A year ago I never would have even considered trying to walk with Dar from sea level to anything called “Mount.” But we’re getting more audacious ever since our recent successful walks in Zion and Bryce Canyon. Despite now having to carry emergency seizure medicine wherever we go.
Granted, the Mount in question is the smallest Mount I’ve ever heard of, at 788 feet. And…even that was a tremendous challenge. The “sea level” was a big part of the problem. More specifically, the “sea.” Or should I say “bay”? No, I should say “estuary,” but that’s more of a Bay Estuary Area nerd thing. I am talking about Mount Livermore, which is the top of Angel Island, the large island in the middle of San Francisco Bay that looms over Alcatraz.
The first ferry from Tiburon to Angel Island leaves at 10:00am. 10am?! Felt earlier when I was a kid. Dar wakes up no later than 6am, so that was three hours of keeping him occupied. Then there was waiting at the dock, when Dar got mildly upset that he wasn’t allowed to simply jump in the water. Then there was the boat trip itself, which Dar’s brother, R, complained about…until he realized it really only took the ten minutes I’d promised. On a boat with a big window, Dar is great. Getting through crowds before and after, without causing a scene…not so much.
That wasn’t the hardest. The hardest was arriving at Ayala Cove. Ayala Cove is the arrival and departure point of Angel Island ferries: there’s a minor café/restaurant, minor military barracks, and a minor beach…but no beach is too minor for Dar to get obsessed. Stepping off the ferry, Dar needed to be on that beach, and I let him lest he scream at/to all the ferry riders (coming and going). Maybe five minutes of shore time later, I took his hand and began to lead him up the island’s hill. Wifey and R seemed interested in some barracks, so we went up that way…until it cut off behind some 100-year-old building. Did that cut off when I was a kid? Could have sworn that in the 1980s, one could walk through the military barracks to the perimeter road. Couldn’t do it in 2019, which normally wouldn’t matter, except that Dar was screaming to return to the beach. I let his hand go, so that he could run away from the barracks…but then I caught up to him before he reached the beach again and I redirected him up the gravel path to the perimeter road. He was doubly frustrated and it showed. When we reached the perimeter road – the only concrete-paved road that circumnavigates Angel Island – wifey questioned my notion of walking our little family of four up to the island’s top. I told her that the connector road from Ayala Cove to the perimeter road was the steepest part. She laughed at my optimism but said we could try just a little bit longer. I told everyone we had to earn the beach with a big long sweaty walk.
Turned out I was right about the steepness. The Sunset Trail to Mt. Livermore is essentially a very long series of switchbacks, carefully graded for hiker ease. But nothing about Dar signified “ease.” I was wrong to imply that the hardest part was over, because Dar was not even close to done screaming. On Zion hikes, his left hand, his cerebral palsy-afflicted hand, was relatively easy to hold and chaperone, but on Angel Island he found a way to keep yanking it back. Silver lining? Dar seemed to know exactly how to get back to the beach. (Impressive navigation skills!) I let wifey and R walk way ahead of us as I began to despair. The mountaintop was an hour away. How would we ever see it?
Finally, I caved. No, I didn’t let Dar run back to the beach…I put him up on my shoulders. It was the feeling of a week-long fog lifting, the sun coming out, and flocks of birds singing a heavenly choir. Dar immediately stopped screaming. He hadn’t beenon my shoulders in at least a year, maybe two. Turns out he likes it up there. Also turns out he gained a pound or two. He weighs maybe 60? He was even giddy up there, dee-dee-dee-ing as his face touched branches.
I’m not sure how far I would have been able to carry Dar before my recent Puerto Rico adventures (above and below sea level), but conditioned as I was, I caught up to wifey and R, in time to hear R ask, about 20 times in a row, “are we there yet?” (At least he didn’t demand equal time on my shoulders; R is slowly getting used to his brother’s autism.) I was determined to take Dar on my shoulders as far as I could. I made it…all the way to the fire road, the dirt road that is the only other road that circumnavigates the island. It’s maybe two-thirds of the way up. Finally, for the sake of my aching back, I had to put Dar down. But…he was unlocked. Happily dee-dee-dee-ing the rest of the way. No beach demands. Ahhhhhhhh yes.
Now, I could finally enjoy the hike that my mother and I had enjoyed at least a hundred times. This was my first time back since way before she died in 2005 (Jack from “Lost” told me I had to go back to the island!), and everything reminded me of her and/or us. Love those tree-laden switchbacks and dozens of sweet sweet memories. These were our family reunions: single mom, only kid, walking to the top of Angel Island and discussing everything. I would run ahead and hide and then jump out from behind a tree and “scare” her. I doubt she was ever scared. How could I hide my bright red hair, even with all those manzanita trees?
Also, it was an era that I was recently reminded of while reading R and Dar some Calvin and Hobbes books: back then, parents who were fed up with their kids shoved them outside and told them to come back at dinner. My mom was no different; she never looked worried at my independence. You may have heard that parenting has changed. I would love for Dar and/or R to show a little less dependence. I encourage this. So far, they need me like fishes need water. Maybe a few more Angel Island hikes will help.
I could see wifey was surprised that we’d made it far enough for the spectacular views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. But…I well knew that the last 10% was the hardest part. Which is really a metaphor for all projects in life. Anyone can do the first 90%; to separate yourself from everyone else, you have to finish strong. This is doubly true if you want to get to the top of Angel Island. Literally, the switchbacks stop, and you have to climb a real slope in the bright sunlight without any tree cover. (Not that your change of direction is well-marked by signs on either the Sunset Trail or the North Ridge Trail. Furthermore, even though those are the island’s two main trails, neither of those trail names are on Wikipedia or the official State website. It really is like Angel Island is still in the 1980s.)
On the very last uphill lap, I am proud to report that Dar did fantastically. So did R. Only wifey was lagging. Finally, for the first time, we came to something that was different from my childhood…overgrown tight bushes, instead of a path, that made the last fifteen yards nearly impossible to traverse. Was that something that happened since the 2008 fire? I almost despaired. Not easy to chaperone Dar through such things, though R was loving the topiary-maze-ness of it. Ah, Angel Island is still so DIY! Should I bring a machete the next time I come? And then…it happened. We tumbled out onto a plateau where a dozen hikers were already having lunch and looking at the view. Ahhhh.
Naturally I had packed us lunches, put them in a backpack, and carried them up the hill. Naturally I offered them to my kids here at the top. Naturally Dar ignored his and chose to grab food from other hikers. Naturally I wasn’t watching at the time because I was distracted by wifey shouting my name from the tangled bushes. Naturally wifey made it through, and the hikers were nice as I profusely apologized. Naturally we beheld the sumptuous 360-degree view from what I consider the exact middle of the Bay Area. Naturally.
788 feet up. It was a victory for Dar but also a victory for our family. We can…do stuff? Some stuff, anyway.
Wifey said she loved it and was glad I had insisted. Music to my ears. The walk back wasn’t as eventful. I thought Dar would be running to the beach. Instead I got an “uhh-puh” request…he wanted to be back on my shoulders. Yeah that’s a big NO, Dar. Sometimes walking him was a little tough. I kept pointing out the big blue beach, but God knows if Dar has ever looked more than 100 feet in any direction. He could be horribly nearsighted; we’ll never know. Angel Island has better beaches than the one at Ayala Cove, but no way was I going to try to get to one of them and then also take Dar back to Ayala later…the very idea is laughable.
Finally we arrived at the Ayala Cove beach and finally Dar was very happy. We stayed for about another 90 minutes, then took the 3:20 ferry back to Tiburon. That time, Dar transitioned fine. Give him a good hour at something he loves, and he’s usually fine with changing out of it. That’s a mercy.
Technically, Angel Island is almost entirely part of the city of Tiburon. As you know, tiburon is Spanish for “shark.” Angels and sharks are a little bit like autism. They’re eternal, they’re powerful, they’re mysterious, and we may not be able to live without them. So we make peace with their confounding presence, a little more each day.