In the Bay Area, we are fortunate to live near some of the most beautiful wild beaches in the world -- Drakes Bay in Point Reyes National Seashore is my favorite -- and as West Oakland has easy freeway access, getting out of town is a breeze. Tuesday morning, showers were still lingering from Monday's ferocious storm, but my sister and I decided that as the clouds were moving swiftly south, we would drive north through the beauty of West Marin to Drakes Bay.
I had originally thought of driving across the Golden Gate and up the coast, past Muir Woods and along the high cliffs above Stinson Beach, but I could see that the storm had trapped great banks of billowing fog just north of the Golden Gate so chose instead to drive through San Rafael to Samuel Taylor State park and then on the beach. My hope was that we could first walk in the woods by Devil's Gulch near the salmon stream where trees are lush with moss and the air rich with the aroma of bay leaves. I'm not all that fond of driving through thick fog and knew if we went overland by the time we reached the coast, passing through forests and driving over rolling hills and past grazing cows, the fog would thin to a more gentle mist.
And it did . . . somewhat. The forest was as lovely as I had first imagined it would be -- richly green with only wisping fog, delicate on exposed skin. Due to budget cuts, the park is officially 'closed,' but hiking is till allowed. We walked easily along the still well-maintained trail, watching red-tail hawks circling above grassy slopes, and then moving again under the forest canopy, we were surprised by a young deer bounding through the ferns and across the stream. It was the second deer we saw that morning – the first had wandered across a crowded urban street in San Rafael.
When we arrived at Drake's Bay, fog still clung to the coast, making walking on the beach a glorious pleasure. I may dislike driving in fog, but walking through it on a deserted beach feeds both skin and spirit. My body felt easily and delicately connected to both sky and land, and with every step, I entered into a graceful dance with the sea.
We were alone on the beach and walked its length, stepping easily around the mounds of seaweed brought ashore by the early morning high tide. As we walked, I told Lu of the great slabs of sedimentary rock crisscrossed with fossils, sometimes visible but today buried beneath the hard packed sand. I love the radical changes of the seashore.
photo snapped another day, another month, on the same beach
That the sea can move tons of sand onto or off a beach, sometimes overnight, opens my world. If the sea can do that, I think (perhaps irrationally) it just might be possible for equally sudden yet even more beautiful changes to happen in the human world. The sea acts in concert with the season -- currents shifting, tides rising, as the earth tilts, but certainly we humans react as strongly to our own tidal shifts. We bury reminders of a beautiful past as suddenly as the sea conceals the fossils of another age, and just as suddenly, we can brush aside the dust, the sand, the smoke, the pain that masks the beauty, conceals the hope. I want to believe that anyway.
As Monday's storm had rushed river mud into coastal waters, the breaking waves were tinted a pinkish rust, and that color hemmed the silver shimmer of the sea with playful lace. I apologize to those who might be annoyed at such a fragile description of this reality, but I have difficulty discovering words to describe what I felt as I walked through that fog with the sea drawing away from the shore and the sky slitting back to blue. I know it will sound silly if I say my body stretched from the beach to the horizon until every cell, every molecule, every atom mingled with those of the lifting fog, but that is the case. I was emptied, but I was full.
When the sun began to slice apart the rich silver track of fog, I was back on earth, walking past the cliffs, watching two sea lions lifting their heads above the swell, recalling a day months ago when the beach near the lighthouse was packed with mother sea lions barking to their newborns who chirped and whistled like forest birds. Then, the park rangers had to stand guard over the large male who had chosen a strip of sand just feet from the busy parking lot as the perfect place for a days-long nap. Now, that parking lot is empty, the cafe closed. Most of the sea lions have gone out to sea. No park rangers anywhere, but the land still sings.
Drakes Bay, October 11, 2011
a peaceful way
I find I am more relaxed, more comfortable walking along streets where plantings have converted sidewalks from walkways to pathways. I am happiest when trees overhang and shrubs, especially those that flower, push their way over concrete, translating straight lines to unpredictable jigs and jags and flat bare ground to mounded hills of green where chipmunks hide and squirrels bury nuts.
I spent much of my childhood living in a house built long ago on the side of High Tor, a mountain in southern New York state that had its moment of fame when it was featured in Maxwell Anderson's 1936 play High Tor. Anderson lived some distance down the road on the slopes of our mountain. I lived walking distance from the summit in an eclectic house, originally built in 1750 with the addition of a spacious living room sometime in the 1920s. Except for the addition of an attic dormer, the 1750 house had changed little over the years. It still had its worn wide-board floors, a front door that blew open in winter winds, and in the bedroom I shared with my sisters, the original mud adobe walls were evident where the thin layer of plaster had cracked away. I recall lying in bed and pulling ancient straw from that adobe, rolling that straw between my fingers, tasting it, and thinking this grass was green centuries ago.
The newer addition was up a flight of stairs that led to the kitchen from a small area that had once been perhaps the flat broom swept piece of ground near the back door of the old house but had since been enclosed and roofed over to make a very simple bathroom. The double Dutch door that had served as the back door for the old house was still there, but it opened to the linen closet, once perhaps the mud room. A new doorway between the hall and the bathroom had been cut to one side of the original door. A curtain hung there to separate the hall from the bathroom, and another curtain hung to cover the stair leading up to the 1920s house. If the bathroom were at any time occupied and it was necessary to pass from the one house to the other, it was possible to grab both curtains and hold them together to form a temporary privacy barrier. It seemed a satisfactory arrangement.
The living room upstairs was grand and spacious with its large fireplace, vaulted ceilings, and tall French windows that cranked out and easily served as doors for a small girl anxious to escape into the wild cool of the woods that stretched unchecked from the back of our house to the top of the mountain overlooking the Hudson River. It was possible to step from those windows and walk under the thick canopy of maples and oaks, pushing aside wild grape vines and clambering over ancient stone walls that had once served as boundaries for open pastures, always climbing up, past abandoned cisterns through vineyards to the small path that led to rocky top of High Tor. I loved making that journey, stopping at the meadow to search for wild strawberries and then spending hours at the top, watching sailboats drift on the river while freight trains, hundreds of cars long, snaked along its banks. The first part of this trek was trackless, a wandering upward through the forest. I was never afraid of getting lost; it was a small mountain with a road that ran to the left of 'my' woods. I knew I would find the path after I found the vineyard and I knew the vineyard was above me. I just wandered up, and when I found the well-worn path, its entrance marked by a huge boulder, I felt the embrace of the forest grow tighter. I always felt protected by the forest, but there on that path where wildflowers grew, I was grateful to be once again walking with others. Even if I walked alone on the path, I knew others had been there before me, walking in peace, listening as I listened to the song of forest birds .
a way to peace
Now, when I come upon a city sidewalk dappled with the shade from trees above, softened by the grace of bushes encroaching on its concrete heat, I feel the same peace. My body recalls the forest energy even though my logical mind understands that these bushes have been planted, these trees are tended and trimmed. The reminder of the wild is enough to settle my spirit, to revive hope, produce joy.
I am suddenly removed from the walkway, transported to a pathway, and that removal matters. To traverse a walkway is purposeful, businesslike and efficient, an organized trip from here to there. To walk on a path is to travel within and beyond, reaching one's destination certainly but at the same time, discovering and greeting the world. I realize that a city walkway cannot become a pathway unless both sides of the sidewalk are planted, allowing the walker to move through the landscape and through the self, rather than past it, but those of us who live in cities near walkways that can be perhaps easily transformed might try to make such magic happen. That through-line may just be a lifeline, a way to peace.