English, especially the American version of it, has seldom been accused of being a romance language. But in the case of Mount Tamalpais, the protagonist in this nascent blog, English will do just fine. In the language of the Coast Miwok who lived, worshipped and died in satellite communities around the mountain until Spanish missionaries facilitated their quick decline some 250 years ago, "támal pájiṣ" translates to "west hill." Yawn.
Tamalpais sometimes loses its romance on the tongue; I've heard plenty of locals, long accustomed to the abridged "Mount Tam," butcher her formal appellation. Side-stepping the dying art of phoenetics, try this: Pronounce the words camel and pious in sequence, then simply replace the opening letter with a t. That's the exact pronounciation and syllabic intonation for Tamalpais.
Now that the TED Talk is out of the way, some odd stuff has happened to me on this mountain -- strange odd and funny odd.
A dozen years ago, I was hiking with a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend on Old Stage Road trail a few bends shy of the West Point Inn when she suddenly stopped and slapped my arm. "You've got to be kidding me!" she exclaimed in her most accusatory tone. My brain instinctively began scanning the Boyfriend Files for infractions and lapses in judgment. I was in the process of identifying a couple of likely candidates when she continued:
"I can't believe you make your living as a trained observer," she said of my occupation, at the time, as a journalist. "Did you not see that?"
"See what?" I retorted, flummoxed.
"See that!" she replied, taking me by the shoulders and spinning me 180 degrees.
There, not 10 feet from the bend we had just rounded, was an old man, as a naked as a jaybird, alternately washing his armpits and saggy testicles in some seasonal runoff that had created a small waterfall in the early months of the year.
"You missed a spot," hollered my trailmate, pointing at her derriere and clearly enjoying the moment. The old man waved back in appreciation, then got to work on his own ass.
I blame genetics. A few months earlier, my sister Erin -- the mature sibling -- had also fallen victim to the elusive nature of reality on Mount Tam. On a summer visit from the Midwest, she had not been happ, to put it mildly, on what must have seemed to her an interminable climb from Stinson Beach up Steep Ravine. I couldn't blame her, for she was undoubtedly out of practice: You could roll a quarter across our rail-flat hometown of Columbus, Ohio, where she still resided.
Over lunch near Pan Toll ranger station, Erin got over it and was looking forward to the downhill portion of the hike. But as we embarked upon it, she stopped at the trailhead to read the information board concerning encounters with mountain lions and rattlesnakes. She seem perplexed.
We weren't two minutes down the trail before I felt Erin's death grip on my arm. "Oh God," she said, sounding as if he she might hurl. "Th-th-there's a m-m-mountain lion."
I was more excited than nervous. For more than 10 years, I had been hiking the hills of California, itching for such an encounter. I had run across the occasional bobcat, but unless you're a rabbit, bobcats aren't much more threatening than a thorny housecat. And here was Erin, striking the mother lode just two hours into her first hike!
Years ealier, I had set up a Google Alert for anything to do with mountain lions. I devoured every story that flashed across my screen. I knew that human encounters with mountain lions in California were few and far between, and they almost always passed without incident. The exceptions generally occurred when someone panicked ... which, I surmised by the fingernails digging into my arm, appeared to be a distinct possiblity with my traditionally level-headed sister.
"Relax and breathe" I said. I was facing uphill checking out a hawk and she was eyeing the dowhill track ahead, toward the ocean, so I had no idea how close the big cat was. I mentally reviewed the checklist I had long since memorized: Lock eyes. Do not retreat. Make yourself appear larger, hands up, like a basketball player defending the lane. Make threatening noises, if necessary. But most of all, don't let the cat smell fear.
I felt as prepared for the moment as I could have been.
As I rotated slowly toward the west, I could read in Erin's eyes that the threat was still some distance off. That was good. As I squared my shoulders with the downhill trail, I spotted the object of her discontent.
"Oh man," I sad, barely able to contain myself. "We're screwed."
"Oh please, no!" Erin whimpered. "Wh-what is it?"
"It's Bambi's mother," I replied, ripping my soon-to-be black-and-blue bicep free or her vice grip as the doe, gently nibbling on a bush, perked her ears in our direction.
"Huh?" she said, somehow still confounded by the animal locked in her gaze.
"It's a deer," I replied with my last unburdened breath before being doubled over by violent spasms of mucous-dripping laugher.
It is here that my sister probably would insist that I point out that she is a college-educated homeowner who heads a large department in a state-run housing finance agency in Ohio. She is not, by any means, one of the duller tools in the shed. Except on that day.
That story has risen to legend within the Hills & Hops ranks. As such, I may be guilty of oft repeating it on Mount Tam excursions. I'll glady change the narrative ... as soon as someone tells me a more warped tale from these crooked trails.