Rarely a day goes by that I don’t take a photo of Mt. Tam. In 2012, in fact, I ran a blog, A Year of Mt. Tamalpais, with the sole purpose of featuring a picture a day of the peaks of our iconic mountain, the Sleeping Maiden in her many moods in the changing light of a day and through the seasons. Lately though, since the recent death of two women hikers whose bodies were found within days of each other and in close proximity along the same drainage ditch, I’ve stopped taking pictures so readily. Every time I glance out my windows at the mountain, I feel a little uneasy, as if I were trying to keep the rippling shadows in her lush spring mane at a safe distance from my imagination.
The deaths of these two women conjured for many the haunting fear that kept Marin women terrorized in 1970s when the Mt. Tam trailside killer struck. Christine Bronstein over at the Huffington Post writes about the “wave of hiker deaths” on Mt. Tam and links these deaths, through fear, to the memory of David Carpenter’s “crime spree” that claimed the lives of a number of women hiking or jogging alone on Mt. Tam back in the 1970s. Bronstein wisely reminds us of the dangers of complacency, though I wonder about calling in those old ghosts with the mayhem on the mind.
I moved to the area a year after David Carpenter was caught and convicted. Until Joyce Maynard published After Her, a novel loosely inspired by the Mt. Tam trailside murders, I’ve never given that kind of terror any traction to link the mountain outside my window to the one in my imagination. Like those two hikers, for many years, I used to go hiking alone as well — and at all times of the day too — on the many trails that crisscross the slopes of Mt. Tam. Not once during those hikes did I give worry, fear, or anxiety about being attacked a single thought. Nor did I fear the mountain itself. After all, from so many of its trails, some even under the shelter of trees, my house was always still within sight just there, sitting across a lesser hill.
One day though, on one of those hikes for which I rarely prepared beyond taking a candy bar and a small bottle of water, I did get lost. It was an odd feeling, knowing exactly where I was in general but having no way to get myself to any known particular spot of it at all without having to wander off the trails. Lucky for me, before panic could set in fully, an equestrian appeared as she were some genie rising from the woods themselves and set me on the right course.
But I still remember that tightening of the chest from the fear taking root in me. Its sharpest, most honed edge was the least possible to describe in words. Later, I knew that the reason for that was that there was no reason in that fear. It was fear to the bone, without a name, or a face to hang it on.
I don’t know what happened to the two women who died so close to each other in time and place recently on Mt. Tam. Though the Marin County coroner’s division does not suspect foul play in these deaths, the investigation continues, as the sheriffs “have to keep an open mind.” I do know, however, that the “not knowing,” especially in this age of unremitting flow of information always at our fingertips, tempts the imagination. It’s easier to think that these two women perished by the evil design of someone’s will than to fathom the senselessness of their accidental deaths. It certainly seems more “reasonable” to give that fear a sinister will and the face of a killer than to try to accept such senseless deaths as vagaries of fate.
In her post, Christine Bronstein, who lives much closer to the mountain itself than I do, delves into the shadow of the anxiety these deaths have cast on a place that we have all taken for granted as practically our own little backyard, with all that this term implies. Since the mountain, so sweetly named as a sleeping maiden, is always in our view and accessible so readily, perhaps we have come to see its peaks and slopes much more as part of a tamed landscape, like a calculated trophy garden, rather than the unpredictable wilderness it really is.