Monday, April 02, 2007

A tale of two places, maybe three: Part II, Mt. Tamalpais

Julie and I returned to San Jose after two nights in Yosemite. The fact that I am an introvert came home to her very quickly on the drive back. Remember how she didn't sleep because of the mouse, turned wind, turned bear? Yeah, well the next day is when she had to drive home. She talked for awhile to keep herself awake, but when she ran out of stories to tell, the pressure was on me. I'd already pretty well talked myself out on the drive to Yosemite, while we were in the cabin, and when we hiked, so I couldn't think of a thing to say. "Uh, uh, uh," works for awhile, but we weren't even halfway home when the baton was handed to me and I dropped it. Fortunately, we arrived at Casa de Fruta (better known as Casa de Everything) just in time to fill her up with Casa de Coffee and get us home safely.

Since my Half Dome hike years ago, I have a primal association of Yosemite with hamburgers, French fries, and milkshakes. Not just any burgers, fries, and shakes. Only the finest from In-N-Out Burger, a formerly Southern California institution that has thankfully made its way north. There was one close to Julie's place, so she obliged my craving and we feasted. Please understand, I don't normaly eat like this. In fact, there was nothing normal about the way I ate on vacation. It was vacation, afterall, and it's simply not possible for me to return to the Bay Area without letting my taste buds lead me around a bit. Just wait until I tell you about the amazing Cuban food I had the night before I left. Wha!

Anyway...

[Part I, Yosemite is here]

The day after our return, I drove up to Marin County to meet a friend for lunch. I left early enough to hike on Mt. Tamalpais for awhile before lunch. I also took some time to explore some of the places I frequented. My Flickr set has a picture of the church where I was pastor before leaving California. I also drove through some of the places where I lived.

On the drive up from San Jose, a light rain began to fall. I drove from partly cloudy skies into the fog that enveloped San Francisco and the North Bay. I could not have ordered a better day. The fog is such a distinctive characteristic of the landscape, it would not have seemed right to be there without it. In spite of the fog, it remained warm, in the upper 50s, lower 60s while I was there. Perfect weather for hiking.

Timing is everything, and the sequence of my visit to Yosemite followed by my visit to Mt. Tam brought the new awareness of the role place plays in my spiritual journey into clearer focus for me. I drove up the familiar tree-lined street to the small parking lot at the edge of a park below the dam for Phoenix Lake. As I stepped out of the car, I could hear a turkey calling. The sound of rain hitting the leaves of the trees that form a canopy over the park welcomed me home.

The Phoenix Lake trailhead was a five-minute bike ride from my condo in Larkspur. Three or four times a week, I would get on my bike after work and head over to the trails to run, and later, after my feet and knees sustained too much wear and tear from running down steep hills, to hike or ride my bike. On weekends, I would often take longer hikes up the steeper slopes of Mt. Tam. So familiar are its trails, I can return to the place in my imagination with little effort.

Mt. Tam is my spiritual home. It is a place so familiar and important in the narrative of my life that walking its trails is like tracing the well-worn creases in the face of a much beloved grandparent. The ground knows the tread of my feet. It is a place where I am known completely, where nothing is hidden. As I've caressed the face of the mountain, I've leaned in close to whisper my deepest secrets to her. She knows my deepest longings, my hopes for life. She's been the first to hear a hundred sermons, offering her critique in the wind that blew or in the song of the red-wing blackbirds who flew above the lake. She was the first to know of my growing understanding and acceptance of my sexuality. She holds the secrets I dared not share with another person deep in the belly of her soul. Her creeks run with my tears, carrying them with those of a thousand others far away into the ocean that waits on the other side of the mountain, and her canyons echo with my laughter.

On her trails, I worked out my response to the theology of my youth, learning to reject it, without rejecting faith in the process. The mountain witnessed to me of a God who stands in stark contrast to the God of which I learned in church as a child. No God who condemns would ever embrace me as warmly as that mountain did. She was a mediator of grace. Out of her flowed the love and acceptance I needed to experience to know that I was okay, and in her midst freedom's fledgling wings first took flight in my soul.

I walked up the hill to the lake, and around to the fire road that runs to another lake farther up the mountain. The lemony sweet scent of the scotch broom that takes over the hillsides in spring refreshed me like a cool glass of lemonade on a hot summer day. The rain picked up and in little time, it had soaked through the hood on my jacket. I brushed it back, choosing to the let the rain baptize me in the newness of spring.

My memory carried me to the unmarked trailhead that sneaks off the fire road. Within seconds, I was in a world by myself. My memory filled with all that's happened since I moved away 9 years ago. The flood of stories came to my mind like the hurried chatter of friends long separated. I wanted to bring those stories to this place, to write them on the heart of the mountain. With each step, I recounted significant events of the past 9 years.

As I hiked, I took in the familiar scenery around me. I thought of all the many ways in which I had seen that trail. Mt. Tam wears her moods openly. She is not afraid to let the fog envelope her, to hold her in a shadowy embrace, and when the sun breaks through, her smile brightens the darkest corners of her forests. She taught me to love the seasons of my life. I learned not to fear my tears. I learned that anger could be my ally. I learned that even in those times when sadness turned me inward and narrowed my view, there was still much to be seen and heard and understood, that even the greyness of such times was a gift, a way of preparing me for what would come next.

I walked on up the Hidden Meadow trail, enjoying what felt like a joyous homecoming. The pull of a place where I am known, and yet accepted for who I am now, is what gives me the sense that Tam is my spiritual home. No other place knows me so intimately. I could return to her, and know that who I am today is celebrated, that each rock on which I sat, each tree to which I spoke, each canyon into which I laughed for years when I lived there knows my voice and locks me in a warm embrace. It is a place to which I can return again and again and know that who I am each time is rooted in the person I became when I walked there so frequently.

Mt. Tam assures me of a God so close I know I'm never alone. In contrast to the fierceness and strength of God I encounter in Yosemite, I feel the warmth of a nurturing God on Tam. After hiking Yosemite's majestic Valley, Tam felt small to me. It was close and intimate, much more easily known. Any sense of alienation from God and from myself that I felt in the vastness of Yosemite was quickly erased in the intimate aquaintance of Mt. Tam. Yosemite has a sense of danger to it. Mt. Tam feels safe.

After all that has happened in the past few years, I needed to see who I was in a place that knew me long ago. My own family does not celebrate the person I am today. Many of the friends I held dear for years have long ago distanced themselves from me. I cling to this place because it is what helps me feel rooted. It gives me a deep sense of home.

16 comments:

JM said...

so basically if I don't go to Mt Tam before I leave, I'm a schmuck.

Linda said...

Yep! Get thee to Muir Woods!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Your pictures and words are so beautiful.

JM said...

yes ma'am.

Linda said...

JM- 280 North into SF, up 19th Ave., across the Golden Gate Bridge (no toll on the northbound journey, but have a $5 bill handy on the return trip), up 101 to Highway 1, Mill Valley Stinson Beach exit. Follow the signs to Stinson Beach. After you wind up through some hoyty-toyty homes in Mill Valley, you'll come to the top of a ridge. Shortly thereafter, there will be a turn off for Muir Woods to the left. If it's clear, make sure you look off to the right to see a fine view of SF before you turn off. You'll get to wind down the other side of the hill and into a LARGE parking area. The park gate is to the right. There's some mighty big trees there and you'll get a healthy dose of Tam while you're there.

Linda said...

Thanks, NK. It's a beautiful place.

Forest Monk said...

Though I disagree with the concept of identity as place (or place as identity), I admire how beautifully and persuasively you've written about it here, Linda. If you'd taken a couple of weeks, or months, to compose these entries, they'd be impressive. That you work full-time, are socially engaged, and got these posted within days of your return is astonishing. Well done!

As for the church at which you were a pastor, now you've piqued my curiosity! Do you speak Cantonese? Mandarin, even??

Linda said...

Forest Monk- Thanks. I'm curious about your disagreement with the concept of place as identity.

I understand a little Cantonese, but don't speak it. I was pastor for the English-speaking congregation.

cheesehead said...

This is beautiful. I wish I hiked, but with my knees, I mostly saw Tam from the car. But my spouse has biked the places you describe.

I'm glad you got to see her.

Linda said...

Cheesehead- I told her hello for you.

cheesehead said...

Oh--you for got an important part of the directions to Muir Woods:

As soon as you pass the hoity-toity houses, roll down your window and smell the amazing scent of the Eucalyptus trees!

Yankee T said...

Lovely.

KathyR said...

That last picture is just gorgeous.

jo(e) said...

I just came back to read this post again -- it's so beautiful.

SassyFemme said...

What a beautiful post, not the photographs (which themselves are beautiful), but the picture you painted with your words, and the depth of the emotions the words carry.

Marie said...

My God, this is stunningly beautiful.