My first weekend in Marin County was memorable for many reasons. It began when my co-worker, Peter, arrived unannounced. The year was 1981, my family was in Colorado and I was alone and on my own in Northern California.
“Hop in the car and let’s take a ride,” Peter said.
I had nothing to do and all day not to do it. “Sure. Where are we going?”
“Have you been up to Mount Tam yet?”
First There is a Mountain
With an elevation of 2,600+ feet, Mount Tamalpais is the highest peak in the Marin Hills and is visible from San Francisco and the East Bay.
Peter looked west at the mountaintop, “Grab a jacket, it is foggy up there.”
“This cold is nothing like…,”
“The wind will be blowing on top. It’s better to have a jacket and leave it in the car than to need a jacket and not have it.”
How can you argue with that logic?
Peter went on, “It’s the Bay Area—you always take a jacket no matter what the weather is like when you start out.”
We headed south on Highway 101 to Mill Valley in Peter’s 1976 Ford Maverick. A long twisting road took us up to the East Peak parking lot.
“This is a good spot to come in the summer when the temperature starts to rise. It is always 20 degrees cooler up here.”
“Good to know, thanks.”
The fog was pouring over the top of the ridge and through the branches of the Scrub Oak and Madrone trees. Peter was correct about the wind, it was picking up speed.
“Let’s walk out to the Ranger Station and check out the view,” Peter said. “It’s just a short hike.”
Then There is No Mountain
As we walked, Peter told me about what it was like for him to grow up in the Bay Area—pronounced as one word: Bayarea—back in the 50s and 60s. He gave me a short history of the mountain, from its roots in the culture of the Coastal Miwok Indian tribe to it’s use as a coastal defensive position for the military.
We encountered many hikers along the way and the women we encountered seemed to stare at us and then hurry past. It puzzled me at first because we spoke in low tones, smiled at everyone and did not use profanity.
The wind picked up and the fog got thicker as we rounded a curve in the heavily wooded path. I spotted a yellow piece of paper stapled to a post and upon closer examination realized what was going on.
The paper was a Police Notice warning the public about the search for the Trailside Strangler. In the middle of the sheet, clear as day, was a sketch of the killer. The face in the sketch looked exactly like my friend, Peter!
My heart skipped a beat and every bad scene from any horror movie that I had ever seen flashed through my brain. I tried to act like nothing was amiss, but the authorities had been looking for this guy for awhile and here I was with….
“How much farther do we have to go?” I asked.
“A little bit more. Don’t worry, it looks like everyone else is leaving. No one is following us, I have been checking. We should have the Peak all to ourselves.”
Not encouraging news. “Maybe it’s too foggy to see anything. We could go back and come again some other time.”
“Nah, let’s keep going.”
Then There is
The farther we walked the more I kept my eyes on the ground, searching for the location of rocks that would make good defensive weapons. Part of me wanted to believe that all was well and the other part of me felt like the end was near.
“You’re the local, why don’t you lead the way?” I said.
“Just follow the path. It only goes to one location.”
I spent the rest of the journey convincing myself that my companion was not the guy on the wanted poster. What were the chances that this was the guy that everyone was looking for? You would think that someone would have connected him by now, if that was the case.
We walked out of the fog and into a patch of sunlight at the foot of the Ranger station. The sweeping view of San Francisco Bay from any vantage point is amazing and this one went to the top of the list. If today was the day that was to be my last I would be going out a happy man.
The Trailside Strangler was eventually caught and he turned out not to be Peter. I still think about this event whenever I head up the mountain. First impressions tend to last—good, bad or indifferent.
Mount Tamalpais Today
If this is your first encounter with Mount Tamalpais you might want to know a few facts:
- It is home to 900 plant and 400 animal species
- There are 200 miles of trails and 7 reservoirs
- 4 million people visit annually
- 4 Land Managers oversee the mountain
Mount Tamalpais Multimedia Bonus
The following video by Gary Yost captures the essence of Mt. Tam
“I made this short documentary about the history of the Mill Valley Air Force Station for two reasons:
- To educate the community about this “hidden-in-plain site” tragedy in the most beautiful place on Mt. Tam,
- To honor the service of the soldiers that were stationed here.”