A Hike on Mt. Tam
Sydney M. Williams
The path slopes upward and away from the paved road at a ten to fifteen degree angle. Almost immediately the air becomes cleaner, a good thing for those of us who, as the rise becomes steeper, inhale more deeply and breathe more quickly. Within a few minutes the view from the rock-strewn path provides vistas south toward San Francisco. The sky is blue, and the sun warms the late October day.
Today’s hike began a half-mile back when the seven of us, and three dogs, gathered for lunch at Left Bank in Larkspur, which is in Marin County, California. Five – John, Lang, Lori, Jeff and Garrison – live in the area and often hike in these hills surrounding and abutting Mt. Tamalpais (more commonly known as Mt. Tam), which stands in 6300 acres of protected land and rises 2571 feet. I join the group three or four times a year. The seventh is my son whom I feel particularly fortunate to have along; as he lives with his wife and two children in London, but happens to be in San Francisco on a working vacation. Having my son with us reminds me of his first hike, in the summer of 1972, in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. That day three of us headed out early from Pinkham Notch (my younger brother, Willard, was with us). We started out enthusiastic and full of joyful expectation on a cool, drizzly August day. Seven hours later we arrived, wet and cold, at our destination, Madison Hut, looking a little like Aeneas, who carried his father, Anchises, while leading his son, little Ascanius, by the hand out of Troy. On this day, though, the fates and good planning would provide a pleasant and invigorating hike.
We follow the trail up through open meadows, which appear somewhat barren to an Easterner but are awesome in their vastness, with spectacular views of Mill Valley and the Bay area. The cool air and the warm Pacific water create banks of fog which pass, ghost-like, through the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco Bay. We stop, look back, and note that we are above the fog bank, and the office towers of the City sparkle in the sunlight. We are fortunate, we say, to be alive and able to enjoy this place of such beauty. The view also encompasses the prison at San Quentin and Alcatraz Island; so serves as a sober reminder of the fragility, and the great rewards, of freedom. The trail, which ascends a shoulder on Mt. Tam, continues upward, dipping in and out of a wooded area before beginning its descent. Heading down, the steeply-angled path follows a largely-dry, stream bed. It will, I am assured, become a torrent in a couple of months when the rainy season is in full sway. Even now roots and rocks, smoothed by years of hiker’s boots and eons of rainy seasons, are slippery. Long arms and strong hands become valuable appendages as we come down the trail. The dogs show approval of the downward, and homeward, journey in running ahead, then scrambling back, all the while looking for any damp place in which to cool their haunches. ‘Zöe’, John’s Boston Terrier, is particularly happy to be coming down. At six she is the oldest of the dogs, and, with ten inch legs she is certainly the shortest. (About midway up the climb I caught her surreptiously giving John a glance that seemed to ask, “Why am I here?”). ‘Maggie’, Jeff’s puppy, is the youngest, most curious and most energetic of any of us – dogs or humans. She is, I believe, a combination of Pointer and Lab. She views us all as slow and dull. Lang’s dog, ‘Bennie’, has the heaviest coat and so is the most interested in looking for a place to cool off. His look seems to say, “Hey man, cool it. What’s your hurry?” ‘Bennie’ is the result of an unlikely meeting between a Newfoundland and Springer Spaniel.
About two hours after leaving we return by another road. A one-half mile walk takes us past cars, people and other signs of civilization - something which for a brief time we had shunted from our minds as they had been shut out from our vision. A refreshing and welcoming beer at the Lark Creek Inn puts a fitting finish to what had been a short, but highly enjoyable, afternoon. We had been a band of brothers and sister. Hiking up the trail away from houses and paved roads we had a taste of what it must have been like for the first settlers. We sensed the vastness of our Country with its richness and its beauty. With weary legs stretched before us, we felt blessed and thankful.