Around The Panhandle

The rain has set in again, and it looks like it will stick around over the Christmas weekend. The roam on Sunday afternoon is still on, regardless of the weather (the forecast for the day shifts every time I look at it), but it seems that oppportunities to ride without getting wet are going to be limited. I got pretty lucky with my commute on Tuesday, which was slightly damp only on the last leg, but I am not sure I will be so fortunate today.

Running, however, is something I don’t mind doing in the rain so much – like walking – so it seemed like it would be helpful to get some running in while I have some days off. The problem there is that I haven’t run at all since the first couple of weeks of the lockdown in the spring of 2020. The combination of the slight sickness I had at the time – which in retrospect seems more likely to have been an extremely mild case of covid – and the general anxiety at the time about runners breathing over everybody, was enough to put an end to running. 

On Wednesday afternoon I gave it a try. Knowing my limitations, I thought a trot to the end of the panhandle with an extra loop around Alamo Square if everything was still functioning, would be enough. I made it, and had the physical effects that I was expecting, with muscles a little grumbling and sore at being asked to move differently, and feeling a little stiff in the legs afterwards. But otherwise, it was a good start.

I noticed how quickly and happily I veered towards the grass when I reached the green space, and how much better my legs felt for it. My shoes are minimal and probably due to be replaced. They quickly got sodden, but that made me happy too. I noticed that a small part of me was telling me I could stop any time, but really I had no need to. I noticed how I saw the neighbourhood a little differently to how I do when I am passing through on my bike, with more time to notice details and buildings. And I noticed, once again, how dogs pay so much more attention to the world they are passing through – by sight and by smell – than the people walking them.

Looking for a post that referenced my sickness at the beginning of the lockdown, I took a browse through the archive; I always find interesting, and mostly unremembered, material in there (some of which will get reposted over the coming weeks), and generally enjoy re-reading the personal posts as well. I thought to do a word search for ‘lungs’, and most of the posts, unsurprisingly, referenced running – with one exception for wildfire. This is the world we live in. With my upcoming dharma talk at Zen Center, which I will use as an opportunity to look back on the talk I gave right at the start of 2021, there is a poignancy about how I wrote about the pandemic in its earliest stages – because of course we could have had no idea.

The view from the Tuesday evening ferry, with a little rain in the clouds.


When I type the word midwinter, I think of scenes of old England, cold, dark and snowy, as per the hymn, which is not really how it is in San Francisco. Weeks of mostly sunny weather, gradually getting colder, finally gave way to the season’s first serious rain over the weekend. I took this as an excuse not to get out on my bike as I usually would, and instead found myself keen to try a run, which, aside from a few outings in Kansas during September, I have not tried since March. Luckily things did not hurt too much, and with the forecast promising more rain, I will have a chance to try a few more of that soon.

I find myself not counting the days down to Christmas so much this year, even though I am looking forward to it – and have decorations, in our new place, for the first time in my years out of Zen Center. Instead, I am thinking about the number of days until the solstice, and the subsequent promise of slowly increasing daylight. There is also the countdown to the Inauguration – even if the outgoing incumbent is intent on throwing tantrums every day, it does seem like roadblocks to the orderly transition of power are melting away, one by one.

And then there are the two faces of the pandemic – soaring numbers, even here in the Bay Area, which has fared as well as anywhere in the US until now, and the imminent distribution of the vaccine. It does feel like a time for holding tight, staying safe and isolated and indoors as much as possible, with the hope of things being different next year. I hope that you feel this possibility of renewal too.

Two views of leaves in the city, pre- and post-rain


I can’t say that I am used to Kansas weather, but I understand that September is one of the best months to visit – for the same reasons as that is usually true in San Francisco: warm sunny days, with just a hint of the changing seasons ahead. 

Of course this year, nothing is quite as it should be. I left San Francisco on the famous morning where the sun never came up, and the skies remained eerily orange all day. It was quite something to witness as I left early to the airport, and took off in skies that seemed to be only getting darker. There was no sight of the ground until we were across the Sierras, and even then, smoke could be seen hanging in valleys. It was also cool and rainy for the first couple of days in the midwest, before resuming a more typical week of mostly eighty-degree weather.

The initial plan had us starting the drive west last Thursday, but, even though the air had cleared in San Francisco after a hellish week, by all accounts, there were a number of fires close to our intended route, and bad air in several states that we had to cross. And we weren’t really in any hurry. So we stayed put, and are still determining whether to leave in a day or two, or to stay a full week more. Such work as I have can easily be done remotely (though trying to take the time zones into account makes me fear I am missing appointments), and this is the only kind of vacation I am going to get this year. Where we are staying, the garden sloping away from the house reminds me of being in Cornwall at my father’s house, where there is a similar sense of nothing much that needs to be done. We settle into happy, lazy days.

As always when I travel, the absence of a bike means I have laced up my running shoes – for the first time since the spring. This has felt like hard work, but I am always glad to move my body a few times a week.

Whenever it is that we leave, there will undoubtedly be many adventures on the road, not to mention hour after hour of compelling landscapes that will be entirely new to me. When we arrive, and settle into the new apartment, I expect there will be a sense of hunkering down for the winter, since the virus does not seem to be going anywhere any time soon.

Taking off on the morning of the 9th.
Wide-open skies in Kansas.
Smoky sunsets even here this past week.
Serene greenery to look out onto.

By The Numbers

This isn’t a running blog (or a cycling one), even if I tend to get likes from some quarters every time I talk about my running practice. Reading this article about Strava the other day really got me thinking, though:

‘Richard Askwith, a British writer and fell runner, is the author of Running Free, a book about the over-commercialisation and datafication of running. He gave up running with a smartwatch years ago. “I think if I was constantly wanting to tell other people about my runs I would be losing out on the experience of the run itself. If you’re running off-road, then you’re inhabiting your environment and you’re sensing how your step feels and you’re thinking about where your next step is going to go. Then if you want to think about how much effort you’re putting in, you just sort put your foot on the pedal a bit, but it’s all subjectively measured.”’

Most of my running years were definitely analogue ones; I would keep track of my times on various courses, in terms of noting what time I left and what time I returned, and hoped to stay within certain parameters. In my college years, my criterion for being entirely happy with my fitness was being able to run ten miles in less than seventy minutes – with the routes generally not being completely flat – and not feel completely wiped out afterwards. In the last of the three marathons I ran, in London, I know what the official time at the end said, but I was also aware that it had taken me almost ten minutes to get over the starting line, since those were the days before personal transponders.

My very first ‘racing bike’, which I got when I was eleven, had a mechanical speedometer on it, and I spent several years tracking my speed as I rode to and from the nearest towns – in ways that probably did not enhance my safety. This was also true of the computer I had on my commuting bike in London, where I kept an eye on my average speed, and hoped for a series green lights over the five miles (I think my record time set on a homeward journey was at 6am after a night-shift at the BBC). On my road bike, I tended to clock segments – how quickly did it take me to climb Box Hill, or later, the climbs from Highway 1 to the Ridge on Mount Tam, or to the summit of Tam or Diablo?

So I am very aware of the lure of quantification, even though I eventually let it go: I was only ever competing against myself, and at the age when I figured I wouldn’t be getting any faster, I lost interest in that.

These days, both with running and cycling, I am happy to set myself a course and see how I do: can I get over Mount Davidson on a run? How do I feel as I tackle the Headlands? I like to challenge myself still, but I am very glad not to be in thrall to the competitiveness Strava offers. As the quote above suggests, there is being in the moment, and there is being focused on something else, and the former is everything my practice has taught me – both in running and in meditation (and the running and riding came first, of course!)

Rest and Repose

As I was giving my dharma talk on the solstice, I started by invoking it, and how the darkest time of the year has acted as a time of reflection and renewal across human cultures. I nearly mentioned one of my students, who had told me that week that he had been stressed right through December, but was managing because he could see the holiday break coming.

In a recent writing on one of the five hindrances – sloth and torpor – I expressed that none of us are metronomes, and that energy fluctuates. Sometimes we can give our all, and sometimes we need to step back and let ourselves recover. And of course, our meditation practice is all about getting our body to move towards the rest and repose state.

Overall, my end of year break was deeply relaxing, even if I was very active on a number of occasions. For the last of my runs during my house-sit, I completed a 270 degree survey of the landscape (the other quadrant is where I have ridden through a number of times). I started by heading along Baltimore Canyon again, only this time I turned left to head towards the Blithedale Ridge – and once again came up against a reality the map hadn’t quite prepared me for. The Barbara Springs trail climbed several hundred feet in about a quarter mile, by following alongside a cascading creek. It was as sustainedly steep as anything I can think of around Tassajara, and also involved clambering over tree root systems on soft ground. It was intense and gruelling, and I was glad to see the fire road ahead of me – there I turned and followed it almost along a level, letting my body recover, before it turned around and started climbing towards the ridgeline.

I have long understood fitness, at least as it manifests in running and cycling, as being marked by how well your body recovers from intense effort and is able to continue; as I have got older, this ability has diminished somewhat, but along the fire road I did settle back down into my stride and was able to continue up to the ridge. Though of course, as at Wilbur, the ridge, while being the highest point, is not necessarily flat, and there were some short climbs to take on, with the reward being views through a hazy sunny day, right across Mill Valley to Mount Tam, and, as I approached start of the descent, seeing the rolling folds like theatre scenery at the wings of the stage, curving down to allow open space in the centre – the centre in this case being Richardson Bay.

The descent was the route I had taken up the hill on my first run there in the spring, which, as I went down it, seemed impossible to have climbed. But I had done it, just as I had got up the hill a different way this time. For some reason I was thinking about Tassajara practice periods – they are intense and gruelling, and sometimes impossible to enjoy at the time, or even contemplate how you have managed to get through them – but there is also the amazing effect they have on you afterwards, how all that intensity has left your body and mind in a more grounded place.

This week I took the opportunity of a free morning to ride over the bridge to the Headlands. I know the climb so well, and it is a good place to observe how my body – specifically my legs – respond to the climb from the foot of the bridge by the coastguard station, up the first steeper sections, through the easier mid-section, and then noting how much I am able to give as the road rises again for the last few hundred yards to the top of Hawk Hill. After which the always exhilerating descent on the narrrow road right above the ocean. It was quieter than usual on the Headlands roads that morning, and I appreciated once again that the area had been saved from development.

I felt good after that ride, but I also went out twice on my bike around town through the day, by the end of which I really noticed how much work my legs had done.

Checking in with the same student this week, he was gauging how his body was responding to being back to full-on work mode from a place of having rested. We reflected on paying attention to that level of effort as it becomes normal again.

Lastly a plug for Bryan’s recent talk at City Center, which touches on effort and no-effort in ways that I have been musing about. As usual, I think he nails it.

IMG_2205Riding back from the house-sit on Saturday morning, I stopped to take this picture of the hazy city from the approach to the bridge.

IMG_2209Looking back from the San Francisco end of the bride, the Headlands are rising to the left.

Lessons Of The Landscape

‘If we go somewhere on foot, we know the way perfectly, whereas if we go by motor car or airplane we are hardly there at all, it becomes merely a dream.’ – Chögyam Trungpa.

Last year at this time, my intention to get plenty of exercise in my free time was thwarted, mainly by breaking the frame on my road bike, though the wet weather did not help.

This year I have been doing a little better, and along the way, I have been contemplating Trungpa’s quote. As I have been walking, running, riding and driving, I have felt more and more immersed in the local topography. The crosstown trail last week brought home to me how San Francisco is a built-over and filled-in version of the whole landscape of the area: intricately folded land, with long ridges, deep valleys, and water coursing down the hills to form the huge wetlands of the bay.

A shorter walk I took on New Year’s Eve was part of my continued exploring of the area around Meadowsweet and Camino Alto that I started in the spring; I found trails taking me over from the north side to Horse Hill, with views back to the city, a pair of coyotes sunning themselves on the grassy slopes; working my way back to meet the top of Camino Alto, and back down the north side of the hill on the little residential roads.

Having only run once in about ten weeks after getting back from England, over Christmas week I managed three runs in the space of seven days, without feeling too beat-up. For the first, I was drawn back to Twin Peaks, as I have been on recent short bike rides around the city, still feeling that sense of home that I experienced a few months ago – and of course there is always the ineffable joy of having climbed to the top of something.

On Christmas Day in Marin, when the forecast was wet, I had another experience of plotting a new route on a map, and finding it differently challenging in real life – mainly as it took a lot longer than I expected; heading out into what shows on some maps as Baltimore Canyon, which ties in with the inscription on the old rail building nearby. It was damp and misty, though not actually raining, and the beautiful creek valley reminded me of Jumble Hole, with fewer rocks and more redwoods. I clmbed the back of King Mountain (alas the summit was gated off), and looped round to the fire road on the bay side – where, as with just about everywhere in this area, the sound of the 101 was most prominent.

My third run was at Wilbur over the weekend – the usual outing up the soft mud of the Smelter Trail as the sun was still warming the hillsides on Saturday afternoon.

I had gone up on Friday, via the 37 which arcs across the north of the bay, through wetlands; with Tam and Diablo dominating their quarters of the landscape, this is where the water cascades down to. The sky was blue, and the expanses seemed mesmerising. Heading up the central valley north of Vacaville, it was clear enough to see the snowy Sierras to the east.

For the first time at Wilbur, I was staying in the red house, in a quaint unevenly-floored room, directly above the fridges, the same kind which in the main building often amuse me when they  kick off in a deep harmonious set of hums.

It was pleasant when I arrived, but there was no sun down at the bathhouse – like at Tassajara through the winter, the hillside was too steep to allow it. In the morning, I woke to luminous clouds and frost.

There was no heat working on the yoga deck, and for the morning session on Saturday, the vents, which I could not find a way to switch off, were just blowing cold air down the back of my neck. Because I find the cold so challenging, I imagine others will struggle with it; the people who came took blankets, wrapped themselves up, and sat happily.

Afterwards I had my lunch outside on the deck of the red house, my back warmed back up by the sun, enjoying Frank’s company, such as he offers it.

Sunday, the weather was the opposite, mild, then, cloudy with drops of rain, that turned more steady as the day went on. I had a lot of time to be creative and productive with end of year tasks, but the sense of relaxation dissipated as I navigated the slippery road out, and three hours of fairly teeming rain all the way back, as the skies grew darker, reminding me of a similar return trip a little over a year ago.

On my bike, staying north of the city allows me an hour of headstart over my typical experience of well-known routes. I have been climbing the hills and riding through the valleys of Marin, the low temperatures down below – the San Geronimo Valley on Sir Francis Drake, Lucas Valley with the redwoods – giving way to warmth on the ‘sunlit uplands’ of Mount Tam on New Year’s Eve, and the grand open hills – which remind me of Cornwall – as I made my way out to the Marshall Wall on New Year’s Day, for the first time in several years. I would have stopped at the Bovine on the way back, but I was worried I would not get started again, and the line was already out of the door. I continued along highway 1, right on top of the San Andreas fault line, so visible from the air when I have flown back in to San Francisco.

The lessons of the landscape around here are the lessons of earthquake and water.

DSCF1719.jpgThe wetlands around highway 37.

DSCF1732.jpgSaturday dawn at Wilbur.

DSCF1746.jpgDifferently beautiful on Sunday morning.

DSCF1740.jpgMorning sun in my room in the red house.

DSCF1751.jpgA wintry afternoon going home.

DSCF1777.jpgMount Tam from Horse Hill on New Year’s Eve, close to where I saw the coyotes.

IMG_2154.jpgFirst light on the mountain, New Year’s Day.

IMG_2174.jpgThe winding road to Marshall.

IMG_2188.jpgHeading south on highway 1 beside Tomales Bay.

Meadowsweet Tea and Cob Nuts

My last teaching stop for this trip was Hebden Bridge, which I always look forward to. For once it wasn’t raining in Manchester when I passed through, walking from station to station, but I was half-way to Rebecca’s house from the train when it set in.

We had divided the weekend into three parts, as before. Friday evening was zazen, with a little introduction for a couple of new people, followed by a talk. I did a remix of the talk I had given in Wimbledon, and it came out somewhat different, perhaps holding together slightly better, and I included a couple of quotes I had used in the Newmarket talk, which Rebecca and Paddy had heard before. The same material may form the basis for the talk I am due to give at Zen Center in December, as it seems to have gone down well here.

On Saturday a similar number – just in double figures – came and sat for the day. It felt very quiet and settled, and I enjoyed the tea-time discussion. At the end of the sitting we did some doanryo training, which took me back to my years at Tassajara, rehearsing and repeating the beginning and end of sutras and dedications, with different people taking turns on the instruments.

The day ended, as it has in previous years, with a pie and pint up the hill at the Hare and Hounds, where the conversation turned to the state of zen in England and what could be done next – there were some valuable perspectives, and it still feels like a big shift is a few years away.

The rain had continued on and off, and the forecast for Sunday was gloomy enough that several people canceled for the final, outdoor portion of the weekend. We had a shorter roam, on a route that Rebecca had chosen, so I was happy to let her lead and follow along with my camera.

The landscape is tremendous, and we went from being beside the canal to being up on the open hill-tops, via beautiful winding paths through the trees,, in seemingly no time. We were able to sit on a typical stone wall looking out over Hebden, and while the skies were heavy, it barely rained at all, and we had a fair bit of sun. Some of the footpaths, though, were saturated, and even submersed in places, so I had wet feet by the time we got back down to the canal for the final part – meeting with Miranda at the Callis Garden, which she helps manage in what had been waste land beside the canal.

She had lit a fire under a canopy, with logs and benches around, and a kettle hanging on a tripod to boil. She offered various teas from local herbs and flowers, as well as freshly picked russet apples and hazelnuts. I invoked the first line of the meal chant (“We reflect on the effort that brought us this food, and consider how it comes to us”) – apart from the blackberries I picked from the fields in Cornwall, I have not eaten anything so close to where it grew for a long time; Miranda also invoked the people who had planted the trees and hedges whose fruits we were enjoying. I reflected to the group how intimate we were with the elements, in ways that is deeply nourishing – even with cold wet feet; about the traditional zen connection to nature; and about the way man-made structures like the canal and the stone walls had become a part of nature for us.

Rebecca had trailed the event with a line from a beautiful new song: “Let the heron still your breath,” so I told the story of Xuansha and the swallow. And we practised plaiting stalks of wheat in traditional patterns.

It was only a short walk back to Rebecca’s, and since the weather was still clement, I wasted no time in getting into my running gear and heading out. I had decided to run the same route as I had last year, in the other direction. This meant climbing the long stone steps up the hillside very soon after starting, which was a shock to the system, but also meant that I didn’t have much more climbing to do afterwards, as I followed the slope around to Colden Water, staying above the woods on a very sodden path, and then striking out over the hills, again filled with sheep between the stone walls, over the top and down into Jumble Hole, where the steep stone-laid path right above a cascading, full river felt quite precarious. But it was all wonderful again – not just the incredible moorland views, but also the deep sense of the joy of running, that had been so strong last time out. And, after so many runs in six of the eight places I have stayed in while I have been here, I didn’t feel so bad this time. Now, of course, the trick will be getting back on my bike in San Franciso at the end of the week; though it seems that at least I am guaranteed some sunshine there.

The group who sat together on Saturday.

The canal looking autumnal.

The full river running alongside the canal, with clearer skies.

Hillside woods.

The view across to Stoodley Pike.

The offerings at Callis Garden.

Part of the stairs climbing the hill.

Northerly Winds

The weather continued wet and rather stormy as I traveled onwards, and was only broken on Wednesday when a cold north wind blew everything out for a while, though it seems rain will accompany my last days in England as well.

On Saturday I had a lovely visit with the Wimbledon group; the numbers were a little smaller than before, but we had a good discussion on the theme of kindness. I did hear afterwards that the group will be winding down, as Alan has many commitments these days, which, combined with lower regular attendance, make it hard to continue. It leaves me wondering exactly what is needed to create some enduring enthusiasm for zen in England, and I will doubtless be discussing this over cups of tea in Hebden Bridge this weekend.

I have continued to get some runs in – retreading my usual routes through the Herefordshire countryside, though it loses its charm somewhat in sheets of rain, when the red earth has become slippery mud. The Wye looks ominously full; other parts of the country have experienced floods. Nonetheless, these are the kinds of conditions that I started running in all those years ago; I might not be nearly as fast these days, but plugging on is its own reward.

Taking off from Belfast in grim conditions.

The skies in London after arriving.

Worcester from the train on Sunday.

Attendees in Wimbledon.

Brighter weather in Hay-on-Wye on Wednesday.

Unsettled Conditions

A fearsome wind blew in last Friday, heralding a change from a week of unbroken sunshine to a low pressure system bearing rain. The forecast looked fairly depressing, although it has turned out that the rain is intermittent.

It certainly fell hard as I left Cornwall on Sunday with my sister, who had come down to help clarify some legal issues around the house, and again on Monday as I flew from Bristol to Belfast. On the other hand, my train ride from Somerset to Bristol, through some of England’s finest countryside, was sunny, and since arriving at Djinn and Richard’s, I have been enjoying clear spells as well.

Much of my visit this year is revisiting places I have come to on each of my recent trips – albeit the order is often different – but this was the first time I had seen my sister’s new house, and I have also found new places to go in Belfast: Djinn takes herself off to swim in Bangor, a few miles up the coast, so on Tuesday I came with her and while she swam, I went running along the coast path as far as Grey Point. From there you could see back down the water to the city; turning around for the return to Bangor, distant hills may have been Scotland. It was such a sweet location that the following day I caught a slow suburban train out to Helen’s Bay and walked the whole stretch again in one direction with my camera, enjoying warm air and occasional sunshine.

My next destination is London, and I have been honing the points I want to make in my talk to the Wimbledon group on Saturday, which will also be the theme for my visit to Hebden Bridge next weekend. I am calling the talk The Path to Kindness, and will be invoking Dogen’s Four Methods of Guidance. Watching the unfolding of political events this week, where the announcement of the impeachment inquiry and the almost simultaneous ruling by the Supreme Court in the UK both might act as inflection points in the hideous political shenanigans that have consumed both countries since 2016, I reflect again on Dogen’s reminder that kind speech ‘has the power to turn the destiny of the nation.’

Sun shines through a window at Bath Spa station.

The coastal path at Helen’s Bay.

The coast at Crawfordsburn.

A craggy coastline reminding me of Malin Head and Cornwall.

Perfect terrain for running and hiking.

Moving Through The Landscape

After the changeable weather of the first week I was here, the past week has, except for one day, been gloriously warm and sunny – and when the weather is like this, I could not be happier. It lulls me into wishing that I lived here again.

As always, it is the familiarity of the landscape and the deep presence of history that nourishes me. I feel it as I travel around by train – from the south coast, passing through the area I grew up in on the way down to the west country, content to watch the changing scenery through the window, wondering if indeed I had to live across the world to appreciate the place I come from. But I have felt the nourishment most intensely on my various runs, the main theme of which has been getting around routes I have done before, and managing to navigate various footpaths and by-ways that I haven’t always been able to find.

On Friday of last week, I went out in the warm sun and climbed up to the downs to take in the long vews north from Devil’s Dyke; away from the traffic there were buzzards and pheasants, horses, cows and sheep, and a deep sense of exhilaration for the land. On the way down I took a long straight track that followed the crown of a ridge, perhaps many centuries old, that I had missed before when coming in the other direction.

In Cornwall I have gone up and down the folds of land which rise steeply from the streams and rivers. The first run was the shortest, but still testing, round the former dog-walking route; then I went over to Cadsonbury, a Bronze Age hilltop fortress, and along the tree-lined Lynher, with several fearsome climbs to negotiate, before tackling Kit Hill on Thursday, with clear views in all directions across the county, east to Brentor and Princeton on Dartmoor; the mouth of the Tamar, and Viverdon Down to the south; Goonhilly Down and Caradon to the west – all places that have resonated in my life.

My dad’s health continues to decline; as I was here, my step-mother got a break and went to visit friends. I help with meals and anything else he asks for, and there is a kind and entertaining carer who comes to help him get dressed and washed. I walk the dog, though he is also getting old and doesn’t go far these days, and lavish attention on the cats, especially the new kitten whose horizons have expanded greatly in the time I have been here. I have kept my hand in building a little rock wall in one corner of the garden. It seems that this house will be sold after my father dies, so I have been especially drinking in the small charms of this little corner of the world where my ancestors were based for so long, and wondering if I will find a way to stay connected with it.

The corner of the field next to the house, where I walk the dog in the morning.

The road up to town, with its wonderful canopy of big trees.

My friends have been getting daily kitten updates.