A pilgrim at Stinson Beach

July 20, 11:30 am — I’m sitting at the southern tip of Stinson Beach, a glorious mile-long stretch of sand that borders the unincorporated, population 650 hamlet of the same name in Marin County, Northern California.

Stinson Beach is a ragged, flip-flops, bikinis, and board shorts kind of town, and whether you’re a Bay Area visitor or resident, it’s a terrific place to stop. A couple of inviting restaurants face each other across the sole street – famed Highway 1 – that runs through town; both have sun-umbrella’d patios that are intimations of heaven on a balmy, blue-sky day like today. There are arts and crafts galleries, a quintessential little-bit-of-everything market, B&B’s, and a beguiling bookstore with a compact, ecumenical and eminently Marin mix of books ranging from Zen treatises and Native American history and culture to mainstream mysteries and fiction, and a proud selection of work by local authors.

I love these riches, but they’re not why I come here. Stinson Beach is about an hour’s winding drive from my house, so it’s not exactly an on-a-whim destination for me; rather it’s a touchstone place where I come to gather myself. And today I need gathering.

So here I am, ensconced on a rock beyond an outcrop of massive boulders that separates this thin slice of sand from the main beach, where a couple hundred people are blissfully surfing, strolling and sunbathing.

I’ve been in this spot for 20 minutes and I haven’t seen anyone — except a teenaged couple who appeared holding hands literally just as I wrote “I haven’t seen anyone” and jumped when they saw me and now have abruptly turned back – and I like it that way.

In the 1980s and ’90s, when I was the travel editor at the San Francisco newspaper, I used to make a pilgrimage here every spring to write a column. This was the place where I gathered my thoughts, looked back on the triumphs and failures of the year past and ahead to the new year’s goals and dreams.It’s still a good place to take stock of things. The simplicity of the scene strips away the veneers of life, reduces the distracting complexities. Sea. Rocks. Sand. Sun. That’s it. The spareness helps me – makes me — slow down and pay attention.

The roar and swash of the waves echo in my ears, the salty sea-smell fills my nose, the sun warms like a hot compress on my shoulders, my toes wiggle into the wet cool sand. The water white-froths in, spreads into rippling fans over the sand, then rushes back. Again. And again.

A seagull web-walks through the waves, leaps onto a rock, scans the water for food. It prances with oddly brittle legs along the sand, flaps to the top of a rock and imperiously surveys the waves.

A slick six-foot seaweed pod washes onto the beach. A tiny insect scurries over my keyboard, a neon-green bug lands briefly on my screen.

I let the sea wash over me, let the waves fill my head and lungs, lose myself to this inconceivably old and ageless place.

I think: This is the same scene I witnessed two decades ago, quite possibly even the same rock I sat on then, scribbling in my journal as I tap into my laptop now. And if I come back in 20 years, it will almost certainly be the same still.

But of course, much has changed in those two decades. My children have grown up and moved on. My Dad and other loved ones have passed away. New jobs, new places, new books, old dreams.

And suddenly these words flow into my brain: Where does it all come together? What does it mean?

The sea swashing ceaselessly scrubs the mind clean.

I palm the rough, sandy surface of the boulder to my left, warmed by the sun, cradling sand in its pocks and green ridges of moss in its cracks, etched by wind, wave and rain.

Wisps like smoke from a seaborne fire drift around me, and on the horizon a bank of gray-blue fog gathers, curling at the top so that it looks like a frozen tidal wave. I think of the tsunami in Sendai, where my daughter traveled recently and saw the destruction with her own eyes, where the local man who was guiding her broke down and cried. All those uprooted lives….

Where does it come together? What does it mean?

The waves push glinting pebbles onto the shore, fan, recede. The seagull flaps away, unsatisfied, searching. Life is precarious, uncertain, brief. There is a precious precariousness at the heart of all things.

The sea swashing ceaselessly scrubs the mind clean.

The waves roar-splash in, getting a little closer now. The tide is coming in; the blue pebble we inhabit is turning in the celestial sea.

Where does it come together? What does it mean?

Focus. Enjoy the moment while you have it. Enjoy your loved ones while you have them. Recognize the gifts the world gives you: Inhale the sea, sink your toes into the sand, let the ocean-roar silence your mind.

Then take this simple scene home with you: Sun. Sand. Rocks. Sea.

The sea swashing ceaselessly scrubs the mind clean.

What it all comes down to, I think, is the relationships you forge, the experiences you embrace, the lessons you bestow, the bridges you make, the ideals you seed, the love you live and leave.

Dedicate yourself to creating something of value with your days. Something that will last.

The sea swashing ceaselessly scrubs the mind clean.

Where does it come together? What does it mean?

Sun. Sand. Rocks. Sea. A Stinson Beach clarity.

[image courtesy Erin Drewitz]