Depending on your geographical location, December can present a diverse range of acceptable outdoor activities. In mountainous terrain in the Northern Hemisphere, one might whistle down a mountain face on skis or a snowboard before bustling indoors for a warming hot cocoa, or take a frigid spin on an ice-rink, natural or man-made, before scrambling to a crackling log fire for some restorative warmth. In tropical locales along the equator or latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, one might choose to dip into the warm waters of the sea after a generous slather of sunscreen lotion, or don a pair of sunglasses before sauntering out to the boardwalk to soak up some Vitamin D. Along the coast of Northern California, mild December weather provides the perfect setting for a hike. The forecast is often clear rather than rainy, not too warm yet not too cool, and the absence of scorching temperatures means that the drought-accustomed hills still maintain their emerald finery from earlier showers. The crowds of hikers and picnic-ers that gather between June and August are nowhere to be found, allowing a stillness that cajoles the wildlife to emerge from their hiding places and into the view of the observant passerby. A recent hike provided an excellent opportunity to reconnect with the vitality of nature and re-establish a sense of inner balance and calmness.
The winter morning unfolded bright and early. The sky had shed its thick, velvety night-time cloak, leaving behind a gauzy veil of haze that was visible from a distance, hovering between the bay and the hills, miles away. The shining sun, already high in the sky, rapidly dispelled the lingering night time chill, except in the shadiest groves and the western faces of the grassy knolls that patiently awaited their turn to bathe in the sun. As the brilliant orb crept along the sky, the shadows shortened, and the moisture steamed in tendrils from the earth.
A chorus of bird song filled the air, interrupted occasionally by the screech of a jay. The trail wound its way past low-lying shrubs and the barren branches of trees, and as we walked, small birds flitted and dipped ahead in startled bursts of feathers and twanging branches. Around one shady bend, a large tree reached out of the shadows and into the sunlight, clumps of browning leaves clinging at the tips of each limb. A group of vultures occupied the heights, a few soaking up the warm rays on wings outstretched like stiff black flags. Immersed in their morning exercises, the vultures paid no mind to the three travelers below.
The aged oaks and the climbing berry vines eventually gave way to vast, rolling hills. With a clang, a heavy metal gate shut behind us, the echo hanging still in the air. We had entered cattle grazing territory, sharply outlined by fences to keep the livestock from wandering away. In the month-long absence of rain, the blades of grass carpeting the hillsides had turned silvery brown like an old man’s beard, except for where the largest trees threw their shade and protected the delicate leaves from the unrelenting sun. Stubbornly, each clump of grass gripped the hillside, awaiting the next rainfall, which would refill the cracks in the dry dirt until the ground would drink no more, and summon forth muddy, murky pools that would stagnate in the dips and crevices. Along the pockets of dirt and across the packed, hardened mud, hoof-prints from meandering cows mingled with shallow paw-prints from visiting dogs and marks from the shoes of recent hikers. As we ascended and descended the hills, we would spot the cows, some nearby, most far off in the distance. Their coats, a mixture of browns and creams and blacks, were curly with winter growth, particularly on their expressive faces, careful and wary. I was told that when the rain finally fell and the cows plodded across the hiking paths, their heavy feet would churn the puddles into craters of dark, wet muck, which could make the paths impossible to cross.
We continued along the hills, the sunlight flooding the clothes on our backs until it reached our skin, like liquid warmth that soaked our bodies. We carried the heat with us as we descended into the shallow canyon below, shaded by the flat leaves of oak or eucalyptus or curtains of narrow, yellow leaves from trees that we could not name. A creek gurgled over smooth stones and fallen branches, shepherding the collected leaves into swirling eddies until they piled in motionless pools. At the calmest shallows, the creek reflected the fathomless blue of the sky overhead, as if providing a glimpse of its mysterious depths. Every once in a while, we would cross the creek on narrow wooden bridges that some industrious group of people had built to facilitate our hike. The width spanned by these structures were narrow, and the wood worn, the nails holding the planks together having worked themselves out of the creaking wood over time. At one spot, I was told, an old bridge had fallen into disrepair, and instead, we teetered across the creek on a well-placed tree trunk.
Eventually, we left the babbling stream behind us, and the crunch of gravel and the whistling of song birds emerged once again. Every now and again, a short series of hollow, wooden knocks would reach our ears. At one point, craning our necks, our eyes landed on an apparently dead tree, the surface of its trunk pockmarked by an even distribution of regularly-shaped holes. Two woodpeckers pranced in a staccato dance, alternating between complete stillness and rapid flicks of their scarlet-plumed heads. As we approached, they gingerly hopped to the neighboring branches of another tree, as if to put some distance between them and us.
By now, a couple of hours had passed since we began our hike, and we returned to the metal gate separating the land of grazing cattle from the realm of asphalt and automobiles. As we left behind these serene surroundings, the buoyant happiness and calmness remained with us, like a small gift from Mother Nature.