After a winter rain, the air is cleansed. And often a cold north wind follows the storm, sweeping through and freshening the world. The smog scatters, and for a few days we breathe the air of our pre-industrial ancestors. The visibility is superb and seems only limited by our imagination.
The next time this rare event happens, you should leap out of bed early, call in sick, and drive up Mt. Diablo in Contra Costa County. From this peak more land can be seen than any other place on earth except Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.
Mt. Diablo is not a big mountain, 3849 feet high, but it is surrounded by low hills so the view is not obscured. You can see the entire snow-covered crest of the Sierra Nevada for a length of over 400 miles. Using binoculars the careful viewer can even find Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Amid the rich farmland of the great Central Valley the defunct Rancho Seco Nuclear Power plant stands guard over the rice fields.
Along the flanks of the mountain the booming Interstate Highway 680 corridor and mushrooming communities of Pleasanton, Livermore, Pittsburg, and Concord illustrate uncontrolled suburban sprawl. The World War II mothball fleet and the Concord Naval Weapons Center are just to the northwest. In the mid-distance a tiny volcano, the Sutter Buttes, rises out of the valley like a “blister on a new paint job.”
The inner and outer Coast Ranges run north and south like long skinny caterpillars and seem to disappear on the horizon. Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. St. Helena, Fremont Peak, and Mt. Hamilton are the prominent pinnacles jutting above the haze. Even the Farallon Islands 25 miles out to sea are visible. On an exceptionally clear day, Mt. Lassen, 185 miles to the north, caps the scene. In all you can see 40,000 square miles and 35 of California’s 58 counties.
Early explorers trekking aver the Sierra used Mt. Diablo as a guide post to San Francisco. In 1851 while the rest of California headed to the gold fields, pragmatic state officials chose this peak as the center for surveying the public domain. The Mt. Diablo Base and Meridian Lines are now used to legally define about two thirds of the real estate in California.
Mt. Diablo became a state park in 1931 but one of its most interesting features has nothing to do with natural history. During the early days of aviation, pilots navigated in the day by following geologic features and highways. At night they used the stars and city lights. Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) recognized that the success of the fledgling aviation industry would result in increased fuel sales. So the oil company built, installed and operated about 20 aircraft “light houses” up and down the West Coast. These 10 million candlepower aerial navigation beacons could be seen for 175 miles.
In 1928, the famed aviator Charles Lindberg officially lit the beacon on top of Mt. Diablo. For the next 13 years a photocell automatically turned the light on and off. Then on Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked. The lights were darkened all along the West Coast.
After the war the development of radar made the navigational aids obsolete. Only one of the 20 beacons was ever turned back on. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association wanted a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives in the sneak attack. On December 7, 1964, the survivors gathered at the peak of Mt. Diablo and as the sun set they turned on the beacon in memory of their lost buddies. Now on every Pearl Harbor Day this ceremony is repeated.
The mirrors have corroded and the light has lost some of its original brilliance. But it is still extraordinarily bright and as it flashes every ten seconds it is visible for 60 miles. The beacon shines against the darkness of war and reminds us to remember the innocent victims. May it never happen again. Peace.