Newt Heaven


California Newt (Source: WikiCommons)

To go somewhere without a plan is to open yourself to the unexpected, and to allow yourself to delight in it. Itineraries, schedules, appointments all have the rigidity of expectations; whereas stepping outside your door with a blank slate offers the freedom of limitless opportunity.

This was the thought in my mind as I stared into what my cousin Eli and I dubbed “Newt Heaven”, a water and weed choked depression in the midst of a World War II era bunker nestled in the hills of the Marin Headlands. A dozen newts idly paddled in the 10-foot diameter concrete hole, suspended peacefully in the brackish sun-warmed water where 80 years ago a massive 16-millimeter gun requiring two dozen soldiers to load and fire had pointed toward the Pacific.

But now the bunker was ruled by newts, whom in the midst of the hot sun baking the drought-dry chaparral adorning the hillsides could only – we concluded – have viewed the 5 foot deep pool of water as habitat perfection. Eli and I had left Muir Beach shrouded in fog a few hours ago, stopping only to marvel at the dew-soaked spiderwebs dotting the trailside bushes. The startlingly bone-white webs were everywhere, made visible this morning by the diamond drops of water highlighting them. Most contained a centerpiece that at first looked like packaged morsels waiting to be eaten, but upon closer inspection we realized were simply small leaves that had been incorporated into each spider’s web. The webs’ craftsmanship and symmetry were eye-arresting, and made more-so by the fact that neither Eli and I had seen them before – had they always been there and we just never noticed? Were we destroying these lustrous designs unknowingly when we trampled through on sunny afternoons?

These are the idle questions that time and no particular purpose can afford you. In the first half of our ambling trip to the Golden Gate bridge, the others we talked to seemed to share the same unhurried sense of idleness – a middle-aged woman stopped her run to inform us about her route and how nice the day was, while a tattooed young man wandered near Newt Heaven languorously searched for some rocks worth climbing. At a bone-dry bunker – Newt Hell, obviously – a man in a dark room played a haunting flute, taking advantage of the tunnel’s beautiful acoustics. And perhaps playing a tribute to the newts that had perished in the bunker during their own war against sun and drought.

But on the road down to the bridge, the serenity of our unhindered excursion faded as we neared our destination. Cars zoomed by, and tourists crowded the few parking spaces along the road, snapping pictures and selfies. Two dirty backpackers flashed us the peace sign but kept clomping up the road, eschewing the safer dirt trail. One car stopped for a single hurried photo, then motored on while another in the next lot honked long and hard at the car in front of them that was flummoxed by the lack of places to park. Even the boats entering San Francisco Bay were in a hurry – one insistently tugging a large barge about five times its size under the bridge and into the bay, another a sleek long tanker quickly disappeared into the fog coming in from the Pacific. On the way back we fought our way in the car through tourists packing the streets of Sausalito, and the unwieldy tangle of cars in Tam Junction. But none of those things registered – stuck in my head was the inescapable picture of all those peaceful newts floating in heaven, without a care in the world.

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