Hours on the hill

Off the beat

In absolute freedom, shadows bounce and warp behind me. Foot by foot on the dirt, I’m smiling. Quickening my descent, I compete with the silent shapes for victory.

I run and trip on roots carved by grungy trunks and premature saplings. Torn grass and a bleached puff of cloud shy above the hill’s ridge, gentle under a silvery sun, intimidating the cache of Berkeley’s foothill trails. Juice is swishing to and fro in my bottle, splashing traces of sugar onto the dirt. And in less than five minutes since I’ve started back down, I stop. I need to pee.

But I cannot — not here. It’s an act too brazen among this Thursday’s crowd of walkers and runners. Friendly woofing dogs and grumpy nonwoofing dogs join them, some held by a fancy leash, others held by their own curiosity.

The fire trails are iconic. They’re a timeless masterpiece in Cal’s tradition, a lyric in “The California  Drinking Song” and “Big C.” The eastern foothills are Oski’s outlet for mischief, the home of his lair. At night, the illumination along the hillside of Rockridge’s homes capers against the culmination of grey and purple, blue and black. These advancing colors are ephemeral in the moment but last in memory, alit and mesmerizing.

The wind is often jealous, an extravagant creature vexed in the air above, lonely and aggressive, greeting the trees with a rustling of their leaves. A soft fog overwhelms the portions of hillside stillness, when my nose starts to run wild with snot, out of control in the cold.

Across the Bay, the most intimate stretches of golden water lie under the sun’s fire. Mount Tamalpais is silent in great size — a dark figure of looming authority patrolling the altitude. Lake Merritt, the Bay Bridge and Richmond port are in the fading outline, painted by the setting sun and the trees’ obstruction of view. The Emeryville Ikea radiates the ugliest yellow and blue. Lawrence Lab is comfortably nestled in, a reticent dominion in the hills, in great company looking for solitude.

Tonight, the critters begin to prepare for a forest party of sorts. Echoed movement shakes an estranged mass of branches. Bird calls and invitations are scattered by nests among tree communities, insects emerging and pests disappearing in the brush. From above and below, lively stares with googly eyes guard the terrain. The untamed in the forest are apprehensive of me as I select the appropriate tree to pee behind.

I zip my pants back up and reorient myself. Slowly, my chin lifts and my chest puffs out. I shout!

“For California, for California, the hills send back the cry!”  

It’s past the golden hour; the creamiest yellows and oranges celebrate the hillside ecology, the dusk’s dangerous greens and blues developing under the marine layer. But it doesn’t matter; I have no camera. The last of the glow is perfect.

My body, hollow and skeletal, stands gently, overlooking the shimmer of traffic’s ant trail, appreciating college’s memories, but importantly, the appreciation the hills gave me.

I am left alone trekking to the bottom. I reach a road hugging the curves leading to Grizzly Peak. As fast as beauty overcame the trails, I leave them, finding my established return route home.

For the past three years, my feet have taken me from Channing Circle over Clark Kerr’s track, 1,000 steps upward, through the muddy stews of snapped branches, stems, leaves, bottle caps, aromatic scents and diverging broken trunks. The hills are greater than the city, a boundless fortitude of muted peace and serenity in our campus’ backyard.

But it’s what we make of it, everything in the city and on campus. I can be solo, dancing on dirt, gracing the sides of the trail, foraging through leaves and picking at shrubs, a lost unit away from the bustle of campus, completely lost and perfectly content. Honeydew, peppermint and orange waft through my nostrils as we go through different portions of hillside. Light shines on through a labyrinth in someone’s backyard, a valley of different shades of green, orange and brown, a palette of mist and fog, allergies and sunlight enamoring the humans passing through.

The streets are less divine, more rigid. Cars swerve, folks yell, music blasts, and it’s a bit like hell is breaking loose down there by campus. The trails afford me enough hours of solitude and quiet so I can rethink, understand and continue my thoughts. My hillside bubble is no longer a trail route, but a hibernation den, a cozy dwelling of sorts. The security, reliability and secluded shelter in this isolation keeps me in longer. So I stay; I can be invincible for a bit. Up here, no one can see me. I become invisible if I am silent enough.  

And goddamn. These hills make me feel good.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the summer’s regular opinion columnists have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.