The Greatest Writers Retreat

[This is from my Redroom.com blog, that I actually just won a contest for–free admission to the USC  Writers’ Conference–and I can’t go :(]

The greatest writers retreat is into your self, into books you love, into the wildness of nature, into the chaos and beauty of your deepest emotions. As for actual retreats, in the late 1990’s I had the blessing of being a campground host at a remote state park called the Sinkyone Wilderness on the Northern California coast. The folks who had been campground hosts, had been so for years, were super-attached to their position, and it was extremely rare to get the gig. I just happened to luck out and my timing was right when a long-time participant had a family emergency and needed someone to fill the spot. March was not a popular time for anyone to be out there, but for a poet and artist haunted by his past and enchanted by his present, it was perfect!

The following excerpt is from my memoir “Beamish Boy,” which includes a chapter from this extraordinary experience that became the ultimate writer’s “retreat” into my self! Enjoy!

 

Alone in the Sinkyone

 

I had never ventured north of Sonoma County and was in awe driving west out of Garberville, California as I passed through a sweet little remnant old-growth redwood forest down by the Eel River, then followed the road out toward Shelter Cove, where it got more and more wiggly, meandering up and down through blond hills and densely forested patches of third-growth redwood and Douglas fir. I continued on through a couple of old settlements that have come and gone over the years. They were just clusters of houses with junk cars strewn about and old, rusty signs advertising a stopover for lunch or gas. Whitethorn is one of these places, once teeming with a tan-bark mill at the turn of the century and then for a while at mid-century, inhabited by Beats and hippies. It now appeared mostly abandoned, except for some back-to-the-land holdouts and pot growers hiding out in old school buses and VW campers being reclaimed by blackberry and wild ivy.

At Whitethorn, the road turned to dirt, met up with the headwaters of the Matole River for a while, then split at Four Corners where there used to be a stage stop and an old hotel. I took a slight right  to head into the Sinkyone Wilderness, named for the native peoples that roamed this wild land for thousands of years before European settlers showed up in the late 1800s. This is known as the Lost Coast, the one section of Highway 1’s coastal route that stymied the engineers. At the Usal Beach Road, Highway 1 gets diverted inland due to the exquisitely rugged terrain and the fact that this is one of the most seismically active areas of California.

I proceeded nervously down the Needle Rock Road into the heart of the Sinkyone, as the road narrowed to one lane and descended more and more steeply. I couldn’t help but notice that I was at the abrupt end of the continent. The land practically breaks off there, with the Pacific thundering a thousand feet below. The Ranger had told me it might be best to leave my car at Four Corners, as there are frequent mudslides, downed trees, and rockfalls throughout the Winter and early Spring. Down I wound, vultures flying below me through the fog and mist while I kept an eye out for elk who were known to trot lazily across the road.

Out my rolled-down window, I heard a redtail hawk shriek and watched him ride a thermal high above a tiny meadow. Lyle Lovett was on the tapedeck singing “If I had a boat, I’d head out on the ocean, and if I had a pony, I’d ride him on that boat, and we could all together head out on that ocean, me up on my pony on my boat . . .”

It took a good thirty minutes going fifteen miles per hour before I finally arrived at an open meadow a hundred feet or so above the sea, and there in the middle of the meadow sat the Needle Rock House. Once a homestead site, it is now a visitor center with an apartment in the back for a campground host. I was that host for the month of March in 1997 and 1998—two of the most magical months of my life. After my first visit in 1994, I had asked the ranger how to get on the list to volunteer. He said there was a three-year waiting list, but that sometimes people have to back out because of personal emergencies. I put my name down and followed up some months later. Sure enough, one of the longtime volunteers had to take care of an ill relative and gave up her slot for March of 1997. I stayed in the humble little Needle Rock House through the dramatic spring weather, sipping tea, reading books, writing poetry, painting, meditating, and hiking every nook and cranny I could find in thirty days’ time. I used to hike up to Chemise Mountain to watch the sunset, or head out to Bear Harbor to explore the rocks and shells. I’d walk the length of the beach (always negotiating the tides) out to Whale Gulch to birdwatch, whalewatch, or otherwise contemplate the great, infinite magic of existence. A poem from that time reads:

 

 

Needle Rock Mountain

from the tongue

of four

ravens spill cobalt cloud

shadow paintings

on the sea

 

 

The photo self-portrait (the one that ended up in my final show at the Art Institute) epitomizes my experience of being at the Sinkyone. My pale body is caught in a bright shaft of sunlight dancing blurred against the backdrop of a giant charred-black redwood trunk. I appear as an angelic forest sprite, almost lifting off the forest floor, blooming and ascending through a giant bouquet of sword ferns and into light, emerging from the darkness of the world and merging into the light of an eternal, more-awakened self.

When I arrived for my first month-long stay in 1997, the first thing I did was hike down the steep, washed-out bluff to Needle Rock. At the bottom, I was met with the bloated remains of a recently dead elk. The smell was incredible, and I couldn’t help wondering how the animal had wound up there at the base of the cliff. Had it fallen and broken a leg? Had it died of old age? During the month I was there, I visited the carcass almost daily and watched it decay, from distension and bloat to rot and animal scavenge down to the bones and head, which were the only parts left as I packed up in early April to leave.

I was about a week and a half into my stay when the ranger came down one day with the news that I had an important phone call.

It was Etoile. I hadn’t heard from her in years.

“Hello?”

“Al, it’s me, Etoile.”

“Who?”

“It’s Etoile, Al, St. Luke’s, remember me? Helloooo!” She said sounding frustrated and serious.

“Holy shit, Etoile, oh my God, how are you?” I said excitedly, with a pang of nostalgia sweeping through my heart.

“I’m okay, but listen . . . I need to tell you. . . I don’t know how to say this, but. . . Raine’s dead.” Silence.

“What?”

“She died last week in a car wreck in Florida. I thought you’d want to know.”

“Oh my God, I, I, I, I—wow, this is fucked up. What the . . . Jesus . . . I’ve been so out of touch— but I didn’t even know you two were close.”

“Yeah, we became friends when I was in Denver, and then we actually moved back to Connecticut around the same time. I saw her three months ago, before she left for Florida. She got back with an old boyfriend who was doing a lot of drugs, and— I don’t know what exactly happened.”

“I, I, I, I . . .” I couldn’t stop stuttering.

“I know, I’m so sad, Al.” She broke down, which inspired me to burst into tears.

“I’m so sorry, Etoile,” I said, sniffling. “Is there anything I can do from here?” I was at a loss of what else to say.

“Me too,” she said, “me too—I don’t know, maybe you could write to her family, tell them you were a good friend, and tell them what she meant to you.”

I was shocked and devastated, and flooded with reignited guilt. But I set aside all the conflicts and confusion of our past, and did write to Raine’s family with awkward, yet sincere condolences, then went down to the beach and wailed and screamed into the waves.

The ocean didn’t care, my dead elk friend didn’t care, the sky didn’t care, but somehow they all listened, and held me as I lay in the black sand, sobbing. In the days that followed, I made little altars for Raine on the beach. I prayed for her peaceful passage, and I prayed for her forgiveness. I filled my notebooks with a wobbly poetry of grief, regret, death, and rebirth.

 

 

We Kiss Ourselves Against This Thorny Mirror


 

We kiss ourselves against this thorny mirror

face our punctured lips

clean up our deflated kiss                   against

this thorny mirror       begin

again in the name of love . . .

 

. . . I will beam ecstatic float and drown

and resurface once again against that thorny mirror

upon which we kiss ourselves

release the wounds and embrace the world!

 

 

While in the Sinkyone, I kept obsessive notebooks that were not only filled with poems, but also drawings, watercolors, favorite words, journalistic drivel, and various quotes. I had endless amounts of time on my hands. The park was quiet at that time of year, though an occasional local might come by to visit. Otherwise, I just hung out and read, wrote, ate, slept, meditated, and walked or hiked. Thinking back on it now, one day at the Sinkyone was like a month in my current life. A year these days seems to fly by in the span of a single month. Out there in the Sinkyone, each day I was meeting eternity face to face, keeping time by the sun and stars, the shouting waves, and the sound of the singing rain.

The other thing I did a lot of was read. I read five hundred pages of dialogues with the obscure Indian mystic Nisargadatta Maharaj, called I Am That. Twice. I read Lorca’s biography and collected poems forward and backward about twenty-seven times. I read Gertrude Stein until my brain started to burble and seep out my ears, until I would run naked, laughing hysterically, into the meadow, tears of confused joy streaming across my face like frayed silver ribbon. I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, lamenting how I had missed the boat on a life of serious Euro-bohemianism. I read books on physics and the origins of the universe, and then a terrific book called An Everyday History of Somewhere, about the history of this most remote stretch of Northern California coastline: the Native Americans, the miners, the loggers, the hippies, and the back-to-the-land pot growers.

All this time of reading, writing, and just being, was heavenly. There was such an intense immediacy to the landscape, and a lack of regular distractions (TV, the computer, socializing, making money). I became emotionally raw and open, clear of mind and filled with an inspired happiness and joy. Around this time, I had begun to ask those great, timeless human questions: Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? These questions enchanted and sometimes haunted me. In a way, I felt as if I was finally living them here in the Sinkyone, in this space of wild simplicity. And yet, like everything, it was temporary. Temporary, with a taste of the eternal.

One evening, I was hiking down Chemise Mountain at sunset when I came around a slight turn in the trail and I found myself on the edge of a steep cliff more than a thousand feet above the ocean. The waves were crashing below with their little foam doilies shifting across the sand and then disappearing—and suddenly facing me, was a huge male elk with a massive rack of antlers. Our eyes met and we stared at each other, frozen in time, suspended in the salt air in a kind of magical embrace, species to species. I don’t know how long we stayed in our embrace, but it was a brilliant sliver of eternity.

At that moment, my heart burst open, and my vision became incredibly clear. The elk finally wandered into the brush and I kept walking, and my surroundings continued to glow—the ocean rushed into my eyes and receded, the redwoods laughed, the clouds breathed in sync with my lungs, the alder leaves shimmered electric green. I started to cry and I didn’t know why, except that I was just overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of this merging experience, by the simple yet profound lack of separation. At that moment, the self I knew as Albert merged into elk and alder, ocean and sky. In that moment, I became awake to the immense presence and infinite beauty of this world, and instantly realized, yes, I am that!