Mt. Tamalpais, seen from Mill Valley at sunset (Grace Rubenstein/KQED)
Mount Tamalpais, seen from Mill Valley at sunset (Grace Rubenstein/KQED)

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.”

The author's birthday hike followed the Matt Davis Trail. (Grace Rubenstein/KQED)
The author’s birthday hike followed the Matt Davis Trail. (Grace Rubenstein/KQED)

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.

A sweeping view of the bay is visible from the Old Railroad Grade, near Mesa Station. (Grace Rubenstein/KQED)
A sweeping view of the bay is visible from the Old Railroad Grade, near Mesa Station. (Grace Rubenstein/KQED)

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.

The author watches the sun rise in front of the West Point Inn in March 2014. (James Daly/KQED)
The author watches the sunrise in front of the West Point Inn in March 2014. (James Daly/KQED)
  • Dennis Wulkan

    Try hiking with a buddy rather than with a weapon. Weapons make the area more dangerous for everyone as accidents happen and many folks are poorly trained in using them. I wouldn’t mind dedicating some of my tax money to pay for regular ranger patrols, even trained volunteers to walk the trails.

    • ohwell

      No, it’s people like you (anti-gun) who make the area more dangerous to women. So, please keep it zipped. Your choice about guns–don’t push it on others, got it? You and the likes of you won’t take guns away from us. And MY tax money won’t go for “ranger patrols” (or barb wire around the park perimeter…or drone patrols, or whatever else libnuts want)

      • chillville19

        hey a**wipe the person above never mentioned guns – the comment was weapons – why are you so fixated on guns

      • vetipie

        Blah Blah Blah you sound like a total idiot.

      • SB

        Put the kool-aid down, “ohwell”. Why don’t you try reading what Dennis actually wrote? Nowhere in Dennis’s statement did he say he was anti-gun, nowhere did he say he wanted to defy the 2nd Amendment, nowhere did he say he wanted to take YOUR guns away, nowhere did he say he wanted to take YOUR tax money to fund regular ranger patrols. What he said was “take a buddy rather than a weapon”, and he wouldn’t mind dedicating some of HIS tax money to pay for regular ranger patrols. The world doesn’t revolve around you, “ohwell”, and the “libnuts” (your word, not mine) aren’t out to get you. You are not that important, I’m sorry to say. While you are, most certainly, entitled to your opinions, you are not entitled to put words in other people’s mouths to suit your own delusional view of the world.

      • nutsinavice

        You keep it zipped, Neanderthal. I’ll do all I can do to take your guns. Other people can have guns as far as I am concerned, but your attitude shows you to be too irresponsible to own weapons. Don’t like America? Feel free to to move to Somalia. They won’t care how many guns you have and won’t ask you to pay taxes, let alone spend any tax dollars that you might think of as yours.

    • Kkeewee

      Everyone in California talks about “tax money” going for this or that and yet…every time they talk about getting rid of Prop 13 to keep the state in the black, no one wants to do it.
      Basically everyone in California wants services but no one wants to pay for them.

    • voltairesmistress

      I am sick of hearing from men that the way for me to find safety from potential male attackers is to hike with a buddy. Think about it: taking a walk in nature is often about finding peace through solitude. Sure, one can hike for exercise or socially, but that takes planning. Stopping for a private walk or stroll is often unscheduled, a response of the spirit looking for something precious, free, and solo. I am buying the best taser I can find. Screw all this gratuitous advice to women sick of walking in fear.

  • jdl

    My internal alarm sounded off when I heard they found Magdalena due to a trail runner mentioning where he passed her on the trail. Since this second death, I am wondering if that trail runner is being questioned … just saying…

    • ohwell

      This is non-sense. Seems like a well-meaning person who came forward (he didn’t have to, but he did) and he’s drawing fire from Mrs.Marples of this world now…

  • mercedes1947

    This is not the way I would prefer to be reminded of Mt. Tam, but there it is. Twenty years away from the Bay Area, the memory dims but with these deaths is reawakened.
    Your descriptions of Mt. Tamalpais have sent neglected images and unparalleled emotions long forgotten sweeping over me again just like the fog you describe that rushes up from Stinson Beach. Lounging on a dry grass covered hill you might glimpse a hang glider lazily circling like a human raptor. I am once again hiking the trails enjoying the solitude. There is no place I know to compare with the SF Bay Area. Nowhere have I experienced the “I am the master of the universe” feeling you get when scanning the panoramic view of the vast Pacific from her west slopes.
    My thought though is: Don’t abandon her. She needs people to experience her. I think your chances of being killed in an automobile are greater than taking your last breath on Mt. Tam. Also, I remember the Trailside killer and lived in Larkspur at the time and totally ignored warnings. That is not to say don’t take precautions. I know it feels like the Mountain herself has been violated. If it turns out there was foul play, group it, you know? Blessings from Seattle.

  • PT

    wonderfully written. my girlfriend has been telling me about these two deaths for the past few weeks since she loves hiking in Mt Tam as well. in fact we were up there last weekend and enjoyed it. i don’t know what to think. there must be foul play but we won’t know until they finish the autopsy and chemical testing. if there is a killer out there then the public needs to find him/her.

  • ohwell

    Sounds like another clueless and entitled person full of privilege…proably from gun hating crowd. Hey, honey, your people had killed all 1) Grizzly bears (who’ve been there before you–this lands belongs to them). They’re predators and you’d never walk “safe” in their presense 2) Indians who lived on that land. All over the country wolves got exterminated too. You think this land belongs to you and owes you safety? Nope.It owes safety to no one– Wild places never been safe. One NEVER could walk wild places alone, unarmed being “safe”. You want to turn it to a little fake yuppie playground park? So don’t snub the guns that you could carry….you think even pepper spray is too much??? Jesus…those city people are unbelievable…they brought up entire clueless, entitled, brainwashed generation. Luckily this phenomena tend to be stick more in places like Bay area, not everywhere…. And for the clueless: “pepper spray” will not help you if someone decides to go after you out there. Crazy people and metheads are often immune to it and in general people who’re out to harm someone have ways to deal with pepper anyway.

    • Sean Lampton

      You have a valid point in there somewhere but if you keep sh***ing on everyone that has a different point of view than you, you will never change anything for the better.

    • taekotemple

      Repeal idiotic California gun laws? Which ones? Plenty of people in California legally own guns… I know quite a few. It’s not like guns are completely outlawed here. Many people here may not like guns, but we’re not completely naive, especially those of us who live in major metropolitan areas and in the more wild areas.

      You give some good advice there, as Sean Lampton wrote, but if you cover your valid advice with so much disdain and judgement, nobody is going to listen to you. By the way, as someone who has worked in mental health, “crazy people” are not often immune to pepper spray. I don’t know where you came up with that, but it’s a silly assumption.

    • wow, kudos to you for making this post all about you and the gun lobby when the author never said word one about guns.

  • mraz

    Wait a sec here.. you talk about fear ‘stealing like a thief’ and you end by saying you’re going to now hike with a weapon; pepper spray or taser? Please keep in mind that one of the female hikers was with her dog the night she fell, the dog ‘made it back to the car’. Would this same dog not have tried to protect her owner if there was an assault? Or scare perhaps any would-be attacker? Also, the same woman was with her boyfriend who did not want to continue hiking because it was ‘too dark’. Please understand the relevance of the facts involved here.

    Mt.Tam is safe; Just use common sense when hiking past daylight and familiarize yourself with the trail before you hike. Please—

  • sigh

    You had me until the dig at East Oakland.

    • rickbynight

      She did say she goes to those often…

  • None

    You’re blond, someone is always out to get you, right? All blonds are targets bc all men want them. Sickening.

  • None

    You sound like an elitist b**ch.

  • pepper spray and tasers are going to give you a false sense of security, IMO. Neither is an effective defense.

    • Lena

      Just go with 2 or three other people, safety in numbers. I don’t want to hike alone anymore, and who cares if humans can’t agree on everything. Debating intelligently is a good thing.

  • ChrisRyanPhD

    From what I read here, the only facts we have are that two women stumbled and fell down steep inclines and died. That’s sad, but hardly reason to change your outlook on Mt. Tam or hiking alone. Do you swear off driving every time you read about someone dying in a car crash? Didn’t think so. Life involves death. So it goes.

    • exempt

      Life involves death indeed, however, Your input on mt tam, car crashes, and admitting that you acknowledge sadness towards these incidents are peculiar. Where does your intellectual superiority fit in to the reality of the incidence and common knowledge that a repeated incidence is quite possibly an attack from a psycho-serial attack. This is far too common and should not be excluded.

  • Heart Kandi

    This article speaks all of the different feelings and thoughts I have experienced since the death of these two women on Mt. Tam. Very well said. Our temple, she is. I agree, taking a buddy goes against why i love to run Mamma Tam’s trails…Thanks you. When I read your piece, I felt represented…

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