Echoes of the Savage and Sublime on Mount Tamalpais

Mount Tamalpais State Park, just north of San Francisco.

Seventeen years ago — divorced, with three children aged 12 to 18, and some money in my pocket, thanks to a movie that had been made of a novel I’d written — I put a For Sale sign on the front of my big old house in Keene, N.H., and flew to San Francisco to see if the Bay Area might be a good place for us to live. I wanted to expand my children’s horizons, and my own. I wanted to find “the sunny side of the street,” and I supposed it lay in California.

I’d spent most of my 42 years up until then living within 60 miles of the place I was born, on the New Hampshire seacoast, while California remained a blank slate. This was the appeal, of course. I could leave my old, and sometimes dark, history in New England.

Knowing I would always be more of a small-town person than a city dweller, I headed north in my rental car, straight from the airport — across the Golden Gate Bridge toward Marin County. I might have taken one of the exits for Sausalito — with its glittering bay views and clusters of houses that conjured the Amalfi Coast — but I was struck by what I saw up ahead, looming dark against the sky: the silhouette of a mountain, both beautiful and faintly ominous.

It occurs to me now that even in California, I was drawn (like a true New Englander) to the rougher edges. A few years would pass before I learned the horrifying story of what had happened on that mountain more than 15 years earlier, and well over a decade before the story made its way into my writing life. But from the day I arrived in Marin County, I made that piece of rock, Mount Tamalpais, — which draws its name from the Miwok Indian for “coastal mountain” — my destination. The exit that seemed likely to get me there was labeled Mill Valley, so I took it.

Once known for its bohemian style, Mill Valley in the mid-’90s was populated by a mostly well-off crowd, while retaining plenty of small-town charm and funk. But it was the presence of the mountain rising above the town that seemed to define its character, for me at least.

I picked up the local paper, scanned the listings for open houses, and chose one: “On the side of Mount Tamalpais,” the ad said. “Ideal spot for hikers.”

The house was way over my price range, but I fell in love with the location: visible from every window on the back of the house, and from a deck off the kitchen, was a vast expanse of undeveloped conservation land and, above all that, Mount Tamalpais.

As mountains go, this one is not particularly impressive — 2,500 feet, covered largely in coast live oak, bay and madrone, with an eerie haze of fog around its peak one hour, and brilliant sun the next. But when I stood on the deck — with only the sound of birds — the sight of that wall of a mountain felt like a message: Go no farther.

At that time banks were still eager to lend large sums to a person on the basis of one good tax return, or less. So four days later, I was signing papers.

I never fully integrated into certain aspects of Marin County life: the nail salons, the tennis club (though as a lifelong consignment store shopper, I now dressed in the designer castoffs of my more well-heeled Marin neighbors). An early riser, I developed the habit of drinking my first cup of coffee on the deck, the shadowy outline of Mount Tam as familiar to me, over time, as New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain had been once. I loved the way the peak rose up through the mist, and the fact that a person could behold, so close to a major city, a place that unspoiled. Nights when my sons were asleep, I’d stand out there again and hear the howling of coyotes.

I spent a lot of time getting to know Mount Tamalpais. I loved its diverse microclimates, the sound of the water crashing over the rocks at Cataract Falls, the smell of wild fennel and eucalyptus. I loved the swooping hawks and the broad vistas visible along the trail that took in wilderness, the Golden Gate Bridge and the glittering San Francisco skyline, all at once, and, in a different direction, the Farallon Islands, as exotic as any foreign landscape. I explored the vast network of trails on the mountain, its groves of smooth red-barked manzanita and oak, cut through by ravines in which, at certain times of year, salmon ran. I could make my way to the top without even getting in my car.

There were reminders of trouble, too: an animal carcass picked over by mountain lions, the remains of a private plane that had crashed there years before, an altar to Sitting Bull tucked away on the trail, with his prescient words about the dangers of the white man in the wilderness.

Some days, I’d set off on the trail and hike all the way over the mountain to Stinson Beach, then hitchhike home. Sometimes my sons and I took a picnic up and watched the sunset. My favorite spot was a hiking lodge, accessible only by foot or mountain bike, called the West Point Inn, where, in the early days of the last century, a steam-powered railroad operated by the Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway brought tourists to the summit. The year I moved there, a person could rent a room in one of the cabins for $25 a night; it was one of the more glorious spots around to take in the sunrise.

Lower on the mountain — and pricier by far, as well as more luxurious — was the Mountain Home Inn, with spa services, a restaurant and a deck that looked out over Marin County. That summer, before heading for college, my daughter was a waitress there, making her way to work on foot over the Pipeline Trail like Little Red Riding Hood. We seemed to be living in a fairyland, so the image seemed fitting.

But in life, as in fairy tales, there may be wolves in the woods. And it turned out that on Tamalpais, there had been. I learned this story a year or two after moving there, and once I did, it haunted me.

Back in 1979 — and for the two years that followed — a man who came to be known as the Trailside Killer remained at large in Marin County, and it was on the trails of Mount Tamalpais that most of his victims met their death. I think it was the juxtaposition of rape and murder, committed on hiking trails — the terrible intersection of peacefulness and violence, and the underlying sense of danger lurking in the underbrush — that kept my mind returning to the Trailside Killings.

The killer, a middle-aged ex-con with a bad stutter and a history as a sex offender, was apprehended eventually, and now resides on Death Row at San Quentin, another place close to where we lived.

Even in 1996, people still talked about what took place in the late ’70s and early ’80s — about how the murders had seemed to signal a certain end to innocence, and to usher in a climate of anxiety and fearfulness about the mountain. Hiking remains a central pastime in Marin County — as does mountain biking. (Some say it was invented on Mount Tamalpais.) But conversations with anyone who had lived in the area back then often led to the murders. One of my neighbors, now retired, remembers a long-ago encounter with a man she later realized must have been the killer. He had a stutter, she said. The mother of my older son’s girlfriend, who grew up nearby, also believed that she had met him on the trail, when she was just a teenager. “Something about him made me run away fast,” she told me.

Two years ago, in the living room of my Mill Valley home where I was hosting one of the memoir workshops I hold periodically, I met a woman, now in her 40s, who introduced herself as the daughter of the homicide detective who’d led the investigation into the killings. I got to know Janet well — also her older sister, Laura.

Their father had been around 40 when the first murder took place; the sisters were 13 and 11. Because of the countywide terror set off by the notorious murders, the girls’ father had become an instant local celebrity. But as the months wore on, with more women showing up dead, the sisters recognized the toll the case was taking on their father.

As a writer, I’m never as interested in psychopathic behavior as I am in the quiet dramas that take place in so-called normal families, behind closed doors between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings. I’m interested in the wild card of human sexuality — and the way sex, depending on who is entering into it and under what circumstances — may signal either love and tenderness or violence and death. I kept thinking about two young girls, coming into their own adulthood in the shadow of those things — a story that served as a metaphor for the uncertainty and terror many girls experience at that age (and I was one) about leaving childhood and becoming a woman.

And I was interested in how a person’s geography shapes her. In the past, the territory I had examined was small-town New England. But now, hearing Laura and Janet speak about the years they watched their father trying to catch the Trailside Killer, I was inspired to write a novel based on the experience of those two girls and their handsome, larger-than-life father.

I worked on the book, “After Her,” for close to two years — starting and ending most of my writing days at a desk that overlooked Mount Tamalpais. Though I changed many details surrounding the actual murders, the name of the mountain in my novel remains Tamalpais. And certain aspects of what it feels like to live in that place remain true to what I have come to know of the place: the amphitheater on the mountain where musicals are performed every summer (except for that period when the killer stalked the trails); the dry, blistering heat of July and the bleakness of a Northern California rain; the chill I experienced coming upon a deer fetus on the trail, still in its caul, or dissecting a piece of owl scat to find, within, the bones of a mouse.

The daughters of the homicide detective, Laura and Janet, never actually encountered the Trailside Killer as they do in my story (though decades after his arrest, Laura — haunted by the man whose crime had obsessed her father — visited him in San Quentin). But I knew that in the story I constructed, in which the older sister sets herself as bait for the killer, they’d need to meet him face to face on the mountain. The place I chose for this fictional meeting is real: the rusted-out body of a car, dating back 70 years or more, from the looks of it. How an old car ended up on a hillside on Mount Tamalpais, far from any road, is a question that fascinated my characters, as it does me.

Heading out on a mountain trail, like all other forms of travel, is a journey not only to a physical destination, but an inner journey, too — and I did a lot of thinking on Mount Tamalpais, including examining the question of what it was that drew me to live there in the first place, and then to write about it.

Without a doubt, I was drawn to the characters of those two sisters, and their father, who died not long after the Trailside Killer’s arrest by another police officer. It was his daughters’ belief that their father never got over the killings. But even before I heard about the case, Tamalpais symbolized something powerful to me, at a particular moment in my life. Moving to California opened my horizons all right. But it also revealed to me that every seemingly sunny place contains its own darkness, and there is no escaping history either. It follows you.

This past spring I packed up my belongings once again and moved — just to the other side of the bay this time, to live with the man who is now my husband. The view I see out my windows, in Oakland, reveals city lights and bridges, and possesses its own kind of beauty. But I miss the mountain. The lone coyote howling in the night. The fetus of a deer, in among the California poppies. The terror of the wilderness, that goes hand in hand with the beauty. The dark silhouette of that mountain, standing alone against the bluest sky.

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