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A Tale of Two Mountains

Love knows no bounds when the mountains are calling, and I must go...barf into a bucket. For more cringeworthy moments, read on.

By: Francis Mendoza + Save to a List

When I hear the word "mountain", images of crampons and white men wearing North Face jackets flood my mind. At one time, I didn’t even know what a crampon was; in fact, it might as well have been a tampon I was thinking of. I just know that they ain’t for me (both things, actually). I’ve read Into Thin Air and watched the black and white archival footage of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, who summited Mt. Everest in the 1950s. More recently, I’ve seen Black people summit Denali, the highest peak on Turtle Island (North America), in the documentary, An American Ascent. But those mountains seemed unattainable, like the hot girl (or just person) in high school, utilizing a common gender binary trope. Instead, I was busy courting my own peaks and mountains in the San Francisco Bay Area, loving the solitude and healing they offered but often loathing the barriers that kept them from me.

(Photo of Mount Tamalpais courtesy of California State Parks Foundation)

If ever there was a sordid love affair with a mountain, mine would be with Mount Tamalpais. Mt. Tam for short, it’s not very impressive in height at only 2,572 feet. It’s quite far from my adopted homeland of the Oakland Bay Area, and with traffic, can take me 2 hours just to get there. There’s a much closer peak in nearby Fremont, where a bunch of fitness freaks, families and their furry friends climb just to say they did it, called Mission Peak. I say climb rather than hike, because at times it feels like a never-ending ascent, with a steep grade and very little shade along the way to offer hikers respite from the sun. As a former park ranger who used to lead these “climbs”, this was easily my least favorite hike of the hundreds of hikes I’ve led with youth over the span of two decades. Mission Peak was that annoying little girl in third grade who had a crush on you and showed it by punching you every chance she got, whereas Mt. Tam was love at first hike. Ever since I discovered the Marin watershed and its parks filled with waterfalls and endless trails on a high school field trip, I instantly fell in love. You could say I peaked in high school, but doing so would require a long, hot shower to wash off the cringe.

(Karli the Fog enveloping hikers with their moisture and life, because Water is Life)

Mt. Tamalpais is named after the village of Tamal, and although many people presume “pais” means “country” in Spanish, it’s just a happy coincidence as támal pájiṣ means somewhere between “west hill” and "coast mountain" in the native language. On the ancestral, unceded and contemporary land of the Coast Miwok, many of whom belong to the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Marin County is one of the most expensive counties in the bay area, which is also one of the most expensive places to live in the entire world. It’s a Russian nesting doll of wealth and inaccessibility, especially for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) who have mainly been priced out of the area and historically not been welcome there. Predictably, it is populated with mostly white, upper middle class residents who work in the City (for the uninitiated, the City is San Francisco, but for those of us who live in the bay, we just call it the City). When Karli (my preferred gender non-binary name for the anthropomorphic fog that often blankets the mountain) the Fog isn’t providing precipitation in the form of fog drip for the redwoods in Muir Woods, you can see the iconic SF skyline from the summit. This mountain literally came thru drippin’, as the Gen Z zygotes say - more cringe for you to wash off.

(Photo of wayfinder pole near the summit of Riisumu courtesy of ABC 7 News)

Meanwhile, back in my hometown of Fremont, the only drip Mission Peak gets is seasonal rainfall, amounting to just mere inches per year. The peak is named that because it sits atop the area where Mission San Jose was built in 1797. No, the Spaniards did not discover the area as some would have you believe, nor did they build the mission that was one of 21 missions littering the region once known as Alta California. Rather, it was the native Chochenyo people, who were enslaved that built it and who have lived (and continue to live) on their ancestral homeland since time immemorial. In fact, some Chochenyo Ohlone (as many have come to be known today) call the diminutive 2,516 foot peak “Riisimu” (pronounced Riih-si-moo) and consider it sacred. I cringe, myself, every time hikers stand atop a wooden pole, situated near the summit and originally designed to be a wayfinder for other sights in the bay area, while they have their friends or randos take pictures of them “bagging” the peak. They don't know how sacred these peaks and mountains are to Indigenous people across Turtle Island and beyond, where even their own tribal members are strictly prohibited from visiting them, as they are ceremonial spaces only reserved for certain people such as medicine Doctors and Headpersons.

(The view of Riisimu on the trail leading up to it in Mission Peak Regional Preserve in present-day Fremont, CA) 

So instead of bagging or conquering (as the Spaniards have brutally done with people) peaks and mountains, I choose to have a more meaningful, loving relationship with them, a sort of foreplay if you will. Sometimes flowers are involved, not because I wronged them and am asking for forgiveness, but more innocently, because I’m looking to find rare flora, such as the endangered Tiburon Mariposa Lily, only found on rocky outcroppings of serpentinite, California’s state rock. With my proclivity to identify flowers instead of giving them to my dates romantically, it’s a wonder I ever got laid in college. Despite having run, hiked, biked and studied the many habitats of Mt. Tam over more than two decades, I only ever summitted it once when I brought one of those few dates up there to solicit a kiss from them. Instead of looking at love as a conquest, my love language includes ferns, redwoods, bobcats and cougars, all of which the mountain has in abundance. But there’s another cougar on the prowl, and they scare me WAY more than the resident mountain lions that live there.

(Photo of the "signocalypse" at the Cataract Trail trailhead, yet another barrier keeping people out of our most exclusive parks and open spaces)

Driving Mercedes-Benz SUVs and sporting Lululemon tights better suited for the yoga studio, cougars of all ages use their entitlement and privilege to ask if I'm lost on the trail, or point out my footwear, as if I didn’t know I was hiking in sandals - and not the running sandals many people are now using to run trails, but the Hawaiian Locals or tsinelas (pronounced chih-neh-las) I used earlier that day to walk on the hot sand in nearby Stinson Beach. In a now infamous incident in 2020, a white woman was caught on a cellphone video telling an Asian American family that they "couldn't be in this country" after pointing out there were no dogs allowed on the trail. Dubbed by many as “Ranger Karen”, she subsequently got fired from her job when the video went viral. Despite not being an actual park ranger, this pejorative moniker speaks to the gatekeeping that many rangers do to consciously (and subconsciously) exclude people from marginalized communities from visiting their respective parks and open spaces.

These incidents are hardly rare occurrences and are further exacerbated by the rise in AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) hate and violence since the Covid-19 pandemic began, especially against our elders and women. In 2018, I wrote an Op-Ed piece in Bay Nature Magazine, a regional bay area nature publication that also explores the intersection of race, gender and culture with equitable access to the outdoors. In it, I used the hashtag #asianoutsider to highlight the fact that I’m a Filipinx immigrant who works in the outdoors, but have never been fully accepted in conservation spaces, along with the familiar spaces my Titos and Titas (Uncles and Aunts in Tagalog) tsismis (pronounced Chis-mis) or gossip in, like at the mahjong table or a backyard barbecue. They tsismis about my weight (which is either too fat or too skinny, never just right), my divorce, and why I didn’t become a doctor or nurse and rather, a park ranger that makes a fraction of the income I would have made if I continued to study medicine. I was an outsider in ALL of these spaces, but also enjoyed working and playing outside - hence the double meaning in #asianoutsider.

(L to R: Saatvika Deshpande, Francis Mendoza and Gabriela Mosco enjoying a hike in Muir Woods; photo courtesy of Elizabeth Villano)

Little did I know how much that article would resonate with people, not just with Asian folx (as I wrote in my last article, "What's for Lunch? Chicken Adobo with All the Garlic", the “x” in folx is an intended misspelling to be inclusive of gender non-binary people), but also other immigrants from around the world and anyone with a marginalized identity in the outdoors. Disabled folx have long been silenced and erased in outdoor spaces as accessibility favors the able-bodied disproportionately. Two-spirit (Indigiqueer or non-binary Natives) and LGBTQIA+ folx are often stigmatized by other park users if their clothing, appearance and behavior don’t fit into their idea of a gender binary, and they get more than just looks and epithets yelled at them; they are attacked physically and even killed for it. Hence, my rocky relationship with Mt. Tam over the years, as I struggle to reconcile the beauty and healing power of nature with its accessibility, rather inaccessibility, to marginalized groups such as the intersectional ones I identify with - an Asian immigrant, a person of color and a gender non-binary person.

I will say it’s getting better, though. A lot of that has to do with the privilege I acknowledge as a male-presenting, cisgender, visably able-bodied person. But also because there are good people doing the necessary work to decolonize and diversify the outdoors. My fellow residents-in-writing at the Outbound Collective, Samara Almonte and Angie Vasquez, are writing about their own experiences as BIPOC in the outdoors, and I’m here for it. It’s a privilege and honor to share this space and platform with them, and I look forward to reading from more BIPOC writers in magazines such as Outside Magazine and High Country News. At one time, all I saw were white, physically fit, able-bodied, cis-hetero men adorning the covers of such magazines, but now I’m seeing and reading from more Black, Indigenous, brown, disabled, neurodivergent, trans and gender non-binary folx with every body type imaginable. And I’m loving every bit of it.

My love affair with Mt. Tam is really tied into my love for nature and having equitable access to it, and like any relationship, it has its ups and downs. For every Ranger Karen or Kevin that makes it difficult, even dangerous, for others to access nature nearby, there’s dozens to hundreds of beautifully blended, multi-generational families (including chosen family members), with all shades of melanin on their skin, enjoying nature responsibly. Going the way of the trilobite are unfounded stereotypes and stigmas that brown and Black folx don’t hike, and instead are being replaced by images of African Americans summitting Denali (in North Face jackets, of course) as in the movie I mentioned earlier, An American Ascent. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, of Central/South Asian descent, has arguably spent more time on Everest than anyone in hxstory, yet his colleague Sir Edmund Hillary gets top billing. This underrepresentation in the media is not only a barrier for young folx who yearn to see people who look like them in the parks, but highly deleterious to the park system that is seeking diverse perspectives in their leadership.

(Photo of my nephew, Amado, looking out on Coast Miwok land from the summit of Mt. Tam)

I'm not the only one inspired by the mountain; from plein air artists to mountain bikers paying homage to the birthplace of their sport, Mt. Tam has been the catalyst for many a movement. My own nephew, Amado Khaya Canham Rodriguez, was inspired by a camping trip we took when he was a teenager and as his mom put it, "lit the fire in him to fight for Indigenous rights" in our home country of the Philippines. Working with and for the Mangyan community on the island of Mindoro, he arrived first to provide disaster relief after a devastating typhoon hit the island in 2019. He stayed to continue to fight for the rights of his kababayan or fellow countrypeople, but sadly passed away just about a year ago from food poisoning. I take solace in knowing he took inspiration from that campout we had with my daughters and his mom, as he returned many times to the mountain to offer medicine, heal from trauma and be inspired just as I was.

A few months back, I went for a hike with an Indigenous friend of mine on Mt. Tam. We went nowhere near the summit and spent most of the hike talking and enjoying the views, flora and fauna that the mountain offered that day. We saw people from so many cultural backgrounds, from south Asians to white folx, diverse ages from toddlers in slings clinging tightly to their family member’s bosom to older adults enjoying the accessibility of disabled parking spots in the parking lot. I saw gender non-binary folx like myself, who have had our own tumultuous hxstory with parks as many older queer folx have needed to use them as places to hook up so as to not be harassed by others, especially by law enforcement. When we finished our hike on the beach, we thanked Creator for giving us this good medicine as we looked west towards the setting sun, where ancestors like Amado have gone on to the other world. Then we returned to the ranger station, where we ran into a young park ranger, who has worked there for several seasons and identifies as gender non-binary and Filipinx themselves. Thankfully, the love for the mountain continues on to the next generation of stewards, and Amado's legacy lives on in the work of our kababayan.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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