I decide upon waking that I need to try to meditate one more time before I leave this place. While the entire experience has been meditative in its own right, I have not consciously sat and cleared my mind very often, which in some ways was the entire point of this trip. I slip into my comfortable clothes and head to the zendo at around six in the morning. There are no formal services on Fridays, and so I step into a dark and empty hall. My eyes do not adjust quickly, and so I am unsure whether or not the place is void of other life, but I move silently in case anyone is attempting to find enlightenment.
I meditate for an unmeasured length of time. I allow my body to lose posture when it becomes uncomfortable, and I stand up when I feel ready instead of at the forty minute mark or when any bells ring. I like this, and were time not such a heavy weight on everything we do, I could imagine a life of meditating for as long as I wanted, whether that be ten minutes or two hours.
Breakfast on Fridays also drops from routine, and everyone is talking and greeting each other joyfully at the end of a week. As usual, I sit with some of the other work retreat folks, ad we all talk about how it’s hard to believe that this is the last day. It seems like everyone on the retreat has been affected in some way; even those who’ve been doing this for years. Sukey decides that we’ve been such an efficient group that we don’t really need to work today, and instead we take a tour and see all the projects everyone has done. I become spokesperson for the trail clearing work and even show off the now visible poison oak creeping up my arm. No one at Green Gulch would know just how bad it would get in the coming week, and I am happy to keep them in the dark about the depths of my affliction.
While we are near the spring trail, next to the huge bay tree, we circle up and have a formal goodbye. Everyone in the circle says something, short and sweet, and we all bow of course. I say that I could not have asked for a better welcome to the San Francisco area, and I mean it. It’s been a special week.
We have lunch and people start to drift away. I am not the first, but Carlos, April, and I decide to head out not long after eating. They are giving me a ride to Muir Woods, which has always been the other purpose of this trip. I need to see the redwoods.
The road to Muir Woods is enough to bring back that queasiness that I felt on the first day of my arrival in Green Gulch, but we are there before too long and I say a meaningful goodbye to Carlos and April. I do hope to see them again one day.
The fees are waived for me when I drop the name Green Gulch, and within seconds I am among the towering giants of Muir Woods. There are people here in droves, and it always surprises me that so many people are so interested in nature but also so willing to destroy it. I don’t know if the people here litter or waste water or support big agriculture, but statistically a large portion of them must. Yet here they are, soaking in one of nature’s wonders with a light in their eyes reserved for religious fervor. Then again, some of them are petulant teenagers who seem content to laugh abrasively and play with their phones for their entire walk through this cathedral of trees.
The redwoods are not as big as I expected, but I think my expectations were measured by the giant sequoias that are found elsewhere. These redwoods are still gargantuan, and it’s almost overwhelming that so many of them are in one place. When I see a massive, dominating tree, I expect it to be alone. The biggest trees we see in Michigan are those that have room to breathe, room to expand. They often aren’t found in forests, but happen to be sole survivors of some agricultural expansion and so sit quietly in fields growing ever larger because they have no competition for light or nutrients. But here, among thousands, the trees somehow grow to bewildering heights and incomprehensible widths. There is competition, but it doesn’t seem to affect anything, and I wonder how these trees grow with such little water. Is the ground so fertile? At some point I see one oak tree, thin and struggling to reach even half the height of the titans, and I cheer him on. He’s trying.
I spend about an hour and a half hiking the various trails of Muir Woods. It isn’t a huge expanse of territory, but I avoid going past the bounds of this park because there are trails out in the surrounding hillsides that stretch for miles and miles, and I could lose my way and get lost in the paradise of nature if I’m not careful. I touch the trees often. I try to take a few photos, but it is nearly impossible to capture the whole of a redwood in one photograph. Instead, I snap pictures are of closer things, like the bark or the way the roots protruding from the ground look like dark human bones. Eventually, I make my way back to the entrance and stumble upon an Uber driver who can’t find his fare, and thus am I swept into the city of San Francisco.
A friend has offered me a room for the night at the Orchard Garden Hotel, which is near the Dragon Gate, which is itself the entrance to Chinatown. I drop my stuff off, wash the week long layer of grime off of my body (the zen center had showers, but not like a hotel shower), and decide to explore Chinatown before meeting my friend for dinner. The first thing that strikes me about San Francisco is how the entire city is built on hills in such a way that to build a structure here must require an entirely different type of expertise than, say, creating something anywhere in Illinois or Michigan. The hills I’m climbing to traverse one block are as steep as anything I hiked in the mountains five miles north.
Chinatown is bizarre, but in a good way. I find bubble tea and wander around aimlessly for about an hour. I’m amazed at how many shops there are all selling the same cheap-looking junk and wonder how they stay in business year after year. Some of these stores look established, but nothing they sell seems of any real value unless you’re clueless and willfully ignorant about the origin of things you buy.
Eventually, I meet my friend, Julie, and we head to dinner and a night of much needed drinking with her work friends. I’m quiet for most of the night, and I’m really starting to itch now from the poison oak spreading through my veins, but I have a good time and appreciate the multitude of free beverages being handed out. People can be really generous to a Midwestern fella out on an adventure. I turn in early and pass out hard. I have one more day to explore what little of San Francisco that I can, and I aim see as much of Japantown as I can.