Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and I’ve been hiking up the mountain of the Devil. It couldn’t be more appropriate, as the Burma Road just about killed us. Hiking Diablo is both a joy, and a time for memories. Looking out over the cities I often find myself pulled inward, given a sense of perspective on my life, and the lives below. The daily whirl and turmoil of relationships and money, the cacophony of freeway noise and speed, all fade. My slant on the world changes.
November 2 in Catholic cultures, especially Mexico, is a day to pay homage to those who have died, and Mount Diablo is the final resting place of two people very dear to me. I pass my father’s ashes each time I climb the mountain on the Burma Road, and when I reach the summit and gaze southeast, I look out on Roger Epperson Ridge, named in honor of my old friend, an East Bay Regional Parks District ranger, who died a few years ago.
My father, Bruce, was a lover of nature and he instilled that love in both my sister Sharon and me. He asked to have his ashes spread on Mount Diablo, which was always in his view from the mid 1940s until his death a few years ago. He frequently called it beautiful. It was a place he took us when we were young, and those early trips to Diablo are still vivid. It always seemed so far away, even though it was right in our backyards.
Three of us hit the trail at 8:30am Wednesday where the Burma crosses the North Gate Road at the 1,000 foot level. The wind howled across the flanks of Diablo, whipping our faces. Not as cold as it will be in a few weeks, but biting enough that my friend Leslie started a list of things she’ll need to keep hiking during the winter; warm hat, ear protection, gloves... But by the time I’d reached my dad’s spot at the 2,500 foot level, the wind had died and the residual warmth of the past few days began to rise up from the ground and my memories with it.
One of my earliest is of hiking the North Peaks Trail on Diablo with my mom and dad when I wasn’t much more than a toddler in the mid 1950s and of sliding so far down the slopes in the snow that I just couldn’t climb back. I bawled my eyes out until one of the adults came and rescued me.
Later, before it was part of the park, our Boy Scout Troop used to camp on a private parcel on North Peak, where dad taught us how to lash branches and grass together to make shelters and towers. I can still see them, proud triangles of poles and brush, standing as high as we could get them, with little platforms every few feet. They look like a disaster waiting to happen from the perspective of nearing 60, but as young teens, we thought they were the coolest thing out.
One particularly sweet memory is of my first backpack trip when he took our whole family on the John Muir Trail outside of Mammoth, and managed to instill in me a love and wonder of the wild that lives strong today. The climb from Lake Ediza to Cecil and Upper Iceberg Lakes, the highest lake I’d ever been to, remains before my mind like fine crystal, still as clear as the sky on the day we hiked it. The Minarets rose straight out of Upper Iceberg to the west, and I looked at eye level across the water to billowing clouds, scudding past at lake level. It was magic. I felt like Zeus should stride right off the heights and stake his ground. It is a place where myths live in the very setting.
Dad was a gentle man with a temper if crossed, that belied his little Welsh frame, a man of strong opinions. I remember as a small child being told that racism was the single most “evil” part of our country’s history and that the “n” word was the worst in the language. And he believed it.
When his troop train from Minnesota to Mississippi crossed the Mason Dixon Line in 1943, he found that the car he was riding in was to be a “colored car.” As he was white, the conductor asked him to leave, but that just ticked him off. He’d never experienced segregation before, but he didn’t like it. The MP’s were called and the car was emptied of everyone but my dad who refused to budge. Instead of arresting a soldier in uniform however, he simply rode all the way to his duty station alone, with a sentry on either end of the car.
His months spent in Mississippi before being shipped to the Pacific Front, were more of the same, as he used the wrong drinking fountains and restrooms and rode in the back of the buses in protest. Twice he was threatened with lynching, but it was WWII and who would touch a soldier in uniform. How many years was this before the Civil Rights Movement? But he was passionate about his beliefs. When he saw a wrong he wouldn’t back down. I’m proud of him for his forthright courage, and was so blessed to have touched the natural world with him for a teacher. I miss him, but I’m glad he’s here on the mountain he loved and in a place where I can visit him whenever I climb it.
We continued our hike up Diablo and where the Juniper Trail breaks out of the forest above Juniper Camp, the wind shifted from the cool northeast, to an unnerving blast of heat, straight up the backside from the southeast. Completely different air. A mass of warmth descended on the mountain that held for the rest of the hike.
From the summit, bathed in warm air, I looked toward the Delta and over Roger Epperson Ridge, and remembered childhood summers in the foothills of Diablo where Roger and I, and Bob and Jim and Steve, and a whole host of late “60’s” hippie teenagers used to play. Most of those spots were private at the time, but are now city open spaces or full blown Regional Parks thanks to the work of so many.
For years, Roger was the Supervising Ranger of Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. He’d been responsible for making Black Diamond safe and later for opening Morgan Territory Regional Preserve to the public, where his ashes now lie. But he wasn’t always so conscientious, so safety minded. We could both have been killed exploring those mines by candle light in the late ‘60s.
Late last week I took a hike with my friend Dan, leaving before sunup from the Black Diamond Road Trailhead in Clayton, to Nortonville and Somersville, two of the five coal mining townsites that make up the Diablo Coal Field. It was the largest coal mining area in California from the 1860s until the turn of the century and the towns had been home to a large contingent of Welsh coal miners, and early pioneers.
This was a bit of a pilgrimage into memories of Roger, as he and I had ridden our bikes or hiked up over Black Diamond Road to the coal mines a number of times in our teens in the late 1960s. The road hadn’t changed at all, except for the gate on the ridge leading into the Regional Preserve, two and a half miles up the road from Clayton. Dan and I circled the ridges on the Black Diamond Trail and then hiked down into to the Rose Hill Cemetery, just up the hill from the Somersville townsite -- the usual entrance to the Park by way of Somersville Road from Antioch.
The cemetery had been badly looted and vandalized over the 70 years the towns lay vacant before the Regional Parks bought the property in 1973. I remember Roger’s excitement when as a young ranger he began learning archeological restoration, so he could do a proper job of reassembling the gravestones that had been smashed. He put out the call to the surrounding communities for the return of grave stones, no questions asked, and used to joke that word on the street was that they were cursed, and not a good thing to have in your backyard. The “no questions asked” offer still stands.
Roger and his staff have transformed that old site into a fascinating, and solemn piece of history, a far cry from the overgrown and desecrated ground we both explored in 1969. The broken stones have been pieced together on the ground, and many have been reconnected and secured with cement frames, or with mortar that matches the original marble, allowing them to be re-erected as they were originally. If you visit, give yourself time to look at each. They commemorate children lost to epidemics of cholera and diphtheria, miners, men and women pioneers. Many are adorned with Welsh words and phrases and the places the people came from. It’s fascinating and of course some think it’s haunted.
When Roger and I hiked over that hill, the cemetery was only a sidelight. Many of the mines were still open at that time, and the surrounding hills were pockmarked with vent shaft holes that kids occasionally fell into and died. Or so we thought. We were after the mines and there were several huge shafts we used to climb into with candles. We didn’t allow flashlights as they weren’t spooky enough. The thought was that if the oxygen got thin, the candle would go out, like the caged canary birds in mines, and this would give us the warning that we needed to get out. We never figured how we’d get out in total and utter darkness, however. We are so lucky to have made it to adulthood.
Once, Steve had joined us in the mines for the day and as we rode our bikes back down into Clayton we stopped to climb a hill, thick in new spring grass. We pulled it up in great clumps and pitched the grass bombs at each other like German hand grenades. Dirt clod fight! We were ecstatic until we looked back down at the road and saw a pickup driving toward Clayton with our bikes piled in the back. We raced over the hill to cut off that pickup before we lost our bikes. Charging down the slope, we yelled and hollered at the driver, and he pulled over. When we reached him, breathless, we were confronted not by a thief, but by the rancher whose fodder we’d been destroying. He was mad as hell, and gave us a piece of his mind I’ll not forget, took our names and phone numbers and said he was going to call our parents. But he gave us back our bikes. We rode home, chastened and expecting a good scolding there too, but it never came. He didn’t fink on us. He must have figured he’d scared us enough to get his point across, and he did; I’ve always had a respect for a rancher’s grass since then.
Black Diamond was an old dirt wagon road back then. It was open to cars, but seldom used. But there was that one time... After a wonderful day of cave exploring, we were riding our bikes back toward Clayton when we saw an old woody station wagon parked to the side with the rear door open. As we coasted up, we could see movement in the back, and then the strangest looking creature we’d ever seen. Naked legs and feet were protruding in every direction possible, and the thing was absolutely squirming. Shakespeare called it “the beast with two backs” and as we closed in, we figured it out. We got quiet. I think we were embarrassed to be there, and God knows we didn’t want to stop the action. We were intrigued, transfixed by the sight. No teenage boy wouldn’t be. We ghosted on by, not saying a word, not disturbing the happy couple, our bikes on silent. We peddled faster than ever, flying home on the wings of youthful excitement, hardly able to contain it. What a day for a couple of miscreant teenagers!
Those were good times and the mines were part of the fun. Roger ended up dedicating a long career to preserving them, reconstructing the old cemetery and making the mines safe for the school tours that now are a regular part of life in old Somersville. He put in a campground and miles and miles of trails. He was killed a few years ago in a kayaking accident in Hawaii, a tragedy for many. The Parks District has named a ridge after him, a ridge on which his old friends spread his ashes not long ago. It was a spot he had picked. For the story of the dedication of Roger’s Ridge, take a look at my earlier column from May:
When I hike Diablo, as wild as the wind and the weather can be, there’s always a bit of quiet for two people dear to me, who chose that mountain for eternity. Happy Dia de los Muertos to you all.
Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, and the Rose Hill Cemetery are most easily accessed from Somersville Road in Antioch. Tours of the mines are offered, but reservations are required. You can find a map at: http://www.ebparks.org/files/Black_Diamond_map_3-17-11.pdf But if you’re up for a good ten or eleven miler as Dan and I did last week, look for the Black Diamond Road Trailhead on Clayton Road, just before it joins Marsh Creek Road, past the center of Clayton. It’s a lovely hike, and the grass is only getting taller.
Everything is flowing -- going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks... While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood...in Nature's warm heart. John Muir