February 26, 2007
By the calendar, spring doesn't begin for another month. But around here we measure the change of season in a far more meaningful way by when the first blossoms return to the trees near our neighborhood. Traditionally that is the last week of January to the first week of February, so if you wait to celebrate until the equinox on March 21 then you wind up missing out on Nature's most spectacular show of the year.
Early February, when the blossoms made their debut this year, simply feels like the right time for spring. Everyone's got cabin fever from being cooped up indoors through much of the cold and foggy period from November through the end of January, and coming off a couple weeks of near freezing temperatures followed by another week of almost constant rain, that sudden spike into the mid-70s gets the blood pumping again and makes you find excuses to get outdoors.
Our February excuse for venturing outside is the annual almond blossom walk we take on the former DuPont property near our home. It has become one of our cherished traditions, largely for the fact we know that one day the land will be redeveloped and the scattered almond trees will become a distant memory. This year's walk took place Saturday, Feb. 17.
For this trip it was just Ben and Glenn; Roni took advantage of the time to do grocery shopping and make some headway on a work assignment she'd been waiting to complete. We left a bit before noon, appreciating the balmy skies and 75-degree temperature we'd been blessed with. So often it seems the rains come right about the same time as the blossoms, so we have to wait for a sunny weekend and hope the weather doesn't wreck all the blossoms beforehand. No such problem this time, as we were right at the peak of the blossoms.
The DuPont plant, or what remains of it, was located in the northwest corner of a large (we're talking 600-plus acres) waterfront parcel adjacent to the Antioch Bridge. Most of the property was unused by the chemical company, but instead served as a buffer between the plant and surrounding neighborhoods of Oakley, ours included. That buffer zone to this day is used for crops. Once it was largely almond orchards, but today most of the trees have been replaced with wine grapes used by Cline Cellars out of Sonoma. We still remember a day about 10 years ago when Cline expanded its grape growing acreage by removing the last large grove of almond trees that existed on the property near our home. They put up signs advertising an "almond wood cutting festival" and let folks go at the trees with their chain saws. A sad day.
A few of the trees escaped the saws, however. They are located deep on the property, caged off behind chain link fences like wild animals at the zoo, preserved for us to enjoy from afar. Or, if you are like us, you can enjoy them a bit closer if you are willing to work at it. And that's what our walk each year aims to do.
We followed the railroad right-of-way into the deserted switching yard at the plant's east end. Often there are empty rail cars stored there, but on this day the yard was clear, affording us a fantastic view of the grape vineyard and Mount Diablo in the distance. The almond trees, to the north of the tracks, were dazzling in their snow white coats. We spent a long time there taking pictures, or rather Glenn took pictures while Ben combed the area for unusual railroad junk. He shortly had started a collection of rusted washers that weighed down the pockets of his sweater. Not that it was sweater weather, but he was taking no chances.
We ventured west along the yard tracks, past the two remaining rows of trees. While they look splendid all together, it is disappointing not to be able to get closer to them. But being trespassers as it was, we didn't want to press our luck by circumventing the fence for a closer look. Besides, there are better places along the walk to visit the trees where no more effort is required than simply walking up to them. Such a place was less than a quarter mile ahead.
Where you cross into the plant's west rail yard there is a large expanse of grass between the tracks and the plant security fence. The reason for the grass is that pressurized natural gas lines run underground. In the midst of this meadow there are three or four stray almond trees, much smaller than the ones inside the plant, but pretty nonetheless. Here we could make like bees and stick our noses in the blossoms, enjoying their perfume. So sweet were the blossoms that we could smell them from several feet away.
We walked as far east as the narrow rail bridge over Bridgehead Road that marks DuPont's western border. There, we turned south and followed the fence along the road back toward Main Street. This is a great spot to see lots of blossoms, because one large row of old trees has been left intact. Here you find almonds and walnuts. The trees are so well established that they produce huge nut crops each year that go unharvested. The remnants still cling to the branches, and it was these decaying hulls that Ben enjoyed trying to collect by leaping from ground level to reach those that were reachable.
Looking east from this row of trees, the grape vineyard stretches for a mile. But here one also comes face to face with the reality of encroaching development. The southwest corner of the property is currently occupied by an ARCO gas station, with construction taking place next door on fast food restaurants. A large black-runged metal fence separates these businesses from the grapes. Just a taste of what will eventually happen to this entire property. We don't want to think about that today, so we press on.
Normally this is where we start our blossom walks. Roni drops us off at the gas station and we head back home along the route described above. But this year Ben has decided that he's up for a longer journey, so we agreed to walk as far as we both can endure. Returning to the railroad bridge, Glenn asks Ben to choose which direction to go. Ben says west, so that is where we head. Over the short railroad bridge (checking carefully for the trains we know eventually will show up) and then down the grassy embankment past an industrial yard and to the Highway 160 overpass.
The overpass is a relatively new addition to our blossom walk. We checked it out last year when Glenn's brother Sean was with us. Amid the concrete, graffiti and refuse left behind by wandering kids and homeless people it seems implausible that any beauty could exist here, yet it does. A couple of trees have rooted themselves on the slope between the freeway median, and another grows seemingly well directly under the bridge abutment sheltered from sun and rain. What we didn't see last year was a sizeable hole in the fence that enabled access to either side of the freeway embankment. Caltrans surely wouldn't approve of this unauthorized trail, but we definitely weren't the first to blaze it.
Heading through the fence, we continued beyond the overpass and came out the opposite side into what only can be described as an enchanted forest. Well, we were enchanted at any rate. Having little to compare it to elsewhere in Oakley, the freeway easement is about the closest thing to a walk in the country we've found here. A well-worn path led from the railroad and down an unspoiled hillside dotted with almond trees, all in bloom. A fence to the west guards an undeveloped parcel that adjoins a self-storage business a bit farther south. By the time we reached the tan wall of the storage business, the little grove of almond trees was expanding into a small forest of eucalyptus, ivy and other plants.
We were right alongside Kmart now, and considering how long our walk had been it seemed like the perfect time to take a break and get something to drink for the journey home. We figured that the path would soon reach its end, because East 18th Street was about a quarter mile ahead. We'd just follow the trail until we hit the sidewalk, then come back to the Kmart. But then we saw a couple of kids lurking in the trees ahead of us, watching us about as nervously as we were watching them. We decided we'd come far enough for one day and started back. But as luck would have it there was a gap in the fence near the wall of the storage business, so we were able to squeeze through and emerged in the Kmart's rear parking lot.
We stopped at Kmart long enough to pick up a bottle of water and Sierra Mist, then it was back the way we'd come. We didn't linger much on the walk back, although Ben had enjoyed exploring the western freeway embankment enough that he thought it would also be fun to check out the eastern side. There are certainly plenty of trees on that side, but we'd already been out for nearly three hours and it was time for real food. Aside from that, we hadn't put on sunscreen and the effects were beginning to show at least on Dad.
Heading back along the railroad tracks past DuPont, we paused to appreciate one of the orphaned almond trees that grew at the edge of the grape vineyard, just below the tracks at the side of a dirt access road. Because of recent heavy rainfall this access road had become a large, muddy lake. But the water today was calm and provided a nice reflection of the tree and the sky, so it made the perfect subject for photos. It also provided a nice spot to plunk rocks, which Ben enjoyed doing while he rested his feet, which by now were growing tired. And to think, he was ready to walk another mile or two.
It was after 3 p.m. by the time we returned home. Nearly four hours for a walk that in the past has taken about one. But as we say every year, enjoy it now because there is no telling how long it will last. One day, all we'll have left of the almond trees of DuPont are these memories and a few precious pictures.
Glenn, Roni and Ben