The long range forecasts last December were about as far off as they could be. “La Nina off the coast of South America means California will have an unusually dry spring.” Not! The forecast for the next week is continued rain, and the storm last night seemed to have filled our backyard pool by two inches at least. This week we’ll take our walk well out of the mud, on a couple of roads that used to be one until Highway 4 cut them in two, Canyon Way and Franklin Canyon Road.
Before Highway 4 was built, Canyon Way was simply the beginning of Franklin Canyon Road and the best way to get to West County. It veered off from Alhambra Road right where Alhambra Way now does. This was known as “the Y.” Alhambra Road traveled down the east side of the valley, and Franklin Canyon Road, the west, past the Martinez Adobe and John Muir’s Home. Everything in the middle was fields and orchards, much of it part of Muir’s ranch. Now this is the main drag, Alhambra Avenue.
My neighbor, Rich Bobrowski, told stories about this part of town, when the turn west just beyond the Martinez Adobe was the turn out of the city limits. Drag racers would line up at this point because the city cops couldn’t follow them. Several speakeasies and a few “red lights” gave the road beyond that turn a notorious reputation. But that’s long ago.
Canyon Way is now a quiet lane on the edge of town. It's no longer a through street for cars, but it is for walkers. If you follow a little paved path at the end of the street, past the back of the Muir National Historic Site, you’ll find a pedestrian tunnel which leads you under Highway 4 and connects you to Franklin Canyon Road and miles and miles of country walking or bicycling.
The combination of a quiet residential street, and a connection to an old country road has made Canyon Way quite a destination for dog walkers and runners, some with baby carriages, and bicycles. The Alhambra High Cross Country Team make it a regular part of its training run, and there is a steady stream of umbrellas on rainy days. The number of people walking on Canyon make it a friendly place to take a stroll.
Canyon Way and Franklin Canyon Road are both flat, and you can walk for a few blocks or a few miles before you hit the first hill. A half mile before McEwen Road intersects Franklin Canyon Road is where you reach that first hill. If you continue up McEwen Road your walk will become more of a serious workout — those hills are steep. It’s world-class training up and down the hills to the little town of Port Costa.
McEwen Road offers a relative lack of traffic and a great workout, but be careful. It’s really narrow in places and has been the site of some terrible accidents, notably the hit-and-run death of local cyclist Mark Pendleton several years ago. Anywhere along Franklin Canyon Road, make sure you’re on the side with a real shoulder and be aware of cars. There usually aren’t that many, but some of them barrel along much too fast.
It’s eight miles from the pedestrian tunnel under Highway 4, up and over McEwen Road — circling back toward town on Carquinez Scenic Drive — to the closed section of road at the old Brickyard. That’s a 16-mile run round trip, with hills. If you continue past the barricade at the road closure and go to the old Martinez cemeteries at the beginning of the Scenic Drive, you add four miles for a round-trip distance of 24 miles on country roads with little traffic.
Canyon Way is a great place for a stroll. Anyone for a marathon?
Trail Stories: So, there were five of us in Lone Pine, on the eastern side of the Sierra, Plain Slice, Little Engine, Smiles, Mango (their trail names) and me, who had all agreed to hike together over the High Sierra, in early June last year, on the Pacific Crest Trail. The problem was that the Cottonwood trailhead, south of Mount Whitney, where we were going to start, was a long way from town.
We met Trail Angel Tom in Lone Pine, and managed to work our way into his good graces, for a ride to the trailhead on June 10, 2010. He was a long-distance hiker and a devout Christian who helped many of the Israelis on trail. He had hiked the Israel National Trail — a 600 mile trail running the length of Israel —and he had an affinity with Israeli hikers.
The Pacific Crest Trail, running from Mexico to Canada, is one of the premier long-distance trails of the world and is well known in hiker circles all over the globe. I met and traveled with hikers from Japan, New Zealand, Australia, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Canada, Mexico and Israel. There were more Israelis on trail than any other nation except the United States. Tom helped them out when he could. He was driving Evan, a young man from Chicago who had recently returned from several years in Israel, to the Cottonwood Trailhead, and we were able to hitch a ride with them.
The night before we left Lone Pine, lenticular clouds gathered at sunset into a burst of pink and gold in the western sky. Sometimes mistaken for flying saucers, these lens shaped clouds form on the downwind side of mountains, and are often the harbinger of bad weather two days later. They were stunning, if a bit unnerving.
We hit the trail early the next morning, and Evan joined our little band of hikers. He was a positive young man, but seemed lonely, and was eager to join us.
The first day’s hike took us from the relatively dry, 10,000 foot trailhead, over long, sloping snow fields and miles of “sun cups.” Like the chop on the bay, but frozen in form. We had to step from crest to crest, and hope not to get stuck in the troughs. I had brought a pair of lightweight snowshoes and used them for the first half day until it became clear that the others were all hiking at the same pace as me, if not faster, without them. I eventually stowed them and hiked using only aluminum crampons, built for the lightweight trail runners and lightweight boots most of us wore. I would be wearing those traction devices for much of each day over the next month.
Most of the hiking was on snow, which meant the occasional “posthole” during which your foot, or both feet, would break through the frozen surface layer and send you straight down into the snow, sometimes up to your waist. We benefited from the relatively cool June that kept the snow firm, the melt-off to a minimum and the postholing likewise. Less melt-off also meant lower stream levels and safer crossings. But safer is really a relative term; the streams were by far the most dangerous obstacles we encountered.
The stream crossings went from ankle deep to waist deep, and occurred much too frequently to bother taking off your shoes and trying to keep them dry. Besides, you needed the traction of good shoes or boots so as not to be swept away, a very real threat in the swollen streams.
We got used to walking in wet shoes over vast landscapes of snow, and just wading into the ice water whenever you came upon it. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too bad. After the shock of the ice water, which always elicited a blood curdling scream from me because it was just so cold it hurt, the relative warmth of simply having wet shoes was a great relief. We hiked fast, and our feet never had time to stay cold. So, we were wet and warm over all that snow. I can’t even imagine it now.
The first night we camped in a sparsely wooded sandy slope, but by the second night we had reached Crabtree Meadow, which was a mix of snow and ice, and frozen flooded meadow. Our last obstacle before pitching camp was the wade across the icy stream wending through the meadow, assuring us of newly wet shoes for the evening. Oh joy.
This is the jumping off place for any climb of Mount Whitney from the west side. But the clouds were gathering, there was occasional thunder in the distance and a light snow had begun to fall. I remembered those clouds in Lone Pine. Several other hikers headed off for Guitar Lake, the usual base camp for a summiting of Whitney in the morning, but all of our party decided to stay in the meadow. I later saw those guys, but none had made it up the mountain because the clouds closed in entirely at the higher elevation and lightning on Mount Whitney is deadly dangerous. They had made a good decision not to summit that day.
By the evening of the third day, we had reached Tyndall Creek, the last bit of real forest before the granite bowels and cirques — all above timberline — before Forester Pass, the highest point on the PCT. Of course we had to wade it, icy and scream worthy, but we found an area in the trees on the other side where we could all camp close.
It was Friday, and I can’t remember who suggested celebrating Shabbat, (the Jewish Sabbath) but Evan and Plain Slice were Jewish, and although I’m Christian, my wife Katie is Jewish, and I’ve been a cantorial soloist for our Jewish group for years. We’d need a candle, wine and bread and a few good voices to sing the blessings of God over all these items, and over the day itself, the day God rested after creation. Three days in the High Sierra, and it felt like any blessing based on resting was just what we needed.
Mango, our 63-year-old Tennessean, was in his tent doing something important with his gear, right next to the rest of us who all stood, arm in arm, in a circle. Little Engine picked up an alcohol stove and lit it. We sang the blessing for the day.....v’itsivanu l’hadlik neir shel Shabbat. Someone picked up a bottle of Gatorade, and we blessed the wine....borei p’ri ha’gafen, and then we tore up a three-day-old flour tortilla and blessed the bread.....Ha’motsi lechem min ha’arets, Amen.
We sang a few Jewish songs, and were all in a great space, swaying and hugging, when Mango burst out of his tent barely able to contain himself. He had to tell us the story of an episode from the old TV series, Northern Exposure. Joel, the young New York Jewish doctor, stuck in Alaska, has just lost a member of his family to a stroke, and he needs to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. But he needs nine more Jews to make up a “minyan” before it can be properly done. After pulling old Jews from every corner of rural Alaska, Joel realizes that he doesn’t need just anyone who happens to be Jewish for his minyan, he needs all his real friends, Christian, atheist, Native American animists, to perform the holy rite.
Mango was bawling so uncontrollably at the beauty of our little trailside Shabbat, that he could barely tell the story. Celebrated by Jews and Christians and Smiles, a New Age spiritualist, our Shabbat became a symbol of the growing connection we all felt. Three days on a snowy trail, and a bit of spirit in camp, and we were ready to face it all. Smiles, clearly touched by Mango’s emotion, leaned over and whispered to me, “I had no idea he had so much feeling,” and she touched her heart.
"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."