Starting Over: A Pilgrimage to Stinson Beach | GeoEx
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Starting Over: A Pilgrimage to Stinson Beach

By Don George | May 28, 2020

For three decades now, every March, I have made a pilgrimage to Stinson Beach, a beguiling Marin County beach hamlet that’s an hour’s drive from my house. There’s a special spot at the southern tip of the beach where I go to ground and gather myself, take stock of the year past, and contemplate the year to come.

This year, I wasn’t able to make that pilgrimage. For a variety of reasons, I couldn’t get to Stinson Beach in the first half of March. And on March 17, when six San Francisco Bay Area counties enacted a shelter in place order, Stinson Beach was suddenly unattainable.

But this week, two and a half long months later, the world started to open up a bit, and something inside me seemed to open up as well. On Tuesday afternoon, the idea spontaneously blossomed inside me that I should make my pilgrimage to Stinson Beach. It felt like a new year of sorts was beginning, and even though the path ahead is uncertain and there are no assurances that this progress will continue without setbacks or second waves, a journey to my sacred spot by the sea seemed a fitting symbolic celebration to me.

So I awoke early Wednesday morning, rummaged in the closet for my safari hat and sandals, slathered on sunscreen for the first time in a year, and prepared some proper pilgrim provisions—peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carrot sticks, granola bars, Gatorade, and frappuccinos. Step by step, these accumulated preparations took on the air of a religious rite. Of course, I also added hand sanitizer, blue nitrile gloves, and a red bandana mask. I would follow a thoroughly 2020 path.

Wednesday was a sparkling day. The temperature was in the 70s, and the sky was robin’s egg blue with fleecy white clouds that looked like cotton candy from a county fair. I packed everything in the car, opened the windows and the sunroof, and began to drive toward the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. I make this journey a few dozen times a year, but on Wednesday, it felt like the first time I’d driven this route in years.

Just as I had discovered on my trip to Redwood City two weeks earlier, the familiar seemed shinily new and the mundane seemed magical. When I began to cross the bridge and looked to my right at the blue-brown-green expanse of San Pablo Bay and the green hills of Marin ahead, I almost jumped out of the car with excitement.

The ride through Marin to Stinson Beach was even more exhilarating. Massive deep green trees shaded the winding roadway, red-tailed hawks surfed the air currents above, and bright purple, orange, and golden wildflowers bloomed by the side of the road. At a certain point on Highway 1, I crested a ridge—and suddenly the vast Pacific spread away on my left, limitless and glinting. I almost drove off the road exulting at the sight.

After another 20 minutes of winding, up-and-down coast-hugging, a new chapter in the pilgrimage began. A few miles from Stinson Beach, I began to see cars parked in the pull-offs on the side of the highway. As I got closer, the pull-offs were more and more packed. This didn’t bode well, but I decided to drive all the way to the town to see what the situation was.  

I drove through town, past the fire department and the bookstore and the two roadside restaurants, and reached the market where I usually stop for supplies. The main parking lot entrance for the beach is opposite this market, and a metal barrier had been swung across the entranceway, blocking it, and displaying signs saying the lot was closed. Exploring the surrounding streets, I discovered that many were closed off with orange cones and “Access to residents only” signs, and that on the non-closed thoroughfares, every inch of parking space was occupied.

So I drove a mile and a half back down the highway until I found a suitable pull-off and parked. At first, this seemed a huge inconvenience, but as I was making the 30-minute walk, I realized that all the great pilgrimages involve walking: the Camino de Santiago, Mount Kailash, the Shikoku 88-temple route. Clearly, this was an essential step in the 2020 pilgrimage to Stinson Beach.

From a section of the highway that overlooked the beach, I could see perhaps 200 people scattered along the mile-long stretch of sand. When I reached the road that leads to the parking lot, I began to encounter groups of people. Very few were wearing masks, but for the most part, each individual group—family, friends, or both—seemed to be keeping a responsible social distance from each other.

Feeling a familiar frisson, I carried on past the people, through the parking lot to the southern end of the beach, and then over a couple of gentle ridges. I ascended the last ridge and—bam! There it was, my sacred spot: a half-moon-shaped swatch of sand framed by huge boulders, with a few rocks suitable for sitting located just beyond the high tide line.

I went to the rock where I always sit, set my backpack down, took off my sandals, wiggled my toes in the luxurious sand, and settled in with a from-the-bottom-of-my-soul sigh.

Time seemed to slow down, and I took a few deep breaths and just focused. Before me stretched a pure and purely serene scene: tan-brown sand, foot-high white-frothing waves breaking into a million diamonds on the beach, then a succession of larger waves curling and white-cresting, and beyond those breakers, blue-green water extending all the way to the horizon, where purple-gray clouds massed like a mountain range.

The sun warmed my shoulders like a hot compress, the air smelled faintly of salt from the sea, wisps of sea-brume wafted by me, and all around the waves played their pulsing roar, a ceaseless pounding in my head and in my core.

I closed my eyes to empty my mind, then opened them and tried to absorb this new-old scene: the blue sky overhead, the green hills behind, the boulders on my left and right, the sand in front, and then the swaddling sea. I let the sun and the breeze and the waves wash over me.

I sat and stared, sat and stared, for a half-hour or more. I told myself not to demand anything, not to expect anything, but just to let it be. I felt myself quiet and quiet, slow and slow—and then, when I had lost track of time, I suddenly felt something reaching out to me. The sea was wrapping me in its watery embrace. And then I felt something inside me stretch and sigh and break.

All the trials of the past half-year flowed through me—not just mine, but those of our whole human tribe. All the death and suffering, all the sadness and loss.

I realized how many wounds I had accumulated in the past months, how many wounds we had all collectively absorbed. And I realized how many of these wounds, mine and others, had simply been ignored.

And then I was filled with a suffusing sense of peace. And I heard a voice that wasn’t mine, but somehow spoke inside me, say: Go with the flowthis is nature’s way.

At that moment, I let go. Let the wounds wash back into the sea. And then I sensed a great balm of healing, a great cleansing blue-green balm flowing over me.

Take your time; you have time, I heard the voice say. We have been through a lotbut the world remains, and so much that we love is still the same.

Take time to appreciate the small things, the everyday. Be grateful for the gift of life, of family, and friends, and love.

I sat and simply surrendered to this scene. And then I did something I’ve never done before: I got up and walked into the waves, up to my knees.

I stood there a long time, feeling the swirl and swell of the sea, the pull of the tide, the planet spinning in eternity. I gave myself to this feeling of losing everything, letting go, becoming free.

And as I stood in the water and the waves splashed my knees, unexpected feelings of joy surged up within me.

Part of this joy was the realization of the journey I’d made: After months of staying at home, I had traveled to a special place I’d been wanting to go. On this marvel-filled end-of-May afternoon, this seemed an intimation and affirmation of the trips we will all be making again soon.

Another part of my joy was a journey that was completely new: I had found wounds that I needed to embrace and set free before I could begin this year anew—and I had found the permission, perspective, and power to make this come true.

We all have a sacred place, I feel, that holds wisdom in store and that, when the time is right, opens the door. Your place is waiting for you.

That’s what I learned in my Stinson Beach home: Two and a half months is a drop in the ocean of time, and the places we love will still abide—and will embrace us with joy when we once again roam.

Until then, I learned, I should embrace the mantra “Let it be.” And I should be grateful for all of the gifts that everyday life, even in a time of pandemic, bestows on me.

Yours in abiding wanderlust,

Don George

* * * * *

I truly appreciate all of your thoughts, words of encouragement, and dialogue all these weeks. Please continue to share your reflections below; it’s gratifying and inspiring to read your comments!

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Nicole Wible
Nicole Wible
10 months ago

It’s midnight and all I could think of was Stinson. A google search brought me here. Thank you so much for sharing the story of your journey. I miss Stinson so badly. We went 12/31/19, but haven’t been back. I missed my annual solo trip in July too. Reading your story helps me as I live vicariously through you until we make the trip.

Cheryl Mueller
Cheryl Mueller
11 months ago

What a beautiful testimony to the human spirit. And the joy that can be felt and expressed in a time of unimagined tragedy and devastation. You are a beacon to all of us who are fortunate to have been touched by your kindness and positive attitude.

Kirsten Smith
1 year ago

I simply CANNOT believe this is the story I see upon my first visit to Wanderlust — I literally JUST read the Stinson story in your book. You’re one of my favorite travel writers (your writing inspired my own blog wallflowerwanderer, should you ever find yourself with a spare moment to squander on a wanna-be). During this time, words like these are all we have to reach for the adventure we crave but can’t grasp. The next time I road trip from SF to Stinson, I’m going to try and find that spot — it sounds perfect.

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago
Reply to  Kirsten Smith

Dear Kirsten, Thank you so very much for this amazing and wonderful note! I love the synchronicity and serendipity of this! Perfect! And thanks for your very kind words. I checked out your blog and loved what I saw and read! Bravo!! Keep up the great work! With warmest best wishes, Don

Stephen Kukoy
Stephen Kukoy
1 year ago

A great reminder, Don, of what life is really about. Thanks for sharing with such beautiful prose. We had a simple experience returning to our summer home on a mountain lake just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado..

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago
Reply to  Stephen Kukoy

Dear Stephen, Thank you so much for your very kind note! I’m happy to hear that you had a similar experience in your own sacred spot. Times like these teach us to cherish these places all the more! All best wishes, Don

Margie Rice
Margie Rice
1 year ago

Hidden accumulated wounds. This reflection took away my breath. My first words after reading it were “Holy cow”. And I may have touched upon the truth. This was a holy thing. Thank you for writing about your healing.

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago
Reply to  Margie Rice

Dear Margie, Thank you for this beautiful note!!! I can hardly express how much I appreciate your words. Sometimes it feels like a big and even foolhardy risk to be so vulnerable and honest in writing — and words like yours inspire me tremendously to keep doing so. Thank you! All best wishes, Don

Carol Straforini
Carol Straforini
1 year ago

Thank you, Mr. George. Yosemite is the home of my heart and I am deeply homesick, eagerly awaiting its reopening holding perhaps 15 reservations to catch the moment, breaking my 40 year long rule not to enter the Park between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Your piece will help me wait. Stinson and Point Reyes are other special places–perhaps we do not need to wait for parking lots. We are both COVID-19 negative–tested with no symptoms because we did not want to risk taking the Virus into Yosemite Valley. If you don’t know the poem already, please read Wendell Berry’s… Read more »

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago

Dear Carol, Thank you so very, very much for your note! I just searched for Wendell Berry’s poem and read it, and then listened to him read it. Oh my! How perfect!! As you predicted, it totally touched my heart. Yosemite is another sacred place for me. For many years, my wife and I would climb Half dome with our two children every Fourth of July. These sacred places do seem more important now than ever. The peace of wild things seems even more precious. Thank you for sharing! With all best wishes, Don

Patti shales Lefkos
1 year ago

I’m breathing more easily already!! Love that you mentioned Mount Kailash. That was the most amazing and renewing “walk” I have ever taken. You are lucky your sacred spot is so close. My family island cottage and the healing waters of the lake it rests on is in Ontario – a plane ride away. I go there in my imagination whenever I need to and it does help to remember it will still be there waiting in 2021 if I don’t make it there this summer. After all, I am sixth generation on that lake – time is relative, patience… Read more »

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago

Dear Patti! Thank you so much for this beautiful note! I envy you your Mount Kailash pilgrimage — how amazing that must have been! And your family cottage sounds blissful and balming — as it will be whenever you get there! Six generations — that does give you perspective and patience! Wishing you inspiring and fulfilling adventures, at home and — someday again — out in the wide world! With warm regards, Don

Debbi moses
Debbi moses
1 year ago

Don, you’ve expressed so much that I’ve felt over the last 2 months. As a sister wanderluster , I too craved to go back to my special place. I drove through a rainy downpour to get to my timeshare cottage yesterday. I enjoyed every familiar bend in the road, bridges, lakes, rocky outcrops and made it to the cottage even though black threatening clouds were following me and then opened up to a deluge. Your words resonated with me especially with just becoming a grandmother for first time and not being able to share in the wonders of grand parenting!… Read more »

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago
Reply to  Debbi moses

Dear Debbi, Thank you so much for this beautiful, moving note. I am so sorry that you are temporarily deprived of the joys of grandparenting. I hope those joys will be all the sweeter when you are finally able to enjoy them. I love what you say about peace — and it echoes for me the beautiful Wendell Berry poem Carol cited above. I hope you can deeply savor that peace in your sacred place. Thank you for opening your heart — and my heart — with your words. With all very best wishes, Don

Alan Josephs
1 year ago

Fantastic as always. Made a very similar trip last weekend and have never appreciated Stinson more. These trips will come again.

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Josephs

Dear Alan, Thank you for your great and kind note! And yes, these trips will come again! The world awaits, in all its wonder. All warmest wishes to you! — Don

Jain Stone
Jain Stone
1 year ago

Don, What beautiful and inspiring words. Stinson Beach is my ‘happy place’, and I am blessed to live here and walk her shores and mountains daily, and fall asleep to her soothing waves. This is a sacred place. As this is a small hamlet, we are concerned about visitors during these times. As you noted, the parking is closed. Very limited parking is available. We are seeing people without masks in close proximity. We see new trails being made from illegal parking to reach trails. We are seeing people dump their trash on trails and streets. I feel I am… Read more »

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago
Reply to  Jain Stone

Dear Jain, Thank you so much for this beautiful note and this extremely important reminder. Stinson Beach is a sacred place and a fragile place, and we all need to be especially respectful and mindful when we visit. I love hearing that you live there and love it — and I very much hope that the people who visit by the day will heed your words and act responsibly. We are the stewards of these sacred places. We need to honor them and each other. Thank you for your wise words! With warm wishes, Don

L Koenig
L Koenig
1 year ago

Beautiful words to encourage a certain way of life during these times and all times.
Fred Luskin has some great insights and practices along these same words of wisdom.

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago
Reply to  L Koenig

Dear L Koenig, Thank you very much for your kind words. I was not aware of Fred Luskin and I have begun to look into his work, which sounds profoundly important. Thank you for sharing! All best wishes, Don

daphne Bransten
1 year ago

we are in Bolinas and love to get together with our Stinson pals Check this out about our great town Love your inciteful news Are you with GeoEX ? Daphne at Valerie Wilson Travel

https://www.newyorker.com/news/california-chronicles/bolinas-california-the-town-that-tested-itself-for-the-coronavirus

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago

Dear Daphne, Thank you for your note and the link to the New Yorker article. I just read it and it’s terrific! Coincidentally, Caterina Fake, who’s mentioned briefly in the piece, and I used to work together. Small world! I love Bolinas. You’re lucky to live in such a special place! All best wishes, Don
PS — Yes, I do work at GeoEx! I edit the Wanderlust blog and I lead trips to Japan. I hope our paths cross one of these days!

Rebecca Eisen
Rebecca Eisen
1 year ago

As an Oakland resident, I too have been buoyed by all the natural beauty we have easy access to in the Bay Area. As a birder with serious wanderlust, it has sustained me during this travel free interlude.

We have our own “special place” but it is a bit further away—Cape Cod. Nonetheless we mean to get there and know we will experience the same joy of the familiar made new.

Love your blog and Geoex. Thanks!

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago
Reply to  Rebecca Eisen

Dear Rebecca, Thank you for your great note! Though I grew up in Connecticut, I don’t know your special place as well as I wish I did — but I do know many people who consider the Cape a truly sacred spot. I hope you can get there soon! Thank you for your kind words about our blog and GeoEx. Much appreciated! With all best wishes, Don

Sandra Long
Sandra Long
1 year ago

As usual, your words and syntax exquisitely capture your moment to moment experience, something I can do right here in my garden of life. My Zen garden in the back of my property invites me frequently during the day and I am so grateful to have this opportunity of my own environment to bask in at will!
Thank you for your gentle reminder.
Sandra Long

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago
Reply to  Sandra Long

Dear Sandra, Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful note! I love that you have a Zen garden! That’s wonderful! These times are definitely teaching us to appreciate the riches of our own backyards! With warm wishes, Don

Carole Register
Carole Register
1 year ago

Every summer, for many years, my husband and I would make our pilgrimage to California from the Midwest. After flying into San Francisco, our first much-anticipated stop would be a small beach cafe on Stinson Beach. We would always order their steamed clams, which I still swear were the best in the world ( and I have traveled the world). After my husband passed away, I never got back to Stinson Beach. Your piece brought it all back. Thank you so much. I can almost taste the clams.

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago

Dear Carole, Thank you so much for this beautiful, poignant note. I’m so honored that I could bring you briefly back here. Reading your words, I can imagine the cafe and can almost taste the clams too. Thank you for sharing the gift of your memory. I feel blessed by your words. Sending the abiding spirit of Stinson Beach to you! — Don

Linda De La Torre
Linda De La Torre
1 year ago

Don, this blog article is so incredibly beautiful and heartfelt. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. I will reflect on this blog much today.

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago

Dear Linda! Thank you so much for this wonderful and buoying note. I deeply appreciate your kind words! With a big hug! Don

Jenny Clendenen Walicek

Oh Don. You have such a heartfilling way of pulling us into your moments and places, and sharing emotions we all can relate to, in ways that make us feel like we’re right there with you. Your images and poetry are as beautiful as the message of finding one’s “permission, perspective, and power” to let go– something I’ve been thinking of lots in what I call my Vision year of 20/20. Thank you for this bonding, inspiring start to my day..

Don
Editor
Don
1 year ago

Dear Jenny! Thank you so very much for this beautiful and buoying note! I deeply appreciate your inspiring words — and your concept of the Vision year 20/20. Indeed, we are all working towards a new kind of clarity this year. Thanks for your bonding words! Big hugs to you! — Don

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