It was more of a slow saunter, really. I’m not actually physically capable of much more than that, but realistically I wouldn’t have wanted to rush the first enjoyable walk back home. Our footsteps were hushed by the fall of leaves and bark from stands of eucalyptus trees. The air was scented with sagebrush and manzanita baking under the sun, dust rising from the well-worn path, and water. Although it’s been such a wonderfully wet year that the grasses are just finishing their turn from green to brown – something that usually happens a few weeks earlier in the year – even humans with their puny noses can still smell water in the air. It doesn’t matter if the water is being sprayed by someone washing their car in the early morning hours, or if it is the reed-choked pond that comes into view around the bend in the path.
We take a break there for my sake. I’m the only member of the party the mosquitos don’t bother, funnily enough. Instead they head for the repellent- and sunscreen-doused figures of my mother and sister. The pond’s shallow edges are a fascinating microcosm; tiny fish and tadpoles dart just under the surface of the water while dragonflies zing and stall in iridescent steaks above. The water spills into an irrigation channel dug and paved with carefully selected stones; the channel was first built in the early 1800s. It leads to cisterns and adobe houses, still maintained but now mostly for the benefit of the wondering public than for habitation… with a few exceptions. The whitewashed houses with red-brick roofs standing on the opposite hill still house the rangers who watch over this preserve.
We take a slightly different path on the way back. There are blackberries on the bushes, tiny flecks of color among the prickly thorns and the glossy green-and-red leaves of the poison oak that is intertwined with the bushes. I leave them alone. Some other creature less sensitive to poison oak will eat them before long.
The beetle blight and drought has taken a toll on the stand of old pine trees at the crown of a hill covered in waving dry grass and mustard. The huge bones of the trees lay fallen on the ground. Others stand, dry skeletons. They’re a tremendous fire hazard. The only comfort is that all around this area burned the year before, so at least the inevitable burn, which will be hot when fueled by that much dead timber, might be contained. Perhaps. The wind is already coming up, just like it does every day. It will usually reach 20 mph, more than enough to drive any wildfire quickly through the terrain and spot it into other areas. There’s a surreal sensation of looking at a future battle zone.
We walk down the hill and cross the creek at the bottom. The last stretch is bordered by ancient pecan and walnut trees. Nestled among them are native flowers, and poppies bloom in the rocky soil on the opposite side. Hawks cry in the air and the brush rustles as cottontails burrow deeper. The butterflies dance on, unknowing, uncaring, and unafraid.
It is good to be back.