Starting Over: A Pilgrimage to Stinson Beach
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 flow—this 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 lot—but 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,
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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!