When I set off on my training hike at Mount Tamalpais this Tuesday, I didn’t even make it out of the parking lot before spotting my first California Poppy. It’s petals outstretched in what seemed to be a valiant attempt at mimicking the sun. The flower was in full bloom unlike several weeks ago when I was last here. I stopped to pull out my phone to take a picture, reminding myself I will have to limit the amount of photos I take on the trail so that I don’t spend all my hiking time taking photos.
I remember the first time I ever saw a California Poppy. I was walking home from Kindergarten with my dad, Pat, and I was probably playing one of my favorite sidewalk games where you avoid stepping on the cracks or the opposite one where you balance on the cracks and avoid stepping in the “lava”. Pat stopped me, look. Through the crack in the sidewalk grew a flower that looked like gold. I squatted down beside it to get a better look, don’t pick it he warned…it’s illegal! I stared at the little flower with a new sense of awe. I don’t think I had any intention of picking the flower, but I now marveled at how much power it had, with the law on its side boldly pushing its way through the sidewalk crack. This is your state flower, Danielle, Pat continued. Next to it stood a seedpod starting to split open and full of little black seeds, I peered into it. Everyday on my walk to and from school, I tried to say hello to the poppy that rebelliously grew on the sidewalk.
Writing this now, I began to wonder if perhaps my dad had been exaggerating about it being illegal to pick a California Poppy, so I looked it up and it turns out that on public land it is indeed illegal, and could even be punished with a short stint in jail. Hard to believe, but really nice that the law supports this flower and Leave No Trace ethics. I also learned, the poppies close up at night or when its foggy and their isn’t enough sun.
After photographing the poppy, clumsily sliding my new phone back i
n my pocket and putting away my reveries I started the trail. Two yards later, I ran into a lizard sunning itself on a rock. I was faster than the lizard this time and managed to sneak his photo…this was going to be a slow hike a this rate.
Finally I started walking. Of all the things that go into a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, the one thing I have the least experience with is hiking alone. I used to say that I would go crazy if I went two weeks without seeing anyone. I love being around people, but I am starting to like being by myself too. I can hike as fast as I want, take as many breaks as I want, and sing the silliest of songs. This day was another training hike, where I set out alone. After saying goodbye to the lizard, I launched into a pretty good solo clip and began singing whatever song had last been on the radio in my car. Likely, Shape of You by Ed Sheeran, the club isn’t the best place to find a lover/ so the bar is where I go. I was interrupted by someone crossing my path.
I could not tell whether or not the garter snake liked the song or not. It’s a pretty good song, but as anyone who knows me will tell you… my singing is not that great. The snake did stop to say hello and posed for a photo before slithering off. I was starting to feel a lot less alone on my solo hike.
It was a sunny day making the views pretty spectacular, especially since the beginning of this hike starts with the trail weaving through the hills and looking out over the ocean. My mind wandered as I walked but mostly to things trail related, I should probably do some more knee exercises, how bad will the snow truly be when I get there, and will the views be as amazing as I have been told. I started to relax and my mind wandered instead to the last time I had hiked this trail or the time I had gone to Stinson Beach to go bouldering with friends and it was totally the wrong tide to access the rocks.
Down from the ridge line, the trail dipped into the welcomed shade. The bay area has had some many storms recently several trees fell across the path. With each one I thought either, jeez its nice to have long legs or man, I wish I was a little shorter to get through this one. The shade introduced me to a new friend too.
I was a little worried about someone accidentally stepping on the slug, but it seemed to be mostly off the trail. This too reminded me of childhood, other slugs, and how some friends and I had all joined the I kissed a Banana Slug Club. It was a very elite group and the entry process involved three steps 1) find a banana slug 2) find a witness to pay attention 3) kiss the banana slug. I have been a proud member ever since the day I completed those three steps, I however did not bend down to kiss this slug. I wished it well and wished a second wish that no one would step on it as it finished its journey.
The next thing that crossed my path was not nearly as cool. A very not so exciting piece of human liter sitting among the rocks on the trail. There are trashcans at both the top and bottom of this hike and really anywhere you go, once you leave the wilderness you will eventually reach a trashcan. I picked up the piece of trash trying to offer the person, whoever they were, the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, it had just fallen out of their pack without them realizing. I stuffed it behind my water bottle and kept going.
The sounds of trail changed drastically as I hiked. Starting off with the sounds of car traffic from the road up Mount Tam. It seems inevitable that the trail would cross the road but it never does and soon the sounds of birds and the wind blowing take over. As the trail heads downwards and into the shade the rush of little waterfalls enjoying this year’s swollen size gush into my ears and finally the sound of the ocean becomes audible right before arriving in the town of Stinson. I stopped at a park and had a snack of goldfish, clementines and water. Before heading out again I remembered to drop off the trash I picked up.
Now it was time for the hard part of the hike. To finish up the loop, the trail goes up steeply for about 1.5 miles and it’s hot. I stood at the trailhead for about 20 minutes adjusting my new Montbell Sun Block Umbrella. Try as I might I could not find a way to attach it reliably to my day pack and I had not made a plan in advance or brought any extra materials so I settled for an umbrella in one hand and hiking pole in the other. I wanted to test out the umbrella to see whether I liked it. I felt rather silly looking with my hiking poles, sun umbrella and Outdoor Research Sun Gloves on just a day hike, but I did enjoy the shade of the umbrella, extra boost of the poles and not sunburning the tops of my hands as I had in San Diego.
Last time I did this Mount Tam hike, it was with a friend, Will, who is also thru-hiking the PCT this year, though four days ahead of me. It was even hotter that day and he was leading as we headed up the hot, steep stretch. We were both making sounds like we were dying, elicited by our dry throats and heavier breathing, but he only made them occasionally whereas I felt they were a continuous soundtrack to my up hill climb. That day I had thought, I don’t know if I can do this, maybe I am not meant to hike the PCT, maybe I have that condition where you die when you exercise too hard, maybe I can sneak a break here and then next thing I knew after thinking these thoughts many many times, we were at the top.
Today, I was hoping that things would go a little better. I was setting my own pace, had the shade of an umbrella and the advantage of it being a couple degrees cooler. It was slightly better, but I realized partway up that my mind was not on anything other than getting through the uphill climb, no fun day dreams during the hardest part. I took a few photo opportunities as a chance to take a break. Mostly, I watched pollinators at work.
Hiking up the hill, I saw a seaplane fly over head and immediately thought of my brother, Michael. Michael has been a pilot for about three years now as a hobby and much to my dismay has not yet started flying seaplanes. When I told my brother I was hiking the PCT, he said I just don’t get it, I mean it will be beautiful, but we could fly over it instead. He has now warmed up to the idea a bit more and has changed his offer. I heard this from Pat (my dad): They would get a helicopter, a grill and steaks and fly over the PCT and offer grilled steaks to hikers. I envisioned this as them tossing steaks from the windows with a grill suspended outside the helicopter (my brother and his Australian housemate suspended a grill outside their 2nd floor apartment window in college). Apparently though their plan was to land and do more of a trailside cookout. Unfortunately, there are probably not enough landing zones, this is totally impractical and defeats the self-sufficiency aspect of the hike, but a sweet and silly gesture none-the-less. Oh, and they stipulated they would wear chef hats while doing this.
As I hiked the classic bay area afternoon fog and clouds rolled in and where the view of the ocean used to be was just a wall of whitish grey. I finally reached the top of the steep section and started to notice and admire the products of the pollinators’ work as I hiked.
Not only where the flowers in bloom, but also the poison oak was out in full force. I had to tip-toe through some of the more narrow sections of trail and not use my poles. When I got back home, I did a big gear cleaning. I had never seen that much poison oak before, it was everywhere in parts of the trail.
On the relaxing home stretch of the trail, I passed a historic automobile wreck. I quickened my pace and soon I was overtaking the hiker in front of me further down the trail. She was stopped and I exchanged a hello and aimed to keep going. Oh, good you are here, she responded. I stopped, rather surprised. She explained to me that she had found a snake on the trail and was not sure what it was and was too scared to go past it. I walked up to the where the snake was, sure that it must just be another garter snake. It, however, did not look like any garter snake I had seen. No matter what the snake it looked upset and ready to lunge. It looks pretty angry, I said to her. Oh ya, well I was throwing rocks towards it before you got here, hoping it would move, she confessed. Of course it’s mad then, I thought. Before we had to think about it too much longer the snake started crossing the trail. And once on the other side, I explained to the snake, that’s your side and this is our side. It still tried to lunge at us as we walked passed, but fell way short. Jo, my mom, who works for poison control reviewed with me later that I should be looking for oval shaped eyes and a triangular shaped head if I am worried it is a rattlesnake. She said, actually photographing it as a way to ID without getting too close. So the snake we had seen did not appear to be a rattlesnake. Also, not all individual rattlesnakes always have rattles apparently!
On the home stretch I ran into two more reptiles. A garter snake right in the middle of the trail that shocked me because I was not expecting it and was busy thinking about what little I knew about ID rattlesnakes. I then found a very large lizard sunning itself.
It was funny, on my solo hike, I did not feel alone. There was so much life on the trail! I ran into a bunch of animals, saw countless flowers and a healthy handful of hikers too. I am very much enjoying hiking on my own, which is good because I am about to do a whole lot of it.
Want to check out this hike my friend Will showed me? Start at Pantoll campground, be sure to park in the day use parking or pay the fee. Also take advantage of the water fountains and bathrooms. Hike down the Matt Davis Trail, being sure to stop at the main lookout on a hill on the ridge (this should be obvious and a little over 1 mile in). When you reach the town of Stinson, there is a nice park with basketball courts, benches and a water fountain to have lunch at. Do some street walking for a bit (on Belvedere Ave and Farralone Avenue) you will be going uphill and will eventually pass a house with abalone shells decorating the front yard. The Willow Fire Road/Willow Trail will go steeply uphill for about 1.5 miles you will see a water treatment container almost immediately but do not take the trail that goes to this as it dead-ends, take the other trail. Hike until you hit the first chance to turn right and that will be the Coastal Trail that will bring you on a leisurely ridge walk back to the Matt Davis Trail and back to Pantoll Campground. Great hike! Thanks Will! Watch out for poison oak and animals on the trail that would rather not be stepped on.
Now that I actually have my backpack for my PCT hike, I will be training using that. I have not yet played with it, but if anyone has any tips on how to attach the Montbell Sun Block Umbrella to the ULA Catalyst pack please let me know if the comments below. Thanks! 🙂