Trip North

Today is the last day of a short trip I’ve been taking in the northern counties.

The drive north

Tuesday afternoon I took off in the cobalt blue Chevrolet Cobalt I’ve rented for the week, crossed the San Rafael Bridge, and headed north on Hwy 101. The drive as far as Cloverdale is familiar to me by now, because I’ve been going to Billy Club gatherings up in Mendocino and Lake counties for a few years, but this time when I got to Cloverdale I left 101 and headed northwest on Hwy 128, a route I can’t remember ever taking before, though I think it’s possible that Dave and I drove this route once going the other way.

It’s a beautiful road, passing through small towns and winding through redwood forests. After maybe 90 minutes you reach the coast and connect with State Route 1, which is apparently called the Shoreline Highway in this part of the state, but which I will probably go to my grave calling it the Pacific Coast Highway because that’s what Route 1 is called in Southern California where I grew up. Until just a few years ago I thought it was PCH all the way up and down the California coast, and now every single time I drive along it, no matter how many times it’s been, I realize I have forgotten this and I have to relearn it.

From the end of 128 I headed north along (oh, to hell with it) PCH. This part of the highway I recognized as a part that I’ve been along with Dave, which is why I’m thinking maybe we took 128 back, since we didn’t get much further north than this and I know I wouldn’t have wanted to go back down the same way we’d come up. This is a beautiful road, too, running along gorgeous rocky beaches and with view after view of big white waves crashing against the cliffs.

Fort Bragg

Eventually I made it to Fort Bragg, which is where I was staying Tuesday night with my friend Joe and his fiancée Jenny, who I hadn’t met before. Fort Bragg is a charming small town with some great beaches. The three of us spent a couple of hours before dinner at Glass Beach, so called because the location used to be the site of a garbage dump and as a result there are always lots of pieces of sea glass among the pebbles. (Sea glass is what you get when a glass bottle is tossed around by the sea. The broken pieces get worn smooth and look very like pebbles.)

Back at home, while dinner was simmering, Joe and Jenny and I talked, and I learned that she is a psychologist. My bachelor’s degree is in psychology so I could ask a few intelligent questions about her work and follow her answers.

After dinner we walked into the downtown area and stopped in a restaurant bar for a glass of wine and more talk, then home and to bed. The next morning Joe and Jenny had an appointment with a personal trainer but after their workout we met up for coffee at their favorite coffeehouse in Fort Bragg, then traveled down to Mendocino where Jenny owns a house to wander another beach and be awed by another spectacular stretch of rocky coastline.


From Fort Bragg I headed next to the Heartwood Institute, a massage school out in the middle of nowhere where I would be camping Wednesday and Thursday nights. Heartwood has been the site of Billy Club New Year’s gatherings for nearly two decades, and I’ve been to the last three — in fact, I was general coordinator for the one two winters ago. The Heartwood gatherings have been my favorites — with the Billy Club gatherings, there seems to be a connection between the temperature and the seriousness, with the July Fourth gatherings at the one end being the most like a boisterous weekend at a gay resort, and the New Year’s gatherings at the other end being the most focused on community, spiritual growth, quiet contemplation, and good stuff like that.

So even though I have only been to three gatherings at Heartwood, I have all sorts of strong memories and associations with the place. The gathering three years ago was my fourth gathering, but the one at which I really started to feel connected to this group; the gathering two years ago was the first gathering for which I acted as general coordinator myself; last winter’s gathering was magical for me, the one at which I was the happiest from beginning to end, and hated to tear myself away at the end.

Sadly, though, the place has been sold, and the new owners have new plans that don’t have room for us to take over the place between Christmas and New Year’s. So, since I’m not going to see the place again at a Billy gathering, I wanted to come back on my own and spend a few tranquil days here.

On Wednesday afternoon I got a late start out of Fort Bragg, but I thought it would be about two hours to get there, so leaving at three seemed a bit tight but ought to get me there about five. I just needed to register by six which is dinner hour there or I’d be wandering around looking for someone to let me sign in so I could have dinner.

I’d underestimated, though, how long it would take to get to the middle of nowhere. The trip from Fort Bragg to Leggett is another one of those beautiful winding roads passing through more redwoods and by more staggering views of rugged shores, and I was torn between wanting to appreciate the journey and knowing from my watch and my mileage that I was falling badly behind my planned schedule.

From Leggett, it’s mostly highway up to Garberville, and then east to Bell Springs Road, which winds its narrow way up into the hills. Then the last four miles to Heartwood are along dirt road, and at 5:45 pm I pulled into the parking lot for the Welcome Center.

Fortunately my friend Douglas, who runs the Welcome Center and store at Heartwood, was expecting me and stayed open later than usual, so I was able to sign in, get my meal ticket, and get to the dining room by maybe ten after. Douglas and I ate dinner on the deck in back of the main lodge, which looks out over a beautiful view of rolling mountains stretching as far away as you can see.

Wednesday night I didn’t sleep for very long, waking up in the darkness around 3:00 am and unable to get back to sleep. I read a little, meditated a little, but I was feeling too restless somehow to sleep any more.

Yesterday morning, Thursday, after tossing the coins for the Yi Jing and meditating on the results, I decided that between breakfast and lunch I would not try to accomplish anything, but just do pleasant, relaxing things and just try to stay present and alert to everything around me at all times. I took a steep hike for about an hour and a half, then sat on the deck in back of the main lodge and looked at the view.

After lunch I went to the temple for some more meditation, but I found myself unable to sink very deeply into it. I was still feeling too restless. After 20 minutes or so I decided to switch to a walking meditation and I got up and walked slowly around the temple room. On my third time around, I started looking more closely out the windows, and at the large ornamental rocks on the window ledges. When I got to the large window, I reached out and placed my hands on the large dark green rock there — a very beautiful rock, very rugged with irregular swirling markings but very smooth — and at once I started crying. The tears subsided a minute or two later, but I had the feeling I had just figured out what the restlessness was about — there was some grief inside me that wanted to come out and I was being clueless and unaware of it. I went back to sitting meditation, but every few minutes I would start crying again, just for maybe half a minute and then it would subside again for a while.

When I left the temple I felt a lot less restless, and I went back to my tent and napped for an hour.

I still haven’t figured out what my crying was about. Does it have to do with my memories of Heartwood? I’ve had some wonderful times at Heartwood, many right there in that temple, including a couple of spiritual epiphanies or breakthroughs here that remain vividly with me. I’ve also had some sad memories there. I remember with great fondness how during one of the rituals in the temple at the gathering three years ago, a longtime member named Stewart sat on the ledge of that same window, called all the Billy Club members who had joined in the past year to sit at his feet, and told us all the history of the organization as though he were telling a bedtime story to a flock of children. The sad part is that as a result of some terrible events around that time and the bitter acrimony that unfortunately resulted, Stewart decided to leave the Billy Club, and that was the last gathering he attended and the last time anyone told that history in that manner — I learned later that Stewart’s storytelling had been a part of the Heartwood rituals for a long time, and that turned out to be the last time for it. That saddens me a lot, and I can’t look at that window any more without remembering both the high spirits I felt sitting before Stewart and the sadness of that loss. I vividly remember, too, the sight of Jean crying quietly all during the final ritual that year — I remember exactly where she was sitting that day in the temple, and my heart went out to her — she too had been badly hurt by the same events.

For last year’s rituals at Heartwood, the coordinators had built a fanciful portal in the middle of the temple out of branches and ribbons and decorations. The final ritual included each of us walking through the portal to be greeted into the new year and then turning to greet the person behind us. This probably sounds lame in writing but it was very moving and powerful in the event. Maybe the tears had to do with the beauty of that memory.

Or maybe I was crying over things in my personal life — work or relationship or friendships, I don’t know. I can identify things I’m saddened or frustrated by in my life, but can’t say whether any of them is why the tears came. Maybe it’s the combination of all of these things coming together to make me feel vulnerable and melancholy and glad to be back at Heartwood all at once.

Thursday night I got a massage from my friend Douglas, then a dip in the hot tub and to bed. I woke up a couple of times in the night but all in all slept well.

It’s Friday afternoon now as I write this, and also my 49th birthday. We’ll be having lunch soon, and then I’ll go meditate in the temple one more time, tear down my campsite, and head home to have my birthday dinner with Dave.

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