Posted by Sheldon Breiner, a resident of the Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch neighborhood, on Oct 10, 2006 at 6:29 pm
An essay I wrote 10 years ago to raise $$ to renovate the Historic School House.
There's a bit of old history in this recollection from my time at Stanford in the late 50s when I went exploring the Valley. Did you know these, then well-known, haunts?
PERIPATETIC IN PORTOLA VALLEY
Our Town is fascinating, full of nooks and crannies. And big. To get around and see everything it helps to be able to run intrepidly along trails, through the brush and up and down hills. That way one can see a lot, explore its history and get there before time - and man - erases the evidence.
For more than three decades, I've been a resident of this place. For much of this time I have managed to search this vast environment and satisfy my half-vast curiosity by using half-fast running as a vehicle. It is indeed possible to run for exercise and still stop to smell the flowers and see the sights. In Portola Valley, there are lots of both and all it takes is a curious mind and a good pair of legs.
The Town covers more than 11 square miles, varies in altitude from a few hundred feet to two thousand feet and has an ample array of flora, fauna, faults and cultural features. So much to see and so little time!
Running down the western slopes through the open grasslands of upper Windy Hill, I hop from log to log through the old homestead nestled in the clump of Cypress trees. As a geologist, I remember seeing the old official topographic maps that identified this hill as Spring Ridge, for the numerous springs on this hill. Just downhill, I stop for a drink (no Giardia, so far) at one of these old springs, until recently, used to fill the trough for the cattle that grazed the meadows. This open slope used to be forested but was cleared in the last century and was, until recently, the site of our Town's last vestige of cattle, a kind of remnant ruminant.
At the crest, a red-tailed hawk, airborne but motionless in the wind, has no better view than I, for this is the top of the world and in all directions I look down. To the West are soft rolling hills and forest all the way to the cloud-covered ocean 20 miles away. In all other directions, I see the prominent peaks of the Bay Area, Mt. Tam, Mt. Diablo, Mt. Hamilton and Black Mountain. There must be others like me on each of those pinnacles scanning their panorama.
From this vantage point, I see our famous landmarks but from a perspective so unfamiliar that it requires concentration before they are recognized: the Dumbarton, San Mateo and Bay bridges, the downtown buildings of San Francisco, the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, Hoover Tower, Moffett Field, Jasper Ridge Preserve, Searsville and Felt lakes, SLAC and the loop of Alpine-Portola-Sand Hill roads.
Needing assurance that I am not actually airborne, I look down to see my feet and find myself standing next to a survey benchmark, a bronze seal fixed in concrete. This is the takeoff point for miniature radio-controlled airplanes and hang gliding daredevils who hitchhike a ride on the air on their way down to the valley floor. Taking an alternate route down from Windy Hill, I run through the thick redwood forest of the El Mirador Farm (a.k.a. the Morshead property) and retrace the old route of a far different means of getting down the hill: a cable car. Yes, the pilot test of the famous cable car later built in San Francisco was conducted on the hill across from the Valley Inn in about 1875 by Andrew Hallidie who lived near Skyline. I once stumbled across a large piece of cable which, until recently, protruded from the ground in the redwood grove on Portola Road.
The plans for this engineering project could well have been worked out down the road apiece on the carved tables of the oldest, continuously inhabited saloon in the State, the Alpine Beer Garden, better known as Zott's. In the 50's, the local saloons, often frequented by Stanford students, included Rudy's (adjacent to Alpine Country Club and later our first Town Hall), Mama Garcia's (where the smell of garlic bread still emanates from that spot at Alpine at Nathorst) and Art's 'Fashionable' Portola Club (now an office on Portola Road), home of the "Apple Knocker”. The latter is a deceptively pleasing, but dangerous drink concocted from a tincture of apple juice preserved in a shot of vodka, the apples carted from the Jelich orchard across the road.
Touring Portola Valley always includes some time along the bifurcated spine of the Town, Alpine and Portola Roads. Many runners and bikers skirt the congestion along Portola Road near the intersection of these roads by taking the longer-but-more-scenic bypass, Willowbrook Road. The road was only built thirty five years ago. Before that it was a fertile agricultural valley for the 1500 acre Lauriston Estate (later, the Neylan Estate) and used in the '20s for growing Belladonna, a medicinal herb. Immediately south of the first major turn in Alpine Road near Corte Madera School, is the track of the original road into Willowbrook Valley, now a pleasant trail leading down to Willowbrook Road. This whole area of the Lauriston Estate, its villas, the splendor of the times and photographs of the Portola Valley of yesteryear are chronicled in Lauriston by its author, the late Skip Bogart, a Portola Valley resident of many years.
Some of my wanderings include trails that, for a variety of reasons, are not generally accessible except to those that are bold, speedy or stealth-like. Almost all the major roads are bordered by horse trails that are wonderful for walking or running and you see so much more just a few feet off the road. A few others have been withdrawn from easy access, such as the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve of Stanford (bordering Portola Valley at Mapache and Escobar) which includes Searsville Lake on Portola Road, until the 1970's, the only public beach and swimming hole around. Flowing out from the dam which forms Searsville Lake is San Francisquito Creek where in the '60s, I worked at a geophysical research field site. On weekends, I would wander along the banks of the creek with a magnetometer (similar to a metal detector) to find square nails and other remnants of structures from the last century. Evidence of ancient man from 8000 years ago was also found by anthropologists along the banks of the creek not far from Webb Ranch, our local vegetable farm. I'm still searching for a cave from these peoples which may have the original Town plan drawn upon the walls.
Exploring these dendritic trails offers many surprises including unusual vistas of the terrain and passageways through cathedral-like groves of aromatic bay trees, massive red madrones and giant gnarled Douglas firs. The most impressive discoveries, though, and ones which make me feel like Dr. Livingstone coming upon Victoria Falls, are the first views of any one of the many sylvan lakes which are found in all parts of the Town: the Arastra Preserve, above El Mirador Farm, Lake Road at Old Spanish Road, behind the Sequoias (Sausal), above upper Alpine and other secret spots I'll not disclose lest I spoil the pleasure of your own discovery.
On the subject of discovery, it is rumored that an old Russian cannon was found near Page Mill Road obtained no doubt at a garage sale early in the last century from the Russian settlers near Fort Ross. Another discovery, this time coal, or at least lignite, a very low grade form of coal, was found years ago on the ridge (Coal Mine Ridge ) above upper Alpine Road. A good place to see the lignite and carbonized pieces of ancient tree roots, is along the road cut on Alpine Road above Joaquin Road. A few miles' run (or walk) further up Alpine is the Coal Creek Open Space Preserve. Don't expect to see open pit mining any time soon.
Not a name that inspires beauty, Coal Mine Ridge is also the locale of Toyon Trail, one of the more popular and scenic hiking trials in the Town. As a member of the original chain gang, I remember the many volunteers of the Town that painstakingly cut this trail and cleared poison oak every other weekend for four years for the whole town to enjoy.
A special treat for me, depending on the time of year, is sampling the fruits of Portola Valley. Apples, sugar plums, Chinese plums, pears, crabapples, and, of course, blackberries can be sampled on the run, but you must know through your explorations when and where you can get the low-hanging fruit. For a taste of hospitality, good jokes, and a variety of other fruit, a visit with Walter Jelich at his ranch on Portola Road is a must. As a colorful member of a pioneering family in this Valley, I always leave his presence with a warm feeling in my heart for he imparts his wealth of knowledge with such good spirits.
Certainly the oldest, largest, and arguably the most dominating feature I encounter in my deliberate or speedy wanderings is also the one which has had the most physical effect on the Town. Neither my fault, nor yours, it is the San Andreas Fault (capitalized out of deference). Within the Town, it crosses Wyndham Drive, Portola Road, the Town Hall and cuts through the field north of the Sequoias. Along and then crossing Willowbrook Road, it forms the base of the steep embankment (scarp) between Alpine and Willowbrook, crosses Alpine, passes near the tennis courts on Portola Valley Ranch, cuts near the old houses on the old Mariani/Blue Oaks Subdivision property and traverses Los Trancos Woods to cross Page Mill Road through the Los Trancos and Monte Bello Open Space Preserves. (In reality, the Fault through the Town is two separate parallel faults, the Woodside trace and the Trancos trace, one or the other being the more active in a given location.)
The land on the West is, tectonically speaking, the Pacific Plate and on the East, the North American Plate. One side has slid past the other as much as 300 miles bringing rocks from the North in contact with those from the other end of the state. The Western slopes of the Town are underlain by young rocks a few million years old exhibiting a very different type of terrain and relief compared to the rest of the Town which sits on the Franciscan formation over 60 million years old. One of these days, the two plates will again slide past each other, suddenly, by as much as 10 feet, realigning property lines and furniture alike! Even a town ordinance will not prevent that. (Hmm, did anyone try epoxy?)
If the prospects of a temblor cause one to want to exit the town, try some of the interesting and sometimes surprising paths used by runners and hikers who regularly radiate from the town. For example, one could go across Arastradero, around Felt Lake (private property) and under a massive tunnel under I-280 (just north of Page Mill) to the "Big Dish" on the hill behind Stanford; across Los Trancos road to Foothills Park (for the exclusive use of Palo Alto residents); or through the Arastra Preserve on Arastradero up the hill to the West to a point overlooking the Interpretive Center in Foothills Park. Going to the South or West are many trails to Page Mill or Skyline or north to Woodside. Bikers, runners, walkers and equestrians are most common on upper (dirt) Alpine and the trails immediately adjacent to Portola, Sand Hill, Alpine and Arastradero roads.
An interesting alternative way to see the Town is through the use of aerial photographs available from the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park. To investigate new routes to explore and "let my eyes do the running", I use such photographs including stereographic pairs to see the Town in glorious, colorful 3D. From the government agencies responsible for these photographs, I have assembled pictures measuring three feet across for every ten year period since 1943 graphically depicting the growth of the Town over this period. This collection has now been donated to the Town.
Such growth has given rise to new cultural effects such as roads and homes and dramatic changes in the vegetation. Of course, the Town as an entity was, itself, formed 32 years ago. What these photos do not show is the considerable increase in people and traffic. To ameliorate the conditions brought on by these manifestations of growth, the people of the Town, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and the Peninsula Open Space Trust have seen fit to create trails, such as the Dwight Crowder Memorial Path, recreation fields such as Ford Field and natural spaces for foot and visual access such as the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve, to name a few.
Touring these natural environments by foot, whether slowly or speedily, is certainly the best way to appreciate them. The sights, the air and the quest to see even more drives me to cover more ground. Sometimes traversing a path in the opposite direction under different seasons or times of day can be a completely new experience, as anyone can attest when watching the ever-changing show put on by the summer fog that spills over the ridge at Windy Hill. Running very early or very late frequently allows a glimpse of a bobcat running the trails with me. I keep looking for his big sister, the cougar, but have not yet spotted one. Has one already spotted me? On many occasions I have also run across, almost literally, deer, coyotes, skunks, fox, raccoons, rabbits, opossum, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, just to name the most memorable.
Whether seen at high speed on a run or as a still life on a walk, there is always another bit of history or another slice of nature to be experienced in the viewshed of this Town. That's why you live here, isn't it? Just do it.
Copyright © 1996 by Sheldon Breiner. All rights reserved.