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Morning rituals

          I can’t decide whether to call them mountains or hills, but I live about 5 minutes away from the in-between clusters that make up the Mission Peak Regional Preserve. The elevation of the peaks reaches roughly 2100 feet, or 640 meters, and on a day as open and blue as today’s, you can see clear to San Francisco from the summit.
          The most popular trail in the park is the Stanford, which has become uncomfortably congested over the years with hikers playing thumping music from tinny bluetooth boomboxes (or whatever it is people use to blast Pitbull wherever they go). I always take the Ohlone trail, though even that one seems to be growing in visitors by the month — I used to meet no one in the mornings and now I see a few on my way up and even more on my way down.
          I’d always thought the park was rather ugly and declared once to a friend years ago that the only reason anyone climbs Mission Peak at all must be for the physical challenge because there was nothing else to recommend it. The whole park is plain and austere in that way: aside from one briefly wooded area on the Ohlone trail that ends far too quickly, there are few distractions of beaut, or even shade along the entire course. The Stanford side is even more barren, its trail ascending steadily at an unremitting incline with nothing but hard dirt and boomboxing hikers for company, endlessly rising upward in the middle of what feels like nothing and nowhere. Most of the year, the mountains (or hills) aren’t even green because the whole area is so bare and exposed that the sun turns all the crackled green grass yellow by March or April, matching the clouds of dust kicked up by sweaty hikers with reddening necks.
          But it is good exercise, and since I hate basically all other forms of exercise, I decided about half a year ago to start getting up early every morning to go hiking there. It would still be dark as I ate breakfast standing by the kitchen counter and then I would drive the 5 minutes to the trail and step out into the empty world, still warm from sleep. It would be so quiet up there in the mornings, the air crisp and fresh. Sometimes I listened to music or podcasts, and sometimes I walked in silence. I always felt happy to be there.
          The reason I vacillate between “hills” and “mountains” is because “mountains” call forth images of formidable monoliths made from rock and stone and these mountainous hills, or hillous mountains feel soft and mild to me, their golden green grass winking in the sunlight, smooth and rolling as a marble, and it is only until you reach near the top that the terrain turns jagged with rocks and edges.
          I began noticing after about a week (or was it a month?) that the hills take on all different kinds of shades and moods depending on light and atmosphere, which makes me think of Monet’s paintings of the Rouen Cathedral in all the varying tones and hues of morning, night, and the hours in between. Sometimes the hills are cloaked in a delicate rosy hue, which creates such a lovely effect that they could be called beautiful instead of plains and sometimes everything is touched in blues and the land looks newly made.
          I don’t remember when I started feeling differently about the place, but I guess any place begins to feel special when enough time is spent in it, especially in those very early or late hours of the day that hold its dwellers within a glow of intimacy. I know that at some point those mountains began to feel like my own and at another point the trail and the surrounding hills were as familiar to me as a friend you look at one day and wonder how there could’ve been a time that you’d looked at them with indifference.
          There are some mornings when the sky would be overcast and a thick blanket of fog would spread, covering the mountains, wrapping around the trees, and the path before me would disappear like an evaporating dream. Condensation would cling to strands of my hair, making them wet to the touch, which always surprised me, because the mist would always appear like some translucent ghost, solid and whole in its formation.
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