November 11, 2015
As the plane landed in San Francisco, I was surprised to see the runway covered with water. Hmmmm. Maybe I should have packed my rain fly. Due to the serious thunder, lightning and rain, unusual for Mountain View, I delayed my departure for the Ohlone Trail. The trip had been far too long, having started by awakening at 4 am to catch a ride to the airport with Tom. We were both flying to Phoenix. His flight left at 10:30 am, mine at 4:30 pm. He had already landed in Phoenix before I boarded my plane in Newark. From Phoenix I caught another flight to San Francisco. The plan was to be dropped off at the start of the Ohlone trail early the next morning. I’m grateful for the delayed departure, it gave me time to recoup from the journey from east coast to west coast and to sift through my backpack to find ways to lighten the load. Mike and I were able to shave three pounds from the 28 pound pack. I worried that my hips and knees would not be able to handle the weight. Water adds significantly to weight and is absolutely necessary for hiking safely. It’s one thing that can’t be eliminated.
Mike drove me to Mission Peak Regional Preserve. We hiked together up to launch. He carried my bear vault filled with the Arbonne Pea Protein powder mixed with Perfect Food Raw Energizer powder, Raw Revolution Spiraling Dream Organic Live Food Bars, my minimal toiletries, and small water containers filled with water. The hike to launch was steep and a bit severe for a body that had been sitting in airports and airplanes for almost twenty four hours straight. The lightened load for the first three miles of the trek was appreciated. My Crown60 ultralight backpack made by Granite Gear (recommended by Melody Shah) is fantastic. I was able to carry the load well while warming up my legs on the steep path.
I was thrilled to capture Mike’s launch on my GoPro … until I realized I had turned the camera off rather than on as he stepped from the hill into the air. I immediately dismissed the thought that it was a bad omen for the day ahead. After adding the bear vault to my pack I set off for Sky Camp, surprised at how well I was managing the weight.
Due to recent rain, the path was slippery with the odd mud that comes from water mixing with parched dirt and dust. It stuck to my shoes like cement. After a bit, I fell into a rhythm, leaving most of civilization behind and opening up to the terrain and its offerings. Along the way I found a lizard, belly-up and dead, yet beautiful with its silver and turquoise scales. Cattle grazed, ignoring my presence. A coyote dashed by, a bit skittish. Squirrels of different colors scurried across the path. I approached a cluster of live oak trees. Their aroma delighted me and welcomed me into their shade to follow the path between them. The recent rain had enlivened moss-covered trunks turning the grove into a lush oasis among the parched hills.
Occasionally I snapped a photo. There was no time to set up the GoPro and sketch. I had to make up for a day’s delay and reach Sky Camp before sunset. I had to cover twelve miles of unfamiliar, hilly terrain in less than eight hours without getting lost. The back-up plan was to contact Mike if I reached Sunol Visitor Center later than 2 pm or if I felt I wouldn’t be able to walk the additional four miles uphill from Sunol to Sky Camp where I would camp for the night. Weather predictions were that it would be an extremely cold night, possibly down to 20 degrees. My sleeping bag is only rated to 32 degrees, but I had additional clothing and a silk mummy sack for added warmth. My last potable water supply would be at the Sunol Visitor Center. I would depend on finding water and treating it from that point on … hmmmm … something I haven’t done before.
I didn’t feel the need to rest, as the terrain would alternate between uphill and downhill, both being far more gradual than the uphill trek from the parking lot to launch. Hy hips and knees felt great and my heart was filled with joy. This was exactly what I’d been dreaming of and I was looking forward a night beneath the stars. It was quiet, except for the occasional sound of animals and the slightly annoying rustle of my pants. As I approached the Ohlone Trail Sign-in Panel to cross into the area leased by San Francisco Water Department I felt reassured that I would make Sky Camp before nightfall. It was there at the sign-in I made my error. Had I checked my compass, as I should have, I would have known that it was through the small iron gate on the right that I should pass. Based on the fencing and the nearby building on that side, I assumed that it was privately owned land. It was not, to me, obviously the trail. As I recall, the gate was locked. What appeared to be the trail was the continuation of the path/road I had followed for the previous five miles. There was also a bit of a trampled, narrow path on the left leading nowhere along the barbed fence. Across what I believed to be my route was a large metal gate that was chained and locked. My logic was that the chains were to keep vehicles from passing into the water department land, but that hikers with permits would be expected to navigate over or under the gate. I searched for a marker to confirm my decision and found none. Still, it appeared to be the best choice, so over the gate I climbed.
I had misgivings about my choice. After a mile or more, I still hadn’t seen a trail marker. Eventually I came to another locked gate. The trail description did indicate two gates, one entering the water department land and one exiting the water department land. What the description did not indicate is that beyond the second gate I would find a paved road and civilization. To the left of me was a barbed fence indicating the boundary of the East Bay Regional Park. To the right of me were a few lovely homes nestled against the hill. I felt I should be somewhere on the other side of the barbed fence. The trail description indicated I would be following fire roads. Fire roads are not usually paved. I came upon a sign showing serious curves for the next four miles; not a good sign. A short distance further, I found another locked gate that led to a fire road. That seemed like a good sign. At least it was an entrance back into the Regional Park without having to go over barbed wire. I squeezed through the railing of the gate and followed the fire road as it wound its way upward. Eventually, I saw a trail marker. Unfortunately, it didn’t indicate that I was anywhere near the Ohlone Trail. Instead, it appeared that I was back on the trail to Mission Peak, totally impossible. Perhaps there was another trail named Peak Trail. I couldn’t find one on my map. If it were true that I was heading back to where I started it wouldn’t be a disaster; a bit embarrassing perhaps, but not life threatening. The whole point of this multi-day hike was to test out my equipment, my body and my mental stamina within close driving distance of Mike. He would be able to pick me up at several spots along the way from Mission Peak to Lake Del Valle, my final destination.
About a half a mile further along the fire road I heard a car approaching. I flagged down the car to ask directions. It turned out that I had taken the wrong turn and was approaching Mission Peak again. About a mile further up the road I would find myself back at launch where I had started earlier in the day. I had to decide whether to contact Mike to pick me up back at the Stanford Avenue parking lot where we had parked that morning or to try to find my error and have him pick me up at the Sunol Visitor Center. Being a stubborn woman and not liking to accept defeat, I was leaning toward trying to make it to Sunol. Back at launch, I rested at a picnic table, took out my compass and map to see if that would help find my error. It didn’t. Had I picked up the Mission Peak map which showed more details of the area, I would not have made a mistake at the first locked gate. My map, that doubled as my permit through the water department lands, did not offer the information I needed to make the correct choice without the compass. At this point, I could easily run out of water before reaching Sunol. If I didn’t find the right route, I would be in trouble. I could either send Mike a message on the Delorme tracking device or turn my phone on to see if I had service. I was able to call Mike and discuss the options. We decided that he would pick me up at the Stanford Avenue parking lot. We estimated it would take me about an hour to hike there from where I was. At that point, my body felt fantastic. No aches and pains. The stiffness from the previous day of sitting had worked its way out and I felt strong. In spite of the weight of the pack, my back felt great. I had an hour to feel better about walking in a giant circle and accept that I wouldn’t be sleeping under the stars as I had expected.
The next three miles was steeply downhill, the reverse of the steep uphill I had hiked in the morning. It wasn’t long before I felt pain in my hips and knees. My thoughts drifted to the memory of hiking down the trail in the Tetons after summiting The Grand Teton with my brother in 1976. I wore heavy Super Guide boots for wearing crampons on the glaciers that didn’t exist due to a year of serious drought. I carried an unnecessary and heavy ice axe along with climbing gear. We had little chance of getting to the lake in time to catch the last boat, so we descended as quickly as possible. My knees were killing me. Before long I couldn’t keep back the tears. With each step I felt pain and misery. We missed the boat and had four extra miles to walk back to camp. Now almost forty years later, I felt the same pain in my knees with the addition of the pain in my left hip.
Halfway down the trail I could see the parking lot in the distance. My pace was slower than a snail’s, but I made progress one slow, steady step at a time. I sent Mike a message so that he wouldn’t worry about me when I didn’t show up within the estimated hour. At each of the benches along the trail, I rested and drank the remainder of my water, knowing there was a fresh supply in the parking lot. I felt a mixture of success and failure as my day’s hiking came to an end. Before reaching the parking lot, Mike met me on the trail, wearing a great smile. He didn’t seem to feel as if I had failed at all. He reminded me that this was a test run to learn what I needed to know before taking on an even greater challenge. I could begin again the next day.
All I could think of was taking a nap. I was exhausted and exhilarated. Sadly, I had not drawn at all, worried about my time constraint and having lost my way. I fell asleep happily knowing that I could carry a twenty-five pound backpack successfully and that I could handle a five to eight mile distance easily. The ten to twelve miles that I had walked, combined with the serious downhill, was beyond my comfort level. Knowing my limitations is valuable and necessary to enter a wilderness area safely.
I slept well and awoke with a sore left hip (my right hip is titanium) and a happy heart. I will again leave the Stanford Avenue parking lot tomorrow morning, follow the correct trail to to Sunol Visitor Center where Michael will pick me up. Sadly, I will not continue on to Sky Camp to sleep beneath the stars. Though I could hike that distance safely, I would not have enough daylight to paint along the way. I choose to hike and paint instead. There will be other opportunities to hike and camp, preferably where I can obtain potable water along the way.