Deb Huntley

writes on her trip to Tassajara in 1969

Sent February 28, 2022 -

It was three months after going to Woodstock in 1969, that I visited Tassajara. I was 22 and had dropped back into college at San Bernardino Cal State. We were about to have a Thanksgiving break when I heard a classmate say he was driving up to Monterey on Wednesday. I asked him if he was going close to Tassajara. He said yes, and that he could give me a ride most of the way there.

We drove north on hwy 101 the next day. He got me all the way to the dirt turn off road leading to Tassajara. We agreed to meet right there at 2pm on Sunday to drive back together. I got out of the car and just began walking up the road. At the first ranch house I saw, I stopped to ask how far it was to Tassajara. The cowboys said “16 miles up.” Then they urged me to wait a bit because one of the monks, a friend of theirs, was soon going to stop by on his way back from a town trip and might give me a ride. It wasn’t long before the monk drove up in his jeep. I wish I could remember the monk’s name. He asked me why I wanted to go to the center, about my relationship with the person I wanted to see, and did I realize that the center was closed to visitors for the season? No, I had not realized it was closed.

I said that I wanted to see Meg Gawler, and find out why she moved across the country to the Zen Center after dropping out of Brandeis. I told him that our connection was that our DC families have been friends for about 100 years. In fact, I went on, my mother and Meg’s father were once married and they had a daughter together before WWII. That I grew up in Phoenix, and stayed with our older sister when I went to the American University in ’68/69 in DC…  joined many anti-war marches and campaigned for Humphrey.  And, in the summer I went to Maine and stayed with the Gawlers’ at their wonderful lake house they called “Holsinnoggin.” And, continuing, I told him about Woodstock. At the end of the summer, some new Maine friends said they were driving south and could take me, and my brother who had joined me, as far as Woodstock, NY to help us get back to DC. Driving south we arrived at the Woodstock farm before the big concert opened, and a crowd of fans had already pushed down the chain link gate. My brother and I decided to stay. So, we all just walked in. We slept in large cardboard packing boxes, and ate free rice and veggies with the Hog Farm commune. I had no idea it would be THE concert of our generation, but it really was. There was no violence there, all of us just grooved to the wonderful music, and had fun.

At San Bernardino State University, I was still riding high from Woodstock when I arranged to catch the ride north with my classmate. I had simply surmised that it was the right time to get to Tassajara. When I got to the ranch and waited for the monk, he came just as his friends expected. But Meg was not expecting me, so after talking with me the monk called the center. I got permission to come, but I had to observe all their strict rules and leave early Friday morning.

We drove up the mountain slowly at dusk, and watched the full moon rise. The dirt road was scary and in bad shape, but the monk knew how to drive it.  At last we came to the low wooden buildings of Tassajara. The full moon lit our way.  At Meg’s room he told me to wait there for her. In her sparse little room was a low bed with a sleeping bag on it, a kerosene lamp by the bed, a few work clothes hanging on a hook on the wall, and a grass mat on the wood floor. I sat on the mat, and then stretched out on it and fell asleep.

I woke up when Meg came in the door. She was dressed in a long black robe and her shiny eyes looked so big and wide awake. We hugged in silence. She said there was no talking and I should just follow along. She said I could sleep in the sleeping bag and she would sleep on the mat that night and the next, but then I would have to go. Very early the next morning, it sounded like someone was walking briskly in flip flops while clicking wood blocks loudly. It was still dark. Meg sat right up, and said to remain silent and just follow her and everything would be fine.

She took me to the women’s bathhouse to brush teeth in silence. I noticed a few women look at me in surprise, but no one spoke. I followed Meg to the kitchen that was in another building where we joined others to cut some vegetables. Then she took me over to one of the kitchen chairs and showed me how to sit up straight for meditation. She disappeared after saying “just listen to the chants” that would soon be coming from the meditation hall. I sat upright and silent, and soon the low tones from the chants seemed to be coming from deep within the earth. After the chanting, more people quietly came into the kitchen to eat breakfast, and to fix a Thanksgiving feast for later that day.

Meg took me back to her room after breakfast. She asked me if I would like to meet her teacher, and if so I could go with her when she went to see him after the feast. We went back to the kitchen to help again. When the food was ready, (leek and cheese pies, acorn bread, vegetables, tea and sweet pies,) we all ate together and talked during the meal. Then I followed Meg and walked silently along a dry creek bed and through pathways leading to Roshi’s hut.

A tall monk stood in silence in front of the door of Roshi’s small one room cabin. Next to the door sat a large oblong granite boulder. A bowl was carved out near the top of it. Water and a floating flower were in the bowl. We took off our shoes, and the monk opened the door.

Suzuki was sitting on the floor painting calligraphy on smooth creek rocks. He smiled warmly and giggled softly. I copied Meg and made a bow. She introduced us. I didn’t say a thing, just smiled and sat on the floor. Meg and he spoke for awhile. I noticed Roshi’s sparkling eyes and the feeling of calm groundedness that emanated from him. I relaxed, and became aware of a new, yet somehow familiar, feeling of clear lightness.

The next early morning, Meg took me to the kitchen again where she made two nut butter sandwiches and filled a jar with water for me to take on my walk out. Outside she pointed me toward the same road that the jeep had climbed, and told me to look for a fire watch tower somewhere down the road. The fire watchman was named Fred, and maybe he would help me get to my ride home on Sunday. We hugged, and I was on my way. It was Friday.

I walked slowly as the sun came up, and I looked for the fire watch tower. Finally, I spotted it and walked to it. Middle-aged Fred was nice and welcomed me with hot black coffee, fried eggs and fried spam. He was glad to have some company, and showed me around his circular observation station high on stilts. He had a panoramic view of hundreds of miles. His job was to watch for any smoke. For lunch we had the sandwiches, we talked, and watched for smoke. He fixed a simple supper. I slept on his couch. On Saturday we watched for fires, played checkers, talked, ate, and constantly watched for smoke. He said he was expecting friends on Sunday morning, and maybe they would take me to catch my ride. The friendly couple came Sunday morning, and they got me to the right place on time for my 2pm ride back to San Bernardino.

That brief meeting with Suzuki Roshi changed everything. Roshi died before I could move to San Fransisco. But just that one brief meeting with him influenced my entire life. Since then I have had five decades with authentic formal teachers from Tibet, Vietnam, Germany, and lastly, from America. All of them are gone now. But I was able to find them because he showed me, by his presence, what to look for. Thank you Venerable Suzuki Roshi. (And thank you Meg.)


DC Comment: They made her walk up the road?! Usually we'd at least drive someone to the top. She must have been hearty and didn't mind the walk. 14 miles to the end of the dirt road. From about 1600 ft. to 5000 back to 1500. That was neat to read about how she stayed with Fred Tuttle up at the lookout. He was past middle age. Sounds like she met up with a student at Bill Lambert's ranch house to get her ride in. That's still on pavement. There was no ranch house after the dirt road began just a short way after Lambert's. We didn't have a jeep. Probably the Toyota Land Rover.