in the high places of the world it’s a different parent: a stepmother out of mythology, majestic and terrible.

In those high places the river is renewed in a million moments at once, when single drops of melted snow merge with others to form steep trickles that meander down to junctions with other trickles. They find their way to concave avenues like bowling balls find gutters. In a reverse delta spanning mountains, ten thousand rivulets reduce to a thousand streams reduce to a hundred creeks reduce to a dozen rivers reduce to one.

Trace the San Joaquin upstream from Contra Costa County and you take a snaking journey southeast for more than a hundred miles through Central Valley before hooking east toward Fresno and up into Sierra National Forest. Halfway up that journey, 25 miles south of Modesto, the river is joined by one of its tributaries. Follow that tributary upstream to an elevation of 4,000 feet and you find a valley enclosed by soaring walls of granite plumed with waterfalls and streaked by tumbling creeks.

The tributary is called Merced. The valley is known as Yosemite. It’s here that the Sierra’s winter melt is most vividly dramatized.

The Merced’s tributaries are unlike any other: two of the world’s 10 tallest waterfalls – Sentinel and Yosemite, the latter being the tallest in North America – and their retinue, no less magnificent, with names like Bridalveil, Ribbon, Illilouette, Vernal, Nevada and Snow Creek. Right now they’re not so much waterfalls as water cannons. A survey conducted in April showed the Merced-sector snowpack at 91% of average, but don’t let down your guard. Today, May 2, the Merced discharge at Yosemite’s Pohono Bridge was clocked at a rollicking 1,300 cubic feet per second. Toe-dipping not recommended.

In 1806, an expedition led by Gabriel Moraga came upon a river after a long, hot and dusty journey. To express his gratitude, Moraga named the river El Rio de Nuestra Señora de la Merced – River of Our Lady of Mercy. In the spring of 2016, there’s nothing merciful about the Merced. If our snowborn rivers are awe-inspiring, they’re also deadly.

On July 19, 2011, 21-year-old Ramina Badal of Manteca, 22-year-old Hormiz David of Modesto and 27-year-old Ninos Yacoub of Turlock climbed Yosemite’s Mist Trail to the rim of Vernal Fall. Witnesses reported that Badal, in an attempt to get her picture taken against the spectacular backdrop, hopped the guardrail and entered the shallow but swift water at the river’s edge. Several hikers at the scene yelled out warnings. To their horror they watched Badal lose her footing and get pulled by the current toward Vernal’s broad launching ramp. David and Yacoub rushed over the guardrail but were too late to save her – or themselves. All three were swept over the rim, fell 317 feet shrouded in a frigid curtain of cataract, and slammed onto the boulders at Vernal’s base.

The Merced and Cathedral Spires west of Pohono Bridge.

A river suffused with winter melt is more than a match for us humans. The shock of icy water and grip of hypothermia rob the body of strength and muscle coordination. The mind becomes confused and panic sets in. Aiding and abetting in the assault are the river’s heavy volume and powerful currents, which can carry a victim miles downstream before rescue can be attempted.

You needn’t pull a crazy stunt to be claimed by the river. Recreational boaters, skiers, swimmers, campers and hikers – all minding their own business – can be vulnerable to a sudden infusion of cold, fast and heavy water.

In May of 2006, the Truckee River was flowing at four times its volume of the previous year. On May 1, 20-year-old Edward Wilt of Sun Valley and three friends waded to a small island along the Truckee near Painted Rock east of Reno. From there, Wilt and one of his friends jumped into the river, apparently for the fun of it. His friend made it out. Wilt’s remains were found three weeks later near Wadsworth.

It was May 21, 2006, a day before Wilt’s body was hauled out of the Truckee. I was at the source, standing on the edge of a rock as big as a room overhanging the Merced in Yosemite Valley, just west of Pohono Bridge. Tons of river per second thundered past. Sensing Merced’s mass reach out and drag me toward it like a maelstrom drags a doomed ship into its vortex, I got low fast, cross-legged, desperate to drop my center of gravity and dispel the fantasy of falling.

The river was a different creature out of mythology that day: not an angry stepmother but a beast trapped in the cage of its banks, infuriated by my lack of respect, leaping at me and slamming against my granite perch. Two feet to my right the rock dropped away a mere 10 feet to the water. In Yosemite, you can fall to your death from impressive elevations. All I needed was 10 feet.

It was a memorable day; should I fall, the Merced’s biting embrace would be my last memory. I hoisted myself onto all fours and crabbed my way to the middle of the rock. The river, catching the scent of other prey, snarled on by.

Wildflowers strike resonant chord

California orange poppies, Round Valley Regional Preserve.

The universe is large, and getting larger. In the time it takes you to finish this sentence, the universe will have expanded in volume by 100 trillion cubic light years. Period. But run the video backward 13.7 billion years and you’ll see the universe shrink to a mere mathematical point. Call it the cosmic seed, inscribed by the most infinitesimal handwriting, like DNA, with instructions for the universe in its totality: galaxies and gadflies, planets and plankton. You and me.

I like to imagine God as the Great Gardener: creating a seed with the simplicity of the primal elements yet potential for the staggering complexity 13.7 billion years of expansion accrues; planting it in the coldest of soils, the nothingness before time and space; and with one searing command, one blast of incandescent breath, setting it in motion.

This could be one reason why the image of wildflowers in spring strikes such a resonant chord in us. Woven into the fabric of our world is the pattern of darkness to light, cold to warmth – death to rebirth – enacted yearly in the reawakening of sterile and shriveled meadows into orgies of color and fragrance.

There’s another reason why wildflowers should fill us with awe and gratitude: without them, the human race might never have come into existence.

A hundred million years ago not a single flower adorned our planet. It was a world in slow motion. The reproductive processes of plants required either direct access to water (through swamps, lakes, river systems, dew and raindrops) or wind-borne pollen-like particles. Some plants had developed primitive seeds, but the spread of plant life proceeded at a glacial pace.

Dominating the landscape were creatures with slow metabolism, the cold-blooded dinosaurs. They were slaves to the mercury level, plodding through their habitat in the warmth of daylight but largely inactive at night. Warm-blooded creatures existed in this Cretaceous Period but were hardly the dominant life form. They ranged from rat-like dwellers of trees and underbrush to lizard-like birds lurching through the primal skies.

Then, as the Age of Reptiles was coming to an end, something miraculous happened – as miraculous as creation itself. The first simple flower opened its petals. And the world changed.

Unlike a spore, the seed of a flower is a fully outfitted embryonic plant, a survivalist’s doomsday bunker stuffed with nutrients capable of sustaining the sprout. And armed with pollen, nectar, and seeds wrapped in a mantle of fruit, the ancient flower began attracting insects for pollination and exploiting birds and mammals for transportation. It developed featherdown for sailing on the wind and hooks for snagging a ride on a passerby’s hide. The angiosperms (“encased seeds”) were off to the races.

Blue-eyed grass, Sunol Regional Wilderness.

The dinosaurs disappeared with stunning abruptness. A special flowering, seed-producing plant we call grass made its debut. Grasslands swept across the continents, providing a nutritious buffet for the great herbivores, the horse and bison, and indirectly for their predators, the dire wolf and saber-toothed tiger.

Peering meekly from the forest at the great game herds was another creature. Like the other mammals his metabolic rate was high, requiring an energy-rich diet to sustain body warmth and efficiency. He was small, and abandoned the trees awkwardly on his hind legs, no match for the bison. But once he learned to heave a rock, swing a flint axe and build a fire, he, like the flower before him, hopped onto the reproductive fast track. And like the predators before which he had once cowered, he began taking ever-greater amounts of energy indirectly from the grass.

Indirectly – until that moment out on the waist-high savannah when he conceptualized the grass seed, the ancestor of wheat, as a thing to grow and consume for its own sake. That moment was itself a seed. From it would sprout cities and civilizations in countless succession, to our present time and beyond, rising and falling in ten thousand springs and winters of human history. The gift of the flower.

With acknowledgement to “How Flowers Changed the World” by Loren Eiseley.

Where cliff and surf collide

High tide and high winds churn the sea floor beneath the Pinnacle, viewed from Cypress Grove Trail.

There’s no scene here that fails to take your breath away. Tendrils of fog drift through stands of pine and dissolve over coves cut steeply in granite. Squadrons of pelicans sweep low over rock castles battered jagged by eons of sea. On the lee sides of cypress limbs, rust-orange algae cling like frost. Sea lions bray from their island citadels and sea otters float on their backs in carpets of kelp. And accompanying every image and every scent is the thunder of water breaking against rock. Welcome to Point Lobos.

In the long, narrow display case of the California coastline, Point Lobos State Reserve is the jewel that glistens like no other. Nestled between Carmel and Big Sur off Highway 1, Point Lobos State Reserve occupies only 1,300 acres of coastland. But they are 1,300 acres of concentrated beauty.

Point Lobos is both monumental and intimate. Whether your tastes gravitate to whales or wildflowers, the cracking of cliff against surf or the silence of grazing deer, whether you spend a weekend or an afternoon, the images, the scents, the galvanizing salt breezes here will be impossible to forget.

The state takes the fragile beauty of the reserve seriously. Entrance into the park is limited to 450 visitors at a time, not only to reduce wear and tear on the ecosystem but to provide a measure of solitude in this inspirational environment.

The reserve is named after its Punta de los Lobos Marinos, Point of the Sea Wolves, where you’re serenaded by choirs of sea lions perched on an archipelago of rocks. If you want to come straight to the point, take the entrance road straight ahead and park at Sea Lion Point.

The Monterey Cypress known as Old Veteran clings to the granite of Cypress Cove’s east wall in defiance of the wear and tear of wind, rain and gravity.

From here you can get a good view – and earful – of Point Lobos’ stellar attractions: the harbor seal and California sea lion. The smaller and more plentiful harbor seal is a year-round resident of the reserve, while the adult male sea lion – some measuring 8 feet and weighing 800 pounds – leaves Point Lobos in June and July to cruise for chicks in the Channel Islands off Southern California.

If you’re out for a scenic hike with a dramatic arc, Whalers Cove at Cannery Point is a good spot to park. Take your first right past the entrance kiosk. Along North Shore Trail, beginning at Whalers Cove, you can experience Point Lobos in a gradual crescendo of grandeur. You’ll see the ocean foam over the brown rocks of Cannery Point and follow pelicans carving a graceful glide around Guillemot Island.

Hop onto a side trail at Cypress Cove and behold the poignant dignity of Old Veteran, a Monterey Cypress that epitomizes the struggle for survival in this rugged environment, defying the force of wind, gravity and erosion. Anchored onto the edge of Cypress Cove’s east wall, Old Veteran’s roots dangle precariously over the ocean and its branches support banks of foliage that hover like clouds.

When you come to Cypress Grove Trail, hang a right and take the loop around Allan Memorial Grove, where the trail escorts you past a vignette of The Pinnacle, a mini-mountain jutting from the ocean floor. Cypress Grove Trail climaxes at Headland Cove, where all the reserve’s virtues converge: wave and rock, cliff and forest, bird, mammal and fish, and the ocean’s unfathomable span.

Beach Aster, South Shore Trail.

At Headland Cove you’ve reached the reserve’s midpoint. There are many more wonders to savor, both inland along the South Plateau and Mound Meadow trails, and at the sea’s swelling edge on the South Shore and Bird Island trails. If the sea is in a theatrical mood, head down to a peninsula of rock called The Slot, where the Pacific becomes a paragon of physics: gathering itself, cresting and striking with optimal force. Water becomes thunder; blue-green erupts in geysers of glinting white.

A word of caution about The Slot: observe the swelling and slamming of the sea from a safe distance. Let The Slot bear the brunt of breakers. Come too close and, in the most lethal sense of the phrase, you’ll “get carried away.”

Beneath the surface of the Pacific a mile north of the point, the bottom of Carmel Bay drops a thousand feet down. In another five miles the Monterey Canyon plummets to a depth of 7,000 feet. The result: over half of Point Lobos is under water. A full 750 acres of the reserve is devoted to divers, who take advantage of the reserve’s proximity to deep water and the phenomenal variety of creatures it affords. At Whalers Cove, adventurers in wetsuits plunge into 70-foot high kelp forests where southern sea otters play and rockfish weave in and out of view. Harbor seals and California sea lions are plentiful here. From the scale of the tiny to the colossal, from iridescent phytoplankton to gray whales on their migration routes, the world under the water’s surface is one of the chief attractions of this place.

A walk through Point Lobos is an exercise in time travel. Two types of rock inhabit its foundation. The Carmello Formation, a sedimentary rock at least 55 million years old, dominates the terrain of Sea Lion Point, Whalers and Moss coves and the south shore. In some places it's twisted into such bizarre and lurid shapes you’ll swear you’re walking on another planet. The other dominant rock, Santa Lucia granite, forms the craggy majesty of Point Lobos’ famed north shore and Hidden Beach. The granite solidified some 80 million years ago.

The Pacific Ocean unleashes its fury at Sand Hill Cove, which pits overeager photographers against lethal plumes of seawater.

But rock and seawater aren’t the only treasures of Point Lobos. The reserve is one of three places on the coast where the Monterey pine grows naturally. Without the fog drip provided by the Point Lobos’ microclimate, the tree wouldn’t survive the area’s dry summers. The other tree for which the reserve is famous is the Monterey cypress. Its gnarled roots cling fiercely to sheer walls of granite along Point Lobos’ many coves. The rust-colored substance glazing much of the coastal foliage is, ironically, green algae turned orange by carotene pigment. Wildflower aficionados will enjoy the spectrum spanned by Point Lobos’ delicate petals, from blue blossom to the amber of sticky monkeyflower to the lavender tones of beach aster.

We Californians are blessed with an abundance of natural wonders. We’re also blessed with striking-distance proximity to the quintessence of coastal splendor. When our spirits sense the call of the sea, we know it’s time to get to the Point.

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Make the pilgrimage with Annie

Donner Creek, Mt. Diablo.

When winter rains turn hiking trails into rivers of mud, we trekkers get our revenge by taking it inside: we grab a steaming beverage and nestle into our favorite chair with a good book. When we need a ride out of Cabin Fever City, there’s no better form of transport than our very own author-ignited imagination.

What to read? If you’ve ever felt the sun on your face in spring and been engulfed by a wave of awe and gratitude, or if you’ve ever witnessed up close the suffering of a loved one and shuddered at the hideous side of our existence; if you’ve ever been overwhelmed by the world’s beauty or suffocated by its horror and wanted to put a name to it, pick up a copy of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard.

“Pilgrim” is a book about the world of water and sky, trees and insects; broad in scope and painstaking in detail. It’s a book about the author’s inner landscape, an intimate and confessional diary. And it’s a book about the Why of the world’s joy and misery, an attempt not only to describe, but understand.

After a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia in 1971, Dillard retreated to the solitude of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and banks of Tinker Creek, where she found healing and inspiration. The result, in addition to her recuperation, was the book for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1975.

What makes the reading of “Pilgrim” so rewarding is Dillard’s dilated point of view. Her senses, her mind and her heart are fully open to the world’s phenomena – and their implications. She sees profundity in the simple and splendor in the ordinary. “It is dire poverty indeed,” she writes, “when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”

Morning on Mt. Tamalpais.

“Pilgrim” is charged with an ecstatic tone but Dillard’s portrayal of the natural world is unsentimental. She not only concedes that nature is red in tooth and claw; she gives us the gory details. Her account of a frog’s skull being collapsed by a water bug sucking it dry from beneath the creek’s surface is a tour de force of ghastly description. Later, Dillard expresses bewilderment at the fact that 10 percent of the world’s species are parasitic insects, which suggests a disturbing possibility about the Creator: “What if you were an inventor, and you made ten percent of your inventions in such a way that they could only work by harassing, disfiguring or totally destroying the other ninety percent?”

Dillard is a Christian, yet she draws from the wisdom of traditions as diverse as Buddism, Sufism, Eskimo lore and Hasidic Judaism. She embraces the paradox that existence is a blessing and a curse; that in our universe, creation and destruction are mysteriously intertwined. And yet she doesn’t let God off the hook for bringing it all into being. What Dillard concludes about the nature of God is consoling and disturbing, blatant and subtle.

“Pilgrim” urges us to step out and experience the moment. In a twist on the standard meaning of a familiar phrase, Dillard exhorts us to spend the afternoon: “You can’t take it with you.” For her, God’s grace imparted through the world of Tinker Creek is available at any moment. The least we can do is be present when the moment arrives. “The secret of seeing,” she writes, “is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the nearest puff.”

As a form of transport, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is more like soaring than slogging. It’s a pilgrimage worth making.

Moss Beach – low tide, high visibility

Moss Beach marvels, clockwise from upper left: a purple-colored ochre star lounges in a tide pool; a visitor follows a squadron of pelicans above Seal Cove; giant green anemones flaunt their tentacles; and stalked barnacles cling to a rock face.

Sun and moon tug on our ocean and its waters recede. Earth twirls on its axis and the blue sky dissolves to black. These eternal rhythms do more than inspire awe – they unmask marvels. When the sun sets, we see stars. When the tide rolls out, we see starfish.

And we see them in full glory at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach. When winter rains make a mudfest of conventional hiking trails, what better venue for an adventure than a sandy beach?

The organisms that roam the coast are as bizarre as the monsters of sci-fi. The hermit crab wears a snail shell like an oversized turban while scavenging for decayed plant and animal matter. The starfish known as the sea bat feeds by projecting its stomach through its mouth into its victim’s shell opening, discharging digestive enzymes, sucking its liquefied prey like some ghastly slurpee and retracting its stomach back into its body.

South of San Francisco and north of Half Moon Bay, the Fitzgerald reserve’s 3-mile stretch of shoreline and rocky reefs displays an impressive quantity and diversity of marine life, from delicate coralline alga to giant green anemones, from stalked barnacles to gray whales. Bird lovers can trace the graceful glide of pelicans low over the sea or watch herons wade in the shallows looking for lunch while harbor seals cool their heels on the sand.

For the record, you’ll find scant moss at Moss Beach. In the late 1800s, a German immigrant named Jürgen Wienke bought the seaside property and, according to legend, dubbed an odd form of alga growing there “moss.” Wienke’s misnomer eventually spread to include the entire beach. The moss you will find here is well above the beach – delicate tendrils flowing from a throng of Monterey cypresses standing sentinel on the reserve’s tall bluffs. The Bluff Trail affords not only a bird’s-eye view of the beach; from it you can commandeer a vista both intimate and breathtaking. Sunset on the Pacific doesn’t get any finer.

Harbor seals enjoy a snooze on a blustery afternoon.

Head south on the cliff trail and in a few minutes you’ll pop out onto a street leading to the historic Moss Beach Distillery, founded in the rum-running Prohibition era. You can mosey over to a patio anchored on bluffs overlooking the ocean and, libation in hand, sit down to an excellent seafood dinner. The distillery even boasts a resident ghost, the Blue Lady, responsible for weird cameo appearances on premises.

To catch the optimal exposure of Fitzgerald’s reserve’s reefs and terraces, visit at low tide. Log on to The site gives you a detailed table of tides for a given date and time of day. You’ll find that this Saturday and Sunday, January 9 and 10, low tides in the afternoon will unveil the wonders beneath the water.

Surf’s down!

Light pollution threatens body and soul

Photo by auimeesri/iStock/Getty Images

It was late. Late in the year and long after nightfall. I was standing on a tall hill a few miles from home. It was dark, but the darkness was more than acceptable; it was essential. If your plan is to get pelted by the glory of the Leonid meteor shower on a chilly November night – if you insist on paying that price – you find the darkest sky in the county.

Above, Leonids skittered across the pond of the cosmos like water bugs, some flaring out so brightly they made me blink. Below, in the moonless dark, the world was heard more than seen. I went quietly. Whatever creatures were out there, I wanted to hear them before they heard me. I didn’t use a flashlight. Whatever creatures were out there, I wanted to see them before they saw me.

One set of lights, however, was hard to ignore: a galaxy. A galaxy not above, but below. Spread beneath the horizon from northwest to northeast were the lights of East Contra Costa – miniature points of white and orange punctuated by blue and red, glittering like the stars of a spiral galaxy seen edge-on.

Brentwood formed the galaxy’s bright nucleus. Northeast beyond Brentwood glowed Oakley. Far northwest flowed Antioch’s river of lights against the backdrop of San Joaquin’s dark bank. A ripple of white marked the galaxy’s eastern hinterland: Discovery Bay.

If the lights inspired a celestial metaphor, they also inspired dismay. The glare of human habitation bleached the black sky to a blue-grey that erased the dimmer meteors and stars. High overhead, in the darkest sector of sky, the sapphire pendant of the Pleiades was barely visible. Those primal lights blossoming in the meadow of darkness above were no match for the phony photons of humanity below.

We have fought the darkness from the beginning, illuminated caves and continents, resisted night as we resist mortality itself. Step out into your back yard tonight and look up. On a clear, dark evening you should be able to spot about 2,700 stars. If you live near the center of an East County city, you’ll be lucky to spot a hundred.

Astronomy buffs aren’t the only ones to suffer from humanity’s assault on darkness. Our inefficient artificial light wastes energy, scrambles the life patterns of wildlife and disrupts human biorhythms.

The light pollution that washes out all but the brightest stars is due mainly to poor design, which directs artificial light not only downward, where it’s needed, but upward and outward, where it’s wasted. But poor design is the tip of the iceberg. Light – for billions of years expressed mainly as sunlight and moonlight – exerts its power on all the world’s creatures.

The artificial light that makes days unnaturally long and nights unnaturally short alters the feeding patterns, breeding patterns and migration schedules of birds. Some arrive at their nesting sites too early in the season. Ocean-based gas flares on oil platforms and land-based searchlights attract seabirds and songbirds like magnets, causing them to circle the lights till they drop from exhaustion. Birds on their night migrations crash into brightly lit skyscrapers.

Ponds and marshes, once far from civilization and now flooded by the light of highways, no longer provide frogs and toads the illumination signals evolved over eons – signals that govern their nocturnal breeding habits.

The loss of darkness collides with sea turtles’ preference for dark beaches on which to nest. The reflective sea horizon no longer shines brighter than the artificially lit land behind the beach, confounding turtle hatchlings. In droves they head away from the water and die.

The skyline of Hong Kong. Photo by shirophoto/iStock/Getty Images

Light pollution is also hazardous to human health. Our biological clock depends on darkness as much as light. Increased artificial light at night from lamps, TVs and electronic gizmos disrupts our circadian rhythms and contributes to sleep disorders. And it gets worse: evidence gathered over the last decade is persuasive enough to have prompted the AMA in 2012 to support continued research into the connection between excessive artificial light at night and the incidence of breast cancer. In 2007, the World Health Organization’s cancer research division classified night-shift work as a “probable carcinogen.”

Were light pollution perfectly harmless to our physical health, it would remain harmful to our spiritual health. When we lose an appreciation for darkness we lose an essential component of human consciousness. The lights cast across the cosmos were not turned on by a switch thrown by human hands. We internalize that fact through awe and wonder: the direct experience of the night sky. The vast and cold emptiness between stars is the rule throughout our universe, not the exception. When we internalize that fact, we’ll treasure the warmth of our relationships more than ever. As darkness makes light sweeter, emptiness makes interconnectedness sweeter.

As I stood on the hill that night and followed the shining slashes above, I felt a connection to humankind more powerfully than if I’d stood smack in the center of the city. Far from the fluorescent tubes of the grocery store and prismatic acrylic refractor globes of downtown, I felt what my ancestors felt when they stood beneath the dome of darkness strewn with stars, planets and the gossamer river of the Milky Way: I felt the immediacy and ancientry, the greatness and smallness of my place in the cosmos.

My meteor stint was an all-nighter. By 5:45, as the faintest rumor of dawn betrayed the Sierra’s sawtooth silhouette, the local coyote pack had regathered and launched into its pre-dawn chorus, sharing tales of the evening hunt. A single voice – the pack leader’s – suddenly penetrated the shrieks, howls and rapid-fire yaps. The chorus fell silent. The leader took a few moments to speak his piece, and the pack erupted in another cataract of noise. The leader’s chant silenced them again. And again they answered.

The call-and-response ritual continued for a minute beneath a paling sky flecked by the final stars. And I wondered if any coyotes had remarked on the streaks in the sky or the two-legged creature atop the distant hill. The pack and I had pursued a different quest that night but had shared the darkness.

I wove my way back down the hill, guided by the immeasurably slow swelling of dawn, looking forward to reunion with the other creatures connected to me.

Epic effort? Hey, no problem

Photo by Chris Ryan/OJO Images/Getty Images

The host led Leia and me to our table. We took our seats. I said “thanks.” The host said “no problem.” I was tempted to tell the host “I’m mighty relieved to hear that leading us to our table was no problem” but I knew Leia would shoot me a glance that could melt iridium.

Leia ordered wine; I ordered beer. The server delivered them. Leia said “thanks.” The server said “no problem.” I was tempted to tell the server “that’s fascinating; it never occurred to me that delivering our beverages would be a problem” but I knew my reply would be interrupted by an eyeball-rattling pain to my shin delivered by the point of Leia’s shoe. 

By the time dinner was done and we breezed through the restaurant’s exit, we’d been treated to an unofficial count of nine “no problem”s. I imagined thanking a Good Samaritan for yanking my car out of the ditch in a sub-zero blizzard. For my sake he missed his once-in-lifetime job interview, subluxated every vertebra in his spine and probably needed several fingers amputated due to frostbite. And I wanted him to know I appreciated it.

“No problem,” he replied.

It’s official: to paraphrase Nietzsche, “you’re welcome” is dead.

Is it unreasonable to demand that everyone be aware of the literal meaning of the words they use? Probably. I knew a guy who always greeted me with “hey, baby, what are you doing?!” I’ll never forget his facial expression when, after weeks of replying with “hi,” I gave him a play-by-play account of what I was doing. He looked at me as if I were radioactive.

It’s tempting as customers to view service providers’ “no problem” as dismissive and self-centered. “No problem” directs attention to the thanked person, the service person. “You’re welcome” directs it to the thanker, the customer. My personal preference, “my pleasure,” also directs attention to the thankee, but in a genial way: “I take pleasure in doing this for you” (that a problem might be involved is irrelevant and off the table).

So what’s the problem with “no problem? Are those who use the phrase being deliberately dismissive and self-centered? No, the problem is: they’re not being anything – but using words that convey meaning anyhow. The possibility that their effort on your behalf might have been a problem is not a thought that fires in their synapses. To them, “no problem” isn’t an attempt at precise communication; it’s an attempt to fill the moment with a social noise. “No problem” could mean “you’re welcome,” “my pleasure,” “no worries,” “whatevs” or “indubitably.” Its true meaning, I suspect, is far less genial. It means “I heard you thank me.” Nothing more.

And that’s the problem: We talk like we think. Unexamined language exposes unexamined thought. How many folks who use the phrase “I could care less” (instead of the original and correct “I couldn’t care less”) realize they’re expressing the exact opposite of their intended meaning? How many who use “it’s all downhill from here” as a negative term realize they’re flip-flopping the meaning of the original and correct metaphor (“after a hard slog uphill we get to coast downhill; it’s all good from here”)? Again: the exact opposite of their intended meaning.

In a world in which we’re bombarded from every point of the compass by those bent on persuading us to do their bidding – from politicians to advertisers – it’s never unwise to examine the meaning of words.

Some social critiques are attempts at promoting change. My riff on “no problem” has no such ambition. Let’s not fool ourselves: the situation’s hopeless. I’m not offended by “no problem” – just disappointed. But it’s only a matter of time before I lose patience and chasten a bewildered restaurant employee with my “no problem” tirade. How to avoid the unavoidable?

I should quit dining out.

Friday the 13th – perfect day for dental work

Jerry Seinfeld once remarked that one of his chief pet peeves is the term “pet peeve.” I know the feeling: I’m so unsuperstitious that I’m positively superstitious about it. Show me a ladder and I’ll duck under it in a heartbeat; point out a black cat and I’ll cross its path in a flash. Inform me that the 13th of November, 2015 falls on a Friday and I’ll yawn till my jaw joint cracks.

So when my dentist asked me to pick a date for repairs on a fractured tooth, I mulled it over for a nanosecond and replied, “How does Friday the 13th work for you?” Works for me.

Apophenia, the interpretation of meaningless phenomena in meaningful ways, seems hard-wired into the human brain. On Oct. 10, 2010 – 10/10/10 – more than 39,000 couples in the United States were wed, nearly 10 times the nuptial number of the comparable day in the previous year. Elvis impersonators hit the jackpot on 11/11/11, when the Viva Las Vegas wedding chapel recorded 200 bookings, four times the norm.

I’m no psychologist, but I’ve seen enough of human behavior to take an educated guess about who’s pushing the easy-to-remember anniversary numbers. It’s the grooms.

Some superstitions that seem numeric are actually sonic. Superstitious people in Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam shun the number four, a homophone for the word for death. This influences the assigning of numbers to cell phones, floors in buildings (skipping four, as we in the West sometimes skip 13) and names to streets. If this strikes you as foolish, imagine our Western numbering system containing an exact sonic match for “bloodbath.” How’d you like to live on Bloodbath Boulevard?

What prompts some superstition isn’t numbers or sounds – just wishful thinking. Some folks believe that if they use the same pen when taking a test that they used when studying for the test, the pen will remember the answers, well … the pen is mightier than their gourd.

If I’m wrong about this, if our superstitions correspond to the way things truly work, if the number 13 is truly jinxed, we’re all in deep doo-doo. It means that the cosmos is supervised by a malicious prankster, that the slightest slip-up can trigger tragic consequences, as when the groom who drops the wedding band during the ceremony dooms the marriage. Who knows what other innocent acts ignite icky outcomes? Maybe the cosmic prankster decided to lay a curse on dentists who whistle “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” while performing root canals upside down (which might even qualify as an “original sin"; it’s certainly original).

If you’re superstitious and want to break the habit, go break a mirror. Thumb your nose at the cosmic prankster and track the consequences. Keep a journal – in the case of the mirror, every day for seven years. Or make a dental appointment for Friday the 13th. Dental work: drilling and chiseling on sensitive nerve endings in your mouth. What could possibly go wrong?!

But to the true believer on this inauspicious Friday, November 13, 2015: Relax. Embrace your superstition. Take a deep breath. And never mind that it rhymes with death.