Bay Nature magazineApril-June 2009

Art and Design

Tamalpais Walking

April 1, 2009

From “Backward Walking”

1948: Over the western arm of the mountain we looked down a long gentle slope of what I took to be recovering chaparral. (A fire had passed over in 1944.) Far off, the glint of a lake. If we’d had a map we would have known there was water at Colier Spring, or good camps with water at Barth’s Retreat or Laurel Dell, both nearby. Instead, we left the trail and headed downslope for the promise of water below.

We got there, made a fire, cooked, and slept.

Mt. Tamalpais from Pt. San Quentin
Mt. Tamalpais from Pt. San Quentin, 1988. By Tom Killion,

There are things to be learned, and stories to be found only when you leave the trail. Many of the earlier trails on Tamalpais are growing back in, and some have disappeared. Much of the mountain, of the world itself, can never be seen without leaving the path. Hiking on the trails, circumambulating a mountain, are “practices.” Nobody should leave a perfectly good trail unless they want to, like when looking for a certain mushroom, or a hope of seeing big heaped-up woodrat nests. Our foraging ancestors worldwide only used trails to get to other places, but in between, the whole terrain, was where they looked for edible roots, fiber plants, funghi, dye plants, berries, nuts, wild pome or wild stone fruits, leafy leaves, glues, basket-weaving materials, arrow shafts, bow wood, construction poles, workable bark, medicinal barks and herbs, soap, poison, recreational plants, decorations, rock outcroppings of useful minerals, and then all the nests and dens of animals and birds which you can map into your mind and go back to when needed. And much else. All this is mostly “off the trail”. . . .

Mt. Tamalpais from Mill Valley Marshes
Mt. Tamalpais from Mill Valley Marshes, 1980. By Tom Killion,

But we always need trails. And walking on trails can be plenty hard enough–a good pack on, a switchbacking path with broken rock and dust in the bed of the trail, bigger rocks to step over, step/ step/ step/ one goes–not lightly and swiftly–but slow and deliberate, watching the breath, keeping up a sustainable speed, pegging steps to breath and heartbeat, maybe humming an old tune or some chant that matches the pace, and taking it one step at a time.

inch by inch, little snail climb Mt Fuji

Bolinas Ridge to Point Montara
Bolinas Ridge to Point Montara, 2004. By Tom Killion,

And this is how you go to the top of any mountain, or around any mountain, or on any long road–to get to a good camp by dark, and lay this body down for a rest. But that’s not exactly the destination. We don’t play music to get to the end of it. Or make love to go to sleep (I hope). Or meditate and study to become enlightened. Realization or somesuch might come along, but suppose it doesn’t? So what? Basho said, “The journey is home.” Before venturing off trail, we need to learn to follow the path.

Back in 1948 off the trail, taking Mount Tamalpais’s lessons in grateful blessed ignorance, not really looking at the landscape but totally aware of being beside my (teenage) lady, walking almost in harmony but different, talking, glancing, hoping; taking the easiest way through the chaparral like a pair of little god and goddess critters, our souls as big as the sky; did we make up that great space, or did it make us up?

May we all find the Bay Mountain that gives us a crystal moment of being and a breath of the sky, and only asks us to hold the whole world dear.

About the Author

For decades Tom Killion and Gary Snyder have explored MountTamalpais as artists and walkers. A master printmaker, Killion grew upon the mountain, and Snyder first hiked there in 1948 and has made atradition of circumambulating the mountain. The text and images hereare from a new collection, Tamalpais Walking, forthcoming in May 2009 from Heyday Books ( See more of Killion’s work at We're grateful for the opportunity to feature their work in our pages.

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