Photo by Ermin Celikovic

Forest like a teen

I made it into the forest tonight, shook off the inertia that sinks its claws into me and holds me where I don’t need to be. After sitting in this stupid office chair pulled awkwardly and incongruously to my dining room table for far too many hours, hours spent obsessively checking my email for job assignments, I tore myself away.

The dog helps. As soon as I enter my bedroom and glance at my tennis shoes, she is excited. Her ears dart forward. Her eyes shine. She closes her mouth, pauses artfully, then wheels around to look for her ball. By the time she’s back, I’m tying on my second shoe, even then feeling like there’s a fifty percent chance I’ll tear it off and pour myself a glass of wine instead.

We set out. The first block is hard, the second blocker harder, the third block harder still. By the fifth or sixth block, we’re starting to get a kind of stride, but even then I’m still strongly considering turning back. I hear the calculations in my head. How many minutes have I walked? Is this enough? Maybe it’s enough. Surely, it’s enough.

We make it to the casting pools. This is good. Daisy darts across the street ahead of me, across the street that feeds Highway 13. My heart was in my throat as she did so. But, she is smart. She was fine. Then, I crossed, following her lead, and then, I slipped through the chain link fence, and — voila — a quiescence immediately fell upon me. Damp earth smell immediately rose to my nose. Draping redwood branches swayed softly, fluidly, invitingly. We were hitting our stride now.

The forest was calling. We made our way along the creek, past the three casting ponds, past several picnic tables, some with bar-be-que grills intact. The early evening light filtered soft green through the trees. Hundreds, thousands, of little seed pods purple on the outside and brilliant orange, the color of sea urchin roe, on the inside crunched loudly under my step.

Soon, we’d reached the freeway overpass, this unexpected bridge in the middle of the woods. Daisy knows the routine and was way ahead of me, suspended over the rush hour traffic already, waiting. We reached the other side. One more street that Daisy again tried to cross. She knew exactly where we were going and was eager to get there. This time, I managed to hold her. We crossed awkwardly as she tugged me off course.

Through the meadow. Daisy bounding over the high grasses to the creek, where she immediately doused herself. There she remained, lying in the stream under the bridge, panting. I looked behind me. A runner — young and blonde, male — was gaining on us. I turned and kept going, knowing Daisy would follow. The runner raced Daisy and beat her. I could almost hear his smile of achievement and delight as he passed. Daisy dipped by me and trotted ahead in the Lassie-like, eat-up-the-miles trot that dogs have perfected. Then, we were home free.

Once we were climbing the mountain, once I actually needed my strength, concentration, and breath, once the creek was running steadily beside us, once we were in the embrace of redwood groves, individual trees hanging doggedly to a slippery mountainside, I knew we were committed. As we made our way up forest ravine, up the side of this City of Oakland mountain, I marveled again at the good fortune I have to be able to live in this vibrant metropolis, yet walk into the forest. In fact, I can walk into the forest and walk… literally forever, or what feels like forever. Longer than I’ve ever walked, anyway. And I like to walk.

Making our way up, I noticed again the graffiti on the balustrades of the bridges criss-crossing the creek, on the fallen stone and cement wall that lies half-in and half-out of the water, all the way up on any presentable rock face. It doesn’t bother me. I consider this hike the domain of the young people, the domain of teens. It looks as it should. It’s theirs. It’s a little too strenuous and difficult for the average hiker, with several unfenced narrow ledges, a couple of steep inclines that have to be climbed hand over fist. It’s a workout, not for the faint of heart.

The other day when I was there, a handful of white cotton-garbed youths were gathered in a clearing performing a ceremony with armloads of flowers. From the trail, I could see they’d left a sort of mosaic made of petals. I ducked under the redwood boughs to examine it. Many groupings were arranged in mystical patterns among the deep nests of redwood bracts littering the forest floor. The giant sunflowers looked as though they’d just been cut, though it had been several days since they’d been laid to rest there.

It occurred to me this forest path both urban and wild was just like a teen, pushing against all attempts to constrain it, all attempts to tame or train it. It reflected them. I could imagine them finding refuge here. I thought of the park in the town I grew up in, how that also was a refuge for the teens, for the “parkies” we called them then — the stoners. Now, when I look back, I wish the “stoners” hadn’t had a monopoly on the park. I could have used that peace, that’s for sure. I also wonder if I shouldn’t have aligned myself after all with that particular social group. They probably knew exactly what they were doing and had staked out the best real estate in the school. But, at my school anyway, they were maligned and looked upon disdainfully.

The path was also particularly Oakland. You wouldn’t find a path like this in the moneyed communities south, north, or east of us. No, this trail was wild, painted with graffiti, unkempt, with a broken wall sliding into the river, with a dead end bridge, with dangerous overhangs and precarious trees. It felt like no one from the city had been here in eons. It reflected Oakland itself: beautiful, raw, damaged, struggling, rough.

Daisy and I made it to the top and branched off to the York Trail, a much wider, easier dirt path with views of downtown Oakland, San Francisco, and Marin. A veil of fog had been pulled over the metropolis. The low rays of the sun reached through, burnishing Daisy and the surrounding grasses with silver. We made our way through bay and oak trees, stepping gingerly (Daisy leaping) over the mammoth fallen oak tree lying across the path. Once again, as I have for the twenty years I’ve lived here, I marveled at how lucky I am to be able to walk into the forest from my house, yet live in one of the most exciting and beautiful metropolises in the world.