Lost & Found: A Pilgrimage to Point Reyes
Editor’s note: This column describes a pilgrimage I made to the Point Reyes National Seashore, and particularly to Point Reyes Station and North Beach, on Aug. 12. The column was scheduled to be published on Aug. 19. Three days before that, sparked by a series of lightning strikes, wildfires began to burn throughout Northern California. Among the regions affected was the Point Reyes National Seashore, where remote mountainside forestland was blazing and the settlements of Bolinas and Olema were threatened. The Point Reyes fire was eventually contained, almost seven weeks later, and happily, the fire did not reach the towns. But more than 4,900 acres of beautiful forestland were burned and blackened.
We love and honor this area, as we love and honor all the areas in Northern California that have been devastated by recent fires, and at first, we postponed publishing this piece, feeling that it was inappropriate to present at that time. Earlier this week, however, I decided to revisit Point Reyes Station and North Beach, to see how these special places had fared. To my great delight, in Point Reyes Station, the air was clear, the sky was a robin’s egg blue, and the people walking the streets, shopping at the Palace Market, and dining convivially on the patio at the Station House Café were smiling and laughing. North Beach was as wild and wonderful as before, and as I was driving home from the beach, about five minutes inland, I passed a bride in a brilliant flowing white wedding dress, flanked by her parents, walking to a home where I surmised her wedding celebration was about to take place. In her blossoming radiance, she seemed to embody the spirit I had sensed throughout the day.
While we are all intensely mindful of the terrible losses the wildfires have wrought, I found resilience, gratitude, and hope everywhere I looked in Point Reyes. Buoyed by these findings, we have decided to publish this account now, as a reverent reminder of the fundamental importance and healing grace of these precious places, and as a testament to the power of people and landscape that we celebrate wherever we travel in the world, and that sustains us through even the most challenging of times.
AUGUST 12, POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE—A few months ago I decided to take advantage of the pandemic to visit close-to-home attractions that would normally be overwhelmed with visitors. In June I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, an odyssey that I had been meaning to make for decades—and that offered transformative, multi-layered lessons in time and place. Last month I hiked into the heart of Muir Woods, another world-class wonder that I had wanted to visit for years; that pilgrimage immersed me in a world of sanctity, serenity, and eternity—and bestowed a soul-expanding encounter with a 600-year-old tree.
For my most recent pilgrimage, I decided to visit the Point Reyes National Seashore, a place of idiosyncratic outposts and wildly beautiful coastscapes that I have come to love in my four decades here. Located in Marin County about an hour north of the Golden Gate Bridge, this 71,000-acre peninsula curls greenly around Drake’s Bay into the Gulf of the Farallones and the boundless Pacific beyond.
With such a vast territory to explore, my plan was to travel mostly without a plan, but there was one place that I knew I wanted to visit: the heartwarming hamlet of Point Reyes Station, an unincorporated town of 350 souls that serves as an informal gateway to the Point Reyes Peninsula, and that I visit almost every August with a small group of students for a one-day in-the-field travel writing workshop.
I’d had to cancel that workshop this year, of course, but when August arrived, some homing instinct was still directing me there. So I decided to make my journey on Aug. 12, exactly a week before the day that I was supposed to visit with my class. I might not have any students this year, but I could still make my pilgrimage to Point Reyes!
Unlike my previous close-to-home pilgrim-forays, the 12th dawned overcast and gray, the clouds like a woolen blanket covering the day. But cloudy skies can confer beauty too, I thought as I drove across the bay, noting the water’s blue-gray sheen and the pearly luster of the hillside scene.
I exited the highway onto Lucas Valley Road and followed that winding thoroughfare past golden hillsides where herds of black and white cows grazed and stables where sleek horses stood and stared. At one point the road narrowed even more and my car wound under dense, overhanging, enchanted-forest trees, past wooden cottages tucked among the redwoods and other evergreens.
After an hour I reached Point Reyes Station. When I entered the town, I was surprised to find about fifty people out and about on the town’s one main street. A couple of restaurants had set up tables outside and two dozen diners sat happily talking and eating. Patient patrons queued along the sidewalk at my favorite scone stop, the Bovine Bakery. Another line waited at Toby’s Coffee Bar, and shoppers gathered at the entrance to the Palace Market.
As I always do, I parked outside the Cowgirl Creamery, which has been producing delicious organic cheeses for almost three decades. The interior of the shop was closed, but a hand-written sign in the window said they were accepting online and phone orders and dispensing them at the back door, so I wandered to the back, placed my order with the kindly woman there, and walked away a few minutes later contentedly cradling a Ham and Tam sandwich and a round of my all-time favorite triple crème Mt Tam cheese.
Then I ambled down the main street to Toby’s Feed Barn. As always, I loved perusing the marvelously Marin range of products here, from bales of hay and grain to fresh organic oranges, apples, peaches, plums, tomatoes, onions, and much more, to locally made baskets, bowls, and other arts and crafts, to all manner of garden supplies. As usual, I ended in the store’s back-room art gallery, admiring an exquisite exhibition of landscape prints and wildlife photographs by local artists.
From Toby’s I meandered to the end of the three-block-long downtown at Gallery Route One, an intimate art space that displays inventive box-art creations every August. A sign said the gallery was open by appointment only, so I had to content myself with peering through the windows to see this year’s boxed beauties. Walking back, I stopped at the Bovine Bakery for a takeaway blueberry scone, and at Point Reyes Books, another atmospheric place that showcases local authors and sells a discerning array of tomes, from new age treatises to literary classics.
While it was poignant to revisit these treasured places, I felt unsettled, as if something was amiss. As I walked and looked around, the reason became clear: Commendably, everyone was wearing masks—signs saying “Face Covering Required–Fine Up to $500” were prominently displayed—and conscientiously social-distancing. But these simple facts reminded me relentlessly that the carefree, serendipitous spirit I always cherished here had been pandemified this year. Much as I loved this special town, I did not feel carefree or serendipitous now.
I realized that I needed a dose of wildness straightaway, so rather than extend my stay, I impulsively decided to drive to North Beach instead. Decades ago I had fallen in love with that remote and lonesome strand, and it had come to symbolize nature’s wild heart in my head.
I steered the car through increasingly primeval-feeling landscape toward the ocean. After a half hour, the densely forested hillsides gave way to sprawling historic farmsteads and herds of placid cows. Then I turned onto the tiny lane called Point Reyes Beach North and stopped among a dozen cars in the earthen parking lot at the end of the way.
I hopped out of the car and strode excitedly to the beach. On the stretch of sand in front of the lot, there were about two dozen people. A few children were braving the chilly ocean waters, skipping in and out of the waves, but for the most part, the visitors were sitting in the sand, some on blankets, some under beach umbrellas, most reading or talking or just gazing out to sea.
At first, I was disappointed—I didn’t want to share the beach with anyone—but after I walked five minutes south down the strand, I suddenly found myself absolutely alone. When I looked back, I couldn’t see anyone. When I looked farther down the beach, all I could discern was sand and bluffs and sky. I felt like a castaway, abandoned in the middle of nowhere—how wonderful!
I took out my journal and wrote:
So here I am at North Beach in Point Reyes. It is just as wild as I remember. The waves come crashing in, ceaseless. They are at least six feet high and they make a constant curl and crash, roaring as they scrabble onto the shore, white upon white upon white, piling and jumping, splashing, frothing, layer on layer. . . . The gathering of blue-green and the crashing into white is a beautiful, soul-soothing sight. There’s the roar of the sea and the thrum of the breeze and every once in a while, the cry of a gull. That’s all.
An eight-foot-long log had washed up on the beach and it made the perfect place to sit and unwind. I took off my shoes and socks, and slowly abandoned myself to the scene: the crash of the waves on the sand, the suddenly blue sky overhead—the sun had just serendipitously emerged—and the brush of the wind from the sea. Sun, sand, ocean, breeze: a swatch of seaside ease.
I returned to my journal:
It feels wonderful to be out here on the edge of the continent, looking at the infinite sea, with Hawaii and Japan somewhere beyond the horizon’s curve. Like this morning’s gray clouds, all the baggage and detritus of everyday life is getting blown away by the sea-breeze, and the endless expanse of the ocean puts everything in perspective, makes it all feel more manageable somehow. It’s really comforting, liberating, solacing, and healing to be here. There’s a meditative quality to the sound of the waves and the wind. Somehow this landscape feels loving, transporting. My soul feels lifted like a kite, soaring up into the deep blue sky.
I sat on that log in North Beach, listening to the waves, watching their swell, feeling the sun and the sand and the breeze, and I realized that I had become disconnected, disoriented, over the past few weeks. After the epiphanic high of Muir Woods, I had gotten mired in a slough of despair. Too many depressing headlines, too much bad news—I had lost my way out there.
I opened my journal again, and penned:
I need to let go of everything I can’t control. I need to focus on the world right around. Now, here, I need to erase the shell that separates me from this place. I need to embrace the wild wisdom that fills this space. . . .
I surrender myself to the infinitude of the sea. I embrace the sea in the wild heart of me.
I wrote those words, and something deep inside me stirred, a promise and a dream. I recalled a passage from James Joyce, that had once defined and inspired me: “He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight.”
In my teenage years, those poetic words had graced a poster on my bedroom wall, conjuring adventure’s exhilarating call; now they called to me again on this Pacific strand, reminding me that possibility thrives throughout the land. There is still so much to be excited about, so much to be grateful for. There are unimaginable adventures still to come, and wonders on every shore.
Instead of feeling powerless, I should focus on what I can control: celebrate the riches close at hand, cultivate the yearning soul. The pilgrim’s path is sometimes hard, and obstacles abound. But follow the compass of your heart, and your feet will map the ground.
I squished my toes into the sand, raised my eyes to the deep blue sky. As it always had and always would, the world spun harmoniously by. I thought of my disorientation at Point Reyes Station, and the path became clear to me: My destination all along had been this oceanside seat.
I opened my arms to hug it all: the sun, sand, breeze, and sea. I hugged the teen who dreamed of life; I hugged the modern me. The world reduced to this one truth, that I had to live to teach: I had to lose myself to become complete, in the wild heart of North Beach.
Yours in abiding wanderlust,
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Thank you for all your thoughts, words of encouragement, and dialogue. These are greatly gratifying and inspiring to read. Please continue to share your reflections below; I truly appreciate all of them!