Essay on Open Space

November 2, 1997

It was a very warm day in November today. The air was dry, in the 80's, a hazy cloudless sky, no wind--a typical fall day in San Jose. The 49'ers were battling the Cowboys at Candlestick/3Com, but I was taping the game. Later, when I watched the tape, I heard John Madden, a Bay Area native, comment that a lot of people don't realize that the hottest time of the year in San Francisco is September through early November. Fall is pretty in warm in San Jose too. While the game was going on, I biked to the base of the steep hills of 1000-acre Santa Teresa County Park at the south edge of San Jose. Santa Teresa Park isn't the biggest, highest, or the most spectacular open space park in the Bay Area. It's just the closest to me. It encompasses part of the Santa Teresa hills, which guard the southern gate to the Silicon Valley. The park reaches its pinnacle at 1100-foot Coyote Peak.
Coyote Peak
Coyote Peak, Santa Teresa County Park

Leaving my bike by the golf course, I began the long climb up to the peak. (I prefer to bike horizontally and hike vertically.) I hiked up the Mine Trail near the golf course, through the shade of buckeyes, laurels, and oaks. Most of the hillside was covered with dry grass, though in some shaded areas, scattered green shoots were popping up, awakened by the taste of rain we had a couple weeks ago. This was just a hint of the luxuriant green carpet that will cover the hills when the winter rains come, which will make the wild hills blend in with the manicured golf course.

I hiked up to the picnic area of the park, encountering only a couple of equestrians along the way. There were a few families at the picnic areas, which are car-accessible, but the park is not too crowded this time of year. I climbed slowly up the steep, rocky slopes at the south side of the park. The irregular rocks and boulders formed a colorful rock garden. The rust-colored rocks were speckled with bright red-orange algae and pale green lichens. The bare serpentine rocks, on which nothing can grow, were like polished jade. There were a few oak trees to provide shade, but most of the slopes were covered with short grasses and bushes. This made the hike a hot one, but the spectacular unblocked views made it worth it.
View of Santa Cruz Mountains from Santa Teresa park
Looking west towards the Almaden Valley & the Santa Cruz Mountains from Santa Teresa Park

At one point along the climb, as far as I could see, there was little evidence of being at the edge of an area with millions of people and the high-tcch capital of the world. Nearby were the rolling grass-covered hills of the park, with Coyote Peak looming up ahead. To the east, were the dry oak-dotted foothills and mountains of the Diablo Range, capped by the white Lick Observatory domes on Mt. Hamilton, over 4,000 feet high. To the west were the densely-forested ridges of the Santa Cruz range, dominated by Mt. Umunhum at nearly 3,500 feet, wearing the abandoned Air Force radar station like a top hat. Except for a few scattered buildings, antennas, power lines, and the green-walled IBM Research lab perched on a nearby hill, there were hardly any signs of civilization. It was a wonderful isolation. As I reached the top of the ridge, 6 deer burst out from behind their rock shelter and bounded away.

Resting on a chair-shaped rock, I looked across the vast open spaces and I thought back to my childhood growing up in LA. I was born and grew up just south of LA. It was like floating in a sea of people. As far as I could walk or bike, there were unrelenting waves of houses, streets, and buildings. Parks were tiny green islands of relief. Even the foothills of the San Gabriels and the mesas and bluffs of Palos Verdes were colonized by exclusive, gated homes, offering only brief glimpses of the view at some road turnouts. There were wide open spaces, but they were far away, only accessible by long drives from where I lived. Since I grew up in this area, I got used to it. LA is great for city things, like shopping, partying, and going to amusement parks, but I didn't really realize what I was missing until I moved to Santa Barbara.

Living in Santa Barbara was a liberating experience. (I cover Santa Barbara in a separate section.) I found I could bike down to the coast and walk for miles along uncrowded cliff-backed beaches. The hills behind my house were still farmland, covered with avocado and citrus trees. A short drive took me to mountain trails, along rocky ridges, through densely-shaded forests, and along creeks with waterfalls and pools. I really got to appreciate the power of nature.

The open spaces in Santa Barbara are due in a large part to its geography. Unlike the seemingly boundless basin of LA, the flat coastal plains of Santa Barbara are in a narrow strip between the steep mountain slopes and the sea. Just as LA's wide, flat lands have enabled its widespread, explosive development, Santa Barbara's limited flatlands have naturally restricted development. The open spaces are dictated by nature, much to the benefit of the quality of life in the city (if not its costs of living). I hated to leave Santa Barbara, but I discovered it was a foretaste of the Bay Area.

The Bay Area is like Santa Barbara in that there is only a limited amount of flat land between mountains and water. This has resulted in huge open spaces in the mountains and along the Bay, right on the doorsteps of the cities. The open spaces of the Bay Area are one of the things that make it special. In November 2's San Jose Mercury News is an article by renowed writer and photographer Galen Rowell about the Bay Area's public lands. He says, "Few residents and fewer visitors realize that no other major metropolitan center holds such an extensive system of natural areas. The extraordinary total of wild greenbelts in the Bay Area exceeds Yosemite National Park in size, biodiversity, and visitation." He points out that John Muir, whose explorations and writings about the Sierras helped create Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and the Sierra Club, chose to settle down and spend the end of his days in the Bay Area. I can see why.

I trudged up the wide trail to Coyote Peak. There were benches at the summit for sitting down and contemplating the awesome view. Though the haze limited the view today, the shining demi-skyscrapers of downtown San Jose were visible, as well as the enormous mound-like blimp hangars at Moffett Field. On clearer days, I've been able to see the bridges on the Bay, the Santa Cruz range all the way to giant antenna on San Francisco's Mt. Sutro, the clustered buildings of downtown San Francisco and Oakland, the floating peak of Angel Island, and the looming edifice of Mt. Tamalpais. Nearby, human habitations covered the valley floor like a vast lawn. Mostly treetops were visible, with walls and roofs appearing like scattered pale confetti among the trees. Only the new housing developments, shopping centers, factories, freeways, and public buildings stood out as obvious signs of man's work. To the south, the farm and ranchlands of the Coyote Valley were like a quilt. In-between, the foothills of the Diablo Range come to meet the Santa Teresa Hills, pinching off the last remnants of the suburbs. Only 3 major roads squirt out through this bottleneck, which mark the southern limit of the Silicon Valley.
South end of Silicon Valley from Coyote Peak

The Southern end of the Silicon Valley from Coyote Peak, looking east toward Mt. Hamilton

As I wandered these open spaces, I realized how important it was to be able have access to them. There's something magic, therapeutic, and precious about these hills. It's tough getting up here, but the view is the reward. Altitude has an enlightening effect. From up in the hills, everything looks small--your home, your work, your problems. It puts things in perspective. It also gives you a feeling of empowerment, of being in control, and flying above the clouds of the mundane, the everyday. It's symbolic of the American dream, where by sweat, hard work, and perserverence, you can elevate yourself and rise above your station in life. But it's democratic, because anyone can do this if they're willing to put out the effort. Altitude has a filtering affect, screening out the lazy, the unproductive, the wanton vandals. Unlike the roadside areas, which may be littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts, the higher reaches are almost pristine. Only footprints and mountain bike treadmarks reveal the winding path through the rocky maze.

These open spaces are precious and valuable natural resources vital to the psychological well-being of the people. I hope open spaces like these can be preserved and protected from over-development. I have nothing against the people who build their houses on hills. I've been to friends' and relatives' houses built on hillsides with fantastic views, and I've wished I could live in places like that. However, looking up on hilltop homes from the valley floor, it makes me feel like I'm invading someone's privacy. A hill in its natural state sends a message that "This land is your land, you are welcome here." A house on a hill announces, "This land is my land, go away!" There's something un-democratic about all of this. Homes on the valley floor are all at the same level, so everyone is equal. Houses on hills are like European castles, with the lords overseeing their serfs. I don't mind when I see fenced-off hillside ranches, because to me they are caretakers of future public lands, but housing developments almost never turn into parkland.

When the sun began to set. I reluctantly descended Coyote Peak, following the Ridge Trail down to the Ohlone Trail, which wound its way through shady oak woodlands and passed by the green lawns of the golf course and its lakes. I ended up back on the valley floor level and retrieved my bike. I was back to earth again, an ordinary mortal, tired and sore, but revitalized for the effort. I'm thankful for these open spaces and hope they can be preserved to benefit everyone.

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Created 11/2/97. Last update: 11/15/97