"All good things are wild and free." --Henry David Thoreau

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Mastic Trail, Grand Cayman Island

Writing about a foreign trail goes against the premise of this blog—hikes with children in the San Francisco Bay Area—but I just came back from the first international trip with the baby, and we had a great hike on the Mastic Trail of Grand Cayman. We arrived on Valentine’s Day and stayed with a family friend, Lois Blumenthal, who happens to be a major advocate for the conservation of bats in the Caribbean, and a self-taught ecologist about the flora and fauna of the delicate ecosystems on the Grand Cayman.
One of the best parts of our visit was walking the Mastic Trail with Lois. We plopped the baby in a carrier on the husband’s chest, grabbed a water bottle and sunhats, and set out. The sky was overcast, perhaps a great thing since the temperature felt perfect and the humidity was low.
Up until we had hiked the Mastic Trail, the island seemed largely developed with houses, some in a colonial style with gingerbread trim, but most just boxy. The land seemed somewhat dry and scrubby except for long-legged tangles of mangrove trees along certain watery edges. The Mastic Trail opened us to a whole new world, one teeming with biodiversity.
The trail is a one-way trek—we started at one end and walked to the other, where we had a car waiting—of about two miles. The terrain changes form: rough with jagged limestone, muddy, and sometimes soft with a red dirt that supposedly comes from Africa, borne on high winds over the Atlantic.  The path traverses several island habitats—mangrove, an ancient forest, and stands of native palms. It was made a couple hundred years ago when people needed a north-south route across the island, carrying goods by foot or donkey; now the National Trust of the Caymans owns the land.
The ground beneath our feet became muddy shortly into the hike as leggy mangroves, vines, and ferns rose out of the brackish water. We crossed a mahogany bridge made perhaps over a hundred years ago, the logs still firm although they lay partially submerged in goo.
Further on, the terrain became dry and Lois pointed out a tamarind tree, bushy looking and with feathery, pinnate leaves. In the old days, hunters nailed boards horizontally across the trunk; they would wait up in the tree for the agouti, a fat rodent, to snuffle around where a lure was set.
Lois showed us a well dug into the limestone-studded earth. “There used to be a little cup next to it, but I guess someone took it,” she noted.
“Don’t move, Jessica!” my husband barked. A two-foot long snake poised on the limestone, smooth head raised, eyes coolly observing us. The grass snake (Alsophis cantherigerus) is harmless—there aren’t any poisonous snakes on the island—and we admired its smooth scales before continuing down the trail.
We trekked on, passing Silver Thatch Palm (Coccothrinax proctorii), the national tree, endemic to the islands. The fronds were used for thatch roofs. We walked under strangler figs and giraffe trees, royal palms and buttonwoods, red birch (not a true birch) and calabash and ironwood. Elegant bromeliads clung from branches everywhere. A couple of the trees had termite nests on them, thick crusty balls of dried frass, several feet long. Birds sang and chirped and skreeed and cawed everywhere.
We passed a fissure zone where there were huge clefts in the limestone, evidence of the plate tectonics that's still lifting the island above sea level. A soldier crab without a shell came scuttling down the trail, and a rainbow colored lizard called an anole perched on a tree limb. 
As we walked on, I saw something snuffle on the side of the trail. “An agouti!” I cried.
The animal shuffle-hopped through the underbrush about five feet from us. It was maybe twelve pounds, compactly built and colored like an American football, a tawny brown, the Central American version of a guinea pig. Settlers brought agoutis (Dasyprocta punctata) to the Caymans as a food source, although they’re not eaten much today, I believe. The fellow regarded us quietly then slipped into the forest.
We encountered a large Mastic tree about two-thirds of the way into the hike. It happened to be at highest point on the island, a mere sixty feet above sea level. Shipbuilder’s used the Mastic (Mastichodendron foetidissimum) for their masts, and people cut down so many of the trees, they almost eradicated them from the island.
Lois pointed out where the ancient seashore was, a craggy area where we could find sea shell fossils if we looked. The land there rose above sea level two million years ago, she told us, and had slowly evolved into the forest we walked through, with 100 different kinds of trees and over five hundred other plants.
At the end of the trail, the dirt became that ruddy soil from Africa, called “red mould” by the locals. A fire had recently burned small swathes of land on either side of the trail; perhaps farmers were clearing land as it looked like a controlled burn.
Three hours later, we reached our parked car and Marshall peeled an orange, the sweetest fruit after a good hike, I nursed the baby in the backseat with both doors wide open, and Lois talked to some travelers with children who had questions about hiking the Mastic Trail. They were a family and, seeing the baby, asked if their kids (four years old?) could handle the trail. Without a pause both Marshall and I assured them it was definitely something to experience, but perhaps they’d need to carry their children part of the way.
Last Hiked:
February 2010 

-Make your way to Grand Cayman. Cayman Air is about $200 roundtrip from Florida.
-From the capital of George Town, go east on the Queen’s Highway for 14 miles.
-Left at Frank Sound Road
-At the Fire Station, go left on Mastic Road
-Parking lot is a quarter mile on the right
-If you have two cars, park the second at the other end:
-continue on Frank Sound Road to Old Man Bay
-Left at the crossroads, travel a mile
-Left on Further Road
-Park at the dead end
Cayman Wildlife Connection,
Including several articles written by Lois Blumenthal:
National Trust of the Cayman Islands,
Mastic Trail information:
Bat Conservation International,
Article about Lois Blumenthal:
Wildlife of the Caymans:
The Mastic Tree:

Bernal Hill and Cortland Avenue

Bernal Hill

            There is something about Bernal Hill that has always made me happy since childhood, whether in the summer and fall when the hill is golden as any northern California hill, or in winter and spring when grass turns the hill a luxurious green in contrast to the valley of concrete, mortar, and glass that the city appears to be.  Bernal’s thirty-something acres are almost in the nucleus of the city, more or less hemmed by Mission Street to the east, Cesar Chavez Street to the north, I-280 to the south, and US 101 to the east; these coordinates place it in the banana belt where you will mostly encounter sunny weather instead of fog. 

The Baby Factor
            Bernal Hill is a hike for any age: babies sport strollers can cruise Bernal Heights Boulevard, a pedestrian-only one-mile road that winds up the hill; babies in slings and older children can traverse the Boulevard with their parents, as well as explore the very top of the hill and walk along the crest on a dirt path that runs east-west.

            There are a plethora of shops and restaurants on Cortland Avenue but most do not have baby-changing tables in the restrooms; if you need to change your baby, patronize Progressive Grounds Café or Maggie Mud Ice Cream Parlor. While on Cortland, check out Chloe’s Closet, a fantastic second-hand baby gear and clothing store.
In the early nineteenth century this land belonged to the Spanish cattleman, Don Jose Cornelio Bernal, and then passed hands to a Frenchman who sliced it into lots that Irish immigrants bought. Its bedrock was virtually unaffected by the 1906 earthquake, and its stability lured folk to build cottages for survivors and construction workers. World War II brought black home-owners who worked in the naval shipyards, the 1960s brought political activists and hippies, and currently there is some amount of gentrification as evidenced in some expensive restaurants; Bernal’s blue-collar tradition remains at its foundation.

Your Day Begins
            Start your day on Cortland Avenue where you can stock up on picnic foods or enjoy a drink and a meal on the sunny patio at Progressive Grounds Café, one of the few businesses on Cortland with a baby-changing table in the restroom.

            Walk north up Anderson Street for a quarter mile until you reach Bernal Heights Boulevard, a circular drive with small, free parking lots on the north and south sides. You have about a mile to walk on the circular boulevard, half of which is pedestrian only. People let their dogs off leash here; on the weekends the place boils with mutts as they scamper and pop and gallop everywhere.

            At the very top is radio tower among a clump of trees on a windy hump; perhaps you’ll find the owls that live there, or see kestrels and hawks gliding on the breeze. This is a perfect place to sit and identify landmarks from the Golden Gate to the Bay Bridge, Mount Diablo to Mount Tamalpais, and a score of San Franciscan neighborhoods. If you are goat-footed and sure of your step, and have either a walking child or a baby in a sling, traverse the hill’s rocky spine extending to the east onto round, grassy lumps that remind me of the cover illustration of a boy standing on a desolate planet from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book, The Little Prince. Take care with walking on the dirt trails—they can be slippery even on a sunny day.

I’ve never encountered mammals besides humans and dogs on the hill, but Bernal is home to raccoons, opossums, and skunks. For a while, folks sighted a coyote and perhaps he’s still there. At least one pair of Great Horned Owls nest in the clump of trees at the apex, and one frequently spies hawks and kestrels soaring above.

Sunset is one of the loveliest times on the hill as witnessed on the very top where the panoramic city is spread out at your feet. Notice the changing colors of sky and hill, the emergence of stars and moon, the temperature change, the arrival and departure of birds.

            At the end of your day, treat yourself to ice cream at Maggie Mud’s where the spectrum ranges from dairy free to full fat goodness. If you and your child still have energy to burn, cross the street, go behind the library, and check out the Bernal Heights Playground.            


Ø Farmer’s Market and Flea Market
If you visit on the weekend, take a jaunt to the southern flank of the hill so that you can buy fresh produce at the Alemany Farmer’s Market on Saturday (6 am to 3 pm), or look for an odd bauble or collectable at the Alemany Flea Market on Sunday (7 am to 3 pm).

Ø Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema in October
In October you can watch a movie at the outdoor cinema; not all films are child-appropriate, but some are, like this year’s documentary on a pair of owls that live on Bernal Hill.

Ø Fiesta on the Hill
Also in October is the Fiesta on the Hill, a no-booze party lasting several days. Even if you hanker for a cold beer, your child will be drunk with happiness to ride ponies, dance to live music, get touchy-feely in the petting zoo, convince you to buy a pumpkin from the patch, and laugh to see you volunteer for the dunk tank.

Ø San Francisco Illegal Soapbox Society
Around Halloween weekend you might find the soapbox derby going on from 1 pm to about 5 pm. I’ve been once as a member of the holler-happy crowd, and marveled at the crazy speeds the soapboxes reach; I imagine an old-enough child would thrill at watching the wild race (and promptly beg the parents to build a soapbox derby car in the garage). This is a booze-friendly event—in fact one of the rules for car construction demand at least one beer holder per soapbox.


Maggie Mud (903 Cortland Ave., 415.641.5291)

Progressive Grounds Café (400 Cortland Ave., 415.282.6233)

Good Life Grocery (448 Cortland Ave., 415.648.3221)

Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema (http://www.bhoutdoorcine.org/)

Fiesta on the Hill (http://www.bhnc.org/fiesta)

Farmer’s Market and Flea Market  (100 Alemany Boulevard at the junction of I-280 and 101 on the south side of Bernal Hill; 415.647.9423)

San Francisco Illegal Soapbox Society (no specific website, but here’s an article about it: http://upcoming.yahoo.com/event/304454)

Bernal Heights Playground (Cortland Ave at Moultrie Street, just behind the library)

Businesses WITHOUT a baby-changing table: Martha & Brothers Coffee, the Moonlight Café, Liberty Café (as of 10/2009, they have plans to add one, date yet to be determined), Little Nepal Restaurant, and Good Life Grocery.


Public bus: 24 Divisadero; 67 Bernal Heights.
By car northbound: From US 101, exit Alemany Boulevard; left on Bayshore Boulevard; left on Cortland Avenue; continue to the top of the hill. Parking is metered on Cortland but free on side streets.

By car southbound: From US 101, exit Cesar Chavez Street; go on Bayshore Boulevard lane; travel south on Bayshore to Cortland; right on Cortland; continue to the top of the hill. Parking is metered on Cortland but free on side streets.

Free parking: If you park near Cortland, you’ll have a quarter-mile of an uphill walk before getting to the grassy hilltop.  There is a parking lot on the south side of the hill, at Anderson Street and Bernal Heights Boulevard. The parking lot on the north side, where I prefer to park and then walk in a large circle, is at Folsom Street and Bernal Heights Boulevard.