HILLS NEWSPAPERS: December 19, 2017
One of the Bay Area’s most spectacular trails is open to hikers, but just till the seagulls return to their rookery. It’s the little known Agave Trail along the backside of Alcatraz island, and it’s open during a time when Alcatraz Cruises is offering two-for-one tickets to locals. (More on that later.)
To say this path is “arresting” is an understatement. The Agave Trail winds its way behind the prison, along the protected side of the island, with sweeping views of San Francisco and “secret spots” where the children of Alcatraz used to play.
Oakland author Jolene Babyak was one of those kids who lived on Alcatraz twice when her father worked there — once in 1954-55 when she was 7 to 9 years old and again in 1962 when she was 15. She took us on the Agave Trail recently, and shared stories of her adventures.
“If it was a Huck Finn life, it was bound by rules,” Babyak said. “There were lots of places on the island (primarily the prison grounds) where you weren’t allowed to go.” But the children could play on the Agave Trail, which ran down to the sea and up the backside of the cliff to the parade grounds.
“We used to come down here and fish … striped bass, crabs, leopard sharks,” Babyak said. The rocks were often wet and slippery and parents usually insisted on going along. “If you fell in, you could drift off and nobody would know.”
Just past the spot where the kids used to fish and sunbathe, the path turns away from the sea and ascends a steep hill to the old Army parade grounds. When Babyak lived on Alcatraz, it was a playground. She and her friends were playing softball there on the night of the infamous prison break — June 11,1962.
“We didn’t know about it until the next morning. The siren woke me up,” Babyak said, adding her dad was associate warden at the time and got the call. “My mother was in the house with me and said they’d (the five men) left last night, probably.”
The only scary thing she remembers is looking for the prisoners in her basement with her mom. “We had to go down there and search — and she made me go first,” she says.
Babyak is just finishing her sixth publication on Alcatraz and most Sundays she signs books in the Alcatraz gift shop. She looks at her time on the island as idyllic in many ways, saying the sense of community was incredibly strong because parents were protective of their children.
Regarding the 1962 prison break, people often ask her if she thinks the escapees made it. Having studied many of the prisoners’ files and knowing that they were all psychologically damaged by the time they were 3, she says no.
“Everybody came here because of their behavior. That means they were aggressive, assaultive, trouble all the way down the line. The five guys who were missing — and when all five of them don’t show up in the city somewhere — they’re dead. Because their personalities would have made them very noticeable.”