Foghorns. The loneliest sound I know, like a mournful call from a past so long buried we had to give it a beautiful name so we wouldn’t forget.
That’s when this wild landscape we call Northern California was forged, lifted up from a deep fire to create places with names like Sausalito and Marin. Solid names, with a salty and tangy aftertaste.
The Mesozoic: The Triassic, the Jurassic, and the Cretaceous. The Age of Dinosaurs. We might as well just have said “a long time ago” or “well before Sokrates got out of bed” for all the connection those names make. How do we wrap our brains around a hundred million years or two?
I can hear it though, in those foghorns. When I walk through Tennessee Valley, just up the road from Sausalito, I can sometimes hear the horns even though the ocean is a mile or more away. In that landscape, with the ferns and the sedimentary rocks sticking up out of the ground, I can sometimes see dinosaurs. And I can certainly hear them. Low, powerful trumpet calls.
Tennessee Valley, the name itself has a smell of steamboats and sour mash, a taste of Jack Daniel’s. There’s a certain twang to it, country music style. Welcome to the Grand Ole Opry of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Huge, dark birds of prey guard the entrance to the valley, circling on updrafts, waiting for something to move in the underbrush below. I’ve seen a grown bobcat hunt here, mere steps away from the dusty trail, arrogantly ignoring me. It made me feel both insignificant and exposed. Vulnerable.
Predators, hunting. You can’t get more into the now than that, it’s the deadly present with no future for the prey, the singularly focused moment of the hunter.
“Die now, so I may live.”
In this vast, quasi-southern theatre, drama unfolds in many layers. Time all but stands still for the hunter, it moves imperceptibly slow for the hills, glides in beautiful slow motion for the sands and the waves and races impossibly fast for the terminally hunted.
“This is the last time I see the sky.”
This is the last sky they see. But not for the ocean and the hills, they will see other skies, they will slowly erode as they watch the constellations of the night change, bringing new skies with starlight so ancient it makes the hills feel positively peppy with youth in comparison.
“This is the last sky they see”
A smaller bird, black as night and with bright red spots, sits on a branch above the trail and welcomes me. “I don’t know your name,” I think, almost apologetically. The bird chirps, as if to say “that’s all right”. It flies off and I follow, gathering my wits, such as they are, and start walking the timeless trail.
I look up, the sun is high in the sky, it’s early afternoon, late Cretaceous. Feels like Sunday, but probably isn’t, a Sunday like Sundays should always be, friendly but uncompromising in their relentless passing of precious free time.
This canyon of primeval secrets flows down to the Pacific Ocean, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge and the beautiful city at its feet. I walk past a sign that says 482 miles to Oregon, along the Coastal Trail. If I leave now.
Now here’s a calendar for you: Time, visualized. I stop, arrested in thought and stride by an outcrop of rock. It’s banded, angled and tilted towards the deep blue sky. The bands are red and black, with light gray ones in between. History. So deep, so rich. Pardon my lecture.
This kind of stuff gets to me. I mean, I think of my childhood as being a long time ago. And I can’t even remember most of what happened last week. But this, millions of years just staring at me, that’s a level of remoteness that makes my head spin. We’re not equipped to deal with aeons, at least not emotionally.
Think about it. The big earthquake in San Francisco happened in 1906, over one hundred years ago. Double that, and you have two hundred years: 1806. No electricity, no cars, nothing. Silly clothes and absolutely appalling sanitary conditions. Multiply that by ten, and you have the time of the height of the Roman Empire. Gladiator fights, swords and spears. Tiberius having breakfast on an upset stomach. A primitive life for most people. You know what I mean, you know all the facts, but you can’t truly feel it.
Neither can I, not really.
Now multiply that by a one hundred thousand. See? It’s absurd to even try. Not just to imagine a world where mammals are almost nowhere to be found, and enormous reptiles dominate the landscape, but to attempt to take in that vast expanse that is the ocean of days from then until now.
Do you know why your blood is red? Rust. It’s true. The hemoglobin in your blood has iron in it. These rocks I’m looking at are red because life produced oxygen, filled our skies and oceans with the stuff. The iron was already there, waiting to rust ever since its fiery birth in the belly of a long gone star.
Rain washed off mountains and hills, thundered down valleys, carried the remains of animals, plants and the hills themselves into the oceans. Silt turned to gray clay. Animals and plants turned to black carbon. And iron turned to red rust. Pressure did the rest. And time, geological time.
The hills literally moved, churned and spun. Earthquakes, erosion. Suddenly an old seabed from a past so long forgotten it has a beautiful name like “Triassic” or “Jurassic”, found itself at almost ninety degrees to the horizontal, poking up out of the ground. Face to face with me. Wondering what the hell happened and what time it is.
“Sorry mate, you’ve been asleep for quite a while.”
What else can I say? I could tell it that it looks ridiculously dry, because it does. Or that it doesn’t really much resemble a seabed anymore, because it doesn’t. But that would be cruel. “Would you like to see the ocean again, feel it?” It would, very much. I can sense it.
I pry loose a piece of rock, mostly brownish and red, but with bits of black and gray on each side.
“I’m going to bring this bit to the ocean. Throw it in. Promise.”
As I walk on, I feel that something has shifted in me, I have purpose. And a piece of dinosaur seabed in my pocket.
Ah, there’s a hummingbird, fleeting from bush to bush, at the edge of perception. I like hummingbirds, perhaps because they seem so exotic to me, in the same way pelicans do. You can say a lot of things about the natural beauty of Norway, but hummingbirds and pelicans are thin on the ground there.
“You can say a lot of things about the natural beauty of Norway, but hummingbirds and pelicans are thin on the ground there”
Look at it go, how can it move so incredibly fast? How can the timescale of the movement of a hummingbird’s wings coexist in our brains with the timescale of the movement of a landscape? Exist in our brains, but not truly be accessed by us. I can no more imagine my limbs moving sixty times a second than I can imagine not moving at all for sixty million years. Can you?
I strain to hear its wings over the gurgling sounds of water flowing, always under foot and out of sight. The foghorns though, I can hear them, here deep inside the valley. If I try hard not to look, not directly, I can sense the brontosauruses grazing down by the creek, between the eucalyptus trees. If I look directly they turn into huge boulders, petrified gentle giants. My gaze can freeze time.
I look up from the industrious (if confused) old man beetle I’m studying and greet the ferns growing by the trail. I bow my head in respect to their immense history, aeons of unbroken survival going back to the conquest of land itself. I ask them if they would please indulge me, gossip a little about life in the Jurassic, but they remain silent.
I turn a corner and catch my first glimpse of the ocean. I feel a sense of longing, as if my body instinctively knows: This is where we all came from, this is the ultimate “back home”. The hills form a huge “V”, framing the sea in the mouth of the valley, as if the landscape is mimicking the spread thighs of a woman giving birth to the Pacific.
How appropriate. Time didn’t start here, but life may have. And so time might as well have, because what is time without mind to contemplate it? What is a fact if no one ponders a question?
There’s a sign here, where the valley ends and the beach begins: “Beware of rip currents.” I will. I know how dangerous the ocean can be. I remember people going out to sea and never returning, back when I was a child, in Norway. Well, just the one, but nevertheless. He was a fisherman, he’d go from house to house and sell his catch in the evenings. Until one day was the last time he saw the sky.
I know the ocean well enough to have a healthy dose of respect for it. Mixed with a sense of awe and wonder. I yell at it, “You have a sweet embrace, but your rage is deadly and you take any life you want, because you can, because we all came from you, belong to you.” It doesn’t hear me. I remove my shoes and dig my toes into the sand.
For a minute, or is it an hour, I watch the pelicans float above the waves, the fat crows soar in that volume of space underneath the towering rocks above the sand, seeking the same detritus as the infernal flies. The waves crash onto the shore, then haste up the sand across the beach to play around my legs. I can feel the water clawing away at the sand beneath my feet, pulling me towards the deep.
The strangest thought suddenly crosses my mind, then wanders off down the beach: The 1970s are still out there, riding those waves like giant Saturn V rockets, with the smoke and the deafening noise, making the ground shake with their fury. That earth-colored decade with its Apollo splashdowns and newfound cynicism, born of a president practicing burglary. I recall how I watched Nixon on TV, looking me straight in the eye, proclaiming his innocence. I believed him, I was nine.
Funny, while Kennedy’s was a presidency cut tragically short, Nixon’s was one cut tragicomically long. Time is a strange thing. Two presidents who hated each other’s guts are still battling it out in my head, long after both men are gone. Even stranger still, of the two men, I find Nixon the most likable, perhaps because the man was so thoroughly flawed, so honest in his deceit.
I snap back to the present as children with plastic buckets come running, with long hair in front of their faces, shrieking with laughter as the ocean tries to pull at them too. I shout a warning to them, while their hippie dads smile in their salty beards further on up the beach, oblivious to the danger of the waves.
Perched on a rock I observe the green steel of the ocean hammering away at the black volcanic rocks of the cliffs, two enemies from time immemorial battling it out over scraps of existence itself.
Literally. Except for those lost 1970s, there’s nothing out there. You can’t get in your Oldsmobile and Go West from here, this is it.
Here Endeth America.
A man with long, silvery hair and red shorts walks up to me, begging my pardon. “Are you familiar with this place?” As the man speaks, a woman with flowing dark hair and a suffering, but accepting look on her face joins us. I greet her warmly.
“Here Endeth America”
“Yes, I come here often,” I reply, while I’m thinking to myself that I’ve seen it all before. Same old story, an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, happens every day. Nothing to see here, move along.
“Ah, oui, because, you see, I’ve been coming here for twenty-six years. The cliffs are different today, the ocean took a bite, I think. No?” The wind blows the man’s hair into his face, forcing him to shift his head from side to side. We all turn to look at the cliffs.
“Oh, you’re French?” It’s all I can think to say, because I can’t get past the man’s fading red shorts. I abhor them. She notices and giggles. Besides, the heavy French accent had been hard to miss, it seemed an obvious thing to say.
“I try not to be. I’m a geologist.” The man looked out over the ocean, suddenly quiet, troubled.
“Yes, of course.” I feel like I owe the man an apology, although I’m not quite sure why. To be polite, I ask him if the rocks are volcanic, even though I already know the answer. Happily, he confirms. His girlfriend suffers, accepts. I smile, and nod, and thank him. We bid our adieus.
As the pair walk away, in a wind-borne cloud of silver and black hair, I remember my promise. I reach into my pocket and find the rock I plucked from the bottom of a Triassic sea a few hours earlier.
I fling my arm back and throw the rock as far out as I can, into the buzzing waves, paying my respects to the merciless ocean, then and now. The age-old sediment returns to its home, two hundred million years after it left.
Give or take.