Article

Artifacts & Artists East of Mt. Hamilton

Goat Trails

Story and photos by Ryan Masters

Andy Ruble and I are standing at the mouth of a tight box canyon near the bank of San Antonio Creek in a remote area of the Diablo Range, about 10 miles east of Mt. Hamilton. He is holding what I have already mentally dubbed “the Artifact." We are 42-year-old men, but, when alone, we still interact in much the same way as those two kids who became instant best friends in second grade.

“Hey, check this out,” he says, turning a curiously shaped rock over in his hands.

“Wow! Artifact! Definitely.”

“No…” he says judiciously.

“Let me see,” I say, snatching it. “Yep. Manufactured by humans for sure.”

“It’s just a rock,” he says. Yet now that it is in my hands, I can see it looks more valuable to Ruble.

He grimaces unhappily at the Artifact, mulling its authenticity. The keys to swaying Ruble are: A) Have just enough technical authority to muddy the waters of doubt; and B) Overcome his naturally cautious temperament by arguing a point that he wants to be true anyway. I have gotten us in a lot of trouble over the years this way.

“It’s a pestle. Some kind of grinding tool,” I conclude, demonstrating proper technique with the Artifact.

“My eye just locked right on it as I was walking past.”

“It’s definitely manmade,” I say, turning it over again in my hands. “No doubt in my mind.”

“There does seem to be some wear on the end there,” he says, getting excited. “Look at its edges. It’s all flattened and formed along here.”

“This is a perfect spot for an Ohlone processing camp,” I state with a grandiose sweep of my arm. “Picture it!”

“Those big valley oaks are at least 500 years old. And this creek was full of trout,” he looks around at our feet. “I wonder if there’s something else.”

“Keep looking.”

“Maybe there’s a grinding stone or a mortar,” he says, his eyes searching the gravel and sand of the creek bed.

“Hmmm.”

My tone stops him short and he turns back to me. “What?”

“I don’t know. It is pretty soft stone for a tool.”

He reevaluates the Artifact in my hands.

“Goddamnit,” he mutters. “What happened to no doubt in your mind?”

“Healthy scientific objectivity,” I wisely intone.

He snorts at the notion of me being healthy, scientific or objective; but I can see he’s decided that the idea of this rock being an artifact is more interesting than the alternative. We mark the precise location of the Artifact and throw it in the backpack, then start picking our way up the steep, narrow box canyon. Scraggly Digger pine grow here and there along its walls. Not 30 feet up the canyon we find a five-pound chunk of conspicuously fire-cracked rock.

Digger pine are also referred to as Gray or Ghost pine. (“Digger” was actually a racial slur that pioneers used for Native Americans.) Although they have little commercial value today, these tall, spindly, sage-green conifers were vitally important to the Ohlone, who gathered their cones into huge piles and lit them on fire. The heat cracked open the cones, releasing the nutrient-rich pine nuts for easy harvesting.

While it’s also possible this chunk of rock was simply cracked by wildfire, its size and shape reminds me of culturally relevant pieces I’ve excavated at archaeological sites in the Great Basin of Eastern Oregon. And considering its proximity to the Artifact, I’m wondering if we don’t have some kind of site after all. The only problem is the creek bed—which undoubtedly floods after big storms. All of this could have washed down from further up the canyon. As a result, the provenance on anything we find is generally useless. Still.

“I think we may be on to something,” I tell Ruble in a serious, scientific tone.

“Doubt it,” he says. “But maybe.”

He wants to hike up the canyon to find an old pond he’s heard exists. As we pick our way along, we keep our eyes trained on the ground before us.

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Ruble knows this country as well as anyone. His family has owned land here for four generations. While the Bay Area continues to tighten and compact like a giant silicon fist on the other side of Mt. Hamilton, the land over here hasn’t changed much at all since we were kids. Most people are unaware it even exists.

It’s not what many would deem paradise. The terrain is rugged. And although there are numerous springs and creeks running through the steep canyons, it’s mostly an arid world of impenetrable brush and wide-open grazing land that can get as cold as the Sierra in winter and hot as a desert in summer.

The closest most people come is winding up the viciously steep road from East San Jose to Lick Observatory at the top of Mt. Hamilton (4,216 feet). The view from the summit is arguably the best in the Bay Area. On clear days, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey Bay, the Monterey Peninsula, and even Yosemite National Park are visible.

Coincidentally, the origin of Mt. Hamilton’s name is also a buddy story. On Aug. 26, 1861, William H. Brewer invited his friend, San Jose preacher Laurentine Hamilton, to join him and Josiah D. Whitney on a trek into the Diablo Range while working on the California Geological Survey. Near the summit, Hamilton jokingly bounded ahead of the rest of the men and claimed his stake to the mountain. Amazingly, Brewer convinced Whitney to name the peak after his friend.

Completed in 1887, Lick was the world’s first permanently occupied mountaintop observatory. Its Classical Revivalist structures and great white domes lend the place a spiritual, celestial bearing. While more powerful telescopes have since been installed, Lick’s 91-centimeter refracting telescope is a Jules Verne-like work of art. The largest of its kind at the time, the telescope was responsible for discovering a fifth moon of Jupiter in 1892—the first such addition since Galileo peered through his parchment tube and spectacle lens.

Although the bright nocturnal glow of the Silicon Valley has polluted the night sky and severely compromised Lick Observatory’s effectiveness over the decades, it’s almost an acceptable trade. The view of the Bay Area at night from Mt. Hamilton is like gazing down on a twinkling, luminescent sea. It is breathtaking to see the amount of light energy the place produces.

However, the Silicon Valley disappears in a wink once you drive over the ridge and into the backcountry. Suddenly, you’re back in the Wild West. As the narrow highway winds down toward San Antonio Valley, it passes a whole lot of barbed wire fences, dirt roads and the odd ranch house—other than that, nothing but rolling country.

Turkey vultures wheel in the sky or hunch in trees like huge, grotesque ornaments. Now and again, even condors appear. A few years back, five juveniles landed on the roof of the Lick Observatory, the species’ first sighting in the area in 30 years. It is not uncommon to see a flock of birders holding binoculars to their eyes back here. If you listen carefully, the immense silence of this country is actually an orchestra of bird song.

Continue driving and you may find a minor ecological miracle grazing in San Antonio or Isabel Valley. Tule elk were thought to have been extinct until a breeding pair was discovered in the San Joaquin Valley in 1874. One hundred years later, tech pioneers Bill Hewlett and David Packard allowed state biologists to translocate 32 of the animals onto land they owned east of Morgan Hill. Today, there are an estimated 400 tule elk roaming 724 square miles in northeastern Santa Clara County and southeastern Alameda County.

Hidden down a long road and locked behind two gates, Ruble’s ranch is remote—even for these parts. Pretty much anything goes back there and for many years, anything did. His father, the artist Gary Aro Ruble, is something of an underground legend in the Bay Area. For decades, Dr. Dirt (as he is affectionately known among friends) would stage massive photography events he dubbed Power Flicks on the property. These all-night, psychedelic exposures would light up entire mountainsides, require huge crews and resemble bizarre bacchanals. On some nights, Dr. Dirt would even burst from the darkness in his masked, cigar-chomping alter ego, Pig Man.

Good times.

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The box canyon is tough going. It’s highly possible that no one has walked this creek since the 1960s when it was dammed. Ruble and I pick ticks off our legs as we make our way through the scrub and along narrow deer trails that cling to the precipitous canyon walls. The colors of the foliage around us are muted—dusky sage, auburn, gray—but a bristle of bright green grass carpets the moist, spongy slopes.

Spring is the best time to explore this country. California fescue and Purple needle grass grow in lush bunches among the non-native grasses grazed and sown by generations of cattle. The idyllic oak-studded meadows are carpeted with Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), which only flower from March to April and whose roots were an important source of starch in the Ohlone diet. Ruble digs up a wild onion, but its bulb is already past its expiration date. In a few months, the land will be baked hard and red in the relentless summer sun.

The box canyon grows ever narrower and steeper. Lichen-covered granite boulders are strewn throughout the creek bed. We check for grinding mortars worn into their surfaces. As we round a tight corner, we both catch a glimpse of a hawk winging up the canyon with a large rabbit in its talons.

Tarantula holes pock the earth in the canyon walls, a dewy veil of web blanketing their round entrances. For a few weeks every fall, the tarantulas emerge from these holes and migrate en masse across the landscape. Ruble can remember seeing hundreds of them crawling across the earth in a great, horrifying herd. Dr. Dirt once took a photo of a tarantula crawling on his face.

We pass under an ancient oak that has been riddled with thousands of concentric holes by the local Lewis’s Woodpeckers. Ruble studies it carefully. It’s the type of natural form that has inspired his sculpture for years. Like his father, Ruble is an artist. And a damn good one. He’s won a litany of awards, including the Rydell Fellowship, and exhibited in some of the most prominent fine arts shows in the nation. His work is in numerous private collections and museums. In the world of ceramics, the dude is a rock star. Yet it’s not just uncanny hand-to-eye coordination and decades of commitment to his craft that make him so good; it’s the way he sees structures within the natural world. He’s been like that since we were kids—intensely curious about how nature operates.

At the moment, he is intensely curious about the possibility of a tick on his neck.

“Do you see anything?” he asks, stretching out his shirt and futilely straining to examine his own jugular vein.

“You’re good,” I say, without really looking.

When we reach the remote pond, it feels like a haunted, witchy place. The water is tea-colored, almost black from soaking oak leaves. Trees hunch around the shore, their branches like twisted pagan horns. On the far bank, we find the bleached, chewed-upon bones of mountain lion kill and eye the dense scrub above us apprehensively. It’s a perfect hunting spot for big cats. All they have to do is wait for the deer to come drink. The place just feels like a trap. I pull out my camera and take a few shots.

“Prize-winning photo!” I pronounce, pleased with myself.

“Prize?” Ruble thoughtfully repeats, his iPhone quietly emerging from his pocket.

Nothing gets Ruble interested quicker than even the vaguest promise of some type of “prize.”

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It’s an old California adage that gold resides where you find Digger pine and quartz, both of which are well represented in these parts. We’ve never come across any gold (or won any photography prizes for that matter), but what we have found over the years is far more valuable.

When we were kids, Dr. Dirt would let us hang on to the gunwales of his beat-up old truck and drive like a madman down the dirt roads. I remember hanging on for dear life and laughing hysterically as the trees whipped our backs and heads mercilessly. We fished for bass and captured turtles in the ponds, took target practice with a .22 and found fat rattlesnakes while cutting wood.

More recently, Ruble and I have brought our own sons out here. From the perspective of time, this is a strange but deeply satisfying experience. It’s good to see concrete evidence of the cycle turning—even if you suddenly find yourself inhabiting its back half.

At the very top of Ruble’s property is a peak called Lone Pine. As the name suggests, a tall, ancient pine teetered up there for generations. Sometime in the 1980s, it finally succumbed to the elements. For years, Ruble tried to coax another pine to grow, but it simply wouldn’t take. Then, about four years ago, a pine sapling magically appeared right at the very highest point of Lone Pine Peak. Today, it’s a hearty juvenile tree. I cannot put into words how happy this makes my friend.

The night before we head back to civilization, Ruble and I sit around playing gin rummy. I am crushing him and he believes the Artifact is somehow to blame. As I fan out another winning hand and gleefully tally the score, he glares at the stone where it sits on the table between us.

Despite his misgivings, I convince him to take it to Foothill College the next morning, where he is Director of Ceramics, and show it to a colleague in the archaeology department.

The following night Ruble calls me with a report. While the Artifact is made of sandstone, he says, the archaeologist believes it may have been manufactured by a band of Ohlone who escaped into the remote region during the Mission era in a last-gasp attempt to return to their traditional ways of living. In fact, he says, the archaeologist is interested in coming out to the property and poking around.

“That’s exactly what I said!” I excitedly tell him.

I, of course, said no such thing, but Ruble is far too good a friend to point this out.

Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the world at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes a weekly column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.

More Goat Trails by Ryan Masters:

At Home on Sierra Azul’s Priest Rock Trail
Hiking Through Quicksilver and ‘The Legend of New Almaden’
Jade Cove and the Conscious Unconscious

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