Down the stairs of my condominium and across Campus Drive I walk along Leona Canyon Open Space Preserve. In April and May, I canter past an expanse of wild radish and California golden poppies. Below there’s a culvert and a pond lined in cattails and home to a family of mallards whose ducklings hide behind the rushes. I continue down a slope alongside a stream flowing out toward Mills College and eventually to the bay.
It’s a three-mile walk, first an easy flat jog, then up a fairly steep hill that leads to the buildings of Merritt College. I hike along a stretch of California buckeye trees that erupt during the spring months into white candelabra that torch the entire canyon, bay oak and laurel trees cascade along the hillside, trunks undulating like dancers who reach out to partners as robins and song sparrows flit from branch to branch, sunlight filtering through branches in a soft shimmer.
I mark my journey up the length of the canyon by three benches. The first overlooks a growth of purple periwinkles that weave themselves into groundcover. A large oak grows on the other side of the bank and spans the creek and provides a constant expanse of shade. After my husband died, I used to talk to this oak, which reached out its branches and enclosed me within its protective shade.
Walking steadily, I come to a second bench, navigating past brambles of California blackberry whose white flowers in the early summer turn into ripening fruit, stands of white poison hemlock marked by dots along their stem to distinguish them from white umbrella-like flowers of cow parsnip. This part of the canyon is shaded by bay laurel and harbors large colonies of sword ferns and stinging nettles that remind me of The Wild Swans, a tale by Hans Christian Anderson about a young girl who gathered nettles from graveyards to help her brothers regain their human form. I sat here on many occasions holding hands with a lover until he left.
The third bench is nearly at the top of the hill, memorialized to the Jalquin people, one of the Ohlone tribes that used to call this area home. I am surrounded by yellow monkey flowers, French broom, and purple thistle. But the trail has become more congested, overrun, especially at certain times of the day.
These days it seems like I might be the only one who walks Leona Canyon Preserve without a dog. When I first moved here about twelve years ago, the trail almost felt like my own private secret, a stream that runs past groves of bay, buckeye, coast live oak, and madrone trees, an area abloom in the spring with wild radish and cow parsnip with white umbrella like stalks of flowers. In my first years at the canyon, I’d get excited if a saw a young garter snake swish past, or a hare dive into the brush. Sometimes I’d even see a red fox. Once I thought I spotted a mountain lion on the crest of the hill. But the area has been discovered, one of the few places in Oakland of its kind where dog walkers are allowed to herd their charges off-leash in a three-mile walk from the bottom of Leona Canyon to Merritt College. Dogs joyously bound up the trail, glad to be free in a space where the air is freshly oxygenated by trees and running water. It is rare that I see a hare anymore,.Even the snakes have disappeared. Of course, the trail is still beautiful, especially since the winter rain has filled the empty stream again after these last difficult drought years. But Leona Canyon Preserve has changed and so have I.
Sometimes I consider getting a small companion to accompany me on the trail and would allow me to exchange notes with other walkers about dog husbandry.
I have yet to take this step and check off my reasons. None make sense. First of all, I live in an 1120 square foot condo without a yard and don’t feel that it’s fair to coop up a pooch within this space. Also I’ve put in new rugs and I think about their wear and tear. But then there’s the fact that I live by myself and I’m gone for long stretches during the week and I don’t think it’s fair to leave an animal, especially when we’d be in the first phase of getting-to-know you. Still, as an apartment dweller who never grew up with dogs—more like parakeets, goldfish, and cats—I do wonder what that relationship would be like, having a dog rest at my feet while I read a book, type on the computer, listen to music, and of course, walk up Leona Canyon. But the real reason I resist visiting pet shelters, if I am to be honest with myself, is a fear that I may only have a dog for companionship, and as I sit at the third bench, I contemplate if I shall ever discover love again, if when, how soon.