Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Canyon was my favorite place in Contra Costa County, California, in the late 1960s. I don't know what Canyon is like now; probably I would rather not know. In those days it was a small settlement along a creek whose water supported a modest redwood forest. Fascinated since childhood with the West Coast's giant trees, I was delighted when I arrived in Berkeley in the fall of 1965 to find a redwood or two here and there on the campus. Redwoods need more water than they could get clinging to the semi-arid hillsides that make up much of the East Bay. My first redwoods in the wild -- doing their thing, as we used to say -- grew in Canyon.

It wasn't always 105 F beyond the ridge of hills east of Berkeley, but I think of it that way, the grass scorched straw-hat-beige and rarely a tree to be seen. On open-air transportation -- first a Lambretta, later a Honda 90 -- the desert-quality wind sucked the moisture out of my skin and hair, compounding the sunburn I was getting if I hadn't thought to bring something with sleeves. But I never felt hot except at traffic lights. At 45 miles an hour you don't, and by the time you notice a burning sensation on your skin, you're already in for a bad night. I bought Noxema by the pound in those days. Under most circumstances my bikes and I have avoided the path of lawn sprinklers; in those desert conditions, the spray felt like dew from heaven. To my New England-bred eyes, the moist shade of Canyon was like a dip in the swimming hole.

As the road wound along the creek, deep shadows from the trees broke up the hot, dry glare. I was familiar with the light-and-shade effects on Claremont Avenue, my favorite ride in Berkeley, where the trunks and leaves of the eucalyptus trees threw long, variegated shadows across the road. The contrast between light levels could obscure real objects; bends in the road could come up startlingly quickly. Sadly, a year or two after I left Berkeley an unusually hard winter killed the eucalyptuses; native to Australia, they're not prepared foranything like frost. When I saw Claremont Avenue again, it looked like all the other roads that wind through the East Bay hills. The shade under the redwoods in Canyon had a different quality, darker and solider in places, freckled and speckled in others.

On one of my excursions looked ahead to where the road curved around and then back again and saw, for just a second or two, three hippies gathered beside the road as if waiting for a ride. They were at the end of the driveway in front of an undistinguished house that I remember as being rather large and set back from the road. One of the guys was wearing a striped shirt. The other had long, dark hair and was bending over a guitar, one foot on what might have been a rock (if, come to think of it,they have rocks in Contra Costa County; they don't have the large chunks of granite and quartz that I was used to). The girl was seated on something else. Another curve of the road and they were out of sight; another, and I was at the spot.

The house was there, and the driveway, but no hippies. In the few seconds that had passed since I spotted them from down the road, they couldn't possibly have gone anywhere. They had been an optical illusion suggested by the complicated patterns of light and shadow. I accepted this mini-hallucination as a curiosity. In the vicinity of Berkeley in the late 1960s, phantom hippies weren't alarmingly out of keeping with the order of things.