Monday, April 7, 2014

The Devil’s Mountain

The Campus of the Athenian School

Following the splendid Left Coast Crime conference in Monterey, I made my way north to visit a wonderful long-time friend who lives on the campus of the Athenian School, at the base of Mount Diablo in Danville, east of San Francisco.   While there, I got interested—as often happens to me—in the history and geography of area, the biggest feature of which is the mountain itself.

Mount Diablo looms within a 20,000-acre state park.  Its highest peak has an elevation of 3864 feet (1178 meters).  Its height is a geologic anomaly as it stands so far above the surrounding country.  The mountain was formed by the area’s famous tectonic activity and continues to grow three to five millimeters each year.  It can be seen for many miles around and far out in the ocean.

The mountain had religious significance to the Native Americans who inhabited the area before Europeans showed up.  Early peoples believed it was the site of creation.  One native tribe believed that the two peaks were originally islands, a belief supported by fossils of marine creatures in the rock formations at the summit.  Tribal legend has it that the Creator Coyote and his assistant Eagle-Man created the world and the people on those islands.

There are a number of theories about how the mountain got its diabolical name.  The most sensible ones are that the Native American name was corrupted into Monte Diablo by early Spanish settlers, or that, when the peaks are snow-covered, they turn hell-fire red with the reflection of the setting sun.

There has been a bit of more recent controversy over the name.  In 2005, a local man petitioned the federal government to rename the mountain, saying that his religious sensibilities were offended by its moniker.  He went so far as to claim that the devil is a living person and that the name of the mountain is an offense against the law, which says natural formations cannot be named after living people.  In the end, he changed his petition, asking to have the mountain renamed after Ronald Reagan.  That appeal lost out because the petitioner made it too soon after Reagan’s death.  Since then, several petitions to rename the mountain after the former president have also failed.  The U.S. Board of Geographic Names cited the historic significance of “Mount Diablo” as the reason for keeping it.

Thanks to the work of “Save Mount Diablo,” much of the area is now protected from real estate development.  That group raises funds every October by staging a bicycle race to the top.   The race starts at the Athenian School and draws 800 or more competitors.  It runs 10.8 miles and climbs 3249 feet.  The record time in the race is 43:33 from the school to the summit finish line.  People who make it in less than an hour receive a coveted One-Hour t-shirt.  (Stan Trollip, take note.)

Many writers have written about the mountain including Alexandre Dumas, pere and Bret Harte.  A particular musician hero of mine, Dave Brubeck grew up on its slopes.

I did not cycle to the top.  I drove.  On the way, I spotted one of the mountain’s lovely wild denizens—a steller’s jay.  On my daily hikes at the lower levels I saw lots of California ground squirrels and even one black-tailed deer, looking for a snack as dusk came on.  The day I went to the top, the lower slopes were sunny, but by the time I wound my way to the summit, the views were obscured by mist.   It always rains when I am in California.  I am thinking of offering my services for a fee, in the face of their on-going drought.  It would give me a welcome chance to revisit.

Annamaria - Monday


  1. I bet you're expecting me to grab at the low hanging fruit and turn Athenian School in the shadow of Diablo into something funny or even possibly insightful. Not a chance. I'm saving my good stuff for our NYPL get-together Wednesday night. :)

    1. Jeff, I know better than to expect you to do the obvious. Obviously, I will see you on Wednesday. dinner afterwards?

  2. AmA, the way you can turn the simplest trips into fascinating stories is damned near diabolical!

    1. Thank you, EvKa! It's beautiful territory around there. Next year LCC will be in Portland. I hope we will meet face to face.

  3. Replies
    1. I'll race you. I'll start at the top. You start at the bottom. We'll see who reaches the middle first.