A couple weeks ago, my boyfriend forwarded me a news story about a hiker who’d gone missing on Mount Tamalpais, the mountain in my hometown. Authorities declared her missing after park rangers noticed her car hadn’t moved for days. Helicopters, dogs and a hundred search-and-rescue volunteers were scouring the mountain for her.
The details caught my attention. Magdalena Glinkowski had parked at the Bootjack lot, where I frequently park. She was 33, to my 35. She was blond, just like me. And she apparently enjoyed hiking alone, just like me.
As I drove through Mill Valley that day and gazed up at the mountain, glowing green in the sun, I squinted at it. An unfamiliar darkness seemed to shroud it. There could be a body up there among the creases somewhere, a body put there by something sinister. And I felt something I’d never felt about the mountain before: fear.
Growing up beside her, Mount Tam became my temple. I saw the sun set behind her undulating silhouette each night. At twilight, I watched the thick coastal fog, like a soft, living thing, spill over her ridges and slide down her valleys. In high school, I parked on her ridgeline roads after dark and made out with boyfriends in cars above the twinkling lights of the Bay Area. I played hooky on the day I had to decide which college to go to and sat with a friend on the grass beside Tam’s Bon Tempe Lake, weighing pros and cons. My mom, knowing me well, later sent me a framed print of the mountain to hang on my dorm room wall.
Mount Tam is still my faithful source of both comfort and joy. Last year, while grieving and angry about something, I hiked deep into a damp redwood canyon (parked near Bootjack, in fact), sat beside a creek to meditate, and emerged bright and hopeful. On my birthday, I plopped down by an oak tree on a grassy slope high above the Pacific Ocean, ate sushi, and quietly celebrated the glory of life.
Just a week before Magdalena Glinkowski went missing, I went searching (again, near Bootjack) for a certain bench I’d never visited before. My worries — about discord with my boyfriend, about disappointing my editor at work, about becoming a mom before my biological clock runs out — released their grip on me and dropped off, one by one, beside the trail. When I found the bench, tucked under a bay tree before a staggering view of the whole San Francisco Bay, it bore this inscription:
“Give me these hills and the friends I love, I ask no other heaven.”
Fear is like a Pandora’s box. Once open, it’s hard to shove the frightening possibilities back inside. I imagined walking along one of my familiar paths, brush and pine trees on either side, and suddenly feeling a hand around my throat. I sensed the pounding heart, the short breath, the blinding terror of being dragged into the bushes by a strange, strong man with cold eyes. The scariest thing to imagine is, I think, the feeling of the fear itself.
Had I been naive all those times I visited Mount Tam alone? Had I trusted the mountain’s beauty too much? Mistaken her goodness for that of her inhabitants? I pictured myself going hiking again now and saw myself uneasy, on alert, constantly glancing around.
Fear is also a thief. It steals the present moment from us, snatches away our ability to feel that comfort and joy. And it was threatening to steal my most sacred place.
I mentioned the mystery of Magdalena Glinkowski to a friend, and wondered aloud if I should make a practice of carrying pepper spray on my hikes. Although, honestly, the idea of carrying a weapon to my church sounds kind of unholy. Could I really sink into the serenity with a can of eye-burning chemicals at the ready? But could I really find serenity without one? My friend suggested a taser. She’d bought one while she was being stalked; it fit in her back pocket and she found she felt powerful when she held it. Though the stalking is now over, she keeps it by her bedside. Further proof that the fear of physical harm is — unfairly — a fundamental fact of being a woman.
I managed to put the freaky images out of my head over a few days spent working in the East Bay, farther from the mountain. Until I mentioned the situation to my mom, who immediately started recounting chilling stories of the Trailside Killer. I’d been too young, a toddler, to remember when his murders terrorized the Bay Area.
“One of them was a young woman who’d been in the Peace Corps, and she didn’t know,” my mom said. “And she decided to stop just before sunset at the Mountain Theater.” (Note: Merely half a mile from my new favorite bench.) “They found her body not far away.”
That night, I anxiously looked online for any news of Magdalena. And there it was: they’d found her body. A trail runner who’d seen her, alive, on the day she went missing led authorities to the right area, where searchers found her down a steep slope. The sheriff reported “no obvious indication of any foul play.”
Still, I couldn’t sleep. Pandora’s box was open. I lay in bed searching for tasers on my smartphone.
Four days later, another solo female hiker went missing in the same area. Searchers found the body of 50-year-old Marie Sanner the next day, down another steep slope. Again, no sign of foul play. She appeared to have fallen.
So this could all be explained away. Mind you, though, this is the not the Rockies; accidental deaths on mellow Mount Tam are uncommon. Two in three weeks: unheard of. Official causes of death are still pending; the coroner is awaiting toxicology results for Magdalena and conducting an autopsy for Marie today.
Logically, I realize that Magdalena’s and Marie’s tragic deaths probably have little to do with my safety on the mountain. And statistically, with 30-plus years between us and the last serial killer, the risk is tiny. It’s probably more dangerous to go to restaurants in parts of East Oakland that see frequent shootings, as I am wont to do. But there is a certain kind of terror in the idea of being alone in the wilderness with a man who means you harm. And once that idea gets in you, it’s hard to get it out.
Naive or not, I realize that I have, at least, been choosing to be vulnerable. And I don’t want to be vulnerable anymore. I will probably hike with some kind of protection from now on, be it a taser in my back pocket or pepper spray at my waistband. I only hope I can forget I’m carrying it — that my mountain cradles me, as always, and whispers away my fear.