Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Great Rock Hunt Tour Adventure

An abridged version of this article I wrote just short of a year ago was originally published in the zine Connect the Dots. The online supplement to Connect the Dots can be found here.

When my editor called with an assignment about a rumor she had heard in Solano about some Ohlone shaman who had apparently carved mystical Kuksu inscriptions on five great rocks in the hundreds of years prior to white settlement in what is now North Berkeley, I was intrigued. Knowing the Ohlone – famous for their giant shell mounds as well as their skill at dancing on the rim of the world – I was certain I had a killer story on my hands. So certain that I briefly considered hiring a semiotician to assist me in decrypting the strange Ohlone symbols before abandoning the idea because I did not want to go overbudget on my very first assignment for the publication.

My editor directed me towards the Friends of Five Creeks, who have uncovered some of the history of Berkeley’s major rock parks as part their conservationist efforts. While these mysterious geophile Friends did not respond to requests for an interview, I gleaned some useful background from their website. Berkeley boasts five splendorous rock parks made of lavas from the last few million years: Great Stone Face, Indian, Mortar, Grotto and Cragmont. I resolved to uncover the hidden secrets of each in turn.

In a past life, I had already encountered Indian Rock and its intoxicating views but the others were unknown to me up until this point. So I would need a map if my rock hunt tour adventure were to succeed. Scorning my usual method of printing a map off a website called “The Google Maps,” I drew my own plot with all of the important roads and landmarks set out in pencilstroke. I planned to set off in a Northwesterly direction from Shattuck and Hearst and return to civilization via Euclid Avenue. On a chilly November day, I snaked past Safeway and over a large tunnel to arrive at The Circle, a magical font of suburban spirit waters and also the source of ALL ROADS in Berkeley. Choosing among dozens of drives, alleys and avenues, I followed Arlington Aven. This took me to my first destination.

The Great Stone Face, contrary to its name, appeared less imposing then my memory of Indian Rock. However, when I tried to climb it, I came to understand its magnitude. As I squeezed its side desperately, my breath becoming short, a woman named Julia appeared and asked me if I smoked cigarettes. Julia told me she had spent the previous summer in a hospital where she met Biggie Smalls and Method Man among other notables. This half crazed rambler subsequently distracted me from my mission by offering me avocado crackers and a pint of beer while she went to find a knife that she said she needed to make guacamole.

I sat on the park’s lone bench debating whether I could afford to tax my serotonin levels so soon after last weekend by eating the mushrooms I had hidden from myself in my jacket pocket. It may be the only way for me to operate on the same manic wavelength that Julia inhabits while allowing me a chance at the holy moment I knew I would need to make my article great. But before my professional side could offer a riposte I was interrupted by two traveling magazine sales-ladies that Julia had made vague reference to in our earlier conversation. They had come to meet Julia and drink her beer and I did not stand in their way. While they explained how houses of the Berkeley Hills were some of the nicest they had ever seen in their extensive exploits across America, I noticed the sunlight dwindling and remembered the other four rocks I was meant to investigate. The day was growing ancient and I had not found a single hallowed mark yet. With that, I took leave of Great Stone Face but not before Julia returned and insisted I take some photos of the three of them in an absurd one-handed pose that eludes further elaboration.

Sailing back to The Circle with all deliberate speed, I walked up another spoke on its wheel of routes: Indian Rock Avenue. As the sun dropped rapidly towards the horizon, a grand vision appeared before me of a spiritual watchguide of half-Ohlone, half-Friends-of-Five-Creeks-cultist descent. The luminous Archana Ram told me to skip Indian Rock as I approached it, as I already knew it well enough from earlier romantic rendezvous and anyway it was currently occupied by a gruesome nest of jackasses I would not care to encounter. She led me onto Mortar Rock where she explained that the Ohlone once used thick pestles to grind acorns into flour on this rock eventually forming hollows in the outcrops. Hence the name Mortar, I surmised, but as I did she disappeared into the thick brambles and trees surrounding the boulder. Sensing the swift encroach of forboding darkness, I climbed up the many necks of an enormous tree-like serpent, an arboreal hydra that intersected with the crest of Mortar. I surveyed the holey rock, looking for shamanistic carvings but finding only grinding indentations. When I peered into a shimmering pool in one of these hollows, Archana’s face appeared and then emerged into the temporal world to send me sliding back down the smooth nape of a thick tree arm.

I hurried down the street at her exhortations commanding me to get to Grotto Rock before sunset finally expired. I was glad I did because it’s a truly magnificent geological sight to behold. It’s much larger than any of the other rocks, and a web of enticing crevices and caves complicates its broad face. After I scaled it using the helpful stone stairs cut by one parks service or another, I looked out at the gorgeous one hundred eighty degree view of the San Francisco Bay and its surrounding environs. Disillusionment clouded the resplendent colors of the setting sun as once again I found no Ohlone glyphs anywhere on Grotto. I had a smoke and suddenly noticed some markings in blue, white and black. Excited at first, I quickly realized they had been drawn with spray paint. Perhaps these were the only purposeful symbols I would find: those of the wild-eyed contemporary Berkeley ruffian. But that’s not so bad, I thought as I noted the groups of worshippers who shared Grotto with me that evening to commemorate the daily passing of Ra.

When nightfall had taken hold and the others had left, I began to spelunk in the grandest crevasse that Grotto Rock had to offer. Shimmying and sliding with zeal, I heard the distant sound of a gruff voice intoning, “You’re making me mad, I’m tryin’ to be here with my friends!” Now will I in the chink see the phantoms of the crevasses here in this ghostly grotto? But no, as I tumbled out of the cavern and onto Santa Barbara Road, I realized it was just the voice of just such a ruffian as I mentioned earlier. Onward.

I made my way due east. It was quite dark when I reached Euclid Avenue, off of which Cragmont Rock was supposed to lie. I scrambled around in the gloom looking for the final stone park to complete my journey, but every shadow started to look like a rock. I was deceived by large bush here, a sloping driveway there. When I finally stumbled upon the park that contained Cragmont, I was greeted by a sign that read, “Barbecue Safely…Please Make Sure Your Coals Are Out !” And so it was that I discovered the holy rites of Berkeley’s great rock parks. Shaman had left no secret messages. Instead, what was once a place for Ohlone women to grind seeds and berries had become a place for the modern American rituals of barbecue, graffiti and sunset watching with friends. Archana Ram tried to tell me, but I didn’t listen. Now I know, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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