San Pedro Mountain Road

Each Christmas I send members of my family a photograph. This year I made a set of six small images and wrote a text to accompany the photographs.

When we moved to California in 2004, Lori and I looked all over the area south of San Francisco for a place to live but nothing quite fit. Then we found Montara, a small, unincorporated town nestled between a mountain range the Pacific Ocean. The best parts of living in Montara are the parts we didn’t know about when we moved in: The empty beaches during the week, the sky sometimes so dark you can see the Milky Way, and the hike up onto the mountain, a walk we try to do every day.

Though we’ve hiked this same four-mile hike thousands of times over the years it never gets old. There is always something new to see. As the pandemic got underway in 2020 we found a great horned owl nest alongside the trail, and for the next few months, people from Montara would gather under the nest as we all watched the chicks grow and learn to fly.

Once, while the kids were still in high school, we were all walking together on the trail and we spotted a red-tailed hawk zoom out of the sky and seize a rabbit from the ground, gripping it in its talons as it took flight to a nearby tree to kill and eat it. Lizz had just become a vegetarian and decided the scene was too gross for her, so she walked on ahead. That’s when the hawk swooped in towards Lizz and dropped the rabbit, landing the dead animal directly at her feet, almost hitting her with it. Maybe the hawk had decided to be a vegetarian, too.

Earlier this year Ally found a common poorwill, a nocturnal bird that had not been sighted here before. When she posted her photos online it caused a minor sensation, with groups of birders arriving at dusk night after night along with representatives from the Audubon Society there to confirm the sighting. On the hike those nights the birders we met were very excited to meet Ally.

We see more than birds. We see bobcats on occasion and whales, too, as they migrate past. And once in a while we see a mountain lion.

Despite the certainty that there are mountain lions living next to us–made visible on neighbors’ late-night security cam footage–we’ve only seen them first-hand twice in eighteen years. 

Once, Lori saw one during the day, a way up the mountain, curious about a dog and its owner. The other mountain lion Lori and I encountered at very close range. Hiking on the mountain at night we thought there was a deer or bobcat hiding in the brush just alongside the trail so we hid behind a tree, waited for it to emerge, and then jumped out with our flashlights. The surprise we had planned backfired and surprised us instead. The thing was huge. For the first time in my life I was worried about being eaten. After we beat a hasty retreat we nicknamed him “Sparky” because of the dazzling blue-white reflected light of my flashlight in its eyes.

There are more subtle joys along the trail, from the play of light and fog on the land, to the horses corralled on the old ranch, to the gnarly trees that grow all about. Humans, too, add their eccentric charms. There’s one tree that has a painted rock placed in its crotch, growing into it, another with a fake hundred-dollar bill nailed to the bark.

For eighteen years we’ve walked this trail, from our house, down the road, onto the Golden Gate National Park land, then up the mountain to the bluffs overlooking the sea. Through good times and bad, this trail has offered its powers, working its magic upon us.

I hope with these photographs to share little of that magic.