Winter miscellany, December–March


This annual trip has trended larger and younger lately; there’s a lot of spontaneous group singing. The moment a girl unzips her puffy to reveal a sweatshirt announcing “FEMALE FRIENDSHIP” in white script is the moment I accept that I can’t hang.

I bow out to instead walk 16 miles alone to Glacier Point, watch a super-moon rise over Half Dome. The year flares out in dreamy traces of pink on the twilight, and my sharp lunar shadow follows me all the way back to camp.


Santa Barbara

There’s a quality to Southern California sunshine that makes it distinctly more difficult to take things seriously.* Massive mudslides in Montecito are washing dead animals onto the beach; regardless, there is a beach. Donations of clothing are accepted only new with tags. I’m just a visitor and so it’s all difficult to reconcile: there is the sprawling emergency-response staging area and the old burn zones across the water; there are the red-tile roofs and crying seagulls over the pier.

In any case, we eat and we ride. Having my friends on knobby tires with slow flats hardly puts a dent in my problem of keeping up, and they’re in sight only when we’re descending. In fact, I watch one of them come with in inches of being hit by an (at-fault) car on Gibraltar. As with his last near miss, I have a clearer view of his actual proximity to disaster in that moment than he could ever have himself—but in this sunshine, at least, there is warmth enough to convert the horror of that split second to an afterglow of fierce relief.


* A must-read, if you’re interested in this particular superstition: Carey McWilliams, An Island on the Land

Angel Island

It’s ridiculous that I’ve never been here before. Angel Island is every bit of professional park propaganda I’ve ever written balled up in a beautiful rock: transit-accessible, urban-adjacent, family-friendly, and best of all, Historically Problematic. It has ruins, vultures, flowers—all my favorite things—and it puts the city on the skyline, where I like it.

It is also, as a consequence, insanely difficult to book. So here I am with the Golden Gate Bridge framed in my tent door, all because I have a friend who is six to eight months better than me at planning ahead. Thank you, thank you, thank you!


home counties and otherworlds

This summer and fall I managed to spend nearly sixteen consecutive weekends out of town. This was glorious and as close to living as I think you can get with a desk job, but there were some pretty predictable effects on my bank balance—not to mention the people in my life whose idea of a good time is anything other than driving all night in order to sleep on the ground.

Point being, it probably would have been about time to stay local even if it hadn’t finally started raining. So I’m grateful, as always, that home’s so often as beautiful as away.

Russian Ridge
Russian Ridge, 11/28

On the peninsula for Thanksgiving I took the Montanan through my stations of the cross: Page Mill, Montebello, Russian Ridge, Rosotti’s. That his bike was broken and mine wasn’t probably contributed to a slight enthusiasm differential (“Do you see it? That’s the ocean! You’re not even looking! Are you sure? Isn’t it great?”)—but it probably made a nice change from the usual iteration of that problem.

Alhambra Valley Road, 12/6

This is one of my favorite little stretches of East Bay backroad (a relationship I’ve apparently been rather less shy about in the past). Winter being Bay Area spring, it’s currently a cow nursery.

Sunol Regional Wilderness
Sunol Regional Wilderness, 12/14

Finally made it out here to investigate “Little Yosemite,” a tumbledown portion of Calaveras Creek. On my insistence we half-waded, half-scrambled up the slick serpentine until it started to get sketchy as the full-sized version. (For me, at least. Kwang I hear is pretty good at bouldering.)

Out of the gorge and in place of the glowing, morning mist the hills blazed with fantasy-world brightness. I looked down on the valley floor—the carved-out banks and presiding oaks—and realized why: it’s been years since I’ve seen water flowing anywhere but the mountains. The way it looks here, the diamond glint of the stream in the green of new grass, belongs to a landscape so much more often remembered than seen that it has taken on the color of a story.

Muir Beach
Muir Beach, 12/20

After miles of fractious traffic on either end of the bridge, Jacob and I rode into a grand surprise: Highway 1 closed to cars above Stinson Beach, for a slide or rockfall or something—who cares! It meant a two-lane descent in near-unbroken speed and silence. Only the roar of the waves somewhere below the guardrails, just the hiss of wet pavement and the wind in my ears.

a thank-you card

… to EBRPD. I had an unexpected free Sunday in town and used it for wandering white washboard fire-road with my neglected cross bike. This is my tenth year in Berkeley (!), I spend the vast majority of my free time outside, and I’d still never seen Lake Chabot—how is that possible? And all these butterflies around my knees, in earshot of a gun range! How excellent, to have the acreage for surprises still.

And even the places I’ve been a hundred times—

Inspiration Point, not for nothing.
Inspiration Point, not for nothing.

—thank you, thank you.

some sensory experiments

In June, spent mostly close to home, I considered something I suspect that only we know: the smell of dust in fog.

Pogonip, Santa Cruz

I do not know the words or word for this—but there’s one that’s almost right and good to have:

Petrichor (/ˈpɛtrɨkɔər/) is the scent of rain on dry earth, or the scent of dust after rain. Constructed from Greek, petros, meaning ‘”stone,” and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.

(Did you catch that? The veins of the gods, I tell you!)

In middle school I read All Summer in a Day, that wretched story about a place where it pours for years at a time. As with a lot of Bradbury (or perhaps a lot of what I read in middle school) I remember little of the writing or the plot but everything of the anxiety, the clammy palms. It is the seminal work on FOMO.

But this is the West, not Venus. Here it will rain rarely and exclusively when you don’t want it to—in my case, lately, when I want to climb things that cannot be climbed wet. But the consolation that day was to doze belly-down on the warm rock riverside, on granite polished pale pink and glassy smooth, to hear nothing but the loud, mad river, to weigh raindrops ending long falls on my spine. It might have been the strangest thing I’ve ever felt.

Vollmer Peak, Berkeley

local advisory

Not so far from Berkeley it’s spring and also approximately 1860, some lost year of the land-grant ranchos. You can get there on BART, it turns out; by cheating in this fashion (after five years of dismissing the full route as too long) I finally visited “the morning side of the mountain.” There I found many idle ponies and a flying, ten-minute descent through the old homestead of Mr. Jeremiah Morgan, for whom all this acreage once supported 16 children and a bear-hunting operation. It’s fantastic ocean swells of green to the horizon. It’s yours now, if you like.

The next day I walked a purposeless circle in Briones, which looks like this:

Briones Regional Park
Mt. Diablo (evening side) in the distance.

The creek beds are dry but you can feel the damp breath of the new grass around your ankles. Absurd, cobalt butterflies the size of your face. A warm wind, and red-tails on it. Go if you can.

20 stops in 60 miles

Ridiculous to fuss over being “stuck in town” for the weekend when “stuck in town” can look like this.

McEwen Road the easy way. (Downhill.)
OK, possibly I let Instagram up the contrast a little bit.

It just takes a little legwork, I guess—something that this weekend I mitigated with stops for:

  1. Two emus!
  2. An interesting gate with initials on it, a very green field.
  3. Elementary-school artwork. (Quotable: “If Thing 1 and Thing 2 came to my house, I would … KICK THEM OUT.”)
  4. Mount Wanda, part of the John Muir National Historic Site. “My life these days is like the life of a glacier: one eternal grind,” he said. “Soon I’ll throw down my pen and take up my heels and go mountaineering once more.”
  5. A list of wildflowers. These include “prostrate pigweed” (????) and poison oak.
  6. Killer view of Mt. Diablo and the waterfront. Related, discussion with another rider about the likelihood of being shot by the neighboring rancher should I venture onto singletrack in order to improve it slightly.
  7. Railroad tracks. I sat and waited on a little signal tower but nothing came by; I would have been deafened or arrested if it had so this was probably just as well.
  8. Part of a bathtub on the side of the road, very Marcel Duchamp.
  9. A large puddle that at one angle looked like the radiant, crystalline reflection of the glory of heaven and at another like, you know, mud.
  10. Flowers.
  11. Cows.
  12. A house with ceramic gargoyles along the fence. And a rocket ship!
  13. The Crockett Veteran’s Memorial. Did you know this was built by C&H Sugar? Well, now you do.
  14. The Valona Deli, for coffee and the best gingersnap cookie I’ve ever had. The bathroom is down a narrow, sloping hallway into the basement. Below it is a boarded-up tunnel that I choose to assume was once used for deliveries to rum-runners and/or pirates.
  15. Vista point for the Carquinez Bridge, a.k.a. the Al Zampa Memorial Bridge. Al Zampa was an ironworker who survived a fall off the Golden Gate Bridge and founded the Halfway to Hell Club. FYI.
  16. The Conoco Philips and Air Liquide refineries—lest anyone think it’s nothing but poppies and pastorals up here.
  17. Dead-end trail to a picnic table overlooking the shoreline in Rodeo. “WEED,” declared the graffiti.
  18. Freight train passing underneath San Pablo Dam Road. I played out some gutterpunk scenarios in my head and left them there.
  19. A gas station, to consult a map. It turns out that Google’s ostensibly strange suggestion to deviate from the supposed 1-80 “Bikeway” is because some portions of it may actually get you killed.
  20. Burrito.

In the past I’ve proclaimed an aversion to bike touring on the grounds that it’s “too slow.” But it appears my cycling interests have drifted away from getting up at five in the morning to ride intervals in the rain and toward reading placards and eating pastries. So it might be time to reconsider. Where to?

first assembly of the open sky

I don’t go to church, but I do go to Indian Rock.

Indian Rock, Berkeley
One such congregation.

On clear evenings, people come here to watch the day end. The ratio of toddlers to stoners is close even by Berkeley standards; nobody minds and everyone’s civil. As the sun slips and the bay goes glassy, you sit on the worn granite and watch the lights start to sparkle in the Port of Oakland. There will be several languages spoken, there will be a newborn, there will be a girl on someone’s arm, pretending to be cold, there will be similarly dressed friends eating Brie, there will be an old man helping his wife down the steps. One dog on the rock will bark at another in a tangled garden below. You’ll feel for a moment, as you would in any other church, that we’re very small and all in it together.

D(r)ownieville turned Briones


ONE: A 40% chance of rain in the mountains could mean many things, possibly, but one thing for sure: stake your fly.

Sean, unperturbed, scrambles eggs.

So I woke on Saturday to a small lake inside my tent, a continuing downpour outside of it, and total certainty that I wasn’t going to ride. I’m really just not into wet rocks. And I’ve got nothing to prove, right?

“It would suck to go home having not done anything,” Ryan said, pulling on a pair of swim trunks over his kit. “RRRGHHHHHHHHHFIIIIINE,” I replied.

TWO: I am neither an 80-pound roadie famine-child nor an 180-pound downhill meathead, and if I ride with my front suspension set up for one of those characters and the rear suspension set up for the other, the bike will feel drunk. I can dismiss this effect as the inevitable result of my poor handling skills (my approach to the issue all summer), or I can give the poor thing five minutes alone with a qualified mechanic and then freakin’ float down Third Divide in the throes of hero dirt with delusions of gnar and the soundtrack from Life Cycles in my head. Amazing. (Thank you, Matt B.!)

THREE: If you can’t be bothered to check the topo, at least consider the trail names. Really, what do you think is going to be the tougher option? “Creek Trail” or “DIABLO VIEW”?

Carquinez Strait from Briones Regional Park.

Anyway, yes, I walked some climbs—the sort of steep where you’re sliding backwards and stepping out of your shoes. And I probably didn’t do my road bike any favors. But anyone who says we don’t get fall colors is missing the glow and the change in the light, and the woods smelled new and brilliant after the rain.

A wheezy walk still beats the pavement.

something old, something new

[I swear I will shut up about this eventually.]

I went to the new bridge. Emerging from the maze of overpasses in Emeryville was like riding into my own marketing copy, some fundraising piece for urban greenways. Thousands of people had chosen this for their Sunday. I have spent most of my life in the Bay Area and never seen such a perfect parade of its Diversity™, a crowd so complete and so mixed and somewhere not serving alcohol. I saw an old man with skin like a speckled egg hold an iPhone aloft and explain to the screen in gravely, Russian-accented English: “You see, here is new one; here is old one.” I heard a child on a tricycle announce, “That was great, daddy, let’s do this every once a while.” I nosed my own bike around walkers and gawkers of every age, shape, and color, and I swear to their various gods that every last one looked happy to be there.

This path doesn’t even go anywhere yet!


I went to the old bridge, the sawn-off end of the old East Span. Its body was guarded by a lone white pickup and the reasonable assumption that acting on my trespass fantasies would result in my being shot on sight. On the upper deck, now stripped and open to the sky, the streetlights stood like an honor guard over the empty road. Below and behind the chain-link, lane lines receded into the shadows of the S-curve. I could hear the silence from behind the barricades. And I know, I know, I know, but I wanted to leave flowers.

/ span

I feel irrationally tragic about the old Bay Bridge.


In this overwrought piece of early-days Photoshop are reflections of freshman year, both the clunky camera and the amped-up ambient glow. I was (am?) a serious, suburban child: my town banned leaf-blowers and plastic lawn chairs; I never had a curfew because I always came home to my AP History notes of my own accord. So there was something to that particular bay crossing. It was summer, and I was riding to the city with boys. I had my nose to the glass, I remember, and the steel beams passed over my head like a benediction.

It’s a stupid expression in more ways that one, but since this is already leaning lachrymose I’ll say also that I’ve fallen both out of and in love on the lower deck, on each occasion in view of Treasure Island against the water. Possibly a bridge primes us for such transitions, suspends us alone with our dilemmas, catalyzes coalescence of something solid from the empty air. But like that picture this is fanciful abstraction. Reality is that the FS bus is a good place to cry, because it’s dim and loud and everyone’s facing forward, whereas the inside of a motorcycle helmet is not, because it fogs.

I don’t dislike the new bridge, exactly, but I must alas join the hipsters and native grouches and all the other wrongfully nostalgic in finding it sort of sterile. It’s too white, too obviously empty of whatever it was that the old one roared at you out of its bare bolts and bad pavement. But this is always the challenge, in the end: to find faith that in time all things might be acquired, to believe one day there will be more than what’s inherent in the build.