A Wonderful Commute

I live among the redwoods and they are absolutely my favorites of the forest. They’re amazing trees in so many ways. But I love all the native trees in the area and indeed some of my favorite individual trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains are oaks. (Yes, I have favorite trees. Don’t judge me :-)

Pre-pandemic, I commuted several days a week over the mountain to Silicon Valley for work. Most of the mountain part of the drive is through forest. There are a few minutes of chaparral and meadow, but trees dominate.

The drive up the west side to the summit takes about 15 minutes and on it I pass through coast redwoods, Douglas fir, Pacific madrone, California buckeye, California bay laurel, coast live oak, and canyon live oak.

The drive down the east side of the mountain takes about 20 minutes and it starts with some open spaces and then moves back into woods. It’s got scrubby oak and bay laurel bushes, manzanita, and coyote brush and wide open meadows. It’s also got coast live oaks, black oaks, valley oaks, Doug fir, madrone, and buckeye.

There are half a dozen trees on the eastern slope that I call my totems and I that always slow down to appreciate and sometimes stop the car and get out to just hang with for a bit. Three of the totems are oaks.

The first on the drive down the mountain is a gigantic and ridiculously tall coast live oak that must be several hundred years old. The tree is right off the road and surrounded by a beautiful grove of younger oaks that extends part of the way up Black Mountain.

The second totem I pass on my commute is a Pacific madrone. It’s not a giant, but it leans out across the road with orange bark that turns a fiery red in the rain. It really can’t be missed. Then, if that wasn’t enough, the orange bark peels off to reveal a bright satin green. What a show.

Until a few years ago, when it was lost in a storm, my next totem was another great big sprawling coast live oak. It sat alone on a small hill and through its low to the ground branches, I could see a glimpse of the bay. (I sometimes use Google Street View’s time travel feature to revisit it. I miss this tree every time I pass that spot.)

The next one is another coast live oak. This one was, until recently, almost magically proportioned, my Platonic ideal oak tree. Its roots are exposed by the road cut, its central trunk goes up about ten feet and then blossoms into a six or seven symmetrical branches that give it this almost spherical crown. A couple years ago wind or lightning split two of those branches off of the tree. I was worried that who ever owns it would cut it down, but they haven’t and it still stands strong, if a bit less regular.

Then, as I come off the mountain onto the flat, the next of my totems is actually two trees, a pair of large California black oaks that reach out from opposite sides of the road to touch each other. These two black oaks are as spectacular in the fall and the winter, with their grand branches completely visible, as they are in the spring and summer with lush green leaves closing off the space above the road to form a short tunnel.

And the last totem on my commute down the mountain is a California buckeye that blooms *pink*. I pass quite a few buckeyes up and down the mountain, some larger, most about the same size but they typically have white to oat colored flowers while this one has stunning pink flowers. I look forward to seeing it bloom every year.

A few hundred feet later and it’s my first stop light. The nice part of the drive is over.

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