Around the Bay Area, hiking trails abound. This is where the mountains meet the ocean, where the redwood forests are perched above sandy shores. It’s easy to forget the life that exists beyond the perimeter of San Francisco–in southern seaside towns like Pacifica and Montara, or up north in Marin and Sonoma County. As a reminder to myself to get out of the city and onto the trails, I set out to do 40 hikes in 2015.
I think of hikes as mini-pilgrimages. They are not merely forms of recreation or exercise; they are spiritual immersions in landscapes that change the way you move, think, and feel. “Pilgrim” comes from the word peregrinus, which means foreigner. The implication is that the pilgrim is a stranger in the land he passes through – that he is, essentially, not at home. As Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, the walker on a pilgrimage “is one of the most compelling universal images of what it means to be human, depicting the individual as small and solitary in a large world, reliant on the strength of body and will.” The pilgrim walks not only to reach his destination but to be transformed on the journey itself.
On a Saturday morning, my friend Cole and I drove to the Tennessee Valley trailhead, six miles north of Golden Gate Bridge. Tennessee Valley is situated in the Marin Headlands, which is a hilly swath of protected national land formerly occupied by the U.S. Army. This particular morning was grey and misty, the fog draping itself pall-like over the trees, the sun hiding beneath the clouds. We started walking on the trail, a wide dirt road with dense, tall grass and fallow shrubs on both sides. If you take it all the way to the end, you’ll hit Tennessee Cove, a dreary-looking black sand beach. We decided to take the Coastal Trail instead, which winds northwest along the craggy bluffs and sloping hills above the Pacific Ocean. This was hike #28 for me.
The ascent is fairly steep. This is the work of hiking: arduous enough to strain the body, but slow enough to relax the mind. If you’re with a friend, you can carry on a leisurely conversation (I’ve found that the amount of conversation is inversely proportional to the grade of the trail you’re climbing: the steeper the trail, the less you’ll be talking). The challenge, as always, is paying attention, looking down at your feet, looking up and ahead—not just barrelling toward the end, but also observing one’s surroundings.
Then there is the work of the mind, the flitting of thoughts and memories that dislodge themselves from the cabinet of the past, the amorphous dreams that waft in from the future. You snatch at one thought and then another, but you find yourself, finally, in the present moment, looking at the yellow contours of the hills sloping down into blue rippling water. The most enjoyable way to hike is not to fixate on your destination, but to orient yourself to the trail, to the foreign land through which you are moving, to the water that swells beside you.
Along the Coastal Trail, there is a rocky descent to a small, secluded beach called Pirate’s Cove. The precarious scramble down the ravine is worth it. Below, you’ll find a wide open ocean view and giant boulders, at least thirty feet tall, that look like misplaced meteorites dropped onto shore. This is a good spot to take a break.
After four miles along the Coastal Trail, we reach the crest of a hill. All decent hikes are expected to reward upward trudges with a spectacular view, and this one, I’m certain, can please even the ornery and unmoved. Here Muir Beach is a parabolic curve of shore, a bending arc of waves sweeping into a crescent-shaped bay. There are no straight lines in sight; the eye seeks refuge in an infinite horizon. One look at the snaking coastal edge, the golden light descending like a halo onto a hill of colorful houses, and a white tudor inn emerges from the fog. A faded sign reads “The Pelican Inn.”
Inside, a beachside surprise: a darkly lit British-style pub cast in an amber glow, serving shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, and bangers and mash. This is where we ended after a two hour hike, a slow and savory return to civilization. Cole and I were tired and hungry, and we devoured our food greedily. We sat and watched as weary hikers came in, pilgrims who had at last found a place to rest. We drank and ate in grateful silence, our bodies exhausted, our spirits invigorated, our minds still lost in private constellations of thought.
The Pelican Inn 10 Pacific Way Muir Beach, California