Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Eye of the storm

The view from our campsite, Richmond and Albany across the water, ferries constantly to and fro.
Much too much is unfamiliar.

Did they move the parking lot? The entire parking lot?

Is it this ferry landing, or the other one, do you suppose?

This trail wasn't always this steep, was it? This can't be the road we turn onto: It's blocked! It seems like this should be the road, though.

Just enough, though, remained in memory: The wide iron gates of the U.S. Immigration Station, the white clapboard buildings just beyond, between which we would ascend to our campsite on Angel Island. The fire road between the buildings had angled up much more sharply than last time, and climbed far higher than it used to before leveling off, but at least we knew it was the right road.

The oak tree, with one massive limb that swung close to the ground and invited climbing — which our son did and broke his thumb falling off — was still there at the campsite. Last time we saw this site was 15 years before, on a backpacking journey that barely suited our daughter, who announced during the backpacking journey just before that she did not like backpacking.

Weary but happy, we could finally drop our 4.5 gallons of water we didn't need to bring (though I really, really thought we did). And I suddenly felt the proper blowhard, having told another couple backpacking elsewhere on the island that the raccoon was king here, and if they didn't have a secure way to close the hasp on their critter container, the raccoons would be on site long before sundown to take their food with casual abandon.

Our campsite now had a diamond-plate metal box with a twisty-turning handle that had to have been raccoon proof because it took me a bit to figure out. A raccoon showed each of the two nights; a single raccoon, late into the evening, and didn't seem to have the heart to try for our stash.

We slept out under the stars, like young people, without a worry. A third night on the hard ground, though, might have killed us.

The altitude and latitude remained fixed. Our attitudes alone had changed.

Fifteen years ago, we loved our time in this place. Angel Island, barely more five miles in circumference, walkable and bike-rideable on a paved road close to the shore of San Francisco Bay, contains more California history than any comparable small space.

It has so much to see that it's difficult to see everything on a day trip, unless you come with a bike or rent one, or take the tram, or harbor no inhibitions about skittering around behind a guide on a Segway™®.

Backpacking is best. The sites are uphill near the fire road, hidden away. By late afternoon campers become king of the island; after the raccoons, of course.

Angel Island was a hunting place, and source of fresh water, for Miwoks and Costanoan. It was the place where the Spanish began a survey of San Francisco Bay, where the federal government built defenses and recruiting forts for the Civil War, world wars I and II and the Cold War. You can walk over gun battery placements from a century ago, and see the tops of the Nike missile silos, still fenced off.

The immigration station at the northeast side of the island held onto the huddled masses more stubbornly here than at Ellis Island off New York and New Jersey, particularly Chinese immigrants, who faced law banning them, and byzantine procedures to trip them up during processing and invent ways to keep them out. The immigration station also housed Japanese and German prisoners of war.

Five years after our family backpacking trip, I returned with our son and his Boy Scout Troop, where we were happy to have taken part in the most meaningful service project in my time in the Troop. The state parks system asked us to move materials in the Immigration Station's detention center so that it could begin refurbishing the building.

Scouts were able to linger over the carvings on the wooden wall, made there by immigrants who expressed their bitterness and frustration in poetry.

Ten years later, Nancy and I came upon a painted-and-fixed detention center, made up in ochre along the first floor, and cream-white on the second. We were too early to go into the building, which has become a museum, but we could walk down the covered staircase leading from the second floor, down into what was the administration building.

The covered staircase was not there when the Scouts did their work. The empty space of the administration building is now a series of concrete terraces, filled with decomposed granite. Etched into the concrete walls are large words denoting the time when this was a place of anxiety and separation and longing and tortured hope — words such as courage and sacrifice, frustration and confinement and segregation.

Despite a construction crew's heavy machinery whining and snorting early in the morning, doing something to refurbish the Immigration Station hospital, the place was at peace, a tiny village of long-ago tortured souls, with the gentle water of the bay lapping along the small cove.

Deer showed themselves at almost every turn around the island, does with their yearlings, young bucks wandering unattached. At Camp Reynolds, the Civil War fort that mostly trained soldiers to engage in various Indian wars, a group of elementary school students, all in blue Union Army kepis, raised and saluted the flag on the great sloping parade grounds, the Golden Gate Bridge arching and hazy-blue in the distance. Another group of students would take their place for an overnighter the next morning. Besides kepis, that bunch each wore blue sweatpants with stripes of red duct tape down each leg.

Nancy waved in the direction of our son in San Francisco, the city gray and somehow small in the haze. Then she waved toward across the bay to our daughter. We always measure our outings by how our children would like it, or how they had liked it long ago.

As the fog slid like a glove over the Golden Gate, the foghorns became the principal roar above a constantly roaring bay, one low and rumbling and insistent on the San Francisco side, the next answering higher pitched, almost a scream, from the Marin side.

Tatters of fog scattered soon to rake us, then were gone. Even for a historically moderate month in the Bay, October burned warm and uncomfortable.

Forsaking a climb to the highest peak, Mount Livermore, we stumbled back to the campsite after an island circumnavigation on our second night, having passed through the concrete shells of Fort McDowell, built for World War I and used through World War II, and used for the happy task of processing soldiers back home at the end of World War II.

It's the creepiest part of the island. Maybe it's because the buildings' eyes are opened, and you can see clear through them to the blue bay. The Civil War fort is mostly shuttered and battened. But shapes pass behind the open windows at Fort McDowell. Shadows and flutter. Signs warn about the structural doubt of the buildings, but the signs are posted far inside, so you have to go in to see them. The halls of the fort hospital are long and empty, waiting.

We longed for a beer that late afternoon, but it would have been another three mile trek.

We got beer the next morning, letting the first ferry come and go — we didn't see much point in hanging around Tiburon, not our crowd — and watching the water world slowly pass in Ayala Cove while we sipped in front of the cafe. Our packs were nearly empty, except for half a jar of peanut butter and a couple of tortillas, and two granola bars, just in case. We used all the water.

In the quiet morning, we could still hear the Bay's thrum, and the first and last sound — a beacon, warning somewhere with a low blast, another answering almost an octave higher.

We'll be back.

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