Briones: The 'Top Trail'

On Saturday, July 29th, Gareth (age, 12) and I met Debra, her son Eric (11) and his sister Nicole (10) at 8:00AM for an early-morning hike in the hills of Briones Regional Park (near Martinez, California). This park was once part of an old Mexican-era rancho. It totals about 5,700 acres.

We met on what I call the 'top' trail, since you can drive up to it along a winding road, then benefit from many fine views even at the beginning of the hike. Gareth and I hadn't met Nicole before, so introductions were made and we set off. Gareth, Eric and I were wearing our official 'Barefoot Hikers' T-shirts (made with transfers obtained from Richard Frazine). Gareth had prevailed on me to switch from long- pants to shorts before we got out of the car (even though the air was chilly) ... that turned out to be good advice !. A stiff cool wind was blowing as we walked along the high trail, we wondered how the air could possibly heat up to match the forecast. Debra and I forged out in front (probably to generate heat) and the kids fell behind. As we walked along the soft white dust of the trail, the children chattered and laughed noisily. Maybe three is a sort of 'critical mass' number, or maybe it was just chemistry ... but they really hit it off !!. We stopped to take photographs at a sort of 'country stile' and a conveniently timed passer-by took a picture of the five of us.

As we encountered a gravel section on the trail leading further uphill, Nicole looked quite dismayed and said 'We have to walk on THAT ?!'. I told her that we could avoid nearly all of it by walking on the side. I looked over later on and she was marching straight through it !!. The kids stopped frequently to exclaim about and examine closely, discoveries of black beetles and other insects. Gareth seemed to have developed a melodramatic phobia for spiders which created much amusement for the other two kids as they pointed out spiders he really didn't (he claimed) want to see.

The Briones hills are still relatively green from the abnormally heavy winter rains and looked really beautiful set against the sharp blue sky. We finally broke free of the gravel and began a long winding downhill stretch along packed dirt. The kids stopped at one point and sat in the dust some distance behind us, completely absorbed in some activity. Debra and I halted when we realized we weren't be followed and chatted while I showed here some photographs from previous barefooting ventures (featuring some of you !!). We eventually had to call them to come on. They came running and laughing down the path, kicking up the dust with their bare feet as they rejoined us. They then had some fun heaving dirt-clods over the steep drop to the right of the path. Eric found a chrysalis clinging to one of the dirt clods ... which he kept. I spotted a large bird wheeling overhead which Eric identified as a Coopers Hawk. At one point, Nicole, who was ahead of us now, called out 'Hey ! Hey you guys !!, Come and feel this warm dust !!'. She had found a deep pile and was blissfully up to her ankles.

As we came to the bottom of the interior Briones valley we spotted some picnic tables in a meadow. Debra and I decided to head for these immediately, while the kids stayed on the wide, dusty trail to play 'hacky-sack'. This is a small, soft cloth bag filled with beads and sewn up. You are meant to try to keep it in the air using anything but your hands. I think it may have to go on the list of barefoot sports.

We had to pick our way through a lot of plants with spiky heads to get to the tables. It wasn't too difficult, but one had to pay attention. There also a lot of small white ground- flowers (morning-glories) in amongst these. Debra and I got the snack food out and the kids rejoined us. While we were sitting there we saw two Red-Tail hawks and deer. The kids mentioned that they had seen dragon-flies and doves earlier.

After our snack we pressed on along the valley trail. We encountered some more gravel and Gareth started to fall behind. He suddenly called out about some noise he had heard in the scrub alongside the trail and Eric and Nicole went back to help him investigate. Debra and I wandered on as the kids continued their deliberations. We had gone maybe a hundred yards in front when we heard shouts from the kids. We turned around to see all three kids running full tilt towards us (along gravel I might add !). It turns out that Eric had found a shed snakeskin, and in poking around with a staff to see if there were any more, had discovered the owner (or a relative).

After this, the trail turned uphill. It was very steep in places and the temperature seemed to have jumped by twenty degrees. Nicole said 'This ground is hot .... but my feet would be even hotter in shoes'. Once were up on the ridge we were rewarded by excellent views of Mount Diablo and of Mount Tam over in Marin county. At the highest point of the return trail, we came over a rise and were confronted by a sudden, breathtaking view of the whole central valley 'delta' area. We could clearly see the 'mothball fleet' in Suisan Bay. This is a set of several hundred ships left over from the Second World War, moored in rows side-by-side. I've seen pictures taken from space where the rows of ships are clearly visible. I hear they are cutting them up for scrap now ... so there are not as many as there used to be.

We descended once again to join the original trail near the first gravelly section. The kids occasionally stopping to make attempts to catch lizards in the brush that were far too quick for them. Nicole found a large wolf-spider, which Eric picked up and Gareth was curious enough to overcome his fears and look closely at it. Eric pointed out it's eight eyes. When asked 'why does it have eight ?', he reliably informed us 'one to watch each leg !' (this boy will go far). From there it was downhill and mostly soft (but much warmer) dust back to the cars. At the trailhead. we rinsed our feet under the tap provided with the drinking fountain (ahhh!!) and made plans for our (traditional) stop at the convenience store for Slurpees.

-- Mike Berrow

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