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Taking the High Road, Long Road In

By Katharine Cook


Inspired by an online notice of a work period at Tassajara (Sept 21 - 26) that anyone willing to work could attend for free, my daughter and I contemplated a trip to a place where we had both once lived. Although I had written hundreds of thank-you letters to donors for the centerís purchase in 1966, I had not been there for three decades. That our small group of ragamuffin Zen students, followers of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, could imagine buying such an expensive resort required a leap of faith, but we succeeded in raising the $2,500 necessary for the down payment, bringing into being the first Zen monastery in America.

My daughter decided to drive by herself. As there was no way my ancient van could make it over the 4,708 foot ridge on a mountain road with 300-foot drop-offs along its outer edge, I searched my OKCupid boyfriends for a possible driver. Most promising was one with a lot of Zen talk in his profile, so I boldly propositioned this stranger, offering him a week at Tassajara if he would drive. He responded with interest, saying he had long wished to see the center, had a mountain-worthy vehicle and would be glad to do the driving. At my daughterís insistence, we met first. In the garden of The Station House Cafť I saw that he was trustworthy, and on the appointed day he showed up in a vehicle packed with a gourmet picnic lunch. We chatted as we headed down the coast and ate our lunch in the sand dunes south of San Francisco.

 Miles and miles later, on the narrow road through the national forest, the views as we twisted and turned were breathtaking. With my friendís slow and careful driving, we made it to the front gate of Tassajara without incident.

 Much had changed since my last visit, except the wilderness itself. Once settled into the familiar cabins, wild canyon surroundings and daily schedule, the highlight of our six-day visit was, for me, working on the kitchen crew.

 With a dozen others, I helped do kitchen prep to feed the workers in residence. Dressed with a clean, white apron and a kerchief around my hair, I was assigned a stool at a quiet, long, unfinished wooden worktable. Our job was to clean, then cut up, box after box of slightly spoiled bargain melons destined for a fruit salad. Slice the melon in half, cut out any bad parts and scrape out seeds, careful to leave the most-delicious tender part that lies close to the seeds. Slice off the rind, cut the flesh into evenly sized small cubes.

That dayís kitchen practice turned out to be one of the most inspiring of my stay. We worked in silence, as is the monastery custom, across from a partner. Body to body, mind to mind, we were honing the nourishment of those working to transform Tassajara Zen Mountain Center from a summer guest resort to a site for monastic training through the fall, winter and spring.

I also enjoyed simply sitting in the courtyard, where I had once watched Suzuki Roshi move and bury the huge stone at its center. From there the gestures of wilderness were close at hand across the stream, on the mountainside: trees on a very steep slope, pulled by gravity; birds, plants, soils and stone untouched by human hands and making their own patterns in accord with the rain, winds and passing of time. It meant so much to be there that I resolved to return.   The memory of wilderness and communal practice has since informed my every day. 

Had to check Chew's Ridge which one drives over going to Tassajara elevation for this. I'd always said 5000 feet but it's 4708.  Got that here. - dc