Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Wilderness in the City

The Montgomery Hill Park adjacent to the Evergreen Valley College is perhaps San Jose’s best-kept “nature” secret. Its rising and dipping hiking trails are the city’s best, as are its serene meadows and sublime vistas. This unusual and unexpected 60-acre wilderness in the midst of a metropolitan city perfectly sums up Shakespeare’s observation: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

The Park is named after John Montgomery (1896-1011), an aviation pioneer and professor who developed flying gliders and tested them in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. A gliding accident caused his death in 1911. The Park was declared a California Historic Landmark in 1967 in his honor.

What makes the park and its trails unique is that they are undeveloped. Surrounded by rows and rows of dense housing, crisscrossing roads and congested traffic, the park is a miraculous oasis of peace and quiet.

On a recent unseasonably warm winter day, I walked around the park, keeping to the dirt trails sometimes and wading through the grass at others. The temptation to roll down the hills was strong but I resisted. Rain has been scarce and the hills were not as green as they ought to have been. But the exhilaration of open space and rustling trees were enough to lift the soul.

From atop a hill, I could see the college campus sprawled out, the dome of the astronomy department’s observatory glistening in the sun. Cars crowded the parking lot of the shopping center at the base of the park, separated thankfully by a line of trees and hedges.

Some days later, the rain came. The dazzle of lightning and the boom of thunder one Friday night meant only one thing to me: I would be spending hours in my backyard park the following day.

Almost overnight, the meadows are full of tall grass, mustards, sorrels, poppies, thistles, wild roses and lupines. Although only a trickle flows in the stream at the park's edge, the oaks, the laurels and the pines are loud with robins, jays and sparrows. I am serenaded by crickets along the reddish trails that meander through the park like rivers.

Parents are out hiking with children and their dogs. Bicyclists pedal with purpose up the steep dirt paths. People fly kites. Some even fly, soaring and circling on machine-driven gliders. A pair of eagles above a grove of eucalyptus trees wheel, bank, pause, dip and soar, as if in homage to John Montgomery. Their grace and beauty is something to behold. An excited dad points out the eagles to his son and daughter and they are wonder-struck. Everyone looks up to see the eagles against a beckoning sky, their wings etched by spring light. All four picnic tables by the park’s college entrance are occupied by families enjoying a day in the “great outdoors.”

In the seductive shadow spread by an ancient oak in the middle of a hillock sits a musician strumming his guitar. The music mingles with birdsongs and floats upward. Like ripples in a pond, it also spreads outward across the open space. This is what repose means, earth, sky, birds, wildflowers and humanity connected in a holistic web. No matter where you are, you don’t have to venture too far beyond your backyard to find it.

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