Sauntering in Muir’s Footsteps on Mount Wanda

April 15, 2011

“Are you ready to saunter?”  Thad Shay, dressed in short sleeves and a park ranger’s uniform, turns and leads our group to the trailhead. 

It’s a bright Saturday morning in April, and we begin our walk from a parking lot in the shadow of Highway 4, the John Muir Parkway.  Our destination is Mount Wanda, a 326-acre preserve in Martinez, part of the John Muir National Historic Site.  Muir liked to take his daughters Helen and Wanda walking among the oak woodlands and grasslands on this very trail.

Shay walks up the steps to the trail, turns around and stops near a toyon bush bright with berries shining in the morning sun.  “You can eat these berries,” Shay says, “as did the Native Americans.  They dried them, and used them in tea.”  A few more paces and we’re looking at the leaves of a black oak, then coast live oak, bay laurel, and wavy-leaved soaproot. “You can actually use this plant like soap,” Shay continues.  “You dig up the root, which looks like a hairy potato, and take it to the river to wash off.  It foams up, you rinse it off, and it leaves your hair and skin shiny and clean.”

We’ve only walked 25 yards.

This is a saunter.  Apparently, John Muir was fond of the word “saunter” rather than hike.  Hiking, Muir said, implies speed.  Sauntering allows for lingering.

As we meander up the trail, Shay stops to tell us stories about ticks, lizards, and oak galls.  He makes a child’s scissors from the pointy buds of long-beaked stork’s bill.  He kneels down off the trail and pulls back leaves of a delicate fern. 

“See how the stems underneath are dark brown and black?” He points to a dark tangle of wispy stems.  “Just like a maiden’s hair.  The plant betrays its name: maiden hair fern.” 

Wildflowers season in the East Bay brings delicate spots of purple, yellow, white, and red to hills and nooks.  Don’t expect carpets of color like a desert bloom.  And instead of three weeks, you have three months to plan your outing.  But as May approaches, the window is closing.

“I lead walks from mid-March to mid-May,” says Shay, who’s been a ranger for 20 years.  “And you’ll see a whole different set of flowers in March than you will in May.  People that want to see shooting stars know to come in March.  Those who like to see poppies and purple owl’s clover — my personal favorite — come in May.”

There are two Spring Wildflower Walks left in 2011: April 23 and May 9.  They start at 9am at the Alhambra Ave. Park and Ride in Martinez.

About the Author

Amos Hausman-Rogers is a Bay Nature editorial volunteer.

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