The Path Well Trodden
One doesn’t need to travel all the way to the wilderness to encounter the wild.
Everyone knows Robert Frost’s praise for the road less traveled. But on a sunny afternoon, seeking only a ramble in the nearest forest, the well-trod trail will often do. The route may be familiar – full of well-loved sights and memory-filled spots – but the journey is never exactly the same. Weather shifts the woods’ mood, flowers erupt, leaves disappear then reappear. Each season uncovers a fresh and startling scene.
A beloved path is like a waterfall: a constant course formed of an ever-changing current.
Rising 2,500 feet above the waters of San Francisco Bay, Mt. Tamalpais in California’s Marin County has for generations provided this kind of neighborly nature experience. Since the Gold Rush, the mountain’s jumble of oak grasslands, chaparral hillsides, redwood groves, and Pacific views has been a popular getaway for urbanites. The pleasure of the place is due in part to its proximity to the city. Almost any trail offers the invigorating juxtaposition of natural scenery with the crystal towers of San Francisco. It’s easy to get to, and then feel far away.
The mountain has been a muse to many, including the artist Tom Killion and the poet Gary Snyder, who have collaborated to create Tamalpais Walking, a new book that extols the virtues of this unique site.
Killion is a local boy, born in the town of Mill Valley, which got its name from the 19th-century logging industry that thrived on the mountain’s forested shoulders. As a teenager in the 1970s, he began experimenting with one-color block prints of the mountain’s scenes. Since then, he has become a West Coast master of the East Asian aesthetic. His elaborate prints can involve up to 14 different hand-carved blocks and can take months to make. It’s a craft as deliberate as a long walk.
Gary Snyder’s love affair with Tamalpais is just as deep. In the 1950s, the Beat-Buddhist poet wandered the mountain’s slopes with Jack Kerouac, an experience later memorialized in Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums. A decade later, Snyder began practicing a Zen-inspired circumambulation of the mountain with Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen. Today, as an elder, Snyder leads his poetry students on similar spiritual hikes.
Killion and Snyder know Mt. Tamalpais as well as anyone. They are familiar with every slope and gully, and have turned the mountain’s trails into a form of ritual. Yet they continue to experience the place with a sense of wonder. For each of them, the mountain is reliably refreshing.
As Snyder writes:
There is no exact repetition. ‘Not even once,’ someone said, ‘can you step in the same river.’ Landscape with nuance.
Such are the teachings of ritual and ceremony. Every night the drama will have new turns and meanings. One who learns this will never be bored. I think we had come to see the mountain more clearly. No longer just a playground or a getaway, but a temple and a teacher, a helper and a friend. Nature, not in the abstract, but (like anybody) a kind of being actually there to respond to being seen in the moment. Gratitude to the particular is never in vain. Relationship to place is real, not as idea but as a way. Why Tamalpais? Because it’s there, you might say. And it blessedly balances the magic city along the tightrope of the fault line.
Snyder’s poems of Mt. Tamalpais and 30 years of Killion’s woodcuts of the place are featured in Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Prints. Published by Heyday Books. 143 pages, $50.