“I think they took the wrong turn at the fork,” I say to Bob, the leader for our group hike today in the wheat-colored hills above Muir Beach.
There are fourteen of us winding our way up the trail through contrails of fog. Bob, an energetic hiker, has powered ahead of the group, leaving some members straggling behind. We’ve just switched trails, from the Diaz Ridge to the Miwok, when we discover three members of the group have gone missing.
Bob swears. “Anyone know the way down so I can go back and find them?” I raise my hand. “OK, you’re in charge,” Bob says, and hightails it back the way we’d come.
OK, so it’s not easy organizing and running hiking groups. I should know: I’m now on my second women’s walking group, here in Sausalito.
My first group, in Connecticut, attracted a couple dozen followers, through only a loyal few consistently showed up. By and large, we all got on well. We’d chat about our spouses, jobs and the latest goings-on at Downton Abbey.
Then Sylvia joined.
Sylvia was in her mid-40s and had recently lost her job as a data entry clerk at Blue Cross. She lived with her mom, although “with” was stretching it. Apparently, they despised each other. They wouldn’t cook or eat together, so their days had to be carefully choreographed around meal times to avoid an inadvertent encounter at the refrigerator or in the pantry.
But because Sylvia was lonely and didn’t seem to have many friends, I’d occasionally invite her out for a walk, just the two of us. I felt sorry for her, because of the meals-without-mom situation and because she was striking out in her search for a job. Also, she’d fallen madly love with her new doctor, ten years her junior and (according to her) a dead ringer for George Clooney. Sylvia had noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring and was eager to strategize on the best way to attract his attention without having to pay for a lot of unnecessary appointments.
“Should I have asked him straight out if he was married?” she queried me. “Should I buy a Hallmark card – maybe one with flowers on it – and mail it to him?”
I spent hours with her on miles-long walks in the verdant Connecticut countryside. I suppose I felt I could help her thrash her way through her romantic and professional tussles, or at least lend a sympathetic ear.
Then, one sweltering day in late July, Sylvia showed up for one of my group walks. There were five of us.
We were strolling past a magnificent Georgian mansion, a mash-up of white columns and fireplaces and porches, and I was having a pleasant conversation with my friend Pam, when I heard raised voices behind me.
“The room was full of them!” Sylvia shouted. “They could barely speak English!”
Another friend of mine, Jane, shouted back, “So what? Don’t they have the same right to see a doctor you do?”
“I don’t want a doctor who treats Mexicans!” Sylvia screeched. “I want a doctor who treats white people like me!”
“What’s going on here?” I asked Margaret, who’s standing next to Jane. The group had halted.
Sylvia responded “I went to my gynecologist this week. And his waiting room was full of Mexicans! I didn’t like that one bit, no sir. I gave the receptionist a piece of my mind and told her I was never coming back again.”
Margaret and Jane howled. “Why, you racist…” The next thing I know, Margaret, Jane and Sylvia are flailing at each other in the middle of the road, directly in front of the magnificent Georgian mansion.
I’d never broken up a catfight before, and I hope I never have to again. Suffice it to say, we all managed to escape without scratches, bruises or bites. The last mile passed in silence.
That night, I emailed Sylvia. I’m sorry, but your presence and comments made several members of our group uncomfortable, and I’ve decided to discontinue your membership. Good luck with your job search.
I am thinking about Sylvia when Bob rejoins us, the three missing hikers in tow. He should’ve stopped at the split in the trail and conducted a headcount to make sure no one had strayed. That’s the leader’s job: to keep the group together – peaceably and safely.
Ten minutes later, I’m walking side by side with Bob when we spy two women striding towards us. Two corgis romp ahead of them.
Bob stops, hands on hips. “No dogs on this trail,” he informs them.
“They’re her dogs,” the women simultaneously respond, and point at each other.
“Nice try,” Bob says. “There’s a sheriff right behind us and if he catches you, it’s a $300 fine.”
This was a lie: there was no sheriff in our group or behind us. And, more to the point, sheriffs generally don’t wander the trails of Marin looking for illicit dogs, though Park Rangers might.
“Are you with the park service?” asks one of the women. She is dressed in black Lululemon yoga pants, a black windbreaker and orange sneakers.
“Yes, I am,” Bob replies. I’m certain this, too, is a lie.
The women turn back, urging the corgis ahead of them.
“I think I handled that pretty well, wouldn’t you agree?” Bob asks me. I drop back and start chatting with Mo, a civil engineer from Iran. Earlier, Bob had chided Mo. “Why don’t you call yourself a Persian? Isn’t that the more historically significant term?” Mo had smiled tolerantly. “We were Persia two thousand years ago,” he says. “Today, we’re Iran.”
A mile later, two more women – with two dogs – amble down the trail toward us. Bob does his sheriff-with-a-$300-fine routine, but they push past him. “We’ll leave the dogs home next time,” one of them, an attractive blond, says to Bob. She flashes him a winning smile.
Bob turns around. “You … you … blonde woman!” he shouts at her retreating back.
I have no idea whether others in the group witnessed these two encounters; mostly, they’re grouped in two’s and three’s, deep in conversation and immersed in the hike.
We reach another fork near the end of the trail, and I’m looking forward to lunch at the Green Gulch Zen Center, when Frank trots over to me.
“Been talking with Bob,” he says.
“The subject of Israel came up. He says he hopes they wipe Sharia law off the face of the earth, and everyone who believes in it, too.”
“Way. Total asshole.”
Members of the group thread their way around us. Bob has disappeared around a bend, apparently eager for lunch. I note that not everyone has reached the fork – and that it would be easy to miss the turn.
“Let’s stay here, make sure the last of the group heads in the right direction, then skip lunch,” I say to Frank. “I’m done with Bob.”
We stand by the trail sign for a couple more minutes, waiting for the laggards. As the last two pass, we ask them to tell Bob that the Sausalito couple is heading home.
I recall overhearing that Bob is heading south – “someplace very different from here,” as he put it – and that he’ll soon be closing down the group.
I think again about Sylvia, and conclude that she and Bob (also single) might have made the perfect couple. They could’ve hiked together – “someplace very different from here” – while ranting and raging against Mexicans and Muslims. Together, they could’ve formed a new hiking group, one that didn’t include minorities, or blonde women with dogs, or Iranians.
I think about the children such a union would produce, and shudder.