The bodies of two women hikers were found on Mt. Tam recently. Although officials say there is no sign of foul play, my Facebook feed crackles with alarm. “Creepy!” the posts warn. “Women: Please don’t hike alone!!!”
I hike alone almost every day in our local watershed. It’s miles from Mt. Tam, but the forested flanks of that rugged peak dominate my view. How far away does danger lurk? It‘s hard not to succumb to fear’s contagion.
My hike starts downtown, at the cafe where I get my daily dose of caffeine and news from the local paper. There’s more coverage of the unfortunate hikers; a story about a stowaway who survived a flight to Hawaii in the jet’s wheel well; a report that 75 percent of homes in the area are vulnerable to land slides. Two women dead, one boy improbably alive, our house at the base of a steep hill. What are the chances?
I begin the long slog through residential streets as I always do, listening to podcasts of Fresh Air or This American Life. This American’s life is lucky indeed, with enough time and stamina to hike each day, drinking in lattes, the spring gardens of well-tended homes, the natural beauty of the landscape. The uphill seems less steep with Terry Gross and Ira Glass to keep me company. My public radio hosts also keep me safe, in the same illusory way our daughters felt safe, attached through the umbilical cords of their cellphones as they called us on their way across campus at night.
Where the pavement turns into fire road is a sign noting the presence of mountain lions in the watershed. I think of the episode of Six Feet Under that begins with an overweight man jogging in the hills above LA. He stops to catch his breath, panting and sweating. You think he’s going to drop dead of a heart attack. Instead, a mountain lion drops out of the trees above. I glance up at the treetops, quicken my pace.
Today I have extra time, so I decide to vary my route. If I continue straight ahead deeper into the wilderness instead of turning left, I’ll avoid the grizzled mountain bikers who whiz by me every day as I scramble to safety on the edge of the fire road. Besides, I want to defy Facebook’s panic.
The smooth foot-wide path beckons. I pause a moment, thinking of mountain lions and trailside killers. The likelier dangers are ticks and poison oak. I can handle those, so I stride on through the dense stands of oak and laurel.
Just as Fresh Air ends, the path opens out to a meadow purple with lupine, framed by the rugged ridge across the valley. Clumps of white and amethyst iris dot the nearby banks; monkey flower and Scotch Broom run riot down the slopes. The air is clear. So is my head.
Some may seek peace of mind by staying off the trails. But I’ll continue to find mine on my daily treks.