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Tassajara Stories

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Deciding
last edit 9-16

 

Tassajara stories swim in my thoughts, linger a while, and slip away. They are among my favorite indulgences. I’m not alone in this nostalgia. Those of us who were there shared a sort of magic. The magic was us and Tassajara was the catalyst. Tassajara hasn’t gone away. Still love to go there for ten days in the summer. But I’m thinking of Tassajara back then and all of us back then. We learned there how not to dwell on the past and it is still unforgettable.

The San Francisco Zen Center bought the 160 acre Tassajara hot springs resort a few days before 1967 when SFZC prez Richard Baker sealed the deal with Bob and Anna Beck at their home in Carmel in the wee hours after a long day of negotiating. We in the ZC trenches were all puzzled and shocked - and delighted by the unexpected news. We’d just spent a few months quickly raising the twenty-two thousand for the down payment though not the down payment for Tassajara, but for a nearby piece of undeveloped land the Becks owned, the Horse Pasture. Tassajara was always the goal in Baker’s mind and in that of our teacher Shunryu Suzuki. Then the Becks changed their minds, made it available, and it went from a distant goal to a slam dunk. Exciting times.

Silas Hoadley was ZC’s treasurer and a key player in getting things moved along and in order. Silas had a Chevy El Camino which looked a graceful cross between a car and a pickup. I rode in the back still legal back then, wrapped in a blanket and surrounded by tools. Four of us were eagerly on the way to Tassajara for a work weekend. After San Jose the freeway poured into one of those undivided Blood Alleys with a big sign announcing how many people had died on that stretch. Through Coyote, Morgan Hill. Gazing at the road behind was semi-hypnotic and when we stopped, the view would appear to come racing in toward me. Glad to step down at the classic roadside dinner, Buzz Inn in Gilroy. Walk around and get my bearings then weak coffee and a lot of food I had recently come to avoid but was eager to make an exception in the name of going with the flow pancakes and bacon.

Before entering that old Monterey County hideaway, we would spend the day working on the Tassajara phone line which went a long way and wasn’t carrying sound. We drove into rugged countryside beyond Carmel Valley and west of Greenfield. A seasoned fire lookout named Fred Tuttle met us at a snack stand with a few structures and trailers nearby, a place that was also named Fred, Fred’s Camp. That’s where the Tassajara phone line connected with Pacific Bell. First Fred tested the line at the PacBell connection to make sure the problem wasn't on their end. Nope - somewhere on the way to Tassajara.

We drove to a beautiful river, the Arroyo Seco, flowing in a gorge over smooth, white granite to pools. The line crossed the river there following a bridge too small for a car but wide enough for its namesake, the Horse Bridge. The phone line was an uninsulated regular old metal wire – looked like grey-silver galvanized fence wire but thinner. Fred said the bridge was the half-way point of the line which ran five miles in each direction through wilderness. There was a box at the bridge where the line from each direction was attached to insulators so that the short bit of line between them could be disconnected. Using a crank phone he called each direction and determined that the line was broken or maybe just grounded between there and the Pac Bell connection at Fred’s Camp. Someone had answered in the office at Tassajara.

Fred had a key to one of the locks on the chained gate of a hibernating Girl Scout camp in the woods. It was about a mile from Fred's Camp. We'd call both ways there too and then have to follow it walking in the direction it didn't work. But we were lucky. We found the line unbroken but down on a metal roof where a live electrical wire also rested. A tall tree that had held them both high had fallen. We were concerned about the electric line and wanted the juice shut off before proceeding, but Fred picked it up with his gloved hand saying, “A little one-twenty never hurt anyone” and swung it off the roof. I could tell there was a lot to learn from Fred, but I remembered my prematurely late neighbor who in 1957 took a first soak in the bathtub of his brand new expensive home. The copper soap holder in the wall had been secured with nails, one of which unfortunately had pierced into a 120 line.

Line fixed, we drove toward Tassajara later that day. Entered the fourteen mile dirt road at a settlement in the woods named Jamesburg. The sun was setting over the mountains at Chew’s Ridge 5,000 chilly feet above the Pacific which could barely be seen between the clouds in the colorful distance. And snow up there. Hadn't seen snow in a while. Along the ridge a few miles then down, down, steeply down in the dusk around hairpin curves and past perilous drop-offs on a bumpy, rutted road often not wide enough for an approaching vehicle of which we met none. Seemed to me at times not really wide enough for our one vehicle. We proceeded as if on a roller coaster ride with a frosty wind chill factor and spectacular dimming scenery. Bumped along for a less steep and winding finale  beside a small running creek on this side then that, leading us to a widening past a few parked cars, structures, Sycamores, and  a twilight stop before a big old oak tree. Silas opened the tailgate and I slid out, so quesy and disoriented from riding in back that I lost my balance and fell down, my first encounter with the ground of Tassajara.

Silas helped me up, smiling, unconcerned. I brushed off, looked around. Rustic buildings, trees in a narrow shaded valley amidst steep slopes with clinging oaks. Looked back toward the road we came in on. Then to the left and right. "Is this a crossroads?" I asked Silas. Does the road keep going down there or there?"

"Nope," he said. "this is where Tassajara Road ends. This is Tassajara Main Street. Dead end both ways." And then without explanation, "Bring a change of clothes and follow me."

Down Main Street to a bridge over the rolling rocky creek to the spacious, gracious hot spring plunge with a dash of sulfur in the crisp air. Zazen at eight with a half dozen others and a cast iron stove. Crawled into my sleeping bag in a cabin as cold as the night to a lullaby from Tassajara Creek. A sense of unusual remoteness from everything - yet benign, promising. Exhausted, refreshed, wrapped in wonder and gratitude I fell into deep sleep.

***

Early March. I’d been back to Tassajara for a few weekend work trips. The people were good, dedicated. The land was good. The water, the food, the air, the stars, the trees - all good. It was good in the city too but the setting wasn’t breathtaking and all the energy was directed south. Had talked to Suzuki in mid-February about going to Tassajara for a longer stay. He said I hadn’t been around long enough, there weren’t any senior students there, should stay in the city to get more familiar with Zen practice. A few weeks later Silas was saying they needed people. Lot of work to do in the few months before the first practice period was scheduled to begin. I was a little crazy but had a lot of good work energy so I imagine as for whether I should go or not, there might have been a tug of war going on in the minds of the decision makers which could have just been Richard, Silas, and Suzuki with the final say.

I’d been living at Loring Palmer’s on Buchannan Street in the heart of Japantown a few blocks away from our Soto Zen temple, Sokoji. Tim Buckley lived there too, not the folk singer. We'd gone down together in his Volvo coup for a few work weekends. I could tell that Suzuki liked that I was at Loring’s. Tim said Loring saved his life. He'd had some bad habits. There was structure. We walked to 5am zazen together and stayed for the next sitting and morning Heart Sutra service. We’d show up at the 5:30pm zazen, the Wednesday evening lectures, the Saturday morning schedule with a silent meal, work, and lecture. Loring’s was like our little sub-temple. Weekday mornings we came back and cleaned and swept, made breakfast, ate, then had tea during which we’d gradually break the morning’s silence. The practice in the city was strong, unlike anything I’d experienced before, literally an answer to my quest. It was satisfying and challenging. In no way was I tired of it. Going to Tassajara would be moving from one good thing to another. But was I ripe for that?

Suzuki was in the city, not at Tassajara, though he would surely visit sometimes while the place was being prepared for a July practice period. I’d hate missing his talks. Dainin Katagiri, Suzuki’s assistant, was in the city and he was now one of my teachers as well. Silas was mainly there and all the other older students. But Tassajara was the future and people sat zazen and practiced Zen there and there were the hot springs, the wilderness, and the wholesome work that had to get done. And there was still snow on the road we'd have to go through to get there. I could smell it.

Loring and I sat on round black zafus placed on square black zabuton on rectangular tatami. To the side was an altar with a small Buddha statue, slender vase with a single flower, a smoking stick of green Japanese incense, a candle providing the only light which reflected off his shaved head and would be sufficient to read a few lines from a book which rested on the tatami. We sipped genmai-cha in silence. We were there to decide whether I’d go to Tassajara or not. Silas had given me the nod to go in two days if I wanted. I was leaning but unsure. Loring was neutral. I knew nothing about the book, the I Ching, the Book of Changes, except that it has been used as a guide for a few thousand years in Chinese culture and was popular in counter-culture circles. Loring lit a joint of his premium Acapulco Gold. We took one hit each. We sat in silence for a while, then I threw the coins. Slowly Loring opened the book. I only remember one line from the reading: The south furthers.

 


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