A walk in the park
The George Miller Trail in Fall and Winter 2020
A WALK IN THE PARK
The George Miller Trail in Fall and Winter 2020
On an average day I read the news first and then head up to the trail to talk myself down.
The first few hundred yards of the George Miller Trail is literally a wake-up call. I've so streamlined the process of setting out clothes, shoes and coffee the night before that even after consuming a healthy dose of french roast on the way to the trailhead, I'm only just waking up as I strap on my binoculars and set off up the first hill. Total time from hitting "stop" on wake-up alarm to hitting "go" on the fitness tracker...about 20 minutes.
After months of navigating a world that graduated from extraordinary in March to full Twilight Zone in January, my daily walks are now equal parts meditation and self-therapy. Interrupted by a little black and white photography.
As bleary-eyed as I often am, when I approach that first view of Mt. Diablo and the town of Martinez silhouetted against the watercolor wash of pre-dawn—even on cold, foggy days—I'm reminded why this daily sojourn has become more of a sacred ritual than merely a walk in the park.
Locals have always called it Snake Road and I've been either cycling or walking there since 2003, when it was just a neglected stretch of Carquinez Scenic Drive connecting Martinez and Port Costa. Originally built by the state in 1912, it was closed after the storms and resulting landslides in 1983 made it too expensive to repair and maintain so it was permanently closed to automobile traffic. But after a long, costly renovation, spearheaded by the eponymous Congressman George Miller, the revamped trail was re-opened as a unique and beautiful 1500-acre regional park in 2014.
Trains coming to and from Martinez rumble along the water‘s edge several times per day but it‘s in the spaces between, where the trail curls into the ravines, that it‘s possible to hear one‘s breathing against a backdrop of rain dripping off laurel branches, punctuated by the occasional thrush, wren or flicker call.
Through a persistently calamitous pandemic, months of wildfire smoke, protests that sometimes blossomed into violence, and a chaotic and disorienting presidential election, I've been coming to the trail an average of 5-6 days/week, usually before sunrise, right after the gates are unlocked. I typically walk the 1.8 miles from one trailhead to the other—or longer—as much as 5 miles in a round trip, in all types of weather and all states of mind.
Some days I avail myself of the time and space to work out thorny design problems or write poetry. Other days I simply want to limit my input to the sea lions barking complaints from out on the channel marker or a maybe a chorus of Canada geese. Lately, I mostly use my walks to puzzle out any feelings of dread that may have kept me awake the previous night, while trying to keep my eyes and ears open for interesting birds, plants and photographic opportunities.
I've given names to certain spots along the trail like "Chill Hill"—which is the first place the trail dips and curls away from water and the temperature drops accordingly. Then comes "Turkey Hill", "Table Top", and others, all just my own references. I guess the naming is just way of wrapping my arms around a place I know so well.
"Fox Crossing" came about a few years back after a red fox crossed the path and then shadowed me for a while, keeping pace with me up on the wooded hillside only a few yards away for a minute or two until it disappeared into a thick copse of elderberry and poison oak. I've had several such encounters with the resident wildlife over the years—foxes, coyotes, turkeys, snakes, skunks and rabbits and while seeing a mountain lion is still a box I've yet to tick, I have come across the crime scene-like aftermath of at least one deer vs. lion encounter, which was fascinating forensically but otherwise hard to stomach.
The George Miller Trail has to be one of the few places on earth where it‘s at least technically possible to see a mountan lion and a sea lion at the same time.
The thing about tromping over the same patch of earth almost daily for years is that one naturally notices minute, day-to-day changes; the fresh toll of unfortunate of slow-moving Western newts who've stricken grotesque death poses after being run over by cyclists or stepped on by ignorant walkers who assume they're some kind of slimy, crawly threat. In fact, these harmless, fascinating amphibians are just obeying primordial marching orders to find their breeding ponds. Some scientists say they might do it by using celestial navigation. Either way, a little respect, please.
Every walk can reveal a slightly different version of any natural place, if that place is visited often enough.
The perfection in a random, rain-soaked collage of broad-leaf maple leaves, or the return (or not) of a nesting pair of Cooper's hawks, in the aggregate, is all a reminder that life persists, migration cycles continue, nature abides. As it turns out, I need to be reminded of that almost every day as long as the world is broadcasting its pain at full volume.
In the end it‘s just really hard to hold onto a lot of existential angst while a red-tailed hawk is flying twenty feet over your head, backlit by the morning sun..
James Ketsdever is a Bay Area photographer, illustrator and graphic designer. Photographs were made using either an iPhone X and a Nikon D810e.
Also, a special thanks to my fellow GMT regulars; Aldon, Erika and Colin, Joan and her late golden lab "Mick" and a host of others who's daily waves and "good mornings" have provided continuity and a sense of community over the years. And to the East Bay Regional Park employees who maintain the park and who've shooed me away from the "secret pond" a few times, I appreciate you.