Coon Creek-Oat’s Peak Loop, Montana de Oro

I needed a day off from Jan’s City Council campaign and from websurfing about the national election.  I kept remembering my Yom Kippur retreat in the woods, longing to return from the life of action to the ways of pleasure and contemplation.  So, on another “impulse from a vernal wood,” I decided to head for the coast with camera, journal, and a new book that just arrived from Amazon, Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist.

The inland morning fog was lifting as I left San Luis Obispo, the first time in a week that the unseasonable Santa Ana heat has abated.  I looked forward to moving in and out of the marine layer during my walk through the intertidal zone of the air and to watching tricks played by the Autumn light.

At 9:00, I start from the parking lot and head up the Coon Creek trail.  It meanders around crazy sandstone formations at the canyon’s mouth and tunnels through thick vegetation stuffing the watercourse.

There’s been no rain in six months, but this riparian corridor remains lush green, full of new flowers, overhanging vines and the cheerful gurgle of the creek hidden in the brush.

The camera cradled in my hand feels like a companion.  Alone without it, I’d be left longing by the beauties revealed at every turn. But framing, focussing and snapping each picture yields a burst of satisfaction. It enables me to select, capture, and preserve the impressions, add them to my collection, display them to the world.

The pleasure is complicated by misgiving.  Spiritual materialism. Love as appropriation and consumption. But appropriation is participation, consumption is assimilation.  The teaching of Wordsworth and Thoreau: to perceive is to half create.

I feel gratitude to State Parks and the crews who built the bridges crisscrossing the creek, allowing occasional glimpses of limpid water enclosed by the thicket of willow, poison oak and dogwood. How could I have ever got the idea it would be possible to blaze one’s own route down this streambed from Prefumo Canyon road and reach the terminus of this trail, as I did so many years ago, and how could Doug have agreed to join me?  We ended up spending six hours travelling two miles, submerged in this water, coming out after dark torn with scratches, covered with poison oak.  A story we loved to rehearse, until he died suddenly in 1999 of a strange form of lung cancer.

And then Allen, with whom Jan and I once hiked this trail, who died from another strange form of lung cancer a month ago.  November 1, the day of the dead approaches.

The trail gains a little altitude and vegetation now shows traces of the advancing season: green to gold, then grey.

Adding to the gothic atmosphere, Spanish moss dangles from overhanging branches, a macrame construction scribbling the full figure, or just the hair and face, of a halloween witch.

At the end of a tunnel recently hacked through a tangle of dead branches, I’m arrested by hanging stems with tiny thornlike flaming hairs.

I linger here, not transfixed, but fussing with the camera, trying different apertures and shutter speeds till I find a 500th of a second will highlight the spectacle and black out the rest.

In a grove of Coast Live Oak I come upon the junction with the Oat Peak trail and make a left turn away from the creek.  The base of the ascent is marked by a recently fallen tree which has left huge hole in the canopy and battered its neighbors on the way down.

The crash seems still to echo around the clearing.

The trail climbs into the sun.  I take off my sweater and sip frequently from my Camelback, but I feel less achy and breathless than expected.  The last bright flower of the day is a bush poppy in the foreground of the view back down into the canyon.

After about an hour’s climb, the summit comes in sight.  I marvel at the perfect parallel sandstone strata tipped up into undulating folds rounded as drapery. I wonder even more at the delta inset at the ridgeline, whose strata lie horizontal at a dramatic angle to the rest of the hillside. Is that the remains of a more recent sea floor deposited upon the kneaded base of its predecessors?

At the summit I greet a lady in salmon colored hat and shirt.  She is Suzanne from Skagway Alaska.  It doesnt take long to bring the conversation to politics and to share opinions about Sarah Palin.  It’s fun to talk after several hours of silence, but I’m relieved to be left alone again when she heads back to the campground and I can tip over the picnic table in whose shade I sit and meditate.

The way back leads through parched chapparal and grey grassland that I remember as carpeted with flowers and fragrant shrubbery in spring.  It’s set off by a blue-green bush-lupine on which I find an unidentified bird singing to the rugged backside of Valencia Peak.

Skirting the flank of Valencia, the trail crosses a narrow pass that leads back into the fog zone.  The light is strange and ever-changing. Cloud cascades silently over a ridge on the opposite side of Coon Creek. The vegetation here is dominated by Coyote Brush, an ugly duckling of a shrub that waits until late fall to bloom with unlovely dry flowers that burst into brilliance when they catch the sun.

I look across an abyss at tongues of fog racing up from both sides of the ridge.

They dance, collide and shred.

The last part of my descent is through the marine layer, which renders the features of Spooner’s Cove and the cliffs along the Bluff trail unrecognizable–as if an estuary had suddenly emerged between the mainland and a new offshore landmass.

But as the trail switchbacks down, dropping me under the fog, I realize the apparition was caused by lines of foam and patches of water wrinkled by the wind.

Returning to the parking lot by way of Rattlesnake Flat, I watch the sun beam holes in the overcast to spotlight surf and open sea.

[click images for full-size version]

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