It was morning at Round Valley Regional Preserve, but it could have been evening. The Sun’s disc, wherever it might be drifting in the cerulean blue, was veiled by a wave of white saturating East County like a tsunami in slow motion. I was standing inside a cloud.
I hike in the fog not merely for the eerie imagery, for the vision of oaks drifting wraithlike in and out of view; I hike in the fog for the awareness of my own form drifting wraithlike in and out of view. I come to wear the white like a garment.
But my world that morning was far from wall-to-wall white. Glowing through the gloom on the ridge I was tacking to the park’s summit were infant grasses, a stippling of green beneath the tall amber of thistle and rye echoing summer’s dry heat – a green that would soon crowd out the amber and dominate our landscape for the next six months.
Grass and fog; green and white. How fitting that two colors from our holiday palette are the colors of winter in Northern California. And how nice for me, a hiker addicted to adventures off-trail, that my favorite season was about to begin. In that other season, from June through November, adventures off-trail require lengthy post-hike extractions of barbs and hooks from shoes and socks. Round Valley’s interior, a verdant and trouble-free wonderland December through May, in summer becomes a minefield of tall, dry things that sting and cling.
But I’d come to this place for more than green and white. I’d come to steal a glimpse of the hidden – a view denied the several hundred thousand folk far below. I’d come to see if the park’s 1,220-foot summit stood above or below the fog’s rippled plateau. If above, I’d be able to rotate through the panorama of Mt. Diablo’s twin peaks in the west, the broad brushstroke of Morgan Territory’s ridgeline southwest, south to the Ohlone Wilderness, and east to the Sierra’s granite spine.
Round Valley’s interior hills are a maze of escarpments, ravines and ridges. Take your pick: from the trailhead you can assault the park’s apex from a variety of approaches offering a variety of scenery and compounding a variety of sweat equity. Since I was anxious to discover the state of the fog at the top, I opted for speed. I chose the fastest (and therefore steepest) route: Ridge X.
You won’t find the label “Ridge X” on the map you snatch at the trailhead. Few of the park’s features have been given a name, and the interior hills are devoid of trail markers. But we Homo sapiens love naming stuff, so my unofficial map of Round Valley Regional Preserve is scribbled with terms such as Arroyo Grande, Antler Ravine and ridges dubbed Coyote, Ithuriel, Clover, Castle (aka Blue Angel) and X – for expressway.
Thoreau believed that winter promotes an inward life. Standing on the banks of a frozen river, he imagined the human brain as “the kernel which winter itself matures.” Winter clears the mind’s clutter as the winter wind clears leaves from forest branches, giving our intellectual landscape a transparency that allows us to see through things. “The winter,” Thoreau maintained, “is thrown to us like a bone to a famished dog, and we are expected to get the marrow out of it.”
The irony of fog is that it aids, not inhibits, vision – the sort of vision Thoreau described. You know how it goes: The fog ahead seems utterly opaque. But with each step through it you’re able to resolve nearby images with remarkable clarity. You’re trapped in a bubble of the immediate. There is no ahead; there is only here.
I arrived at a summit drowned in fog. That vision of Diablo, Morgan Territory, Ohlone and the Sierra I’d hoped for was denied. No trace of bobcat or coyote. The visible universe had collapsed to a sphere 150 yards in diameter. What lay beyond was the stuff of theory; not evidence.
But I was in good company. That miniature cosmos, that fog-encased bubble I was dragging around resonated with the energy of creatures committed to the present task: cicada and butterfly larvae, great-horned owls and kit foxes; some dormant, some busy outwitting the cold Sun and long night. They don’t need fog to make them aware of the grass beneath their feet. Their existence is free of the riddle of existence, of melancholic musings over the uncertain promise of spring. They aren’t mesmerized by metaphors. They are metaphors.
And so I count among the season’s many blessings the white and green – yes, even the cold Sun and long night that are their inseparable companions. May they pass into and through us, and lead us to find on the other side of winter a place – perhaps on Ridge X – where the first wildflowers grasp for the growing light, a place that without winter would be far less sweet.