My mind keeps coming back to the long, winding road up Mount Tamalpais.
After a week of bouncing around Los Angeles and San Francisco, showing her art portfolio to college advisers, visiting landmarks and sharing time with family and friends, my 17-year-old daughter and I took a day by ourselves. We rented a car in Berkeley and set out to find the Muir Woods and the seashore.
Our California vacation was the culmination of several weeks on our own together, while her brother and dad have been on an extended road trip. While home, she had been working through a number of action steps on a rising-senior’s to-do list, from completing her art concentration to researching colleges, getting her drivers permit and studying for placement exams. A few weeks ago she had a revelation that wherever she goes she wants to focus on global history. She wants a smaller venue if she can find one, but also a platform from which she can travel the world. For the most part, she takes her upcoming applications and decisions in stride, at least outwardly. I can sometimes feel a little overwhelmed by the tyranny of details, the onslaught of options.
As we started our journey up the hillside on California Route 1, it was late morning. The Indigo Girls were singing “Power of Two”. We listened to a lot of music that day, but the lines of that song would ring in my head for the next week: “So baby we’re fine, we’re okay. And I’m here to stop your crying. Chase all the ghosts from your head. I’m stronger than the monster beneath your bed…” Though its meant to be a romantic tune, the lyrics speak to me as a mom, part guide and part passenger on this amazing route with my daughter where neither of us knows the way. I think I first heard the tune when she was a baby.
The road up Mount Tamalpais curves around bend after bend. The combination of height and tight turns made my knees wobbly. I couldn’t see what was over the edge or what was ahead of us. I hung onto the steering wheel like it was a life raft, trained my eyes on the white and yellow lines marking my lane, and only occasionally glanced over to see the view, which at that point was mostly a wall of fog. We knew grandeur was there even though we couldn’t quite make it out. Once in a while the sun broke through and we caught a glimpse of the low valleys, lush and green and deep. And a moment later, the mist would hide the view again.
When we arrived at the Muir Woods, the main parking lots were full and we missed our chance to park along the road, to hike the main trails to the redwood forest. Carolyn suggested we just keep driving rather than turning back.
So we continued on. We rounded curve after curve, sometimes toward the shoulder rail and sometimes hugging the mountain-side. Cars coming around the other way, especially doubly-tall tour buses, made me inhale and focus. On a rational level, I felt safe, but at the same time I had this strange feeling that the car could slide off the hill at any moment or launch off the curve into midair, as if gravity itself could lose its grip. I took it slow. And paid attention.
It is said that we are born with only two fears, the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Every other fear is learned. I remember the moment I learned to fear heights. As a kid I got too close to an open window on the second floor of our house. My dad swooped me up and spanked my behind good and hard in order to keep me safe. This worked. I never went close to an open window again.
Carolyn is proof that learned fears can skip a generation. I’m thankful they do. She stared out the window with a relaxed gaze. In those moments when we caught a sense of how high we were, she was happy to look way, way, down. And to mock me.
Eventually, we left the mountain and stopped for a cup of a cocoa in Stinson Beach, a little town that doesn’t like tourists to use their bathrooms.
We decided to keep driving and to follow the signs to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. We passed through 25 miles of bucolic fields peppered with cows and horses and seaside towns. Most of the time we didn’t speak, except to remark on the landscape. Carolyn worked the radio as it cut in and out and blended musical genres in odd combinations.
I noticed a beached boat on a sand berm and stopped to take a photo. Ladies with paints and canvas on easels told us the boat had been there for fifty years, a favorite subject among artists. I was reminded of the saying that a ship at harbor is safe but that is not what ships are built for.
We kept driving, up and around a thousand plush, green hillsides. After we arrived at the parking area for the lighthouse, we followed the other tourists up a footpath where dark trees leaned over as if in a storm. An empty park bench overlooked a beach far below, watching waves push foam ashore.
Then we saw the little lighthouse which was set way down the other side of this crest, closer to the water. Such a little landmark for all this fuss, I thought. To get to it, we climbed down a long, narrow staircase. We paused.
We breathed in deep the sea air and stared out over the open water. I thought about how such a small light could have had such an important job, warning ships. It doesn’t take much to tell you where you need to know to go, and where not to. A fog horn sounded. We looked back and saw the drop-off of a the rocky cliff to the water.
On our return trip to Berkeley we decided to go back again through the Muir Woods, to see if there was any more of the forest we could see, now that morning’s veil had lifted. Along the way, we spotted a white heron on the water’s edge. I stopped to get a better look and he flew away. But not so far. I snapped some distant photos as he gracefully stepped among the water grasses.
From the moment they arrive they are already inching away. Kids, that is. To the bassinet, to the room down the hall, to grade school. And they keep stepping. On our first night in San Francisco, Carolyn decided to take a walk on her own in the unfamiliar neighborhood we were visiting. By nightfall I was worried she had gotten lost. A friend asked what would you do if she were living away at college? That’s different, I said. Because then she wouldn’t be coming home to me. We started combing the neighborhood, looking for her. About fifteen minutes later she called for a pick-up. While we were concerned, she was happy as a clam. It was dark and foggy. She didn’t know where she was or how to get back to the house. But that’s not the same as being lost. As far as she was concerned, she was right where she needed to be.
This time, at Muir Woods, we parked at the first chance we got. Now the roads were fuller than they were in the morning. We took the first available trail, a short horse path that wound through brush and trees along a creek. The path led us to the only red wood tree we would see. As we approached, we noticed that it was actually two red woods, rooted closely together. We stared up through their branches to the canopy above. I touched the red-brick bark.
Shortly after that, we got back in the car and headed again up Mount Tamalpais a few more miles. Only now, the fog was gone. We had a bright, clear view of the panoramic valleys and tall bluffs — God’s handiwork, as my sister Edy would say. I took a good long stare at the forested hills that rolled down and away as fast as the years, at a horizon as endless as a young girl’s potential. More than once, I let out a gasp. And I understood why I couldn’t see it all before.
If I had any sooner, I am pretty sure it would have been too much to take.