“Break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” — John Muir
Every now and then, it’s good to escape. Sometimes, we need to escape — escape routine, civilization, the things we feel we should be doing, the patterns of our minds, everything.
The third weekend in April was a beautiful one in the Bay Area with temps nearing 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I was running errands all weekend, but between the hot, clear weather and a lack of sufficient time outside in recent weeks, I was craving a bit of time in nature — a bit of time to myself away from everything I usually do. Time to unwind, relax and play outside; to explore, soak up the sun and dance in the fresh air; to forget about everything I felt I ought to be doing.
Plus, with this week being National Park Week and this year being the 100th birthday of the U.S. National Park Service, that yearning was heightened. I wanted to celebrate our parks — everything they stand for, provide and inspire — while being in them. What better way to do so than pitching my tent in a park unfamiliar to me, exploring the surrounding area and getting some good ol’ dirt on my hiking boots?
So that Saturday I came home from running errands and searched the web for campsites in Yosemite as I’ve been itching to get up there. But with no campsite reservations available the following weekend and not wanting to drive 3.5 hours in the hopes of scoring a first come, first served campsite for one night, I decided to look a little closer to home.
I hadn’t had a chance to explore Mt. Tam or Stinson Beach yet but had wanted to for some time. I discovered that Pantoll Campground in Mount Tamalpais State Park offers a handful of first come, first served sites, and since it’s early in the season, I decided to try my luck.
I left Berkeley at 8 a.m. Saturday, got to Pantoll around 9 a.m. and found a little campsite up on a hillside. I pitched my tent, tossed my gear inside and as there was already no parking in the Pantoll lot ventured down to Stinson Beach, where I made my first discovery of the day — Stinson Beach is actually a town. Population 632. I had absolutely no idea! I thought it was simply a beach that offered cabins and campsites to those passing through or looking for a weekend getaway.
You can imagine my surprise as I drove down the winding mountain road, came around a curve and suddenly saw houses nestled into the hillside overlooking the Pacific. Crazy! The town itself has a fire station, library, a few coffee shops, a surf shop and more. Outside the Stinson Beach Market, there’s a coffee cart that sits atop a little knoll.
The town was hoppin’ with hikers, families headed to the beach, people participating in an Earth Day beach cleanup and more. I saw a few cars drive by with surfboards stacked on top; one had a wetsuit hanging from the left rearview mirror. A woman rode down Highway 1 on a beach cruiser. And the door to the wood-paneled library was wide open, welcoming in book lovers and fresh, salty air alike.
I made my way to the beach and found a log tucked into the sand. I sat down and pulled out my book and my breakfast — a banana chocolate chip muffin and a hard-boiled egg. As I ate and read, the wind played with the pages of my book and tickled my shins. I walked the beach, snapped a few photographs and headed back up Mt. Tam, this time heading for the East Peak.
In a matter of minutes, I drove from sea level to the highest peak in the Bay Area at 2,571 feet. From the parking lot, I climbed the short distance to the East Peak. It was a clear day, or perhaps it felt that way since I was level with the clouds. Regardless, the sweeping views of the Bay Area — the Richmond Bridge, Berkeley and Oakland, the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean beyond — were stunning. I can’t believe you can take in the whole of the Bay Area, its glory and its congestion, standing in one place. I found a rock and sat there for a while, facing south, basking in the sun while people and eagle watching.
Sitting there I thought, “How can a place like this exist so close to everything below me, the civilization I see spilling out from all sides?”
Some time later, I ventured back down the mountain, stopping near a lush, green meadow I’d noticed on the drive up. I parked my car, grabbed my backpack and set off down the trail with no plan in mind, eager to explore.
The trail I was on turned out to be the Matt Davis Trail, one I’d read about online and had wanted to hike as it starts at Pantoll, where I was camping. However, with no parking spaces available that morning, I hadn’t started the hike earlier in the day. But now I was on the trail — a small, unexpected victory — and I decided to see where it would go. Funny how things work out sometimes.
The narrow dirt trail wove through meadows and trees. The Pacific Ocean served as a mighty blue backdrop, and the pure sky was littered with big, fluffy, Toy Story clouds. The meadows and trees provided the perfect mix of sun and shade.
As I walked along the hillside trail, I was reminded of my time in Cinque Terre, particularly the hike from Volastra to Corniglia. These were meadows not vineyards, but the hillside with the ocean below and me traipsing along by myself headed north felt oddly familiar. A far different place from Italy, but the moment triggered a memory for me nonetheless. I was on my own again, hiking in a new place much closer to home.
The Matt Davis Trail crossed over streams in the wooded areas, and one caught my eye. The water was rolling down the rocks and onto part of an open tree. The tree was beautiful — it’s smooth skin, lines and curves were something I’m sure someone would pay to have in their home. A natural piece of art.
When you stop and sit in nature, you see things often passed by. I stopped to photograph this special spot and decided to capture some video, too. I was sitting on a tree across the path from the mini fall. I had my camera set up on said tree and was letting the video roll. As I sat there, at least two dozen people walked by. In the moments of solitude, with no one around, I became entranced by the peace of this spot — the sunlight poking through the trees in rhythm with the brush of the wind, the soothing music of water sliding over rocks and down wood. I could’ve sat there all day, lost in thought, lost in the moment.
I was enjoying the scene around me, but it wasn’t until I stood up and turned around to face the tree I’d been sitting on that I noticed a hole, about the size of my hand, in the tree. It was simple but beautiful. It was a different lens through which to see the area I’d been enjoying, a different view of nature.
I wonder how often that curve in the path, that tree gets passed by with no one noticing the beauty of it, with no one noticing its details. Even after spending some time sitting there, I’d barely noticed it myself. I snapped a few photographs before bidding adieu to my own little corner of the trail, the little place that contained so much of what I love about nature.
I rolled back into Pantoll late afternoon just as a trail runner was returning to his car and heading out for the day. The parking lot was still packed; I felt lucky.
Back at my campsite, I pulled some snacks from my cooler — hummus, carrots and cookies — and settled into my tent. I sprawled out on my sleeping bag, snacked and read myself into an afternoon nap.
I woke to the heat of the sun firing through my tent. There was a clearing in the trees to the west of my site, and the late evening sun was beaming into my tent. It was HOT. I shed a few layers and read some more before climbing out of my tent to go to the bathroom and fix dinner.
That evening, I spent what felt like an hour trying to get a fire started. I was using a small lighter and burned my thumb quite a few times and rubbed the skin raw by striking up the lighter what was probably more than 100 times. Eventually, I gave in. No fire for me. Crouching next to my lifeless fire pit, I gazed down the hill at a campsite full of high school boys and their dads. They sat circled around their fire pit, where thick flames danced. Their fire seemed to mock me. Better luck next time.
By the time I went to cook my tomato soup using my Jetboil, the sun had sunk lower, the air had grown cooler and my hands were a bit cold. Mixed with a sore, weakened thumb and a bit of a mighty breeze, I faced an uphill battle getting the lighter to spark and then keeping it alive long enough to light the Jetboil. But I was already cold and wasn’t about to have cold soup for dinner. In the end, I got it to light.
My soup started bubbling in no time. As I sat at the picnic table, I enjoyed hot tomato soup and a cold cheese and mustard sandwich. It was supposed to be a grilled cheese, but you know — when the bonfire won’t start, cold cheese it is.
Back in my tent, I changed into my long underwear and bundled up for the night. I pulled out my book and continued to read. I was lost in the story but also aware of the campground around me — the murmur of conversations from neighboring campsites; the high school boys cracking jokes at the site below mine; the building rhythm of the wind, coming and going through the trees, like the ebb and flow of the ocean, the way the sides of my tent were pushed and pulled a little each time; and my favorite, the scent of everyone’s bonfires. If I couldn’t have my own, at least I could enjoy theirs.
Admittedly, I was anxious about getting home to my cat — crazy, I know — and a little anxious about being alone in the woods, but there’s something about being outside. Even in the moment, I was aware of it. I feel at peace in nature. I imagine most people do. I don’t always recognize the calming, unwinding effect it has on me. But I know it has a way of making everything else disappear; it has a way of making me live in the moment. The world feels bigger and smaller, more complicated and simpler all at once.
If falling asleep to the smell of bonfires and the whisper of the wind in the trees is my favorite thing, waking up to a fresh morning on my own terms, boiling water and savoring a cup of tea in the morning glow is a close second. The morning sun feels kinder when you’ve spent the night outside.
After breakfast, I packed up my gear and headed back down Mt. Tam through Mill Valley and southeast to the East Bay. As I drove down the mountain, back to life as I knew it, this scene struck me.
Would you believe this place is less than an hour from San Francisco? That just beyond the tree to the left you can see the city skyline?
That is the beauty of nature. It has the power to make us feel so far away from everything else. A sight so fresh and cleansing. Water, trees and everything in between — good for the body, mind and spirit. Good for the soul. Thank you, nature, for offering me that escape, that cleanse always.