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Weekend Escape

Shifting Gears in Marin

A novice pedals to a rustic cabin on Mt. Tamalpais, a bike-and-hike mecca.

November 04, 2001|EILEEN HANSEN | Eileen Hansen is a freelance writer in Marin County

MILL VALLEY, Calif. — There was a time when I rode a bike every day. Granted, it had a purple-flowered banana seat, and I was riding the pancake-flat streets of Omaha, Neb. But isn't biking one of those once-learned, never-forgotten skills?

So when my husband proposed a weekend of biking on Mt. Tamalpais, a 2,572-foot peak in Marin County and a mecca for mountain bikers and hikers, I blithely agreed.

"You know," I said, "I used to balance one-legged like a ballerina on the seat of my Schwinn."

"You realize," Jay replied, "that mountain bikes don't have banana seats."

Whatever. I'm in reasonable shape. I knew I could handle it, and with the help of bike-savvy friends, I prepared. I bought biking pants with diaper-like padding. I dug up my windsurfing gloves to protect my hands. I borrowed a helmet. And I listened closely as a friend described the type of bike I should rent. She kept mentioning shocks. "Shocks?" I asked. "Whatever for?"

I soon found out. On a Friday evening in September, just before sunset, we loaded up Jay's bike and drove to Sausalito Cyclery, the nearest bike shop with rentals, to pick up one for me. After a quick stop at Whole Foods Market in Mill Valley for dinner-to-go, we went to the public parking lot opposite the Mountain Home Inn on Panoramic Highway.

The coastal fog was blowing in, and the trees were dancing a wild tango. I looked at the warm glow radiating from the inn's windows and zipped up my jacket as Jay attached a little trailer filled with our clothes and sleeping bags to his bike. We rolled out of the parking lot and made our way to Old Railroad Grade, the trail that would take us to the West Point Inn, our home for the night.

Switchbacking up the mountain and sailing along above the swirling fog, I wondered what we would find at the inn. After 45 minutes of continuous but gentle climbing, we arrived at a gracious, porch-rimmed building. The only remnant of the Mill Valley and Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway, West Point Inn was built in 1904 to serve as a restaurant and stopover for passengers traveling "the world's crookedest railway," which ran from the base of the mountain to the top.

The railway closed in 1929, and today the inn's seven-room main building and five cabins are run by volunteers dedicated to preserving the old ambience.

For starters, there's no electricity. The propane-and solar-powered heat, lights and refrigerator are the only concessions to modernity, and guests must bike or hike to reach the inn. Still, at $30 a night per person, our "rustic, cold water" cabin, complete with the promise of priceless views, was a bargain.

And it was truly rustic, with its simple, single-wall design, three bare beds and--best of all--two windowed doors that opened onto a small deck with a sink, mirror and outdoor shower.

We flipped a coin to see who would get the first shower. Afterward we both agreed: Calling it cold water was a compliment; actually, it was frozen. Still, who could complain? Sitting on the deck in rickety wood chairs and sipping wine from Dixie cups, we listened as the crickets warmed up for their nightly performance. A half moon was rising, and the sea of fog below us was streaked with pink and gold. The occasional twinkling light filtering through from far below was the only clue that we were less than 10 miles from civilization.

Dinner that night was simple: a grilled vegetable salad and pasta with spicy tomato basil sauce, which we prepared in the main building's well-equipped communal kitchen. We took our meal to the porch, huddled over a headlamp and ate as though we had never seen food before.

The next morning we rose early and biked 15 minutes to the East Peak of Tamalpais, a.k.a. Mt. Tam, for a fabulous 360-degree view that swept over San Francisco on one side and wooded hills rolling out to the ocean on the other. Back at the inn we helped with a few simple chores because, in the volunteer spirit, guests double as maids.

As I bade goodbye to Ed, the innkeeper that weekend, I spied on the wall a framed 1915 ad for the railway: "an indescribable and ever-changing kaleidoscope of enthralling scenic effect." I guessed the copywriter was paid by the syllable. Not wanting to miss kaleidoscopic views, we headed out.

Our destination was the Pelican Inn at Muir Beach, nestled at the bottom of the mountain. Some trails are reserved for hikers, so we stuck to paths that allow bikes. We bounced along--making the value of shocks quite clear.

Coming to a fork, we chose Deer Park Trail and were rewarded with scents of bay and Douglas fir. With virgin redwoods towering above and a cushy layer of needles below, we zoomed down the trail--until my hands started to ache from gripping the brakes. Again, I made a mental note to thank my advisory panel. Gloves do help.

Less than an hour later we were on Muir Woods Road. For once, pavement felt like a luxury, and though I wasn't too sore, I was ready to get off the bike and into the cozy pub of the Pelican Inn.

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