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A Love Letter to the Mountain I Grew Up With

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Mount Tamalpais is a peak in Marin County, California, much of which is contained in protected public lands including Mount Tamalpais State Park and Muir Woods National Monument.

Photo by Sarah Buder

Mount Tamalpais is a peak in Marin County, California, much of which is contained in protected public lands including Mount Tamalpais State Park and Muir Woods National Monument.

One writer on Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais, the mountain that always makes her feel like she’s come home.

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This essay is part of a series on “happy places”—destinations we return to, again and again, even if it’s just in our mind. You can read the other stories here and here

On a clear day from the top of Mount Tamalpais, you can see more than 25 miles across the Pacific Ocean to the Farallon Islands, a national wildlife refuge known for its massive colonies of seabirds and sea lions, as well as migrating whales and great white sharks. To the east, the 2,571-foot peak offers a panoramic view of the inlet- and island-speckled San Francisco Bay, whose sparkling blue water separates the hills of Marin County from San Francisco’s skyline and cities in the East Bay, Oakland included.

Situated just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate, this towering labyrinth of redwood groves and oak woodlands is home to coyotes, mountain lions, deer, and more than 150 bird species. Its shaded hiking trails and open hills—which in spring are covered with blooming purple lupine and California poppies—have provided the backdrop for some of my earliest memories. Throughout every stage of my life, no matter how much has changed in my world, returning to this familiar place has felt like coming home. Mount Tam, in many senses, is the mountain that raised me.

The mountain’s name, Tamalpais (tam-al-pie-us), translates roughly to “coast mountain” in the language of California’s native Coast Miwok, who lived on or near the mountain before 18th-century Europeans arrived.

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I grew up at the base of Mount Tam, or “Tam,” as I know it, in a town called Mill Valley. My family’s home in the Blithedale Canyon was within walking distance of a number of hiking trails that lead up to the mountain’s peak. Years before I was even legally allowed to see PG-13 movies without adult supervision, my parents tasked me with taking our dog for walks on the mountain, where I’d often complete entire hikes encountering just a handful of people on its wide dirt paths. Mount Tam is the first place I can remember venturing on my own. Ask, and I’d say I was introduced to my first tastes of independence and responsibility on its redwood tree–shaded trails. 

In high school, this same mountain was where my peers and I first experimented with bending that independence, which sometimes meant breaking the rules. Every weekend on Friday or Saturday evening, we’d drive Mount Tam’s narrow, windy roads with our windows down and music blasting, driving slightly faster than the speed limit to make it to the peak’s open hilltops before sunset. As we watched the sun inch slowly toward the horizon above the Pacific Ocean, we’d determine where to partake in our new favorite pastime: underage drinking. (Conversations at that age started the way many so often do: “Whose parents are away?”)

More than 750 plant species grow on Mount Tam, among them wildflowers such as California poppies, sky lupine, and Douglas irises, which bloom during spring and summer.

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During my college years in Colorado, Mount Tam’s ocean-facing hillside remained the choice meeting spot for my high school friends over winter and summer breaks. Within days of coming home, I’d receive a text that simply read, “Sunset?” We’d pack into cars and loop up the mountain to reunite at our beloved spot, recounting—sometimes bragging—about our exciting new young adult experiences. We’d swap stories of “wild” parties with friends from Massachusetts! Michigan! even Missouri! and divulge details about the fresh romances in our lives. Often, we’d run into former classmates doing the same. As the years went on, we started to notice unfamiliar faces on the mountain, presumably younger generations of Marin County locals who were now teenagers in high school, or older newcomers to the Bay Area who’d moved to the region after the tech boom. 

With its height and various faces, Mount Tam contains many microclimates that range from foggy lower valleys with redwood groves, to dry ocean-facing grassland slopes and dense Douglas fir–forested peaks.

In the near decade since that time, I spent almost two years backpacking through Central and South America and relocated to New York City, where I now reside. After my post-college travels in Latin America, I drove up Mount Tam to spend alone time above the mountain’s treeline before even alerting friends I was back in California. Now, whenever I return, I use the three-hour time difference from New York to my advantage, driving up to the peak while the sun rises so I can wander its steep slopes in solitude. I let the salt-tinged breeze of the Pacific tangle my hair and cool my face, which now, as someone more frequently surrounded by skyscrapers than scenic coastlines, I appreciate more than ever. 

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To me, part of the mountain’s magic, beyond its obvious beauty, has always been in its shared love among the people who visit. Now, however, as I enter my second month of quarantine inside my New York apartment, I find a small slice of comfort in picturing an uncrowded Mount Tam, free to bloom with green grass and California poppies. 

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