From my perch, I can look East and up through the canyon and beyond, to where the grasslands and chaparral give way to dense oak forests and Gray pines, and eventually, way, way up there, to the snow-covered Doug firs and lodgepole pines of the Sierra Nevada. If I look to my right, the craggy canyon walls descend and eventually disappear, sliding into the vast valley floor so smoothly it’s as if they’re a conveyor belt continually depositing the Sierra Nevada Mountains and all that they hold into the northern section of California’s great central valley. And below me, straight out in front? Firstly there’s a little too much fresh air (what with me being a big ‘feartie’ and all), then there’s a smooth roll down through the grasslands and over the walls of the channel of Big Chico Creek and back up the other side in an almost mirror image. The woodland is denser over there and paired with the whitewashed cliffs underneath the peregrine falcons’ nest, that side of the canyon seems more remote and untouched compared with the miles of zigzagging scars that cut through the grassland and scrub on this side.
As I sit up here beside a solitary Ansel Adams-esque oak, with Skye pacing back and forth, nudging me to get back on the trail where things are far more interesting, two turkey vultures soar through the air only feet above my head. They cut so close I hear the air swoosh as they turn almost expecting the resulting wave of air to blow past me like the wake of a boat and I instinctively grab at my hat lest it disappear over the cliff. Once they are over us they rise up a few hundred feet before circling down the canyon and out of sight. It was at the moment that they left the imagined safety of the cliff top and were hanging over the canyon that my stomach lifted as if it were me that had just taken off and was floating there, hundreds of feet above the safety of solid ground. My heart and stomach were suddenly up near my ears; a strange feeling indeed. No rollercoaster, no bungee cord, or rolling waves, just my senses allowing me to be swept off the cliff with these two troublemaking scavengers. I do suffer from variously frightening degrees of vertigo but this wasn’t that sensation, which is more akin to the fear of falling and exposure; this felt more uplifting, less scary and was actually quite a pleasant experience, once the initial shock had subsided.
It was that experience that leads me to thinking about where I am and how I got here. I am, as you have more than likely guessed, on top of a large hunk of rock looking out over the variously green and brown expanse of Upper Bidwell Park. I got here by walking. I brought Skye up here for our (almost) daily exercise outing, which varies in length, place and structure quite significantly, just to keep her on her toes and to break the monotony of the daily poo-inspired walks dog walkers the world over are subject to. This particular walk is one of our favorites; we park a bit further up the canyon, away from the larger car parks filled with pot smoking youths, yappy little dogs with their equally yappy owners, and the hordes of inappropriately tight-shorted cyclists. This allows us more time with just the tress, the cliffs, the birds, and the deer (Skye is particularly keen on those) for company.
As we walk the various trails, most of which grow smaller and less used as we get further into the canyon, I get an increasing feeling of solitude, appreciation and awareness of what is around me, and ultimately, a feeling of ownership. It is that feeling that allows me to stray from the “designated trails” and walk the “undesignated trails” left behind by the deer and coyotes, and sometimes just go plain cross-country.
It was one of those environmentally damaging cross-country walks that brought me here, to this vulture-dodging cliff, and to this contemplation. The feelings of ownership, my knowledge and awareness of the creatures and plants that inhabit this place, do they allow me to ignore the system, to literally think myself incapable of causing erosion and damage? Of course not, in fact, I should be one of the people who annoy other park patrons by (politely) explaining the reasons for not walking on areas other than the miles of designated trails.
Surely of all the cars and trucks that are in the car park at Horseshoe Lake there are some that bring passengers that carry the same feelings of respect and understanding. I’m not sure what the people who display the “Keep Upper Park Wild” bumper stickers do when they come to visit; stick to the trails? Probably. I know the pot smokers are looking for the sheltered caves and hidey-holes, I know because I did exactly the same a million miles and years ago. They’re just looking to not get caught, and don’t care whether they’re on a trail or a moon landing. I know the yappy dogs and their owners stick to the trails; they don’t want to get their feet muddy. The hordes of before-Sunday-lunchers probably stick to the trails in fear of retribution from a higher power than the local Rangers. The mountain bikers are surely too busy staying upright to even see the trees. So who else is there? I know exactly who; it’s the hundreds of other people who consider Upper Park theirs. It’s theirs because they walk their dogs there every day, they go there to paint, draw, play guitar, take photographs, walk with their wives, husbands, partners, they go on first-date picnics, and hand-held sunset strolls, and most of all go there because it’s beautiful, and it’s theirs. It’s also because of them, people just like me, that we have “designated” trails, areas to be trampled and areas for only the feet of deer, coyotes, and quail. There is no intentional destruction, they are all aware of how beautiful this place is and how lucky we are to have it as our play area; it’s just that there is rather a lot of them. Too many to allow free reign over the place. If all of these visitors acted like me, well the place would soon resemble a motor-cross track, and we would lose the very nature of what it is that makes this place special to me, and to all the other users, yappy dogs and all.
My knowledge should be used to educate others, to enhance the park experience for all users, even as a member of the public, I should simply set a good example. But no, I want to explore the untouched areas, the remote hollows and cliffs, I want to be able to sit here. Surely my contribution to repairing the handiwork (or, excuse me, footiwork) of Scotland’s hiking public during my stint with the footpath crew and my years of repairing Sydney’s weed-infested bushland give me some credits towards making slight deviations into the unspoiled and most wilderness-like areas of my local park? Of course I can get to a lot of places just by using the trails system, but I couldn’t get here. I wouldn’t have had the experience with the hang-gliding vultures, nor would I have reached the spot where I found the Big Chico Creek version of Peter Dombrovskis’ Morning Mist photograph. I walk through those grasses, under those trees, with only the highest appreciation and respect for them. It is with only regret that I leave them to the trampling footprints and unseeing gaze of others.