To Ocean Beach and Beyond

Before I moved to San Francisco nearly 20 years ago, I lived for a time in Northern Idaho, four miles down a dirt road from a town of 300 people. Two friends and I had purchased 60 stunningly beautiful acres surrounded by mountains and lakes and, almost entirely, by national forest. Our land's centerpiece was a 20-acre meadow with two streams cutting across it. At the meadow's edge, beside one of the burbling streams, we built a log house. From our picture window we saw moose, cougar, deer, and the occasional bear stroll out of the woods to loll in our meadow. The land had a stillness, a quiet that touched something deep inside me, which, I told myself, was vital to my being.

The theory that three heterosexual 25-year-old males could indefinitely share a one-room cabin in the boondocks was, in our case, rather flamboyantly disproved, and before long I found myself living alone in the Haight-Ashbury, thirtyish, a wannabe writer making a living as a cab driver. I had packed up at the distant deadend of one of America's most remote dirt roads and had traveled to the very heart of one of its biggest cities. At first, I did indeed feel overwhelmed, but it wasn't long before I found the activity and the place - the sanctuary - that would allow me to forge my urban peace: a walk to catch the sunset at Ocean Beach.

Roughly three times a week (often more, rarely less) I would shut the door to whichever struggling-writer apartment I was living in, nod greetings to Haight Street's other regulars, stroll past the Booksmith (where I fantasized that I might someday give a reading), cross Stanyan, and fall through the city's trap door - into the great green arms of Golden Gate Park. Beyond Hippie Hill and the Children's Playground, the bang and muscle of the city would all but disappear, and so would I. A tiny opening in the woods past the tennis courts led to a faint path through the rhododendron dell, a path connected to a network of other faint paths, which, for the next three miles, allowed me to walk in near-bucolic solitude. Rarely did I encounter vehicles or even other walkers. A friend I invited on one of my walks dubbed me his "urban aborigine" and this was certainly my outback. I would skirt the Japanese Tea Garden, pass through the homeless encampments hidden in the tangle of trees below Stow Lake. In summer, I might gorge myself in the blackberry patches behind the baseball diamond. Once, in January, in the thick woods near the casting ponds, I planted a live Christmas tree that I'd finished with. Near the polo fields I often veered off to say mass at a personal shrine, the thicket where I curled into the fetal position three nights in a row while my first marriage was dying.

But the walk's highlight was always the emergence from the last grove of wind-bent Monterey cypress, to behold the wide, sandy plain of Ocean Beach in the evening light. After an hour-plus of bamboo, eucalyptus and redwood groves, sculpted lakes, and mowed was this enormous, sprawling wild thing—the Pacific! As soon as I learned that fires were allowed here, I made the beach my living room; almost every party I've thrown over the past 15 years has started at dusk around a bonfire on Ocean Beach. From my spotless new picture window you can, on the right day, see the occasional seal lolling in the breakers, catch a wet-suited surfer in silhouette against a blood-red sun, or make out the Farallone Islands, 26 miles offshore. But just about any day, if you let yourself (and I do), you can see way beyond that—Hawaii for sure, perhaps bits of Japan and China, and, as often as not, the shimmering tips of the Himalayas. It's not exactly Idaho, but for me it's always been more than enough.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 4, 2001

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