November 21, 2017

Joaquin in Your Footsteps by Evan Nichols

If you are a California writer or a proud Oaklander or an historian of sorts, or maybe just a tree hugger, do what pilots do – eyeball the Mormon Temple in the Oakland hills to get your bearings. From there, it’s a short jaunt up Joaquin Miller Road, past the “Welcome to Joaquin Miller Park” sign, to a small white building on your left.

This little cottage is The Abbey. For almost 20 years, Joaquin Miller,“Poet of the Sierras,” slept here and wrote poetry in bed, taking a slug of moonshine when he was finished and heading out to plant flowers, shrubs and trees.

 I know, it looks a bit sketchy, but walk around it and squint your poet’s eye. Miller inhabited these hills until his death, exactly 100 years ago this February. You can almost see him now, beckoning you to join him on a hike, six foot tall, big sombrero, white beard and a red necktie flying in the wind.

Hike up Joaquin Miller Road, across the fire road a few more steps, and peer into the woods. Miller is in those trees, a statue atop a horse. It’s fitting that he’s lost in the trees. In his nearly three decades roaming these hills, Miller helped coordinate the planting of 75,000 trees. You are in a poet’s forest – Miller strolled through these trees, guiding such visitors as Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.

Walk briskly past the playground and up the steps to the lower, turquoise pool. This is the bottom of The Cascades, a series of waterfalls, pools and steps designed of stone from Tuolomne County. Both this and the wonderful Woodminster Amphitheater perched at the top of the steps were built by WPA laborers during the Great Depression. Hike up the steps into the cool shade and sit on a wall or a boulder.

You have just entered the Writers Memorial Grove. Miller surely sat and wrote here with a glorious view of the bay below. He found it a place of inspiration and lured a rotating colony of writers to share it with him. Oakland born Jack London and his writer friends were encouraged to hold outdoor salons beneath the original redwoods and oaks and were inspired to form the California Writers Club, or CWC, whose 1,000-plus members celebrated its centennial in 2009. For 55 years, the CWC planted trees in this very grove in honor of California writers. If these trees were made into paper, the poems would write themselves. Miller would want you sit and enjoy this.

Now scurry up the steps to the big wall of the outdoor amphitheater. Musical theater fans will want to catch one of the four musicals here at Woodminster Amphitheater next summer; bring a warm blanket and try not to stare up at the redwoods and stars too much while the funny man dances with an umbrella in the fake rain. Music fans should consider the Sundays in the Redwoods concert series every fall, featuring jazz, R&B, classical music and world beats. For now, you’ll have to be satisfied with the cool breeze, amazing bay view and song of the birds.

Miller was inspired by this view to build several quirky monuments in the woods above you. First, turn right at the parking lot and follow it to a strange chimney like structure. This is the Fremont Monument, built in 1904. It is large enough for a child to climb up into, peer out the vertical slots and release an imaginary arrow at your forehead. John C. Fremont brought his men up into these hills not as a military maneuver, but to see the sunset. In 1846, two years before the Gold Rush, he gazed out to where the San Francisco Bay meets the Pacific Ocean and remarked, “It is a golden gate … ” and so it got its name.

Follow the road out past the dog park and make a hard left onto Sanborn Road, pass the yellow gate, keep right at the fork and you’ll see some logs by the road and a path leading up a small hill. Climb it to the Browning Monument, which Miller built in 1894 in honor of the poets Elizabeth and Robert Browning. It was in England, truly, that Miller became the “Poet of the Sierras,” heeding the wise advice of his mentor, Oakland’s first librarian and California’s first poet laureate, Ina Coolbrith, who suggested he change his name from Cinncinatus to Joaquin and adopt full western garb, thus the hat, white beard, boots and flying red scarf.

Finally, just down the road a little, you’ll see another path into the woods. This leads up to his Funeral Pyre. Miller, who spent considerable time with and even wrote a book the Modocs, liked the idea of his body being sent back to the trees, to rejoin the forest when he died. He built this large Funeral Pyre for such an occasion, although the city officials ultimately didn’t allow him to be cremated here 100 years ago when he passed on. However, Joaquin Miller’s Funeral Pyre still stands in the Oakland Hills, a tribute to the Modocs.

Before you follow the road back down, all the way through the trees to the little white Abbey, you’ll find a Lookout Point at a sharp curve. To your right, a trail disappears into a beautiful canyon and follows creeks and winds through redwoods, part of a vast network of wonderful hiking trails in the park that bears Miller’s name. Straight ahead, you’ll get your first glimpse at the tall buildings of Oakland’s downtown, a reminder perhaps that it’s time to leave the Modocs and Moses, the Brownings and Fremont and a colony of writers behind – time to get back to the equally strange real world below.

About Evan Nichols

Evan Nichols is an MFA student in Creative Nonfiction at Mills College and has been a public school teacher for the last 17 years. He is the Editor of Digital Paper (http://digitalpaper.wordpress.com/), an eZine by and for writers and artists of the Bay Area Writing Project, and blogs about life as a teacher, writer, father and neighbor in Oakland at Mr. Peabody (http://mrpeabody.wordpress.com/).