It was around this time last year that my life – our lives – changed so profoundly. I’ve now been off work for twelve long months, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate that neither me, my family, nor my closest friends been infected by the virus. Nevertheless, it’s been a rough year for me on so many levels. More than ever, my weekly hikes and mini-adventures have been crucial therapy. I’ve gotten spoiled by being able to venture out to my local parks and hiking trails during the week, avoiding the weekend crowds. Some days, especially if I’m out on one of my early morning hikes, it’s like having my own private preserve.
Admittedly, I’ve gotten into the habit of hiking certain parks and trails over and over again. It’s not a horrible habit, and it sounds silly to feel as though I’m in a hiking rut, but I have been determined to visit new parks, local and farther afield, or to at least find new trails in places that I’ve visited before. In a place like Mount Tamalpais, where I’ve hiked hundreds of times, that’s become difficult. But this most recent visit to Tilden Regional Park, part of the wonderful East Bay Regional Park District, allowed me to explore some fresh terrain. Although it was just a last minute visit and just a shortish hike, it was invigorating to see some new things. Even when I revisit my comfortable places, I invariably see something I haven’t seen before. I did visit Tilden several years ago and while the first mile I hiked was familiar, once I reached Anza Lake, I veered onto a new trail and hiked towards the Mineral Springs area.
So many of these mushrooms looked good enough to eat! If only I knew which ones were actually edible versus which ones would make my liver explode or make my throat constrict and choke me. In circumstances like these, I opt for the sound decision of simply admiring the fungi and trying to take pleasing photos without crushing other flora or even the occasional startled salamander. If I get that hungry for the taste of mushroom, I’ll go to my local Alameda grocer.
For my Thursday hike, I kept with my “resolution” to try new trails in 2021. This is still considered Mount Tamalpais (Marin County), but instead of heading up to the trailheads off of Panoramic Highway, I headed towards the wonderful towns of San Anselmo and Fairfax, then turned up Bolinas Road. From the lot near Lake Lagunitas and Bon Tempe Lakes, I hiked around parts of each lakeshore before finding Collier Trail towards Collier Spring. Even without much rain recently, Lagunitas Creek was still flowing, and the canyon/ravine leading up to the spring was still moist and cool. Since it’s on the northern slope of the mountain, this area doesn’t get much sunlight so it made for a wet, slick trail, and great conditions for mushrooms and fungi.
Up the Collier Trail, which follows the Middle Fork of Lagunitas Creek, a feeder creek of the lake, the first half to three-quarters of a mile is a mild climb, but then it steepens very dramatically on the final ascent to Collier Spring. As I huffed and puffed up the steepest sections of the climb, using some of the rock faces to my left to pull myself up, I couldn’t help but think how treacherous it was going to be on the descent. I’m guessing most hikers will agree that while hiking up steep sections might be hard, descent is more likely to cause a serious fall and injury. With this in mind, I stopped just short of Collier Spring, feeling as though I’d already pushed my luck a bit too far, especially since I was hiking alone.
After a short break on a somewhat safe ledge to devour a satsuma and catch my breath, I began a slow, deliberate descent, never more thankful for my trekking poles, strong legs and decent treads on my Merrells. Nevertheless, the whole time I descended the steep section, I was hyperconscious that one little slip could have some very dire consequences. There were even a few spots where I even considered swallowing some pride and resorting to sliding down on my ass. But in the end, I kept my wits and my balance and made it down without a single slip or misstep.
Overall, it was a gorgeous hike and like on my two previous Mount Tamalpais hikes, the variety and sheer number of mushrooms and fungi I came across was astounding. And the views around the two lakes on a clear morning were beautiful and bucolic. Below is a gallery of images from my hours on the trails. I’ve included some caption info below the slideshow since I can’t caption the images directly.
Lake Lagunitas Picnic Area (closed due to pandemic, but still quite beautiful)
Lagunitas Rock Spring Fire Road (if I’d stayed on this road, it would take me to Potrero Meadow and beyond.
Bon Tempe Lake
Lake Lagunitas with the dam at far left
Lake Lagunitas with oak leaf silhouettes
Mycena on the trail around Bon Tempe Lake
Mycena on a dead log, although I hesitate to call such logs or trees dead because once they fall, they become home to mosses, fungi, ferns and various other living organisms.
Schizophyllaceae, a type of stipeless fungus that grows on fallen trees
A trio of unidentified mushrooms. While I’m slowly getting better at my fungus identification, I’m still very much a novice.
Another mushroom that stumped me. Possibly a type of amanita, but it almost looked like a furry egg from “Alien” popping out of the pine duff
A lone mycena growing in a hollow
Possibly a type of russula
Oyster mushrooms (pleurotus) with turkey tails (trametes versicolor) at top right
A colony of mycena
Sulphur tufts – another very common mushroom this time of year
More sulphur tufts
Possibly Phyllotopsis nidulans. For a while, I misidentified these as oyster mushrooms. But like pleurotus, they grow on trees and have no stipe/stem
Clavaria fragilis, a type of coral fungus also called, appropriately, “fairy fingers”
Possibly another type of russula. It had a light colored gills and stipe, with a dark grey cap.
Could be a hygrocybe, but I wouldn’t bet a cup of coffee on it
A little more certain that these are sulphur tufts (I would bet a cup of coffee, but not two)
Today’s blog entry is an excerpt from “The Mount Whitney Journals,” a long-term project I’ve been working on. Diligently at times, not so diligently at others. It stands as a prequel to “As I Was Walking” the book I wrote chronicling my two summers backpacking the John Muir Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada Range (publ. 2019 – see link below). “The Mount Whitney Journals” chronicles my six attempts to reach the summit of Mount Whitney at the southern end of the Sierra. My first attempt was way back in 1998, with subsequent attempts in 2002, ’05, ’07. ’09, & ’10.
I completed the manuscript in 2012, queried a few publishers and agents for a spell, then at the end of 2013, became obsessed and sidetracked by the John Muir Trail. Now, I’m back at work on TMWJ and plan on self-publishing it later this year. As mentioned it is the prequel to my JMT book, has a lot more humor and narrative and is somewhat memoir-ish in content. The twelve years during which the narrative takes place laid the groundwork for my growing love of the outdoors, to the point where I considered myself not just a hiker and adventurer, but a steward and storyteller.
This particular excerpt is from trip #5 in 2009, a solo trip and my only two-day attempt of the six. In this passage, I’m on the first day of the trip, driving through the Sierra foothills west of Lake Don Pedro:
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
10:03 a.m., Chinese Camp, CA
Now in the Sierra foothills, I reach Chinese Camp – population 126, none of which are Chinese or of other Asian descent – and roll past the highway 108/120 junction. I pull over to change CDs. As the first harmonica strains of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” fill my truck, I’m struck by a lightning bolt of exuberance. I roll down the windows, turn up the volume and at the top of my lungs, sing eternal truths with The Boss. Anyone driving the opposite direction might see me and think I’m deranged or having a seizure.
As the remaining non-Springsteen songs play, I continue uphill through the landscape with my silly, wry grin-smirk and find myself taking pleasure in the little details along the way: the ragged daisy-like sunflowers sprouting along the road; brown and yellow sunbaked ranchland hemmed in by rusted barbed wire fences, the posts crooked and weathered. I feel unbridled exaltation, a celebration of the open road, reveling in the pure unwrapped gift of existence.
 According to 2010 U.S. Census bureau figures. My other invaluable research tool, Wikipedia, reports that Chinese Camp was a bustling gold mining town in the 19th century and at one point was home to 5,000 Chinese laborers.
For those interested in my book, “As I Was Walking: Two Summers Exploring and Photographing the John Muir Trail. Here is the link to the Apple Books option
Note: “As I Was Walking” is also available through Amazon. Also, both the Apple and Amazon versions are digital only. Since this is a self-published project, digital was the only way I could feature my photography prominently at an affordable price. A printed version would’ve been a prohibitive cost.
For full effect, you have to sing “A hunting we will go” in an Elmer Fudd voice. I’m hoping that that reference is not lost on readers, because it’ll make me feel old on this second to the last day of a somewhat lost year. On a side note, I’m one of those people who cringe whenever I hear people on TV use the word “penultimate” to talk about “second to the last” things to make themselves seem learned and smarter than they actually are. But now I’ve used it myself, so what does that make me? (That’s a rhetorical question so please don’t write in to tell me what it makes me). It’s like the pretentious people who use the word “sapiosexual” in their dating profiles, a fancy-schmancy way of saying they find intelligence sexy. One word of advice to men and women, if you use sapiosexual in your profile, spell it correctly. Or don’t because then I can get snarky and act superior.
What does any of this have to do with mushrooms? Absolutely nothing.
Each year around this time, after the rains and cold weather hit the area, I get excited with anticipation for the emergence of wild mushrooms and other types of fungi. Of course, “cold weather” is relative for Northern California. Our cold weather would be shorts and tank top weather to Inuits and Minnesotans.
I’ve obsessed about wildflowers for about a decade now, wild mushrooms about half that time, especially once I started becoming an all weather hiker. Of course, this is much easier to do in California than much of the country. Mid-December is roughly the time when I can realistically expect to start seeing some decent specimens. With so many drought years over the past decade, it’s hard to predict. But we did get some wet weather over the recent weeks, so I was hopeful when I headed out early this past Monday to Mount Tamalpais (Marin County) to hike a few miles and perhaps find a toadstool or two or three. I ended up finding quite a few more than that and I was as giddy as one could be in 2020. Below is a gallery of images for you to enjoy. I’ve identified as many as possible, but some I really had no clue (I welcome any input if there are any mycologist out there).
Things really shut down for the pandemic in mid-March, making Easter the first major holiday spent in isolation (with apologies to the Irish people and celebrants of St. Patrick’s Day). Although it’s been a rough year and I haven’t worked since March, I’ve been relatively fortunate. Neither me, nor anyone close friends or family members have tested positive for the virus. Early on, for many of us, it was grocery shopping that presented the biggest problems, both from a logistical standpoint and in what was available. With that in mind, and suffering from severe boredom with all the major springtime sports suspended, I assigned myself a photo project to share on Facebook and Instagram to bring a touch of levity to my friends and followers. I’ve added additional comments in italics and quotes, otherwise the text and photos are as they originally appeared on my social media.
Victor’s Inaugural Coronavirus Easter Egg Hunt!
Come one, come all! But you might want to leave the kids at home because there might be carnage. And please leave the weapons at home too. I have hired a couple of large security guards to make sure things stay civil. Admission is $50. Masks required.
Damned right they’re real eggs. Had to bribe a grocer to get them.
“Early on during the pandemic, certain items were hard to find and grocery stores had to limit purchases. Eggs and toilet paper were hot commodities in March. “
Soup and chili. Amy’s Organic because this is a high class event.
“Canned goods were also in short supply”
My Cormac McCarthy collection. Because how much more depressed can one get.
“I was glad to hear that books became popular again, or more popular than before as many of us had hours upon hours to fill. I think it was on my IG post that I added the disclaimer that anyone already suffering from depression should avoid ‘The Road’ at all costs. A good book, but it’s set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world, and therefore not the best choice to read during a pandemic.”
Petite peas from Trader Joe’s. Disclaimer: the bag is only 3/4 full. Or 1/4 empty if you want to be a pessimist.
“Just to be clear, I didn’t really invite anyone over for this hunt, although now that I’ve been off work for nine months, I could use the $50 per head.”
Took me two weeks of trips to Alameda Natural Grocery to score this gluten-free flour. And I can’t admit what I had to do to get the yeast. Let’s just say that a trip to confession and a crazy number of Acts of Contrition were involved.
“Bread baking at home has exploded during the pandemic. I’m one of the few people who hasn’t tried baking a loaf. But I’ve done plenty of other cooking. I also put on a lot of weight between March and July (nearly twenty pounds), before I pulled myself out of a depression and got back to exercising on a more regular basis…along with some more sensible eating habits.”
“I admit that I smoke occasional cigars. During the late spring and most of summer my nightly ritual was to sit outside with some herbal tea and fig bars and watch the stars come out. I’d occasionally puff on a cigar, maybe once a week. “
Even softer than Charmin!
Okay, I’m better at hiding my emotions than I am at hiding physical objects.
It’s reverse psychology. They are so out in the open that nobody will see them. Hey, I should work at the White House…my bullshit will take me far.
Refried beans in the hand is worth two in the bush.
I hope I remembered to bring this can back inside before I back out.
As this long year blessedly comes to a conclusion, two highlights I reflect on center on astronomical events that I was fortunate to witness and document. First was Comet Neowise in mid-July, just weeks before the same crystalline skies turned all shades of brown and orange with smoke.
Then last week, for an early Christmas gift (or whichever holiday you celebrate), many of us who lived in the right region and had clear skies were treated to the Conjunction of Jupiter & Saturn over southwestern skies.
For the comet photo, on two consecutive early mornings, I set my alarm for 2:30 – 3:00 in the morning so I could make a big mug of strong coffee and make the drive from Alameda to Mount Tamalpais to get in position before dawn to photograph the comet. This type of photography is not my specialty, so I was thrilled with the result. The photos from the first morning (July 10), were decent, but a bit soft on the focus. After finding some online tips to help, I went back the following morning and came home with stronger results. They were strong enough, in fact, that Marin Magazine published it in their August issue.
The Conjunction photo was entirely different. I knew that without higher powered lenses or a telescope I could photograph through, most likely any photo I took of the two planets in the sky was only going to look like a white blotch in the sky. With a telescope or even strong binoculars, it was possible to see Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings.
With no clear view from my home, I headed to the Alameda shoreline less than two miles away. Bundled against the cold, I found a nice dune with some shore grasses where I could comfortably lean back and watch. Sunset was glorious, with scattered clouds. Initially the planets were obscured by some light cloud cover, but they parted enough to allow those gathered (masked and socially distant) to watch. It didn’t disappoint. I ended up just taking a few photos with my iPhone X, feeling that my best option was to frame the image with a nearby couple silhouetted against the bay and sky, and the planets visible in the dark sky.
I’ll be writing more on this blog about my thoughts and emotions regarding this past year. What really can I add that hasn’t already been said. Although I’ve been off work since March, I’m incredibly fortunate that none of my closest friends, family nor I have been infected by the coronavirus.
Featuring hundreds of photos and a generous amount of witty narrative and humor, my digital only book about backpacking the John Muir Trail is available through both Apple Books and Amazon. It took me 25 glorious days in the summer of 2015 to wend my way through 226-miles of sublime Sierra landscape. Then it took nearly three years to write, edit, design and layout the book. In both cases, it was an adventure and a labor of love. I’ve scheduled a very tentative rematch for late summer of 2027, shortly after I retire.
I’m now also working on the prequel, “The Mount Whitney Journals” and a yet to be titled photo book of Mount Tamalpais.
A belated first blogpost of the year/decade and an even more belated first hike. But it does follow an all too familiar pattern of a bout with the flu/head cold/sinusitis that descends on my immune system the millisecond Christmas ends. I need to find a way to hypnotize or delude my body and mind to think that Christmas is always one week away, no matter the date.
But with my health restored this final week of January, it was well worth the wait. I always relish my time on a trail, never taking it for granted, but I nevertheless still cherish even more after a long layoff. For me, two weeks without a hike is an extended layoff. A month, like this recent layoff, is nearly unbearable.
While I realize that to some, today’s blog title might seem a bit blaspemous, anyone who spends time outdoors will likely be on my side. And anyone who has ever visited or walked Mount Tamalpais’ (Marin County, California) incredible hiking trails with undoubtedly shout an “AMEN! or two, or three” in agreement.
While not as famous as the foliage season in the Northeast, we do have some damned fine displays here in California, most notably in the Sierra where aspens are plentiful. For me, living in the Oakland area, I’m a three-hour drive (depending on coffee and toilet breaks) from the Lake Tahoe area.
For more than a decade, I’ve made yearly pilgrimages in mid to late October to not only photograph the aspens, but to witness the Kokanee salmon spawning along Taylor Creek on Tahoe’s western shore. As for the aspens, there are numerous spots to find groves, but I have my own favorites. Some are right off the road on highways 88 & 89, while others are located on side roads and hiking trails. Hope Valley is another favored spot, especially near Sorensen’s Resort and up toward Carson Pass.
My digital book, “As I Was Walking: Two Summers Exploring and Photographing the John Muir Trail,” has been available since this past March. I’m now working on the prequel, “The Mount Whitney Journals.” TMWJ is the project I was working hard on at the time the John Muir Trail became an almost instant obsession in late 2013. “As I Was Walking” turned into a three year project (much longer than anticipated) but it was worth every effort. The book (available only digitally, no print) features hundreds of photos and a good amount of narrative. In fact, one of the reasons I could only offer this book digitally rather than a printed version was my desire to include my photographs. Since it is self-published, to have a printed version where the photos looked beautiful and rich, the cost would’ve been exorbitant.