Most of us have great memories of being part of a smallish group of best friends. Well, in high school, I was fortunate to be part of such a group and one of the things we most loved to do was hike the hills south of Petaluma.
These were not public lands, but the only problem we ever had was with one old guy who approached by pickup truck and emerged with shotgun in hand to confront our trespassing. I don’t recall much about him, because, well, after the shotgun in my nose – everything else seemed kind of non-important.
Anyway, after a short conversation where I shamelessly dropped the name of the daughter of one of the nearby ranch owners, this guy smiled, gave us some instructions about not tormenting the cattle and welcomed us to hike here whenever we felt like it.
“Do you really know her?” one of our girls asked. “Sure,” I said confidently. “We’re likely to see her when we stop for ice cream.”
You see, this was the ultimate goal of almost all of our hikes.
If my friend was on shift, we got extra great service (like when they really fill up the giant stainless milkshake mug and give you the extra shake) so – yes – I did know her. She was gorgeous and one year older than me.
We packed almost nothing, no extra layers, no water, no first aid kits, no emergency food or food of any kind, planning only to walk through the hills and trees together, having a great time and stopping for ice cream at the truck stop diner next to the highway. Any self-respecting boy scout would have laughed at our idea of preparing for a hike. Our emergency planning consisted of never having emergencies. For those of you who were with us, you know we rarely got hurt, and no – I am NOT counting the day I ignited a firecracker too close to my face – thank you.
The closest thing we ever had that approached an emergency was the day we started out very early for some reason that has been lost to gentrifying memory. Besides, taken in the right frame of mind (as long as no one dies) emergencies can be a good learning experience, and in this case we did learn several things. We learned first about dew – which was everywhere and on everything we touched (imagine that…) and about hiking in low hanging tule (pronounced tool-lee) fog which was also everywhere. For those of you unfamiliar with tule fog, it’s a thick white floating muck that some say you can cut with a knife – but those who know better will tell you that a chainsaw is the better tool.
Anyway, there was no path used for this hike, instead, I used markers that I had memorized from previous trips. Go between those two trees, up a certain ranch road until reaching a certain rock, then hook to the left of a certain ridge, and so forth.
After about an hour of hiking up the north side of the ridge through the light early morning fog we reached a certain hill top that was one of my main markers and if we wanted ice cream (and we always did) we had to both hit and turn correctly after, that hilltop. But from the top of that ridge for as far as I could see was tule fog.
I recall not being able to see anything further than about 5 feet which put this hike on a different level of difficulty. Despite the creepy feeling caused by walking around within a vapor walled bubble and barely being able to see my friends if we were not close enough to be intimate (which would have been taboo for this group) I swallowed my growing fears and determined to not let this fog get to me. I would man-up and lead my friends on to ice cream. Friends don’t let friends miss out on ice cream.
Well, I stood there to let everyone get close enough to see one another and look for clues as to which way to turn. We were already soaked with dew and fog, and I knew the direction we needed to go, somewhere to the east, but was I facing the right direction now and how was I going to find the right angle without being able to see the trees that I normally sighted off of?
Normally we would be laughing and carrying on without paying too much attention to stuff around us. Today everyone’s senses were wide open looking for clues. How about the freeway? Could I hear and steer by the sound of traffic? The thick chewy silence around us suggested that we weren’t close enough.
I looked up trying to see how deep the fog was, because I knew that tule fog always settled close to the ground and above it, the air would quickly clear for us to see where we were going, but no joy today. All above us was the dim glow of new sunlight filtered through dense white opaque air. Could I at least discern the eastern glow of the sunrise? Nope – everything was the same dull fog-diffused light.
The trees would help – if I could see any. I knew the trees I should see, but from where I stood they were all well outside the dome of limited visibility.
Ah, finally I noticed a rock that I recognized. It was about 3 feet wide and barely stuck above the ground with a distinctive shape. I moved over and stood on it like I had many times before and determined to use it to plan our angle of progress.
I looked in the direction of what I thought was the correct way. There was only soupy white in any direction, so my chosen patch looked as good as any other – but if I didn’t find certain trees in about 50 feet, I would know that I was wrong.
So off we went with all the confidence that is normally available when you knew who to blame if things got ugly.
Well we did find trees, just not the right ones. These were not right, so which way now. I tried to build a map in my mind from memory. Given where I wanted us to be, where were these trees located and how do I correct?
For a group who normally were full of joy, sarcasm, wonder and (at times) violent affection for each other, it was a strangely quiet group who were just as lost as I was – trying to find our way and keep each other in sight because voices were hard to find someone with if we became separated.
We were starting to get anxious when we crossed a dry stream bed. “Humm, I’ve never been here before, but I think I know about where we are …” so I stepped confidently in the direction I thought would ultimately lead us to the mother-of-all milk shakes. But – darn it, it went uphill where I expected a slight downhill slope. Blasted fog! Where are we?
It felt like hours, but had actually must have been just a bit less than two since I last looked up and so I did again and – oh the joy! Blue sky, lots of it breaking through! “Everyone stop.” Since I was looking up, so did they and we could see the tule fog breaking up, dissolving in the warm sunshine “Let’s wait for a few minutes and see where we are when the fog layer drops below us.”
This was well received because I could sense that I wasn’t the only one who was on the edge of being scared. I confess – hiking in tule fog is not for the faint of heart or small of bladder. And yes, some of the girls had put me on notice that I had to get the group to the diner soon with real bathrooms because they were “not going to go in this foggy forest”
Okay – that will someday be called TMI. I noted also that I was not the only one getting cold from being so wet. The fog and grass dew was soaking our clothes faster than we could evaporate it away with body heat. Our hike was starting to turn into a cold swim.
Well, the group then decided to run higher up the hill to get above the fog layer quicker and “YES!” we were able to see the two hillsides that we had to pass between to get to the diner. I had only been off by about 15-20 compass degrees (but recall –no compass…) and after walking in misty circles for a couple of hours, we had gone way too far south, but now knew how to get back on course.
I memorized the few directions I would need back down in the fog and hustled everyone along – glad to be back on course but everyone was wet and cold – too cold.
The fog was clearing more each minute and that dome was getting wide enough to see further. The directions I’d memorized worked, and even the dew was beginning to steam away. By the time we climbed over a certain fence, past a few familiar abandoned buildings, we were out of the fog and on the flat access road that led to the diner, about a third of a mile away.
Finally, we could hear the welcome sounds of the freeway. We walked, quickly now, around a bend covered with an ancient bay tree that dripped dew drops all over us, which should have angered us, but instead there was more joy because we could now see the diner with its promise of dry air, bathrooms, fries and milk shakes.
Spontaneously we found ourselves running. In the diner, we boys grabbed our favorite stools at the counter while the girls flash-mobbed the bathroom. My friend was behind the counter and happy to see us. She laughed at us getting lost in the tule fog and applied the first-aid of great strawberry milk shakes (made with real strawberries back in those days.)
We were pretty wet with dew, fog and sweat, so something warm and healthy was called for – yea – a couple of big orders of fries with catsup and, viola, except for the dew that was still dripping from our hair, we were back to civilization even if our girls looked a bit worse for the wear and tear. Once we’d finished our treats, we performed the ritual struggle to decide how to get home. We had 3 choices:
1) Back the same way we’d just come; to which several whined, “no way, I am not going back out in those hills today.”
2) Across the freeway – over to the RR tracks, cut back to Petaluma Boulevard and follow it back into town; to which would be slower but drier, someone else whined, “but it’s going to take hours to dry out so we’ll be cold again within minutes.” Which was answered, “And I’m not running across the freeway looking like this!” Okay, this had merit. She looked pretty wet and beat up.
3) “Okay, let’s call Sherry Jacknowitz’s mom to come pick us,” to which there was no argument – unless Sherry wasn’t actually with us – and even then I bet that she’d come get us anyhow.
But Sherry was with us this day and after the adventure of getting lost out there, Sherry’s mom was the unanimous winner of our wet and cold but happy hikers ride home – bless her memory! It was not the first time, nor would it be the last time Shery’s parents assured a happy ending to one of our adventures.