Finding Quiet In the Marin Headlands (Backpacking NorCal)

Ascending-Slug

“Flood warning, Sausalito” my phone warns me. I just finished hiking a thousand miles on the interstate path known as the Pacific Crest Trail. A rainy weekend won’t stop me. I leave the parking lot and am once again on trail. The light drizzle confirms what I already know. I made the right choice. This weekend will be a breeze.Marin Headlands Backpacking

I ascend a muddied trail to the top of a ridge, I am among a grove of Eucalyptus trees, limbs astride. The sweet smell of Australia. The wavy leaves are my boat and ocean to that oversized island. Fast growing, perhaps, but this grove has been here longer than the parking lot and town below.

Half a mile later the rain starts to pick up along with the wind. The sweeping views of the Marin Headlands are obscured by sheets of fog. My campsite is a only 2.5 miles away. I am glad my three day silent retreat is starting in the rain, there will be less people to distract me. The bad weather makes me feel authentic.

My weekend is going to be guided by a book I found on my mom’s packed shelf, “Don’t Just Do Something. Sit There” It lays out three days of meditation based on Buddhist teachings. The itinerary is akin to, “Meditate. Walk. Eat. Meditate. Walk.”

Setting up a tent in the rain is challenging and the wind adds frustration to the mix. I decide the mindfulness can wait as I curse at my quickly numbing fingers and struggle to erect my shelter.

I take refuge in the bear box, a steel box 6 by 4 feet, intended to keep food away from hungry critters. I decide it is enough space for me to unfurl the tent. In a flash of desperation, the conditions worsen, I fumble madly shoving steaks in the mud, untangle tent guy lines.

I dive inside and begin futilely drying with a small pink camp towel. The relief of getting the tent up without soaking the interior puts me into a calm state of mind, now I am ready to meditate.

The wind and rain intensify, it is starting to look like this retreat will take place in my tent more than anywhere else. I read the book hungrily for some kind of distraction, my phone is off. I have brought no other reading material and I am not supposed to write anything down. No distractions. All the book has to say is, “Nothing Happens Next. This is it.”

The wind fights my tent for hours. “How could I have ever trusted these flimsy walls to protect me?” I wonder with each gust. After a long night of unrelenting wind I get a break. The sun creeps up as I fall asleep.

I wake up in a puddle. I may be an experienced hiker but I am apparently not impervious to flooding. Thankfully my tent is waterproof however tent floor feels like a water mattress.

I start my first meditation, a sound meditation, I listen to my surroundings for the next half hour, while trying to soothe the part of my mind telling me I am sitting in a puddle and need to go home. I hear birds, wind, a far our fog horn.

For breakfast my instructions are to eat slowly and involve all my senses. I feel the thousands of wheat kernels baked together forming a textured crust. I smell the honey and peanuts, my mouth salivates. A peanut butter sandwich never tasted so good.

My next meditation is to sit for 20 minutes, focusing on my breathe. I don’t fight it. At some point my timer goes off. Mission accomplished.

The walking meditation is more challenging, I choose a flat 20 foot stripe of trail and begin walking back and forth for half an hour. I am not used to going nowhere.

After 48 hours with no phone or pen I sit on a bench overlooking Marin County, back in proximity with the noises of civilization, a dozen faces pass each second, each in their own world. I wish them happiness and peace, just like the book said to. Mt. Tamalpais on my left, San Francisco on my right, my balance between civilization and wilderness.

I don’t feel very different from when I left, a bit more tired.

Mt. Tamalpais

Interested in exploring the Marin Headlands? There are several fantastic options for camping, backpacking, and hiking. You can find information from the National Park Service on their website. You can find the phone number to make a reservation at Hawk Camp and read reviews of past campers on Hip Camp. 

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