Muir Beach in Marin County, California, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is not California’s most spectacularly beautiful beach, nor its most pristine, nor its most remote or undisturbed. Going there is not an escape from civilization. The houses on the hill overlooking the beach to the north remind that I am still within the megalopolis of the Bay Area. On the rare Bay Area warm weekend day, the beach is generally overrun with people and dogs, the cliffs to the south dotted with the bright t-shirts and windbreakers of birdwatchers and hikers. On these days, the recently re-graded parking lot fills up by 10 am, and then, well, we’re basically out of luck until some of the morning crowd need to take their babies home for naps. (Fortunately, the nearby Pelican Inn usually tides us over with a cup of Joe or a draft beer.) Perhaps it is revealing that I can’t even find a particularly stunning photograph of Muir Beach, despite many dozens of visits.
So why nominate Muir Beach as my One True Place? Because Muir Beach was always there when my fiance or I needed a timeout from city life. With our dog happily hanging her pink tongue out the window, the hour drive from San Francisco made it the perfect distance for a quick escape.
The drive from San Francisco to Muir Beach feels like peeling off layers. All the mental and emotional detritus of a week or two at odds and ends in The City flies out of the sunroof. The salt-misty ocean air fills the car, and blows back the ears of the dog. The glistening Pacific reappears just as you crest the southern finger of Mt. Tamalpais on highway 1 and start the winding descent to the beach.
At Muir Beach, where a wonderful project is ongoing to restore the creek and its valuable ecosystem, we lay down a picnic blanket, drop our bags, pull off our shoes, and jog to the surf. Even on gray winter days, when the wind blows cold and the rocks of the cove’s northern edge are obscured by the low thick fog, the sand in my toes and the icy saltwater around my ankles feels good. The dog soaks herself in the creek mouth and rolls in the sand, thrilled also to find the world so right-there and free, again. Looking out at the infinite gray horizon (I’m gripped by the thought that I am looking all the way to Asia, around the immense curve of the earth), the immediateness and the vastness of the Pacific are true. I am real. My mind and body have found each other. I feel a part of the mystery again.
Throwing a Frisbee with friends and their dogs, a hike along the bluffs to the south to watch the hawks cruise summer thermals, a golden-pumpkin sunset, a bonfire with grilled fish and cold beverages—whatever follows is magic. We start planning our next trip back on the walk back to the car.