I love hiking, it’s among my very favorite things to do. It combines my love of the outdoors with the wonderfully free feeling of unencumbered limbs and wandering wherever my feet can take me. The other night, I went to Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve, a lovely spot in the hills where Berkeley and Oakland meet, offering amazing views of the bay and nice steep climbs to get the blood really moving.
I discovered this place this summer, have been there several times this summer and fall and thought I was pretty familiar with where it linked up to trails going to Tilden and back around again. What I wasn’t thinking about, though, was the recent the time change, how quickly it gets dark, and how different everything looks when all you can see is darkness interrupted only here and there with the light of a house nestled among the tree, with none of the major landmarks visible to guide me.
So I, carefree (careless?), with some fascinating podcasts loaded up on my Ipod, hiked up the best hills to the place where Grizzly Peak crosses the trail. Off to my right, running along the road, was another enticing looking trail that would likely take me back in the right direction. I found the trailhead across from the entry to the parking lot for the Steam Train. It felt as if I hadn’t been hiking too long, and it seemed there was plenty of daylight life. So I plunged ahead.
The trail followed the open side of a hill, golden and rolling and scattered with scrubby oaks and deep green shrub, common scenery around here that I find lovely and friendly-looking. I chose the trails that led off to the right as much as possible, knowing I had to end up with Claremont Ave on my left. I crossed a road (Claremont, I thought), and kept on. After a while, hiking fast, I came upon another trail that looked like on I’d been on before, like one that connected back to the (unmarked) main trail that runs down the center of Claremont Canyon. It was beautiful, cocooned in the oak trees and fallen leaves, an enchanting road to mystery in the deepening light.And then I began to really notice that the darkness was not just the shade of the trees in the late afternoon. And I started feeling that leg ache, that I usually enjoy, which told me I had actually been hiking quite a ways. Night was falling fast.A little anxious now, and not yet where I expected to be, I knew I could no longer stay on the trail, and hurried on towards a faint sound of traffic until I came to the road, which was not supposed to be there. I walked along it for a bit, looking over the Bay beginning to sparkle brightly with its lamps turning on under a deepening red sunset, the water gleaming like a fish’s scales, that kinda greenish-bluish-silvery glow with streaks of pink and other colors, like a rainbow-y oil slick on a parking lot.
As I walked down the road, I had the uneasy feeling, then the sinking realization, I was nowhere near where I’d left my car and my phone. Yes, I’d left my phone behind, goddammit! Not such a smart hiker, after all. So I walked up the mostly enclosed driveway in this little cluster of gated, walled, exclusive, very expensive houses, where two men were talking in the driveway. I asked them what I had already realized at this point:
‘Excuse me, am I on Grizzly Peak Road?’
‘Yes’, one of the men said.
I explained that I had been hiking and had gotten lost, and when I described where I had come from and was trying to get back too, one of the men whistled a little.
‘Wow, that was a pretty good hike!’
‘Yes, it was,’ I said, wryly.
The other said, cheerily: ‘Well, I’ll give you a ride, I live in Temescal, and it will be easy to drop you on the way’. (A sweet lie, it was not at all on his way.)
I accepted, of course. I was at least a forty-five minute walk from my car, much of it in total darkness. His car was nice, expensive with its leather interior, had a child’s booster seat in the back and some papers in colorful plastic files. He was dressed professionally.
His name was John (‘That’s my dad’s and my brother’s name!’ I said, to open up the conversation) and he worked in insurance. He told me a bit about his client, a banker (the owner of the house I met them at), and how they had discovered they had both at one time lived in Singapore. He asked if I was a student (I had told him where I was parked, in the hills behind the UC Berkeley campus), and I told him a bit about what I do. We mostly chatted about traveling, and he obviously loves it as much as I do, and had been many places.
When we drew near to the campus, I suggested he drop me at the bottom of the hill, since the drive up is so windy and narrow. He asked, ‘Are you sure?’ I pointed out that it’s a lovely neighborhood where I felt safe, that the streets are narrow and windy and currently half-blocked in places by some construction work (I had barely squeezed my car through earlier), and where I thought I could easily find my way.
I thanked him profusely, and he demurred, ‘No problem! It’s just one of those things we’re all supposed to do for one another!’
I started up the hill, happy and relieved, with that glow on that you feel when you’ve just had the pleasure of re-discovering how lovely human beings can be to each other. But as I walked, I realized that I had never been in this neighborhood at night, there are no street lights to speak of, and I might not be able to find my way so easily after all. Once again, I had underestimated how little light I would have to work with and how hard it is to find your way in a maze-like tangle of narrow streets (just as difficult as trails, it turns out!) in a place you’ve only ever been in the light of day, with no landmarks in view.
Oh man, I thought. What a drag. I think I’m lost again.
So I to avoid the risking, once again, walking in circles all night, I approached a house light where I was happy to see a lady exiting her car in the long, windy, elegantly brick-worked driveway, nestled among the dark trees, glowing brightly against the dark.
‘I’m visiting a friend,’ she said, in a rather thick and lovely accent (like many Americans, I’m a sucker for accents). ‘We’ll go inside and ask her.’ She was smiling and friendly, but had given up trying to understand my rather confused explanation of my predicament.
Her friend, in the meantime, had opened the front door wide, and was waving enthusiastically. Her happy smile shifted to include a surprised but polite welcome. Her name was Sarah, and we shook hands.
‘Come in!’ she said, when she understood that I had somehow lost my car. ‘It happens all the time. It happened to me when I first used to walk in these hills over twenty-five years ago, I never imagined I would live here one day!’
She tried to draw me a map to show me where we were situated in relation to local landmarks and where (she thought) I parked my car, but I explained that it wasn’t a problem of knowing the landmarks (the water tower, the roof of a certain long building), it was a problem of not being able to see them in the dark. I tried to describe where my car was. ‘There’s a small water tower-thing, reddish, and a trail that runs straight up a hill through some trees between houses, that leads up to the park, and a place where people park along the side on the street, and I think there’s a sign that’s painted over, and…’
She pulled her laptop toward us, then thought better of it. ‘I know, I’ll drive you! And I’ll show you how all of it’s connected so you could know your way around up here even in the dark.’
As we wound our way among the dark streets, pausing to point out this street and that, she told me about her job teaching art, to kids from first through eighth grade. She evidently loves her job and her life with her family in the green hills. She talked like a woman full of energy, decisive, who has had a successful, interesting life, and has also traveled a lot (which I discovered in her story of her best lifelong buddy, the visiting friend, comes to be from… Sweden, I think).
‘There’s my car!’ I interrupted. But while I felt relieved at the sight of it, since by that time I was afraid Bryan would be worried about me, I was sorry too. Within a few minutes, I felt I had gotten to know her a little and really liked her, and wished we were on our way to a coffee shop for a chat.
‘I knew it! That little part of the park that sticks out here is called “the Connector”,’ she said. ‘Now you know how you get from the houses up to the park. There’s the water tower at the bottom, and the round red building that’s part of a house up there that looks like another little water tower. Just look for that, and you’ll know where you are!’
We said our goodbyes, and I repeated my thanks. She waved her hand out the back window on her way down the hill.
As she was driving away, I was once again overcome by that glow caused by the kindness of strangers, and thought about how lucky I was to have run into two people who just so happened to be as kind, and helpful, and friendly, as these two, who would drop everything they were doing to help a woman they never met (a foolish, careless one, stinky with sweat and dust!) find her car. But then, I thought, they reminded me of what I really think: however badly people can behave sometimes, coming across a human being who needs help brings out the best in most people. When they feel that they can do something of real benefit, that they can fix the situation, most people want to help, and will. I may very well have made them just as happy as they made me.
Driving back down the hill towards the grocery store and then home, I also realized that many of the best times I’ve ever had were when I was wandering aimlessly, and when I was lost. When I first moved to the Bay Area, I would often take the Bart to a station I didn’t know, or head in a new direction, and just walk, and walk, and walk. More than once, I would find myself totally lost, and a stranger would take the time to help me find my way. I would meet and learn about someone I would likely never have met, sometimes people so different from me that it’s unlikely I would ever have had the opportunity otherwise. One time (and I’ve thought about him many times over the years), a young man, probably no older than twenty, walked me to the Bart station, well over a mile away, to make sure I got there safe, though he was on his way home after a double shift. He didn’t flirt, and acted like a big brother, full sleeve tattoos, half-shaved and greased hair, piercings, cut-off Dickies, wife-beater, and all. He was the most gentlemanly gentleman I could have had the pleasure of meeting, and though I forget his words, his warm and rather shy personality is still vivid to me.
Every time I would get lost, I would not only discover a new place, I would discover something new about people, and fill in all these gaps and connections between the little I did know with new and interesting details, and new ways of seeing things I thought I knew. The broader views that remain are more intricate, more fascinating, more rich, than would I ever have expected and known how to find.
I’m still not quite sure that I really understand those connections, that I could find my way alone up that maze of streets to the water tower, and I still don’t know the name of that trail after trying to find it on a map.
But I may yet put it all together one happy day I’ve gotten lost again.