Return of the Water

Redwood Creek, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

It’s always special when the rainy season returns after months of no rain, the typical dry season in California. Except that the rain hasn’t come for years, with a record-setting drought that has left us over and over crossing our fingers each winter for rainfall that never came.

Until it did this winter.

Everywhere, the green has returned. The moss in the forest has once again revived as a big sponge along the tree trunks and rocks. Mushrooms of all colors are emerging from the soil. I’m savoring the squishiness of mud underfoot instead of hard-packed trail. Just being outdoors, you can feel the earth soaking it all up and coming back to life. I can’t help being energized by it.

Today I walked a favorite seven-mile loop, starting in Muir Woods National Monument early before the crowds, heading uphill into the quiet of Mt. Tamalpais State Park, and eventually descending back where I started. What was distinctive this time is that I could hear the welcome sound of rushing water the entire way—first as I hiked up the steep canyon on the Bootjack Trail along Redwood Creek, where the water surged in waterfalls and narrow channels, and then along the smaller braids in the adjacent gullies along the TCC, Stapleveldt, Ben Johnson and Hillside Trails.

Creek on TCC Trail 1-2015Redwood Creek passes through Muir Woods into Golden Gate National Recreation Area and eventually to the ocean. After years without success, this year, the endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout can make it back to spawn.

Although California’s drought has been severe, Oregon’s rainfall until this winter had been below normal as well. On a recent visit to see my friend Bryan in Portland, the one activity I insisted on was a visit to the Columbia River Gorge to see the gushing waterfalls. They were so loud that Bryan and I had to shout so we could hear each other.

Beverly at Latourell Falls in Columbia River Gorge 1-2016
Standing beside Latourell Falls, Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area

Photo by Bryan Aptekar

Horsetail Falls, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Covered head to toe in raingear, it was fabulous to be in the wet forest tromping around in the downpour. Water everywhere. Bring it on.

Beverly portait Bridal Veil Falls Columbia River Gorge 1-2016
Bridal Veil Falls State Scenic Viewpoint, Oregon – Photo by Bryan Aptekar

Following Flower Season

Tiburon mariposa lily - 1

For years I’d heard about the threatened and protected Tiburon mariposa lily. A small population of individuals blooms for a few weeks on a single serpentine outcrop at Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve, and nowhere else in the world.

I at last decided to find the lily, researching its location online. I stumbled around on the crisscross of unmarked trails and found the general vicinity where the plant grows. I headed out alone, late in the day when the shadows were long and the trails were empty. I ended up on various side trails, poking around along the rocks. To protect them, there is no signage marking the exact spots where the lily grows. I had memorized the photos I’d seen, but realized since it’s not a showy flower and only the size of a quarter, I could easily miss it.

And there it was, right beside the trail. A single flower.

Tiburon mariposa lily - 2
Tiburon mariposa lily, Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve

It was deeply moving to sit beside one of the world’s rare living things. I reached to touch it as I do with most plants, but extra gently. In the silence I appreciated that it exists, and felt grateful to those who arranged for The Nature Conservancy to purchase and protect this property until it could become public land.

That first visit to Ring Mountain was six years ago. I still visit each June to see the flowers, as I did a few days ago. This season after years of drought, the plants could barely eke out their blossoms, noticeably smaller and paler than I’ve ever seen them.

There is a depth of connection that comes with returning to familiar places over time. I have come to know which trails to hike at which time so that I can visit particular flowers I’m fond of.

This year, I’ve missed nearly the entire wildflower season while I’m recovering from the sprain that accompanied my broken ankle in January. Except for the Tiburon mariposa lily, a late bloomer that grows not far from the trailhead, I’ve had to be satisfied with memories and photos from previous trips. I’m smiling, though, looking at these images and thinking about next year.

Oakland mariposa lily - Mt. Tam Van Wyck Meadow 5-2013
Oakland mariposa lily, Bootjack Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

 Baby blue eyes at Mt Tamalpais 3-2009
Baby blue eyes, High Marsh Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

California bead lily at Mt Tamalpais 5-2013 California bead lily, TCC Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

Putting One Foot in Front of the Other

Navigating an emotionally difficult transition, I knew today that it was time to head alone into the forest. An early arrival gave me a head start before the crowds that mob Muir Woods National Monument on a summer weekend.

I headed toward the TCC Trail in adjacent Mt. Tamalpais State Park, a largely untraveled path where I always have solitude. I hastened past the tourists over the pavement and boardwalk with my trekking poles tucked under my arm, until I heard the comforting sound of my boots on dirt. And began my walking meditation.

In traditional Buddhist practice, a simplified definition is that walking meditation cultivates mindfulness and awareness of the body and spirit through walking back and forth on a path of only a few yards. I have had powerful experiences walking just a few feet over and over. But today was about being expansive, covering more ground and deepening my practice.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn wrote: “In daily life, our steps are burdened with anxieties and fears. Life itself seems to be a continuous chain for insecure feelings, and so our steps lose their natural easiness. Our earth is truly beautiful. There is so much graceful, natural scenery along the paths and roads around the earth! … Do you know how many forest paths there are, paved with colorful leaves, offering cool and shade? They are all available to us, yet we cannot enjoy them because our hearts are not trouble-free, and our steps are not at ease. Walking meditation is learning to walk again with ease.”

I focused on walking with ease.

I was flooded with the thoughts of recent wounds that are tender. I let the thoughts and feelings come and go, intermingled with my accelerated pulse and quickened breathing as I headed up the steep slope. I opened to be mindful of where I was, listening to the calls of band-tailed pigeons, pileated woodpeckers, chickadees.

In a wave of sadness, I reached out to feel a redwood’s fibrous bark. Along the trail I stopped to pick up my first acorn of the year, still green and covered in fuzz, and was reminded of the evolving seasons of the heart.

Eight miles of beauty, acceptance and healing. The journey continues.

Thich Nhat Hahn’s quote is from his book The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation.

Footsteps of Spring

After months of inactivity because of my deteriorating joint and recuperation after my knee replacement, I took my first walk off pavement. Heading out on a weekday gave me the solitude I was seeking to reconnect to a place I love—Mt. Tamalpais State Park with its high ridges in the Douglas fir forest and open coastal scrub grasslands, steep valleys filled with redwoods, and creeks that trickle in the summer and rage in the winter. It was a classic late afternoon in March, sunny and clear but with that chilly wind blasting loudly through the trees that tells you the weather could still slide back into a California winter.

With my trekking poles, I walked slowly, not only to accommodate my wobbly leg with weakened muscles, but to savor coming back into the forest. I usually am outdoors frequently enough to watch the transition between the seasons, but since it has been months, this time I stepped directly into damp and green instead of dry and brown. The early flowers are blooming—footsteps of spring, hound’s tongue, milkmaids, wild cucumber.

Hound’s Tongue

Hounds tongue

I arrived at the viewpoint, looking out over the forest and the ocean on a day when the line of the ocean blended into the sky, grateful to be able to take in that view for the first time in so long.

It was only a little more than a mile round-trip, but I walked so much farther than that—back into strength, a quieted mind, and a world of beauty that I have so missed.

Looking West at the Pacific Ocean from the Viewpoint