Monday, August 6, 2012

The secret rock of Marin County

This thing about Marin County hiking trails: they're full of trim healthy people upholstered in Spandex, swigging dutifully from water bottles, talking about office politics, vacations and real estate. They move in groups. Especially the women, who jog. The men more often ride trail bikes. On this last walk, we saw four women walking in a row and swinging their left arms in unison.

Such a relief to hear bursts of talk that weren't about status. One woman was complaining wonderfully about lack of realism in a zombie movie: sometimes the heroes can outrun the zombies, other times not. Why was that? It bothered her. When she caught us listening she ducked and said, "We're talking about zombies," like there was some reason to apologize. What's wrong with zombies?

Much later two women were talking about a restaurant, maybe plural restaurants, in Flagstaff, that used to have lemonade made with real lemons. One said, "Maybe the lemons were heterosexual!" Took us a day to figure out the context: Chik-Fil-A, had to be.

But after the zombies, before the lemons --

We took a turn off the marked official trail. A side trail up a creek, not on the map, no direction signs, just one sign a little ways up explaining what wasn't allowed on the trail, such as horses, bikes, campfires -- so, presumably, feet would be OK. We kept going.

The path started to have maintenance problems -- fallen trunks, washouts -- so we might have turned around. But there was singing ahead. It sounded like opera at first. A man's voice, basso profundo. Old Tom Bombadillo. Then the voice broke off and laughed and the singer kept on with a story to his friend.

The friends came into view: couple of gracefully aged ex-hippie guys. J. thought they were maybe a little altered in state of mind. Also maybe a little nervous, a little squirrelly.

One said, "So you come here very often?" A challenge.

Well, no, we said, but did they know where the path went? Oh yes. They looked at each other. One said, "But if we tell you we'll have to kill you." Then they laughed to frame it as a joke. (In deference to their privacy, however, this account is vague as to location. Also, we had the distinct impression they were avoiding some other subject. Whatever it was, it's none of our business.)

They decided to tell us this: go up the creek, climb past where the path gets bad, and there's a grand big rock. They had named it out of New Age philosophy -- "just what we call it" -- a name meaning groundedness, a rock you'd want to put your back against.

We climbed. Muggy place, ferns and mossy trunks and twisted trees. Some fire-scar on trunks from a long time ago. My neck itching from leaf dust.

At the top, yes, a big rock. Fallen oak leaves and dark ferns all around it. A place anyone would find spiritually moving one way or another. I grew up in Massachusetts woods. It reminded me of home.

The big gap in California being that people who knew the names of places didn't make most of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century maps, and the colonists didn't always bother to find out the names of places, while they could, before the massacres and epidemics. And people who do know these things sometimes choose to keep them private for fear of the wrong kinds of attention.

There's no label for that rock on the common maps map now, and it's at least not easy to Google up what name and significance the rock may have had before the conquest, before that whole general area of Marin County became a focus of neo-Buddhist spirituality, before a couple of friends found this rock in a condition of (to them) namelessness and, showing their own kind of respect, asserted the naming privilege of Adam.

Not bad, necessarily, what the New Age namers did. At least it's not as arrogant a style as that of the extremely Victorian Prof. Edward Hitchcock who, in the Connecticut River valley of Western Massachusetts, used to lead picnic parties of students to bestow names on mountains (and hills dignified as mountains) as though he were the first person ever to have thought of calling them something.

This Marin County rock, the one that's likely to have caught imaginations before those of our squirrelly guides, would be more or less in Miwok country. I don't know if surviving Miwok oral tradition has anything to say about its significance or, if so, whether anyone who knows would trust the present public with the story.

Eh, the rock isn't going anywhere. People who come across it respect it as a source of inspiration. Of course they do. People are wired to find certain kinds of places inspiring. Of course we are.

Spandex and all.

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