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Date Created: 12/18/15
Camp Angel Island Just as I am dropping off to sleep, something (sounds like a wild cat) commits murder close to my tent. The screams and shrieks are short but intense, very unnerving. It always shakes me up when a life is taken close to my tent. I then turn and toss all night. I am too soft. Too many nights in a "white man's bed." In the wilderness it usually takes me a couple of days to snap too and wake up my more primitive self. Snap out of my spoiled city ways and tell the body to stop whining! Always surprises me how my auditory senses leap into being in nature... At night, trying to sleep, laying in the dirt amongst the trees... ALONE. After the screaming killer-cat episode, I find that I can easily hear the surf breaking on a sandy beach over a mile away and about five hundred feet below. I am a noise junky. While in the city I am constantly surrounded by sound. Even in my house it seems the radio, TV or stereo is always on. In the forest I find my auditory senses begin to sweep like search radar looking for... SOUND! If no sound is evident on the first pass, then the mechanism will drop down a couple of notches and sweep again. If no sound is forthcoming at this level, then the amazing device will drop yet again and suddenly a small sleeping bird high in a pine tree over a hundred yards away scratches its head and the sound fills my tent like someone scraping a washboard right next to my ear. An owl on the other side of the island sweeps low on an unsuspecting field mouse and it sounds like an F-16 passing over my tent on a strafing run. I am camped in my Jansport dome tent on an island. I am by myself, all alone, in the center of six million people. I am camped on the side of 750 foot high Mt. Livermore, on Angel Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. "Camp in the middle of San Francisco Bay? Ha, ha, ha!" laugh my friends. It seems that camping this close to home is much too pedestrian for wilderness types and far too exotic for non-campers. So here I sit on my island. Alone. For the record, camping was opened on the island in 1982 and there are nine hike-in environmental campsites and although reservations are suggested I've never seen anyone else camping, but then, I usually go in May and stay for a week. In 1775 Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed his ship the San Carlos into San Francisco Bay and anchored at what is now Ayala Cove. From this point the exploration and mapping of San Francisco Bay began. Two hundred and eighteen years later the San Francisco Bay Area is home to over six million people. But strangely enough, Angel Island looks pretty much the same as it did when Juan Manuel de Ayala came upon it. It is five miles in circumference and sits one mile off the Tiburon peninsula. It is also a state park. Standing atop Mt. Livermore, I feel like Robinson Crusoe suffering a heat-induced hallucination. The entire panorama seems somehow artificial. It is simply too much. (It truly does look painted). To the North there is San Pablo Bay and the waters of the Sacramento and San Juaquin rivers rushing to meet the Pacific. And then, turning to the left slightly, my eyes fall on Tiburon and Belvedere, Richardson Bay, and Sausalito with Mt. Tamalpais in the background. Continuing to turn counter clockwise I observe the large orange bridge. The most famous bridge in the entire world. Wondrous entrance opening of the Golden Gate, opening out onto the largest ocean on this earthly sphere. But the opening is only one mile across. Nowhere in the world does so much water rush out through such a narrow opening. And then (still turning), San Francisco, San Frantasia--the Western Oz. All white and sparkling with that stranded ship of an island called Alcatraz seemingly parked off Fisherman's Wharf waiting for its captain to arrive before it can continue its journey. And then--the Bay Bridge. What actually lies South of the Bay Bridge? Seems like there might be a wall a few yards on the other side of the bridge painted blue to look like a sky, but in fact I've heard tell that the water continues for miles and miles beyond that eight mile long bridge. And then Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond and the circle is complete. Over six million souls are situated around the edges of the Bay with Angel Island in the middle, and me... Over the years, despite it natural look, the place has been well used, first during the Civil War. Camp Reynolds was established at West Garrison which has a parade ground, officer's houses and an old bakery occupied today by a couple living a traditional life of the period. You can tour these buildings and you will find that they look much the same as they did in the 1860's. This is the largest surviving collection of Civil War structures in the nation. Angel Island was also used for military defenses during the Spanish-American War; Battery Wallace, Battery Ledyard and Battery Drew, are still standing, the cannons still pointed toward the Western horizon in anticipation of an enemy who never came. There is also a Nike Missile site built during the Fifties and during World War II, East Garrison was a debarkation and discharge site for thousands of U.S. Troops bound for or returning from the Pacific front. Most of the buildings (built in 1910 and 1911), including a 600-man barracks, gymnasium, mess hall, chapel, officer's houses and guardhouse are still standing and can be viewed--with caution. I seem to be the only person on the island. Certainly the only camper. Why? It makes you wonder. I have lucked out and encountered a heat wave. Rare for these parts. I am laying on the hot sand of Quarry Beach, on the east side of the island, feeling like a piece of burnt wood. The army ruins are immediately behind me and the Berkeley waterfront lies across the water in the distance. North Garrison, during the Chinese Exclusion Acts from 1882 to 1943 served as an "Ellis Island of the West." Over 50,000 Chinese were processed here. During W.W. II, German as well as Japanese prisoners of war were kept here. But outside of these "historic" uses, the island is pretty much the same as it was over two hundred years ago. This is surprising since it is only a mile from Belvedere Island, which has some of the most expensive real estate in America, and a little over two miles from Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Yet, in spite of this close proximity to civilization it is a strangely private, remote, and even lonely place. I hear a noise and I focus my eyes with much effort on a large dory or converted lifeboat with a sizeable outboard as it pulls up on the beach. It has been crudely fashioned into a small yacht. It has a low cabin, large enough only for a couple of bodies, and a wide grinning shark face painted around the bow. The boat comes towards the shore at a goodly pace and literally flies up out of the surf and over the sand. On the prow of the small craft is a bikini-clad goddess holding a small anchor attached to a long lead of rope. The woman jumps ashore like a grateful puppy and smiling secures the anchor in the sand. And then, when her pipe smoking captain is satisfied, she turns and comes scampering down the beach in my direction. The Captain climbs out of the boat and starts walking up the beach in the opposite direction. I am certain that neither of them has seen me laying in the sand. When the lady is about ten feet from me, she suddenly jumps as if seeing a snake coiled at her feet. "OH!" she says. "Hi." I say. She ignores me completely, turns and begins scampering back from whence she has come. My impression of her close up is quite different from my slightly out of focus first take of her squatting eagerly on the bow of the boat ready to leap ashore with anchor in hand. From a distance she looked extremely attractive. Close up she looks older; well-used and abused with scars, pockets of cellulite and bulges as if she were hiding things beneath her flesh. She is wearing black- black glasses, a string bikini and, though it appears she is a shy creature around strangers, I can tell she is a veteran of many of life's more interesting missions. As I am leaving, a while later, I have an opportunity to view her mate at closer quarters. How misleading first impressions can be, especially over fifty yards of deserted beach on an island, through the waves of heat vapor radiating off the sand. He has abandoned his pipe somewhere (or had I merely imagined that he had one in the first place?). He is much shorter that I would have guessed, with little spindly legs and a large belly jutting out from his chest area which is covered with course black hair that seems to merge with his long grey beard. As I pass he is bent over excitedly pursuing a snake through a pile of driftwood. He glances up at me with a distracted sort of expression that tells me nothing except that he is alone with his woman on a deserted beach trying to catch a snake and seeing me changes nothing. Here on the deserted island of Angels all men are free and everyone seems mythological. It is as if they are a pair of Sea Gypsies, long lost sons and daughters of Poseidon come ashore to turn over rocks and chase snakes. The next morning early after breakfast, I am walking along Quarry Beach taking my accustomed stroll and watching some sea lions sunning themselves on a rock quite close to shore. We are playing a game, the sea lions and I. They are pretending not to see me and I am pretending not to watch. Suddenly they turn and I quickly duck behind a large rock and as I do I turn my head to the side and notice a flash of something white against the cliff that doesn't seem to fit. I look again and see two small parcels sitting on a rock about twenty yards away back up under an overhanging cliff. I approach the cliff, the seals now forgotten. I see what appear to be two sizable stacks of...money, wrapped with large rubber bands. I can't believe it. What luck! My heart speeds and my mind races considering all the possibilities. I have visions of some passing smuggler's boat sinking or being chased by the Coast Guard. It must have been night and very windy. In the confusion the smugglers hurriedly dump their cargo over the side and escape into the blackness and somehow part of their money gets washed up with the high tide and comes to rest on this rock. Far fetched perhaps but certainly not impossible. It could happen. I am getting closer now. I am only about ten yards away and I can see that...it isn't American money but some sort of foreign money. Oh, well, I think. Not the Big Jackpot, but certainly more than car fare! My human bio-computer quickly runs through the places I might exchange a large amount of foreign cash money and I try to anticipate what sort of questions might be asked. And then I am on top of it. I pick up one of the bundles. Looks to be about 2,000 or so in each stack. Parking receipts from a downtown San Francisco garage. The cosmos is having it's way with me (again). The universe is laughing behind my back! Slightly embarrassed by my own greed, I glance over at the sea lions. They pretend not to have noticed. I can tell that they are slightly embarrassed too. I try to see the humor in it and finally manage a smile. What is stranger? Smuggler's money or four thousand parking receipts from a downtown garage all neatly stacked and secured with rubber bands sitting high and dry on a rock on Angel Island? The next afternoon I am seated on an old W.W. II gun emplacement high over the beach facing the city front. In the distance I can see a very small black dot on the water; looks like a navigation buoy perhaps. As I continue to watch I see that it is in fact a windsurfer moving towards me from the city. As I watch this solitary adventurer, I wonder who he is and what he is feeling and thinking so alone out there on that cold, cold water. He is very good at what he does and his little stick moves as if it were on a rail. As he approaches ever closer I can finally see his black wetsuit and his red board, with its white sail and its transparent little window. It must take a lot of energy to fight the sail and the afternoon chop all the way from San Francisco to Angel Island, I think. I watch as he approaches the small beach directly below me. I consider going down to the beach and having a conversation with this character, but then as he reaches a point about ten yards from the sand he neatly pivots, as if on a spindle, and returns towards the city front. I continue to watch him until he is once more a mere dot, a tiny speck vanishing in the waves, and never once does he falter, never once does he fall. As the sun lowers over the gate, on this, my last day on the island, I prepare a cup of hot coffee by my tent and grab a flask of ten-year-old bonded whisky and head for my special sundown seat high on the fire trail above the water tower on the west side of the island. This is the perfect place to watch the sun sink into the Pacific. Three large flat stumps sit side by side along the dirt fire-road five hundred feet over the water facing Belvedere Island. To the left the lights in the City are just beginning to twinkle on. You can read the lights over Ghirardelli Square. And then, as the light fades, there is that bridge, looking for all the world like an airbrushed Hollywood backdrop for some terribly expensive movie and immediately in front and below me stretch Belvedere, Tiburon, Sausalito, Mt. Tam, Mill Valley, Corte Madera and on and on, the hills and valleys of Marin fold back one upon the other like shadow washes in an ancient Chinese scroll painting. It is reported that when Juan Manuel de Ayala first anchored his ship, the San Carlos, off this island and climbed to the top of this little 750 mountain, he turned to his men and commented that surely this must be an island for Angels. I think Senior Ayala was exactly right.
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