As a city gal of the 21st century, I have always been jealous of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her little house on the prairie. Of course, I know that I’m lucky to live in fancy Silicon Valley, with computers and education and oodles of frozen yogurt at my fingertips. But how can a modern suburb compare to the grit and sunshine of barely settled America, the beautiful uncertainty and untouched loveliness of a pioneer’s world? I couldn’t find any time machines on eBay, though, so I guess I’ll play explorer with the only prairie I’ve got. What tucked-away adventures does Palo Alto hold?
EL PALO ALTO
One hundred feet tall and 90 inches in diameter, the El Palo Alto Redwood has lived in the park of the same name for more than 1,000 years. It’s identifiable among the other redwoods by its sheer height as well as an aged metal sign on a large boulder. For a dose of reverence, try leaning your hands on the trunk and looking up through its ladder of branches. Or, read the signs scattered along the park’s path for an outdoor history lesson. Did you know that the earliest recorded explorers of Palo Alto camped out here in 1769?
Next to the tree a curved bridge extends over San Francisquito creek, water rippling on one side and standing still as glass on the other. Lean on the rail for a rest during your morning jog, or stop by just at sunset for some visual poetry. Standing in the peach-grey glow of a fading sky, you’ll hear birds toss their vocal flutters against the soft rumble of engines speeding in the distance.
BARRON PARK DONKEYS
Take a stroll down the bike path in Barron Park to find Palo Alto’s four-legged movie star: Perry the donkey, after which the famous donkey in Shrek was modeled (albeit with shorter legs and longer ears, according to handler Bob Frost). Now around 18 years old, he spends long spring afternoons chasing around his best friend Miner 49er (nicknamed Niner), who has been Perry’s donkey companion since 1998, the year Mickey, Barron Park’s original donkey, passed away.
Both Perry and Niner welcome a steady stream of fans. Meet them at Bol Park on a Sunday morning, where they venture out every week from 10- a.m. to 11 a.m. Or, visit their corral to pat their big furry heads, and maybe watch one of them dip his neck through the fence in entreaty of a treat. According to Frost, you might be able to help serve dinner if you stop by at feeding time, although he warns against slipping the donkeys extra food. “He’s getting pretty tubby,” Frost says with a glance at Niner, who is clawing at the ground for an afternoon snack.
BORONDA LAKE AT FOOTHILLS PARK
I visited this island just off the coast of Boronda Lake for the first time at a third grade birthday party. Now that I am a couple feet taller the landscape no longer seems particularly vast; stepping foot on the island, though, still feels like entering a self-contained universe. This miniature Eden offers delights along every sloping path, from one half-blown dandelion and two swinging pink flowers among a bed of green branches, to a single rustic bench etched with tender pairings of initials and plus signs (A+L, whomever you are, I hope the strength of your love exceeds that of your wood carving ability).
The multitude of tall grasses and trees make the center of the island a perfectly private picnic spot, so bring some friends, maybe, for an evening to remember. Or, venture out on a tall rock and watch ducks stroll across the incandescent water until you shed whatever it is that you would like to forget. It’s easy to lose the rest of the world while here — just watch out for poison oak.
PALO ALTO CAFE
Marbled apricot walls, polished wooden tables under perpetually dim light, crescendo of a soft-rock ballad to the rustling of newspapers — after a year-long affair with the Palo Alto Cafe, I have its details memorized. Yet even now I’m not sure what’s most alluring. I do love the abundance of seating, enough that I never feel guilty lingering for hours over a $5 purchase. Then again I’m also enamored with the fruit smoothies ($4.95), especially the creamy Hawaiian Gulp and sweetly sour Berry Rush. The bagels and coffee aren’t bad either — what they lack in glamor, they make up for in generosity.
In addition to the above perks, it could be the cozy, cracked couches in the corner, familiar faces behind the counter, and pleasantly tart raspberry Italian sodas that bring me back to the Palo Alto Café every Sunday. Or it could be this. As a college-bound senior, I have spent the past few months waiting like a sprinter, bags half-packed, to become a pioneer and find my place in the big, bad world. But here in this café, every cup of coffee has me stalling, sipping the simple, splendid, indefinite taste of home and wondering if maybe I’ve arrived already after all.