Helen Putnam Park

My greatest pleasure in Petaluma is to go run through Helen Putnam Park. This activity requires no preparation, it can be done at any time of the day in any weather, it’s absolutely free of charge, and it is always satisfying.

The east park trail head is one mile from my doorstep, so I’m there in no time at all. Then the steep rise begins and all of Petaluma is visible to the east, from downtown and the granaries to the river and the Marina; from Schollenberger, to the Sonoma Mountains. Mt. St. Helena beckons from the north, and Mt. Diablo rises on the horizon to the south. As I crest the summit of the park, the rolling hills to the west stretch out toward the Pacific.

Because of the geometry of the trail network, I can run a different route every time. Even the same route is different every time because the landscape changes with the seasons. A field is crowded with California Poppies that was all green grass just the day before. Checkerblooms and buttercups bloom and fade amid the fern and blackberry.

I can alternate broad paved walkways with narrow crooked trails through the crowded oaks; I can run the smooth promontory on the summit ridge, the shady groves through the oak savannah, or the steep cliff down the east side.

Wildlife everywhere. Lizards skittering into the grass and under rocks. Deer prancing about the hills. Four-foot long gopher snakes sunning themselves in the middle of the path. An eternal symphony of birds singing an ever-changing tune. Northern harriers hunting mice from the sky. Mice hiding from predatory birds. Lowing cattle in the distance. Stray coyotes roaming about. I’ve seen plenty of fox, which I always consider to be good luck. I once watched a fox tearing a wild turkey to pieces with its teeth.

I’ve never seen the mythical mountain lions. But I suppose they’re out there somewhere, lurking, waiting.

There’s an old white horse that likes to stand at the foot of the flag pole flying the American flag at the north end of the park. The horse is stately and majestic like he’s posing for a portrait. For some reason I like to think of him as Robert E. Lee’s old white horse.

Someone’s always fishing the pond for bluegill, usually fathers and sons with their bait and tackle.

The rangers roll by in their various ranger vehicles, performing whatever obscure duties rangers perform in Helen Putnam Park. They’re always friendly and wave hello.

All manner and variety of characters promenade about. Couples chatting, families on a stroll, mountain bikers, solitary dogwalkers; children hiding in the gazebo in the playground; horsebackriders, high school cross-country teams, the disembodied ghost of Walt Whitman, fitness fanatics plugged into their devices. And sometimes the park is completely empty; just me and God in the fog on the edge of planet Earth.

I watch the golden grass turn green and back again to gold and back again to green. Seasons pass and the ocean of time rolls along; I imagine the earth turning in accordance with the pace of my run.

Helen Putnam Park always fills my soul with goodness like an old wine fills a glass jar. And I will always return to this hill on the edge of the sky over Petaluma.