The Long Weekend

Without any cultural attachment to July 4th as a holiday, I was mainly looking forward to four relatively quiet days after my consecutive weekends away and before my upcoming travels (a week from today I will be somewhere in New York state, my first time on the east coast since 2015, the week after that in London, for the first time since the pandemic). With the lack of riding caused by all these things, I had a plan to get out at least for a while each morning. 

The weather was very typical of San Francisco summer: on Friday morning I rode up to Twin Peaks, ahead of a roam I was doing in the afternoon, to check out a couple of spots, and found dense fog on the slopes. It was so damp my brakes were largely ineffective on the downhills, of which there were several, so I had to be extra cautious. Luckily it cleared up a little in the afternoon for the roam, but it was still windy and chilly on the peaks, and we did not linger. Saturday morning on San Bruno was equally damp; I had my winter layers on, but I can’t say I enjoyed the grey upper reaches much. 

For Sunday and Monday there were mostly just layers of cloud, and Monday was warm enough to be in short sleeves. I did a few more climbs, though was surprised that the reservoir trail was closed for the 4th (I knew they were doing mid-week maintenance, but thought they would open up for the holiday – luckily I have had to take the detour enough times to know what I was in for).

None of these rides especially wore me out, though they were good for helping my legs feel strong still, so that when I start up again after a month off the bike, I won’t have so far to go to recapture some form. I have also been using these maintenance rides to be mindful about how I am using my body, feeling which muscles are getting engaged, adjusting my spine or my hands, even which fingers I am gripping the bar with, to see if I can get more fully into alignment again – though since I went to Wilbur my back has felt back to normal from the strain I picked up at Tassajara

I had time to cross a number of things off my to-do lists – getting some posts lined up for here and for Patreon, writing the last three posts for the Awakening The Archive project, washing some of the clothes I am planning to take (there are different climates to navigate, but I have been mentally packing for a while), getting my place clean and tidy, partly because a friend may be staying there while I am away, but also because it is nice to come back to a clean place after a long travel.

This was the afternoon view from Twin Peaks – in the morning, I doubt the tree would have been visible.
The parking lot at San Bruno mountain, which was as deserted as the upper slopes.
It is definitely pelican season again – this was a line of them over the dunes on Great Highway on Sunday.
Overlooking SFO on the detour from the reservoir trail.

Away Again

Chuck is a long-time acquaintance from Zen Center, and earlier this year, he started proposing having a little retreat over the summer at his place in Humboldt. Zachary and I put our calendars together, and came up with the last weekend in June as a good time; I suggested it to my little student group and everyone was enthusiastic, though one person had to drop out at the last from over-exertion.

So on Friday, a couple of cars left the city and headed north. I was familiar with the terrain as far as Ukiah, but the rest was new for me, as we crossed valleys and headed over passes, with steep slopes more or less filled with trees on every side. At Chuck’s suggestion, we headed through a fair chunk of redwood forest on the way, before climbing a ways, and dropping down to the Mattole Valley, with its large collection of weed growing operations, and along to his place beside the river. It was quite the drive, but once we had arrived, it all seemed to melt away as we gathered in the little guest house and ate together as the sun set over the grazing cows and horses.

I was awake pretty early, and started sitting in the dark, getting up every half hour or so to stretch and take a photo of the day starting. People joined one by one, and we sat until 7:30, then cooked a great breakfast together.

Most of us planned to try to hike to the ocean. We needed to cross the broad shallow river first, then scramble up to the dirt road that dead-ended – a little further along than we had anticipated – at the beach, which was vast and empty but for driftwood. We sat, and ate, and looked at the waves and the mountains to the north and south, the temperature perfect and the wind almost non-existent.

In the evening we ate, had long discussions, and then sat again, before starting Sunday morning the same as Saturday – though this time we did kinhin, and there was a dense fog hanging over the valley which meant we couldn’t see the new moon.

Thankfully it had burned off after breakfast, as we wandered down to the river again, stopped in at the local community farmers’ market, then hit the road for a six-hour drive back south, where the weather was typically cool and grey. We all agreed that it had been well worth the hours of driving, though next year we will aim for a three-day weekend.

Some views on the drive up.
I sat about thirty minutes of zazen between each photo.
The tranquil beach
Sunday morning after zazen.

Back to the Land

Many parts of the trip up to Wilbur felt incredibly familiar, from the roads and freeways taken, to the stop at Trader Joe’s in Fairfield, to turning off the 20 to take the bumpy dirt road up the river valley. It was nice to see that a few changes had been made (positive ones in my book) and that the place was in great shape. I was welcomed back by the people I knew who were still there, and warmly welcomed by the new managers, all of which felt very nourishing.

And as I walked back to the buildings, having parked the rental car, I could feel my body relaxing as it did when I arrived at Tassajara a couple of months ago. Only this time, I did not subsequently tweak my back and have trouble moving. In fact, with a combination of walking, sitting, being in the baths, and ignoring the projects I thought I might take care of while I was there, I came away feeling in better shape than I have for a while. 

Although I was used to running the trails when I went before the pandemic, just focusing on walking this time allowed me to take in the landscape much more slowly, to appreciate the trees and the fauna – the rabbits and deer, quail and turkey families, and that really fed my enjoyment of the slow pace of life there. Having my camera with me, and taking an abundance of photographs also enlivened me.

It was cooler than expected when I arrived, and on Saturday it didn’t warm up much. I took that as a good sign to take a hike in the early afternoon, and found myself half way up to the ridge hearing thunder off to the north, with ominous clouds that came our way, and then dropped rain for about half an hour while I sheltered under an oak – more concerned for my camera than for myself. Sunday was clear, and the sun started warming everything early, so it was pretty toasty by the time I headed home in the afternoon. I had managed to turn a little pink from sitting out at the end of the afternoon on Saturday, so I thought it best not to linger in the sun this time.

It seemed quieter than usual, but the people who came for meditation had a lot of good questions, so I enjoyed the interactions, as well as other conversations I had over the weekend. I can’t wait to go back!

A Friday evening walk upstream along the valley.
Saturday afternoon with looming clouds.
Looking down onto the valley.
The rain heading our way.
Soft light after the rain.
Bright sun first thing on Sunday morning.

A Weekend of Roams

After the previous weekend’s later-than-usual rain, we had some long-overdue high temperatures this past weekend, and I was extremely glad that I had lined up three consecutive roams, which meant I was outside a lot.

The Friday roam was a last-minute addition; I had had a dentist appointment scheduled for six months, which was reconfirmed and then almost immediately rescheduled. With nothing much I needed to do, I thought it would be nice to enjoy some time in the rose garden in Golden Gate Park, which I had recently seen was full of blooms.

Earlier though, I had followed up on a plan to catch the first sun at Stow Lake – having ridden around it a little while ago but only been able to take pictures on my phone, this time I returned with my new camera, and the difference in quality was reassuring. It was already warm as I rode around almost entirely empty spaces in the park, saw another coyote, captured many roses in the soft light, and made my way home catching the low sun bursting through the trees.

There was a breeze for the roam that made it pretty pleasant, and although we didn’t see a heron as wished, we did get to enjoy some of the lakes and many of the roses. On Saturday, having ridden through the fingers of fog creeping in from the ocean on the way to Sweeney Ridge first thing, I took a group around the much-loved Glen Canyon – Billy Goat Hill loop on another lovely afternoon. On Sunday, the annual Zen-a-thon roam had a mostly foggy time of it, as happened last year, with some detours on Corona Heights because of coyote pupping; the sun came out as we descended from the top of Buena Vista.

All of that just about tired me out, and then I have a busy week ahead – some extra teaching sessions, a wedding on Thursday, and then a weekend at Wilbur (not that being there can be called busy, but the organising will be), as well as another weekend retreat next weekend.

My Mondays have filled out as well, with the lunch-time sitting followed now by a trip to South San Francisco, where I sit at my student’s biotech company on alternate weeks, and make it home just in time for the Dogen Study group. Plenty of teaching, like plenty of sun, keeps me happy.

My favourite shot of the whole morning. The phone would not have been able to cope with the contrasts.
Roamers sitting at Metson Lake, where I also did my Earth Day Within class.
Sunrise over Lake Merced on Saturday morning – I call it Monet from a moving bike.
What the fog – which was still creeping inland – looked like from Sweeney Ridge.
Roamers at Billy Goat Hill.
A foggy climb up Guadeloupe Canyon Road on Sunday morning.
We couldn’t see Twin Peaks or the Sutro Tower on the Sunday roam, but Mount Olympus was just visible.

Maintenance

The long Memorial Day weekend was quite the mixed bag in terms of weather. I had a notion to try to get out on my bike every morning from Friday onwards, but Friday was so grey I did not feel inspired to go, and spent the day reading and studying instead. On Saturday it was still grey, with a typically damp fog along the west side of city and at Ocean Beach. We had one of those half-and-half afternoons which felt promising enough that I went downtown with my camera, and walked home, catching the angle of the sun on things, as I used to do on my Saturday afternoon camera walks when I lived at Zen Center.

I was quite surprised that Sunday dawned totally clear, and I enjoyed my ride up San Bruno mountain, before I dragged more than a dozen roamers up the south side of Mount Sutro and Twin Peaks on a pleasant afternoon. Monday was also clear, and I had a sunnier time down along Great Highway before climbing over and round to the bay side.

After my pre-Tassajara stretch goal of getting up Mount Diablo, I looked at my calendar for the summer, and realised that between some consecutive weekends away, and the planned trip to the East Coast and the UK, I wouldn’t have a solid block of time to get my fitness back to that level again – it being one of the sadly inevitable facts of aging that it takes quite a while to regain form once you take a couple of weeks off. I made a little pivot more to maintenance rides, and have, dispritingly grey days notwithstanding, kind of gone back to the riding I was doing at the beginning of the pandemic: one serious ride a week, one that just felt like a good stretch of the legs (going up Twin Peaks, for example) and one which was more of an outing, where I felt fine dawdling and taking photographs. 

A couple of weeks off the bikes certainly helped renew my enthusiasm for some regular routes, and there is something about the freshness of a summer morning before the sun is up, with perhaps the exhilaration of seeing a coyote close byin Golden Gate Park, having a pair of herons flying overhead, or hearing the parrots in the palm trees on Dolores St as added bonuses.

Perhaps the main drawback of the rides that I did this past weekend is that, while I could feel the tiredness in my legs, even with the roam, I did not wear myself out in the way that I have done for decades – one of the reasons endurance sports appealed to me back in high school, to burn off the stagnant energy that saps my mood. 

I had an early morning leg-stretcher on Wednesday that took in Stow Lake.
A damp Saturday morning along the Great Highway.
Clarity on Sunday morning from the top of San Bruno Mountain.
Surfers are also early birds – Monday morning
Looking across the former Buri-Buri ranch to the south side of San Bruno mountain on Monday.

May Days

We do finally seem to have lumbered on to the left shoulder of summer, and none too soon, though the all-prevading nature of wind means it has not been as warm in the city as it might be – I had more of a taste of summer heat when I took the train down the peninsula on Saturday afternoon for a back garden birthday party.

After my sign-off tempting fate last Tuesday, I was a little worried to wake up with a slightly sore throat the next day. I had not slept especially well for the previous two nights, and had talked perhaps more than usual, not least at my student group. I welcomed three to my place for that, and a fourth was joining on Zoom from Singapore, which was amazing, as he sounded as clear as he ever does from Oakland.

A friend, who had had a bad case of COVID over the last couple of weeks, was planning to go and get a PCR test locally that day, so I went along. Thankfully I didn’t feel any worse as the day wore on, and the test came back negative, so I was able to volunteer as planned at Bike To Wherever Day with the Bicycle Coalition, and enjoy a few hours engaging with riders and fellow volunteers. As I wrote on Patreon recently, with Zen Center still closed for public events, I have more of a community with people on bikes these days – not least a couple of new riding regulars on the ferry.

It feels like it has taken a full two weeks to catch up from the two weeks away at Tassajara, and I made sure I kept a chunk of the weekend free, not least because it was the last day of the Premier League season, which I tried to watch as much as possible without spoilers. 

On Monday I had time and space to catch up with writing and preparing for a couple of teaching events this week, as well as going to sit as usual, where it really did feel warm, before diving into the continual nourishment of the Dogen study group. Maybe by Friday I will feel that I have caught up.

I saw this remarkable cloud as I was heading to the birthday party on Saturday.

In Person

While I have been doing outdoor events since last summer, as vaccinations started to ease the dread before the variants came along, I have been doing very few indoor gatherings at all. And somehow, despite all the cases popping up – and I have several friends who have had recent unpleasant infections – this past week has brought a sequence of in-person gatherings.

We roamed on Saturday, which I count as the 27th roam since restartiing. It was not as warm as advertised, but we got to Marshall’s Beach without the fog that had been threatening, but with a fairly insistent wind. On Sunday, Bay-to-Breakers unleashed its usual mayhem. I had gone out on my bike early, so had the park almost to myself, but ended up battling damp fog and strong winds for most of the three hours I was out. And then I went along to a gallery on Gough for a relatively new offering for Within, that other teachers have been covering so far, and which may become a more regular fixture in my weekends.

On Monday, after the sit on Embarcadero, I took BART (since the Caltrain schedule had completely changed since I last checked it) to my student’s company, which since I last led a session in their offices, has moved from Mission Bay to South San Francisco and almost doubled the number of employees. There were some familiar faces from the old days, some people I had only seen onscreen, and one person who was on their first day.

It was again a little too cold and windy to be sitting outside (though we had done okay in the sun on the Embarcadero), so we sat in a generic meeting room. But the joy, for me, of feeling the group’s energy settling as we got into the session, was amazing, and a real reminder of what we have all missed.

Unexpectedly, I got home in time to join the Dogen study group at the beginning. The exchanges were fun and lively, but I did have in the back of my mind a renewed feeling of the hollowness of meeting on Zoom.

Tonight, my student group will be meeting in-person for the first time since March 2020. I look forward to making tea and offering biscuits, and I am sure the shared sense of pleasure will be there.

And If I end up coming down with COVID, it would not be much of a surprise…

Above Baker Beach on the roam on Saturday.
I went up to Kite Hill to watch the lunar eclipse on Sunday, which was just about visible, in the wind and clouds that evening.

Incrementally

I was only gone for a couple of weeks, but I noticed changes when I got back. The big buckeye in my yard had burst into flower, and most of the flowers were already shedding on the deck. The morning sun arrives in different places in my kitchen, and in the middle of the day, the sun seems higher in the sky than when I last noticed it. The sun feels warm, but there has been a constant and cool wind that have kept the temperatures much lower than I was expecting. The moon is filling, and I am planning to walk up the hill to see the moonrise and eclipse on Sunday evening. 

As sometimes happens, it took me a couple of days to fully unpack my bags and put things away. I felt a lack of motivation as I got back to city speed, and on several consecutive days I slept until it was already light – though of course that is earlier than it was a fortnight ago. After a mostly quiet weekend, sitting on the Embarcadero was a pleasure, and later in the afternoon, the debut of the Dogen study group was very energising. Many of the participants were familiar faces, and the conversation and questions were lively. I am looking forward to this continuing to unfold.

After the weeks away from my bike, I have been taking it gently, but have had some lovely outings already. Apart from taking a trip on Saturday to see the mayor signing the legislation to make JFK permanently car-free, I went out early on Wednesday morning to stretch my legs. I had an idea to go to Fort Point, and then took a little detour to check out the new Battery Bluffs open space in the Presidio, discovering that it included a beautifully smooth bike trail. I will be adding this to my repertoire of low-stress routes, as well as taking a roam through there in the coming weeks.

Rev David Myles films the mayor in Golden Gate Park – this is the San Francisco I love, twenty-two years after arriving..
My first time seeing the buckeye in flower
The new bike trail in the Presidio
The Upper Great Highway was naturally car-free over the weekend.

Mountains and Waters Sutras

‘Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not be confused or swayed by it; this is not complete realization. Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures’ splendor, this is not returning to the source. Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to. Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this. These are conditioned views. This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at a corner of the sky.’ (Shobogenzo Sansuikyo)

I read this passage to the retreat group as we silently ate lunch at the Horse Pasture on the first full day of the retreat. It was an amazingly beautiful day, the wildflowers were abundant, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. And, when we got to the Narrows, one of the group, who knew Tassajara very well, slipped and broke a wrist crossing the creek. Luckily another member of the group was a nurse, so we got them strapped up and ready to walk back to Tassajara. Then we came across a rattlesnake at the side of the trail. Only the nurse got past it. I backed everyone else quite a few yards along the trail, and told her to alert the stone office about the injury. The Tassajara protocols worked fine, as did, eventually, throwing small stones in the direction of the snake to encourage it to find somewhere quieter to sun itself. The trained responder sorted out the patient, who was then driven off to hospital in Monterey by the shika.

And that was only the smallest portion of my time there. When I arrived, through clouds on the ridge, I felt the deep relief of being back. Then, on the first morning, chilly after the previous day’s rain, I strained something in my back as I bent over to pull on my boots. Some things, especially sitting down, getting up from sitting, zazen, sleeping on a thin shikibuton, twisting slightly to the left, were painful for a few days, and in the case of sitting and zazen, uncomfortable throughout my stay. Other things – hiking, working with rocks, moving dirt, doing the compost in the shed, cleaning the bathhouse, and very gently yoga poses, were fine.

I didn’t, as I wished, get to give a talk in the zendo, or even be morning doshi, even as the intricacies of service reappeared in my mind, and the chants came back to my voice after all these years. I did offer a presentation on the Beginner’s Mind talk which was well received, and boosted by Steve Weintraub offering a moving personal testimonial on Suzuki Roshi’s way.

I did five hikes in a little over a week, the Horse Pasture and the Wind Caves twice each, first to check (both were in much better shape than I anticipated, thanks to the indefatigable trail crew), and the Overlook and creekside hike on the easy day, which still offered moments of beauty and silence.

I ate a lot of delicious food. I lingered in the baths and the creek. I met up with fellow practitioners from fifteen and twenty years ago that I did not expect to see, and others from summers and work periods past that it was lovely to see again. I tried to encourage some of the newly arrived students, and petted the dogs as often as I could.

I drove a stage one day, and declined to do a town trip, but otherwise did what was asked.

I felt totally at home, and yet did not feel that I needed to move back there any time soon. And this is just the merest glimpse of what it was like. I took notes for the first couple of days, but there were too many details and memories to try to capture it all.

I took a lot of photographs with my new camera, and was glad I had decided to buy it.

Lupins on the way in.
Overlooking the Narrows from the cut-off trail.
The Wind Caves.
It was very green and bright.

Setting Off

The wind changed on Monday. On Sunday afternoon we had roamed in clear skies cooled off by the westerly breezes. We stayed at the top of Corona Heights long enough to enjoy the view, and to discuss the huge crowd we could see in Dolores Park for the resurrected Hunky Jesus contest, but we sat lower down in the shelter of the rocks.

The Monday sit was pleasantly mild, but the change also brought more rain, which is starting to feel a little unseasonal. I was lucky with the special outdoor sit for Within ahead of Earth Day, as Wednesday lunchtime was clear and sunny. Afterwards I rode down to the outer Sunset to catch up with my old room-mate, her girlfriend and the beloved dog. Riding back, a weather front was on its way.

It was supposed to rain all Thursday, but I didn’t get wet on my commute as I had feared. The afternoon ferry passed through the briefest of showers, which then threw up a rainbow over the Bay Bridge. 

Writing this on Thursday evening, I have just packed my bags for Tassajara, rather fuller than they might have been as I am taking clothes down to leave at the goodwill there for people who will use them more than I will. I have no idea how the weather is going to be over the next couple of weeks: I have had wet springs down there, including my first April, twenty years ago now, when I remember saying indignantly that this was not what I had signed up for. It might equally reach ninety degrees. 

In any case, I have been expecting something to happen that will prevent me from making it again, and until I set foot in the valley, I will still expect that, but all being well, I will report back in a couple of weeks.

Sitting at Metson Lake, Wednesday lunchtime.
Looking one was on Wednesday afternoon.
Looking the other way.
Thursday morning skies.
Thursday afternoon.
There is a rainbow low over the middle of the towers, but the phone didn’t do a great job picking it up.