The Golden Path

Above all, beautiful and timeless, the Dish area has a powerful pull.

July/August 2012

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The Golden Path

Photo: Linda A. Cicero

When I lived on the East Coast, I felt strange telling friends that I missed an interstate highway in California. But my longing for the 280—certain roads deserve the definite article, for they are specific and unique—was not about the highway itself, but rather its twisty route that brought rich, rolling foothills into view. Traveling south on the 280 after returning from Boston or New York City, where I have lived at various intervals, I marveled at how winter—a gray-and-white palette in the East—produced verdant green here, like a moment out of the Wizard of Oz. When I drive south from San Francisco, the vista becomes more picturesque with each turn. Then, incongruously, a giant white parabola, directed toward the heavens, punctuates the grassy valleys and ridges.

That parabola—a 100,000-pound radio reflector antenna—deserves the definite article as well, for its name not only signifies a structure that has become a Stanford icon, but also has become shorthand for the lands surrounding it. Like a lighthouse, the Dish beckons hundreds of thousands of people to a place that offers recreation, renewal and refreshment. When I see it, I am home.

A few minutes before 6 a.m., when a public safety officer opens the main gate at Stanford Avenue and Junipero Serra Boulevard, the sky, the hills and the path are colorless, cloaked in semidarkness. There is a faint smell of damp dirt and dung. To the east, lights bordering the Bay's waters still twinkle, and a soft orange glow reflects off Hoover Tower. It feels sleepy up here at this hour, and quiet save for the birds, whose chirpy chorus heralds the awakening day.

At first, only an isolated person or two speckle the path. But within 15 minutes, pairs and trios trickle through the gate. The sky lightens. The hills' colors slowly warm and come into focus. By 6:10, some 20 cars line Stanford Avenue, where U-turns are not permitted, as if to imply that once you are this close to the entry, you're committed.

Visitors come to hike the 3.5-mile loop, adding another mile if they choose to include the Alpine Trail, which meanders west. They enter from one of four gates, but eventually all of them arrive high on the hill to gaze out on the valley, the Bay, and—on clear days—the bridges and San Francisco skyline. They come to stroll among birds and deer, cows and cranes. And they come in growing numbers: last year, more than 600,000, a 7 percent increase from the prior year.

Elderly couples and parents pushing strollers are more common in the late morning; students appear more frequently in the afternoons, tackling the hills after a day of classes. Weekends bring full families. No matter the time of day, the hill they encounter offers a heart-pumping diversion. Those who are ascending keep conversation to a minimum, head tucked, leaning into the climb. Coming down, talk is more effusive. It's a symphony of languages—Hindi, Mandarin, German, Farsi, Japanese, Russian.

At the campus police station, entire drawers are dedicated to stuff the Dish has coughed up, turned in at the guardhouse: baby socks, teethers, pacifiers, sunglasses, reading glasses, gloves, keys. A lot gets left behind, and there is a lot you need to leave at home. No dogs, cigarettes, bottles, bikes, skateboards or rollerblades. Apparently, based on the sometimes indecipherable signs declaring what is and what is not acceptable, fish and picnic baskets are also banned, as well as holding your right arm straight out when dressed in a draping sleeve.

For much of the University's life, the hills themselves were technically off-limits, though there was no enforcement, and the prohibition didn't stop students from going hiking or using the woodsy areas for fraternity parties. (Had architect Frederick Law Olmsted had his way, the main campus would have been situated in the hills, and not in the valley below.) Stanford early on agreed to lease a portion of the land to the Piers family for their cattle, retaining a pastoral tradition that dates to the 19th century. Although the cattle belong to other ranchers now, they can still be seen grazing in some areas from early November until late May before being sent to a feedlot.

By the 1960s, the area was commonly referred to as the science field site, and it was dotted with antennae and radio telescopes. Built with government funding, ostensibly to be operated by Stanford Research Institute, the Dish itself was erected in 1960 to monitor atmospheric conditions following nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific. But it was never used for that purpose, according to Michael Cousins, MS '67, PhD '72, principal engineer at SRI. Indeed, for most of its existence, the Dish "was a solution looking for a problem," Cousins says. After a long period of relative dormancy, roughly between 1972 and 1990, the Dish was reactivated, mainly for sending and receiving signals with spacecraft and satellites.

And it's not the only piece of technical equipment on these grounds. The Dish has a smaller sibling, 60 feet in diameter, but at 10,000 pounds one tenth the weight of the regular Dish. There's also a ham radio station and towers, the transmitter for campus radio KZSU and a solar observatory. In 1985 University Trustees approved plans for construction of the Ronald Reagan presidential library in the Foothills, but the project was abandoned two years later after intense opposition from faculty and students. It was also in the 1980s that Stanford President Donald Kennedy opened the Dish lands to the public. He extended a standing invitation to students, faculty and staff to join him on Tuesdays and Fridays for his morning runs, many of which took him to the Foothills. Gradually, limits on access were eased.

By 2000, the Dish had become a quasi-public park, attracting thousands every week, and their impact could be easily seen. Grass was trampled and random trails etched the hills, occasionally producing ugly, denuded ribbons of hard-packed dirt, including one dubbed "the scar." Spurred by erosion concerns and threats to wildlife habitat, as well as a growing chorus of criticism that the Foothills were being targeted for campus development, the University designated the area as an "academic reserve." Hours of use were restricted, the main loop was paved, and community service officers were hired to keep people from venturing too far from it. A chain-link fence went up along Junipero Serra. People complained, especially in response to the ban on dogs, but over the last decade the area has become more popular than ever.

Abe is a fat, lazy tabby cat. She (yes, Abe's a female) is the owner of a quiet couple who lives, along with a daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, in one of the 13 houses on Stanford-owned land abutting this trail. Abe often sneaks onto the recreational path just beyond her fence, hoping that walkers will bend down and give her a scratch. One day the sight of 20-pound Abe led a hiker to wave down the residents of this house and ask if she was a mountain lion cub.

Mountain lions do live in these hills, though they are seldom seen. In 2010, officials reported nine mountain lion sightings; in 2011 there were three; so far this year, two. More common are coyotes, bobcats, deer, squirrels, gophers, hawks, herons and snakes.

The area surrounding the Dish is one of the few remaining habitats of the California tiger salamander. The threatened amphibian lives in upland areas, but migrates to pools of water for breeding. Working their way from the Foothills to Lake Lagunita, many have been killed crossing Junipero Serra. Unbeknownst to most motorists, auto traffic passes over a series of three tunnels under the street, specifically designed to protect migrating salamanders. It's part of the California Tiger Salamander Habitat Restoration Project, which campus biologists developed over nearly a decade. Eight seasonal ponds at the base of the Foothills now serve as home for the secretive, spotted salamanders.

If the Dish might have once been described as an unruly, unkempt adolescent, these days it more resembles a well-groomed grownup. Its park-like ambience attracts visitors of all descriptions, and many of them are frequent guests.

Judy Estrin, MS '77, is a regular. A leader in Silicon Valley who has co-founded seven technology companies, served as chief technology officer at Cisco Systems, and sat on the boards of the Walt Disney Company and FedEx Corporation, she often conducts business while walking the Dish. If you want an audience with her, you have a much better chance suggesting a hike than meeting at a restaurant downtown.

Ryan Hall, '05, spent a lot of time on these hills, too. The former Stanford track and cross-country star currently holds the U.S. record in the half marathon and will compete in the Summer Olympics in London. He trained at the Dish for years. Sometimes he did hill sprints, building strength and speed. And occasionally, he recalls, he got a little extra workout while being chased by security guards when he ran off the paved paths.

Each night, as the crowds wane, those same guards tuck in the Dish for the evening. They make a final sweep of the grounds in their Ford F150s. They lock the external handles on the gates. Often, they pick up stragglers and drive them down to the gate.

Quiet descends. The hills fall into shadow. Soon the animals that rely on dusk for hunting will roam unencumbered. Tomorrow the people will return, exercising, socializing, nourishing their souls just a bit. And no doubt some transplanted Easterner, back for a visit, will be drawn here, too. Beckoned by that white, sky-reaching chunk of metal on the hilltop, maybe he or she will call a friend and ask about a walk at the Dish.

Brian Eule, '01, is a regular contributor to Stanford and the author of Match Day: One Day and One Dramatic Year in the Lives of Three New Doctors.

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