I love nature and I am conflicted.
I love the mountains. When I’m in the mountains I feel like I belong, instinctually; I love the rugged terrain, the majesty of the peaks around me, the perfumed air, the trees that tower over me and in turn, are dwarfed by the size of the peaks they are tenuously rooted to, and, most of all, knowing that, insignificant though I may be in their midst, I may possess the skills, the knowledge, and the capacity to survive in the harsh and unforgiving environment for a time.
I love the ocean. When I’m near the ocean I feel a primal connection with nature. The power of the tides and the surf overwhelm me. I know I am helpless and powerless against them, and yet they feed me with peace and serenity, a safe distance from their depths. I am in awe of their force and soothed by it at the same time.
I crave both; the mountains and the sea. I retreat to them for reconnection. Reconnection to nature, to my spirit, to my soul, to myself. While I love the city, I love people, I love activity and action, I will only ever find myself, in stillness and reflection, on a mountain top or at the edge of the sea. Clarity ensues, I can breathe, I can think, and my heart beats for the right reasons. This is where I live.
I am active. I hike, I run, I paddle, I like to be moving, always. That my job requires me to sit for hours on end, day after day after day, is, I’m sure, the hell I’ve been banished to for a life not quite righteous. Living hell.
So, when the weekend approaches, I am solo, and the calendar permits, I am off on an adventure, and, likely either to scale a mountain, or to walk along the seashore.
There has been one adventure, very close to home which combines both and that I’ve been just dying to do. Not the highest of mountains, especially in California, but majestic enough, and, best of all, rooted at the sea.
I sat on my sweetie’s deck one evening last week, a friend of ours joined us, and as we sat and sipped fruit garnished sparkling water, we chatted. We looked very little at one another, our gazes all drawn, instead, towards the mountain that dominates the view from this home. The mountain seems a giant, stately, statuesque. As the sun sets in the west and the shadows creep across its face, I make my plan to finish something I once started.
I set aside a day a few months ago to hike to the top of Tam. I’d hoped to start from the beach, but I got a slightly later start from home than planned and I’d underestimated the driving time. I altered my plan at the last minute and hiked from the Pantoll Ranger Station, about half way up, to the top of the mountain. Although armed with maps, I missed a junction somewhere and ended up scaling the summit via a steep, hot, and not totally scenic fire road. The road was well traveled by other folks that sunny Sunday, not hikers like me, not peak baggers like me, but with folks who were far more suited to watching a baseball or football on television. A short way up the road, accessible only on foot, a short hike, was a restaurant serving brunch with Bloody Marys and mimosas. Truthfully, I considered a quick pit stop before hiking further on, refreshments are hard to pass up. But, I didn’t really know how long my hike would take, so I bypassed the opportunity and continued to hike.
I made it to the summit in surprisingly short order, took the requisite pictures, found a rock outcropping referenced in my hiking guide and enjoyed a beer and the view from there. It was from there that I spotted the steep serpentine single track trail leading up the opposite side of the mountain from the fire road. When it came time to depart and begin my descent back to the car, I found the foot path and took it down. I made all the right junctions and found my way back to the car a couple of hours ahead of schedule. I contemplated, at that point, continuing on down to the beach, then hiking back up at evening to return home. But, the prudent side of me ruled, not knowing the terrain, the distance, the trails, the junctions, and the precise time of sunset, I decided to save it for another day and to plan it all properly; park at the beach, hike all the way up, and then all the way down, concluding my day at the beach. This has been the plan and it has been just itching for execution. I needed only to find the right day.
Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. Tam, as it is referred to locally, climbs nearly 2,500 feet up from the Pacific Ocean in the town of Stinson Beach, which, not surprisingly, boasts a long, wide, sandy beach popular with tourists and locals, alike. Stinson Beach has long been a refuge of mine, and, in fact, in high school, often the destination on days we chose not to go to class. Which, was far more often than I probably should admit. One of my girl friend’s high school boyfriend, who was older than us and out of school, would drive us all there and back just about any time we asked. Stinson Beach was also one of the “after dance party” locations we’d venture to. Our parents all thought we were at an “after dance party” at someone’s house, when, in fact, we were at one beach or another.
So, Saturday evening, after my fifteen mile running club excursion around Lake Natomas near Folsom, I headed to Marin for date night. Over wine and wonderful food we chatted, my sweetie and me. At one point, I asked him, “Guess what I’m going to do tomorrow?” to which he replied, instantly and without any hesitation, without even looking up from the meal we shared, “Something crazy.” Yup. He knows me well, a whole day on my own, as he’d be working all day, and one of my many long-planned adventures in mind, with friends too afraid to take a walk around the block with me, let alone a little hike; something insane was about to ensue. My second favorite way to spend a day; on my own, doing something crazy.
Sunday morning found me up bright and early in San Anselmo, proximate to Mt. Tam and not much further from Stinson Beach. I grabbed a large, soy latte and a banana at Marin Coffee Roasters in San Anselmo and headed towards the beach.
I made it to the beach in short order, thoroughly enjoying the winding coastal route along Highway 1. I maneuvered the corners deftly, latte in one hand, the other managing the steering wheel. I love to drive. I parked, and plopped myself down in the sand to enjoy the rest of my latte, my banana, and an organic Cliff bar, seaside. I inhaled my breakfast, as I was, again, a little behind schedule and didn’t want to run out of daylight and have to alter my plan, like my last attempt. After gulping down the last of my breakfast, I found the trailhead on Google Maps and navigated by foot past the local market, making a mental note for later, in case I needed a post-hike refreshment, up the hill and to the trail, which took off immediately uphill from between two backyards in a residential area. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
I headed quickly uphill, switchback after switchback, through a shady, coastal forest. Steps, stairs, and switchbacks, endlessly. I would be covering, I figured, about nine miles uphill, steadily, gaining about 2,400 feet of elevation, in all. After a couple of miles, the shady forest ended and I hiked on, in the scorching sunshine. The temps were pushing well into the nineties. There were other people on the trail, trail runners, mostly, headed down, finishing their excursion, just as I was getting started. The few hikers I met headed up the trail hiked very slowly and I had to excuse myself to pass. On the flat, I hike between three and a half to four miles an hour. On a grade, incline or decline, especially a single track trail, my speed is generally reduced to about three miles an hour. On a rugged trail, like the “trail” up Mt. Marcy, I creep along at about two to two and a half miles per hour. Wherever, and at whatever pace I find myself, I am rarely passed by other hikers. Even in hiking, I am a little competitive and a bit of an overachiever. I never want to run out of daylight and miss my destination, like Mt. Marcy. I never want to have to turn tail on a trail without reaching to the top, or the point of interest.
Mt. Marcy will haunt me until I rectify that ill-executed attack. For which I take full responsibility.
“Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
The views of the coast, the beach, the ocean, were amazing. I kept on hiking, stopping only briefly, now and again, to take a picture, knowing full well they would barely represent the true view I was trying to capture, they wouldn’t even begin to approach justice. Those pictures, all the pictures I take in the great outdoors, on my little adventures, serve only to remind me of what I really observed, kind of like little flash cards, “Oh, yes, that was the hike up Mt. Tam,” and my mind will fill in the rest of the stunning landscape that even the best cell phone camera money can currently buy fails to. Fails miserably.
Four miles in and surprisingly quickly, I reached the Pantoll Ranger Station where I parked for my last mini-assault on Tam. I didn’t even pause, I just kept on marching, up, up, up the hill. The mountain still loomed over me, requiring me to tip my head back to see the top. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
So, today, map forgotten, I headed up the trail from the ranger station and made almost all the right connections, from memory, avoiding, at all costs, fire roads. The two or three times I turned the wrong direction, I walked only briefly before realizing my error, retracing my steps, and picking up the proper trail junction. In all, I’d estimate this cost me an additional half mile of marching. Not bad navigation for being map-less, and working solely from memory, based on a single, prior, and not well-planned, executed, or navigated trek. I’d been on these trails, once, before, but headed in the opposite direction, so they were vaguely familiar, based, I suppose, on looking over my shoulder occasionally for stalking mountain lions that didn’t exist as I hiked back to my car, alone, on deserted trails my last trip. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
I had three liters of water in my hydration pack in my daypack. I sipped as I went along, but there was a kink in the hose, or something, somewhere inside my pack, so I never felt like I got much water. Enough, though. I certainly didn’t stop to fix it. At one point, I grabbed another, but now very melted, organic Cliff Bar out of the side pocket on my daypack and devoured it, pretty much using my teeth to scrape the goo from the foil wrapper and swallowing it whole, all without so much as slowing my cadence. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
I traversed from trail to trail, remembering the names of the trails as I came upon them. I knew the name of the trail I needed to reach to make that final, grueling ascent; the Temelpa Trail, the rest of the trail names were vague, with only hints coming to mind, “I know it’s some guy’s name, a common first and last name”; the Matt Davis Trail. Another, “starts with an ‘H’ and has lots of ‘Os’, sounds like a Native American word for sneezing”; Hoo-Koo-E-Koo Trail. Then to a trail, another name, I thought a woman’s name, starts with a “V” maybe, I knew I’d recognize it when I saw it; Vic Haun trail. So, maybe not a woman, though I have a friend or two named Victoria that go by Vic, for short. I now refer to the Vic Haun trail as the “androgynous trail.”
It was the Vic Haun trail where the very steep ascent ensued, and, I might add, in the absolute heat of the day. Little shaded, this side of the mountain, and the hottest day of the week. This time of year, where much of the country is experiencing cooling weather, changing leaves, fall fashions, and autumnal pleasantries, Northern California is at its hottest; this is Indian Summer and it is over a hundred degrees inland, probably only upper nineties here. In other words, it’s fucking hot, here and there. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
I finally reached the Temelpa Trail, I glance up towards the summit, and, still, I am craning my neck. The trail marker says I have just over a mile to go. I can crawl a mile. I may. This trail is at a ridiculous grade in spite of the switchbacks. It is mostly in exposed sunlight and zig-zags its way up the steepest part of the mountain. I have friends who run up this trail, who run up all these trails. I’ve mentioned a desire to do this, too. I now question that. Any my sanity. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed. I stagger on, still at an impressive clip, all things considered. I come upon another solo hiker, going up. A middle-aged man. He is leaning casually against one of the split rail fences positioned at a switchback to discourage people from shortcutting off trail. The man pretends not to see me, which is ridiculous, because it is a narrow trail and I’ll have to come within a foot of him to pass. I think it is the fact that I am passing him, a middle-aged woman, passing a man, going uphill, on a steep trail. Pride. Whatevs. I say “hello” and I pass him like he’s standing still. Oh, wait, he was. At this point he acknowledges me, with surprise, like he just realized I was there. Soon after I pass, I can hear him begin to hike again, and I can tell he is trying to catch up, and, he hopes, eclipse me. He is trying to regain his pride, his manliness. I keep stepping along, never breaking my cadence, never slowing, and sweating like a Clydesdale in a steam sauna. Eventually, the footsteps behind me dissipate, then disappear. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
The Temelpa trail abruptly butts into a paved pathway littered with “hikers”. This is the Verna Dunshee Loop Trail, ah-ha! A woman’s name, begins with a “V”, the Verna Dunshee Loop Trail is less than three-quarters of a mile in its carefully graded and paved length. A whopping fifty-seven feet of elevation gain for the entire trail. The other “hikers” here amuse me. They are equipped with proper REI fashion; hiking pants or shorts, technical hiking tees, hats, bandanas, daypacks three times the size of mine, Nalgene bottles dangling from caribeeneers, swinging annoyingly from side to side as they slowly traverse the wilds of top of Tam. They have full on hiking boots laced tightly up their ankles and proper hiking socks peeking out from the tops.
I take a detour from the paved trail onto an unmarked dirt path. I know this path, I’ve been here before, and I am so grateful it isn’t a marked trail. I only know of it from my Google-fest a few months prior; “summit hike mt tamalpais”. One of the articles I briefly skimmed mentioned this trail to a rock outcropping, overlooking San Francisco and the entire Bay Area. I lunched atop the rocks on my last trip (half way) up the mountain, and I intend to lunch here, again, today. I have on board a large format beer. Warm, now, I’m sure, but still to be thoroughly enjoyed. I carefully selected my brew; Marin Brewing Company’s aptly named “Mt. Tam Pale Ale”. The bottle clearly states it has “live ale” and should remain refrigerated. For some reason, this often ends up being my hiking beer of choice, I’m not sure I’ve actually ever had one chilled! It is tasty and I enjoy every last drop, accompanied by my usual trail meal; pistachios and an organic bar of one brand and variety, or another. I buy them by the fistfuls.
As I finish the last of my beer, a tiny family approaches on the brush shrouded trail; a man, his wife, I presume, and a young girl, probably six or seven years old. They apologize for interrupting me. I smile and tell them it certainly isn’t a private rock and that I’m more than happy to share. We chat a bit and I tell them I hiked up from the beach. The man, a little sheepishly, states they hiked all the way from the parking lot. I just say, “the important thing is, you’re here, enjoying this view!” I squirm into my sweaty, smelly daypack, my shoulders in bondage again, and I head back up the secretive dirt trail to the paved hiking highway. I merge carefully into hiker traffic and head for the last, short, ascent to the proper summit where the fire lookout is perched.
Unless you take the very steep, very hot, parched, mountain bike infested fire road, or the hell-fest that is Temelpa Trail, the most direct route to the summit of Mt. Tam is by air-conditioned automobile. Yes, there is a proper, paved road, a broad expanse of parking lot, flush toilets, water fountains, and ranger-staffed historical buildings and lectures. There are vending machines, in case water isn’t your thing. There are signs posted on a bulletin board positioned precisely between the entry to the mens and ladies restrooms warning of mountain lions and rattlesnakes. There is a topographical map posted there as well, showing the trails that the “parking lot adventurers” take, along with the trails that, well, I took.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying I’m better than anyone for choosing to hike to the top rather than drive. People have different ideas of fun and adventure. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed. I look at the “parking lot adventures” and see my (soon-to-be) ex-husband. They look at me and see a crazed, disheveled, sweaty, gritty, grimy, woman in well-worn running shoes, the shortest shorts and tiniest tank top possible, wrestling with her empty hydration pack, trying to refill it from an anemic water fountain, and consider calling the authorities; I either look homeless or like I’ve made a run for it from some institution. No, I’m just a day hiker. I just hiked eleven miles straight up a mountainside on one of the warmest days of the year. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
After refilling my water and using the ladies, I make my way the short distance to the “path” up to the fire outlook and the official summit. The trail begins with a long, wide stretch “paved” with railroad ties, which eventually leads to a boulder strewn but well used trail to the rocky summit. At the very top is the fire lookout, visible from many miles away, resembling a decoration atop a Christmas tree. At the base of the lookout, in stone, is the U.S.G.S. elevation marker. There is one atop nearly every peak, and, to me, you haven’t officially summited unless you’ve found the marker and taken a picture of it. I refer to them as “drink coasters”, because, on less populated and less patrolled peaks, I am likely to set my beer atop of the marker, just to be cheeky. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
As I make my way up the plank trail, I quickly catch up to a man, who, in my estimation, may be a tad bit more “touched” than I. He is sporting full-length hiking pants, with gaiters. He has not just hiking boots, but fully legit mountaineering boots. Strapped tightly to his torso is a full-size, water proof, backpack, stuffed to the gills. In sheer contradiction with all of his proper, technical apparel on the bottom half of his body, he is wearing a long sleeved, cotton, tie-dyed shirt. Anyone who wears gaiters and mountaineering boots should be well aware of the hiker mantra, “cotton kills”. Speaking of killing, clutched in his left hand is a true and authentic ice axe, such as one would use to scale Mt. Shasta in the winter, or the steep and snowy bits of the Pacific Crest Trail, or Everest. But not Tam in Indian Summer. I think I just found “something crazy”, indeed. I scamper past, still eyeing the potential murder weapon. I am well within earshot of the CDF staff member on fire watch in the tower ahead, I feel safer.
As I close in on the summit, people festoon every rock overlooking the views below. They hold out their cameras and snap their selfies. I often stop and ask if they’d like me to take a picture for them, especially for couples. My good turn for the day. These rock ornaments are usually in casual attire straight off a hanger from H&M or Uniqlo, A&F, or Hollister. Flip flops and all.
Finally at the top, I take a few pictures to prove my arrival to others, via social media. I post something snarky like, “darn, I left my car at the beach.” I chatted briefly with the CDF ranger, took a picture of the sign with the elevation posted on it, the “drink coaster”, and, yes, of myself, grody though I may be. Then, I embarked on the first steps towards the eleven miles back down the mountain. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
Down, down, down, down. I fully expected my hiking speed to increase on the descent. Perhaps I was a bit tired, because I was still clocking in at about three miles an hour. Yes, there is an app for that; every mile the kind lady voice tells me how far I’ve gone, how much time has elapsed, my average pace and the pace I managed to maintain for the last mile. She is my only companion on most of my hikes and most of my runs. I wish I knew her name, I think I’ll just call her Madge. According to Madge, my nine mile hike up was actually over eleven. When I left the beach, I committed to an eight hour maximum, ensuring I’d arrive back before the gates to the parking lot entrapped my car within. Also ensuring my return before the sun dipped into the sea beyond the horizon westward. I left the summit about four and a half hours after my departure from sea level, so, I was borrowing time from myself. I was counting on hiking faster down, than up, and then I wasn’t managing to accomplish that task.
Something else was playing through my mind; there was another trail down to Stinson Beach, a more famous trail than the Matt Davis Trail I’d taken up, the Dipsea Trail. I really wanted to “complete” my experience by returning on the Dipsea Trail, but with afternoon soon waning into evening, is an unknown trail a wise idea. This occupied my thoughts for much of the hike back to Pantoll. Once there, I decided to stop and glance at the map and the trail signs. I observed that the Matt Davis Trail marker stated I had 4.3 miles of switchbacks, steps, and stairs, to negotiate to return to my starting point. I found the sign and mile marker for the “Steep Ravine Trail”, which would adjoin the Dipsea Trail in 1.5 miles. Overall, it promised I’d reach Stinson Beach in 2.6 miles. Deal. I could save both time and distance by taking this virgin route. I’ll admit, my real concern with time was the hope of reaching the market in time to buy an ice cold beverage to enjoy on the beach before sunset and the closure of the parking lot. If I am nothing else, I am honest. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
The Steep Ravine Trail is poorly named. It should be named “Ridiculously Steep Ravine Stairway”. Just saying. And after posting my pictures on Facebook the following day, one of my crazy (crazier) running friends commented, “I ran up the Steep Ravine Trail a couple of weeks ago in that 50k race”. “Something crazy,” he said. Indeed. It is a beautiful trail, though, heavily wooded and winding along and frequently crossing a cascading stream via rickety, mossy, wooden bridges. There are many people on the trail, mostly young people, in shorts and tank tops, carrying beach towels, returning, I presume, from the beach to their cars. I am puzzled, a little. It costs $8 to park at the Pantoll Ranger Station and not a single penny to park at the beach itself. These kids don’t look like “hikers”, like me. I don’t know, it remains a mystery. They smell of Coppertone as we turn shoulders to pass on the steep, narrow, trail. At one point, the stream tumbles a distance and rather than the steps fashioned from boulders and logs and conveniently positioned tree roots, there is a full on wooden ladder that must be negotiated to continue. One may be a bit surprised to know that I have a bit of an issue with heights. I peer down the ladder and the trail below, from a safe distance back. I have my phone in hand and decide I’ll need that hand to clutch, white knuckled, to the ladder as I descend. This requires me to wriggle out of my daypack, stash my phone, wriggle back into my daypack, swallow hard, and take that first backwards step down the ladder. I climb ladders like a sissy. I make my way down, reverse the pack wriggling to reclaim my phone, and march on. My knees hurt from two days of jarring action; running fifteen miles, then hiking nearly twenty, and these steps downhill for a mile and a half. Don’t tell anyone, they’ll just say “I told you so!” and “you’re too old to be doing stuff like that.” Bah. Poo. You’re only young once. Don’t ever stop. That’s what I say!
“Something crazy,” he said. Indeed.
The Dipsea Trail crosses my path and I giddily turn onto it and bounce along, the beach now in clear view with the sun low, but still an hour or so from setting. I am less than a mile from the market and all I can think about is summing up my experience with a split of sparkling wine. I’m hoping it’s “that kind” of a market. I’m thinking it probably is, this is a Marin County touristy destination. I am probably not the only shopper in search of a refined sippy sip to enjoy on the beach.
One of my concerns with taking a different trail back was where, exactly, the exit point would be in relation to my starting point. Stinson Beach is not that large a burg, but still, who wants to hike clear across even the tiniest of towns after traversing twenty miles? So, I was very happy to find that the Dispea Trailhead was only a couple of blocks from the market, which was only a couple of blocks from my car, which was only a couple of blocks from the beach. I was even happier when, upon entering the market, I found entire four packs of single serving size sparkling wine of a fairly respectable caliber. Of course, the price tag for the four was my wine budget for the week, so I was beyond happy when I discovered the refrigerator case with the “singles” available for sale. I grabbed one and parted with a $5 bill at the cash register.
Moments later, I had my shoes off, ass in the sand, toes in the surf, sparkling wine on my lips. “Something crazy,” he said. To some, perhaps, but this is my method for sustaining sanity.