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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Staying connected to what matters

John Muir would escape from his writing (which he hated) in his winters in San Francisco by taking a ferry east or west to the Oakland/Berkeley hills or Mt. Tamalpais and spend the day "rambling". Upon his return he would have an armful of flowers which he distributed to eager street urchins as he took the hill to his Taylor Street room with long strides and a lightened heart.
Like Muir, we all need to take time to stay connected to the natural world, hopefully as a daily or near-daily jaunt. Four or five times a week I get on my bicycle and head for Bidwell Park in my hometown of Chico. My route depends on how much time I have. Yesterday I only had 30 or 40 minutes, so I took my short "spin" around the park. If it's over 90 degrees, as it was here yesterday, I wore only my swimsuit and my Teva sandals, the better to feel the wind on my skin. I bicycled for 15 minutes, got to my favorite spot in Chico Creek running through the park, then splashed in for a cool swim. I did some stretches while standing ankle-deep in the creek , under an overarching white alder, admiring a magnificent California sycamore downcreek on the opposite shore. Then one last dip in the water, and back on my bike. Yesterday, as always, I felt so great coming out of the water into the warm air that I sang two very old-fashioned songs with gusto all the way home. I won't tell you what my two songs are--my secret--but here's a hint: they both have the word "day" in their chorus, and they make me feel like a boy again.

Yesterday was my short-version bike ride, summer mode. Last week I had an afternoon with a couple of hours free, so I took my longer version. Same gig: swim suit and Tevas, head for Bidwell Park. But this time I turned up-stream and headed for Upper Park, going into Big Chico Creek Canyon. Past the golf course, the new observatory, the old "gun club" shooting range, after half an hour I locked the bike to a trash receptable at "Gator Junior" (a favorite swimming hole where we took the kids when they were small, just below a spot where a former pet alligator had reportedly been discovered in the creek decades ago), and took off on foot up the Yahi Trail beside the creek. The trail climbs gradually for a couple of miles, leaving the rock-strewn mud-flow Tuscan formation behind as the creek cuts down through it and soon exposing the black, rugged basaltic rock of the underlying Lovejoy formation. At the downstream edge of Bear Hole (sometimes called Bare Hole, and for good reason), I abandoned the trail and switch-backed down to the creek. I hopped to a chunk of basalt sitting in the creek, pulled a pb&j sandwich and thermos from my backpack, and settled in.

Usually in this spot I see a water ouzel (John Muir's favorite bird, for its joyous singing and up-beat, perky behavior) dipping and dancing in and out of the swift current in its search for aquatic insects. Last week the ouzel made no appearance, an event that has occurred several times this summer. I devoutly hope the local ouzel population isn't declining, because like Muir I delight in their antics in the creek and would surely miss them if they disappeared. Regardless of the ouzel no-show, it was beautiful sitting there, listening to the music of the creek's flow, inspecting the yellow Monkey flowers on the far bank set amidst bright green ferns (mainly maiden-hair ferns). Shortly after I finished my pb&j, a kingfisher came roaring up the canyon over the creek, voicing his distinctive piercing call. A pair of mallards came more sedately, swimming upcreek until they noticed me and retraced their course. A turkey vulture or two soared effortlessly a thousand feet above me.

That was a pretty typical two-hour jaunt, and it leaves me feeling just as invigorated and happy as the 30-minute one. Physically tired, perhaps, but vibrant in spirit, secure in my place in a universe of grandeur and beauty.

Not all my bicycle trips in the park are for solitary times in nature, though. This weekend a wedding of a good friend of my oldest daughter brought the participants to a Sunday brunch at One-Mile, a municipal concrete-bottom semi-dammed section of the creek some 3 miles downstream of where I enter the park. So Sunday morning I bicycled through the Valley oaks and California sycamores alongside Chico Creek and had the distinct pleasure of swimming at One-Mile with my granddaughter #1 and her mom, up from San Francisco for the wedding. Much pleasant conversation at the creekside picnic with old friends and the newly-wedded couple. Then a leisurely ride back home.

That's how I do it, several times a week, summer and the rest of the year also: get reconnected with the natural world through bicycle rides into Upper and Lower Bidwell Park. We all need some relatively easy way to get back into a chunk of the natural world often, and a good park works fine, whether it's on a bike or on foot or in a kayak or whatever--just gardening could do the job, in a pinch. But for me: it's bike rides in the park. I don't let the rainy winter stop me, either. I've invested in a good rainsuit, and I enjoy rides through a chilly, rainy park almost as much as my summer rides. (Generally, though, the fewer clothes I'm wearing, the happier I am.) My daughter Holly actually enjoyed the winter rides more than the summer ones (the coolness, the smells), and I've begun to see her point of view the last several years.

Well, I got to go. Am meeting my friend Richard downtown to chat about the Father/Son hike to Bearpaw Meadow in Sequoia National Park last month--so it's on my bike, riding past the Valley oaks and through the park alongside Chico creek, past One-Mile to downtown Chico. Can't wait.
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