There is a poem by Emily Dickinson which I love which opens with these lines: “A light exists in spring not present on the year at any other period”…
As I start this blog, it is Friday and I am siting here in the early evening in our campsite in Pinnacles National Park, in Central California. The sliding sun is creating backlighting on the lush oak trees, splashing the tall grasses with handsful of golden light. On the hills behind us, the long shadows cast by the pine, set stripes in place on the pale grasses of last winter. It is spring and Emily Dickinson’s words reach out to me and perfectly capture this awesome evening light.
After spending just seven days here in California, it is easy to understand the appeal. One week ago, on Easter Sunday, we arrived at the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, after 10,500 miles on the road. We had visited Big Sur before, but this first experience of camping at Kirk Creek in the Los Padres National Forest was beyond words. We watched every sunset from our kitchen window, fell asleep to the sound of the waves, 100 feet below us, their steady drumming lulling us to sleep. From our bedroom window we watched the waning moon travel across the night sky, passing through constellations and planets nameless, but not unnoticed by our untrained eyes. We woke to the morning sky tapping gently on our door inviting us out into the bursting new day. It is not possible to be here and not feel the power of this raw beauty.
From our campsite perch, we looked north and with binoculars, we could make out the 2-mile serpentine road that leads up from Highway 1 to New Camaldoli Hermitage, the tiny community of hermit monks who we have been visiting for the past eight years. When we began planning this pilgrimage last fall, one of the most precious of possibilities was that of arriving at Kirk Creek, setting up Traveler, and being able to get to the Hermitage in time for evening prayers, called Vespers. The experience of actually seeing that unfold was moving beyond words.
There is one part of Vespers, held on a feast day or Saturday, that is so moving. The monks process into the chapel in their white robes, the Prior lights the incense burner and as the smoke gently wafts upward, he lifts his hands in prayer while the community chants, from Psalm 141, “like incense, let my prayers rise before you, oh God, the lifting of my hands, like an evening oblation.” The sacredness of this ritual, which awakens the senses of smell, sight, and sound is profoundly moving.
After the prayers, one of our monk friends came by, warmly welcomed us, and invited us to have lunch with them the next day and we accepted. As we left chapel, we looked out for a friend of ours from Keene who, synchronistically, was due to arrive that evening for one night. How small the world really is.
We were delighted to see him unpacking his car as we left the church. We walked down the drive to the first bench and quenched our thirst for news of one anothers’ lives since our last meeting in New Hampshire, imagining what the early pioneers experienced at taverns and stage stops, creating an instant community for travelers.
Part of this pilgrimage is also learning to be open to what can present. On our third day, we had planned to hike one of our favorite trails up a canyon to a redwood grove that Peter loves. We got to the trailhead and found it closed so the detour hike took us over the cliffs and along about a mile of ocean where a sea otter provided the dance accompanied by the music of the pounding surf. We had a picnic lunch, a nap in the flowering ice plants, and a leisurely hike around the cliff. Grace-filled and unexpected gifts.
That evening, Peter had planned to attend an open AA meeting at Esalen, the spa and retreat house built into the cliffs at Big Sur. He invited me and afterwards, we were able to sample the incredible hot springs. One set of baths is inside and we started there, then moved to the outside one where the night sky unfolded in inexpressible grandeur, the sweep of the MIlky Way visible since the moon had not yet risen. Just below the baths, the ocean continued it endless rhythmic pulse as we melted into the moment of complete delight.
We are heading now into Yosemite, due east on 140, with the Sierra Nevada range of mountains straight ahead, a blue-gray band on the horizon, containing marvels and mysteries and more surprises.