A Hike By the Sea
The ocean ...
Every once in awhile I get the calling. Like medicine for the debilitated, it hints of relief with its bucolic salve.
It asks for nothing, and does not try to impress, or offer heralded expectations. And even though I hope, it never disappoints. And changes everything.
The day is brisk, with a light but biting breeze. The drive was quiet, contemplative, ascending and descending through verdant hills, sprinkled with wildflowers and windswept cypress that swayed gently under the radiant skies.
Crunching of gravel under my feet as I cross the road to the trail head. Before me are the moddled white structures of the historic Pierce Ranch, framed by wooden fencing and bent trees, weathered by the sea breeze. Beyond the Ranch, the trail is carved through the greenery and it isn't long before I spy the first Tule Elk, roaming through the grasses.
I smell the brackish air as I traipse through the pathway. Others are returning from the hike, each offering a hello. Everyone is a neighbor here. The path curves uphill, the ocean to my left, down below, waves rhythmically crashing against the rocks, a million sparkles from the afternoon sun splay across the sea.
The mountain lion
There are other creatures about. Furry caterpillars on the riparian vegetation. A warning sign alerted to the presence of mountain lions in the area. I'm familiar with that information.
Last year, I took a hike alone on the southern part of Point Reyes, from Palomarin trailhead up through the coastal hike to Wildcat Beach. It was after a rain, and the ground was muddy, with pools of mucky water to jump around and over. Fewer hikers were out then, and I soon found myself alone in the wildland, though I wasn't really aware since I was enjoying the contemplative swishing of trees and ocean currents. A thought popped into my head unexpectedly. A couple of months before I hiked with a group in an area up above Auburn where a woman was fatally mauled by a mountain lion several years before. Along the trail, there was a memorial marker, and the group stopped there to talk and visit.
I became aware that I had not seen another human in some time. I thought it was silly, but I spotted a large rock and picked it up, then found another. Clutching both in each hand, I smiled, thinking how silly this would look, and how I'd toss them into the bushes if I came across another hiker. I looked to my left, and a mountain lion was standing in the bushes, about 25 feet away. It turned and looked toward me, as chills ran up my spine.
Instinctively, I stood up tall and held my hands over my head. The lion just stared at me languidly. So I made a loud noise and tossed one of the rocks into the air. He moved away, and I made my way up the hill, glancing frequently backward. When I reached the crest, I looked back and took a photo. If I followed the trail back to the trailhead, I would have to walk by him again, so instead I decided to hike forward and take the longer loop back to the beginning.
I didn't see another human for over an hour.
So I try not to hike alone now. But it's still a solitary endeavor; both of us in our own internal mead. Cutting through pathways offering dramatic coastal murals of golden California poppies, seacoast goldfields, purple lupine, thistle with flaming red blooms, windswept grasslands and coastal scrub, on several occasions the pathway covered in foliage. It reminded me of the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy, Scarecrow and company walked across the field of poppies to get to the Emerald City.
We get closer to the point and sand appears beneath our feet, making it challenging to walk up the hills, but with each crest, the destination seems closer. At Point Reyes National Seashore, Tomales Point is its northernmost point - see relief map here - at the entrance to Tomales Bay, which rests directly above the San Andreas Fault. Yes, this is earthquake country.
It is also home to a Tule Elk Reserve. Almost near extinction following the California gold rush in the 1800s, the elk, which are native to California, were reintroduced to Point Reyes by the California Department of Fish and Game. In 1978, eight females and two males were brought into the area. Since then, their numbers have multiplied, and there are now hundreds, and several thousand throughout California. Needless to say, I snapped a ridiculous number of photos of the majestic creatures.
At last, Bird Rock could be seen to the left, and not far beyond that, the final destination of Tomales Bluff. Being approximately 50 feet above the sea on a cliff, that was as far as we could go. Below were tidepools and a few sea lions and gulls perched on the rocks. One of the passers-by said they had seen whales out into the ocean, but I couldn't spot them.
The wise man
At last, it's time to say goodbye to the bluff. The walk back is an hour and a half, and the sun will be down not long after, so we retrace our steps back through the trail. A slow mist is beginning to settle on the horizon, the sea wrinkled in the caramel light. The golden glow of the poppies is more pronounced, and the amber sky adds to the contemplative feel of the hike, as my mind empties and I feel the replenishment of the ocean settling into my soul.
The elk seem even more comfortable with us on the walk back, and several watch us, curiously. The elders of the herd - with massive girth and towering antlers, seem to be studying us from their perch on a hill, letting the rest know we are safe and welcome. The biggest sits in gentle silence, like a wise man, circumspect and sage.
He is wise, I think. And I feel honored to share in his peace.