Zen Center Day 5 – The Heights

Thursday marks our last full day of work, and I spend it with a variety of people. As we stand in the circle to mark the beginning of the day, I feel at home. It’s easy to fall in to the rhythms of these people. I don’t really know anyone here, even if I’ve met a few and had in depth conversations with a couple, but there is a welcoming quality to the work and the life that feels effortless. In a different life I could see spending time here, perhaps a good portion of time, but I am also glad that the week is nearing its end because I miss Michigan.

I work today with with Julian, Shawna, Carmen, and Paula. Julian is a white-haired man in the latter years of his life, and he is opinionated and particular like a college professor who has been teaching the same subject for forty years. He comes to Green Gulch for every work week, and always drives the tractor around. He scolds me for not being mindful of the machine, and it takes most of my patience to not say what I’d like to say (marking Julian as the only person in the greater San Francisco area who managed to grind on my nerves). Shawna is one of the younger folks and hails from the city. She wears cowboy boots to work in and always looks like she’s on the cusp of some kind of farming fashion trend. We don’t talk much until Thursday, and then it’s mostly joking around like young folks do. Carmen is a middle-aged woman from New Mexico who produces – what she produces I am unclear about. She is a beautiful woman, with caramel-colored skin, short salt and pepper hair, and a calm presence about her that I find comforting. Paula is one of the strangest of the bunch. She is older, perhaps in her late 50s, and at one point during the week she accidentally walked into my room while I was at that halfway point between sleep and waking. I believe she was confused, but for the rest of the week she gives me odd looks, as though I were the one who walked in on her. She has a lisp and comes to Green Gulch often. She reminds me of someone who lives underground, which I do not mean disparagingly even if it reads that way.

I have not jogged since I arrived at Green Gulch, and I feel some guilt for that, but the work is tiring and it doesn’t seem necessary here. I do read though, and finish Kenzaburo Oe’s, A Personal Matter, which is oddly relevant to me because it deals with a man confronting the coming of his first child. After dinner I decide it’s time to tackle the mountain, and I map out how I’m going to get to Hope Cottage.

The trail to the cottage is steep, and it is by the grace of a full meal that I scale the mountain with a twenty minute burst of energy. The road is rough, with deep rivulets running across it at random intervals, and while they tell me that a 4×4 capable vehicle can make the trip, I am dubious because the verticality and valleys seem only to increase. I can see the cottage now and then, if only faintly, but it beckons; the lighthouse to my roaming ship. I stop occasionally, both to catch my breath and to admire the ever more grandiose views.

The cottage, when I reach it, is one of several pinnacles, and while it seemed like the highest peak when I spied it from the valley, the reality now is that there is always a higher point- until there isn’t.


Quail scatter and a hawk takes flight as I open the chain link fence gate that encircles Hope Cottage. Wood and stone; above and below. It reminds me of one of the cottages at GilChrist, but simpler with no running water or electricity. The door is padlocked, but the setting sun gives me a clear view through the large windows that make up the entire front wall. No one is in the cottage of course. I made sure of that before setting out. There is some animal nearby groaning, the sound like a bellows; in…out…in….out.
AIMG_1665.JPGll the plant life here seems to grow directly from the rock. The ability of these lifeforms to exist with only the water in the air is bewildering. I can see Muir Beach clearly, and beyond that the unfathomable sea. To wake up in the morning and step out to this view must be an unspeakable joy. There are no atheists here.

I hear voices, and realize that my solitude is coming to an end. I don’t know whether or not I will ever return to this spot, to this perfect breeze and deific view. I want to fly. My watch has stopped ticking again, freezing me in this moment for as long as I need.

I’ve decided that my goal is the beach, and while I can see it from the cottage, the distance looks vast. It’s the other side of the valley, and while I know it’s only a few miles, the span is intimidating. But I carry on, heading further up the mountain until I reach Coyote Ridge Trail. This runs along the top of the hills all the way to the water, and now I have views of two different gulches as I walk. On my left is Tennessee Valley, and it’s mysterious and enticing. I see a small side path leading down into it, and my feet itch to explore, but the sun is setting, and I know there are coyotes about because I’ve begun to hear them howl. The chances of an attack are slim, but why take the risk?


The wildlife here is mostly quail and rabbits. There is a rabbit every twenty feet. I wonder how many rabbits there are in the world. Coyote bush, one of the hardiest plants known to man, covers most of the foliage.

I’m becoming more existential as I walk the path. The views are immense and making me feel alien. The ocean comes fully into view at some point, and that noise that sounded like a laboring animal is now, I realize, coming from the bay; from the Golden Gate Bridge in fact. I can see its lights shining dimly through the fog. I realize this and am shocked, though I can’t say why. I try to capture it, but my phone camera continually disappoints me on this trip in its inability to see what my eyes see. I’m not sure there is a camera that could convey the images given to me.

I start thinking about my eyes, and maybe it’s the week living in zen and maybe it’s the seclusion of the trail, but I realize maybe for the first time in my life that I am the only lens that there is through which to see the world. No one else will ever be in this head with me, seeing everything as I see it. I live in perpetual solitude, as one of the Green Gulch core values claims. This is not a negative statement, but rather an observation on existence. We may all be one, now or after death, but we are always alone, always the only eyes that look out at the ocean or at a computer screen or into the eyes of another. We are alone, and its beautiful. It might be perfect.

Before I know it, I’ve come to the beach. The sound of the waves washing ashore is a small homecoming, and though it is cold and my shirt is damp from the efforts of climbing up and down a mountain, I feel content and accomplished. On my last night at Green Gulch, I I have circled the valley. I’ve seen it and experienced it in a holistic way, and though I might not have meditated or read or ran as much as I’d have liked, I feel that I’ve done right by this place.  I will miss its whispers and its sunlight and the good people who bring it all inward. There is peace here. IMG_1666.JPG

Day 1.1
Day 1.2
Day 1.3
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 6

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