It has been two years since I went on a trek of any kind. So when my friend Arun Bhaktavalsalam asked if I was interested in a hike, it didn’t take a second’s thinking to reply in the affirmative, despite my having sprained my back and pulled my hamstring the weekend before.
Here’s how it went:
Arun arrives to pick me up from my apartment at 5 AM on the Fourth of July. We are at the foot of Mission Peak, Fremont, after a half-hour drive. It is barely 5:30 AM, but the parking lots are already full. Arun tells me almost half the population of Bay Area would be at Mission Peak over the weekends. There are people of all ages, climbing at varying paces. Burdened with the familiar, comforting load of my camera and tripod, I feel at home. However, at the back of my mind, I still worry about my back and hamstring, worrying whether they would hold. Mission Peak is is a hill covered with dry grass, with smatterings of chaparral in the gullies along which water runs or pools when it rains. A variety of oaks grow here and there but other than this, all along the trail, there is little cover.
The weather is pleasant in the morning with the side along which we are climbing sheltered from the rising sun. Soon, I am out of breath and I go back to basics: Less talk, breathe through nose, inhale on left foot, exhale on the right, and stop looking upwards. We gain altitude and soon the sun shows up. Its radiant face beams from beyond a ridge when we are almost half the way. The trail is in no way a walk in the park. Arun looks quite fit and he tells me he does these treks often. However, my slowness slows him down too.
My initial breathlessness is soon forgotten as I reach three-quarters of the climb; the vistas and the mountain air invigorate me. With the camera out, I worry more about the frames than my breathing. Cattle are grazing, stippling a landscape that drops away suddenly and, beyond that, there are just clouds.
By the time the summit is in sight, my calves are on fire and there is a persistent pain in my right thigh. I drag along still, and at around 8 AM we summit. There is a pole on which people climb on, just to take selfies. There is a long queue beneath the pole and many are dressed in US national flag colors, and carrying little flags as well.
The sun is out and we start our descent along a different trail. This one is steeper but since it is all downhill, I don’t care much. I start looking out for the stuff that I prefer shooting- birds and mammals. The first one I see is a California Ground Squirrel (Otospermophilus beeches), which is totally unperturbed by my presence and lets me approach quite close for a photograph.
I also notice a a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), circling and rising on the thermals. It rises parallel to me and then continues to climb, and once it reaches the elevation it had desired, it flaps its wings and flies away towards trees high above us.
And soon a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) follows suit, looking for a snack.
Back at the foothills, we walk past a gate meant to keep the cattle in and I see a flutter of blue. A Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) and its mate fly down to the ground from one of the oaks, peck around, and fly back up. The handsome male is in no mood for a photo shoot and shuns me, but his missus is apparently a narcissist and strikes a pose for the camera.
As we walk into the parking lot, I have made up my mind to make it to this spot regularly. There were several other birds that I could spot during the course of the trek but couldn’t get close enough to photograph. Maybe the next time, instead of clambering all the way up, I would stroll around more at the base and bird more than hike.
Till then, ciao, Mission Peak!
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