Matthew Davis of Mill Valley walks atop Homestead Hill (IJ photo/Jeff Vendsel)
Matthew Davis of Mill Valley turns his face to the afternoon sun (IJ photo/Jeff Vendsel)
San Francisco, USA -- One day in October 1965, poets Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen performed a ritual walk around Mount Tamalpais, following the Buddhist meditation practice of walking clockwise around a venerated object, pausing for worshipful chanting.
The walk grew out of the poets' study of Buddhism as well as their love of nature.
The poets left the mountain long ago, but a Mill Valley man -- 71-year-old hiker, Buddhist and nature lover Matthew Davis -- has replicated the walk more than 160 times. February will mark the 40th year he has been spiral-walking the mountain.
Four times a year, he leads groups big and small on the walk, circling Mt. Tam on a daylong, 15-mile route from sea level to mountaintop and back again.
En route, the hikers pause at 10 "stations" -- an ocean view, a spring, a cairn of rocks -- where they give ritual chants including the heart sutra, which Davis calls a condensation of "hundreds and hundreds of years of Buddhist teachings."
The walks, and his love of the mountain, have become a way of life for Davis, who has lived in the same spot above Homestead Valley for more than 45 years. He bought a plot of overgrown land and a chicken house where he lived while building his home and the extensive gardens beyond. "I feel kind of married to this piece of ground," he says.
He has written a book, "Opening the Mountain: Circumambulating Mount Tamalpais; a Ritual Walk," with fellow walker and sociology professor Michael Farrell Scott of Berkeley, who also took the black-and-white photo illustrations.
Snyder, who lived in Homestead Valley in the '50s, at one point sharing a cabin with Jack Kerouac, wrote the introduction. Snyder now lives in the mountains above Nevada City, where Davis has visited him. The poet has returned from time to time to "reopen" the mountain.
"Whenever I can," Snyder writes, "I still go hike that same route on Tamalpais, chanting and making my bows. Walking is a deeply satisfying way to move. It is also traditionally considered one of the two effective modes of meditation."
"He's kind of the godfather of our walks," says Davis.
Davis has been a walker all his life, inspired perhaps by his mother, who grew up on a Wyoming homestead. He is a lifelong artist who studied architecture at the University of Oregon before joining the Navy and serving in the Far East.
In Japan, he learned "the profundity of walking as a meaningful way to see the world."
"I would leave the world of boats and in 10 minutes I'd be out in the country where the landscape changed and Japanese men would be bowing to me. It was the big 'aha' of walking."
After the Navy he earned a degree in art from San Francisco State and settled in Mill Valley, where he got a job at Dimitroff's framing shop which he later bought and operated with partner Richard Pervier. In 1960 he married Suki Westerland, now a widely known ikibana master. He bicycled to work every day.
A chance meeting with Bill Kwong of the San Francisco Zen Center (now head of his own center in Sonoma) sparked his interest in Buddhism. Kwong conducted a morning meditation at the Almonte Improvement Club.
From the beginning, he was a dedicated hiker of Mt. Tam, and has a paper bag full of journals to prove it -- books that cover decades of walking, written in a tight, artistic hand, with detailed drawings of leaves, flowers, birds and landscapes. For a time he contributed accounts of his walks to the Homestead Valley newsletter, and in 1980 compiled a booklet, "On Foot in Homestead." For 10 years he was the Homestead correspondent for the Mill Valley Herald.
Fifteen months after Snyder, Ginsberg and Whalen made the first circumambulation of the mountain, they invited others to take part, and Davis joined Snyder and about 70 others on the walk. "I got hooked on doing it," he said.
Davis led his first walk on Buddha's birthday in 1968. Some time later, wanting to do it more often, he began leading walks on the equinox, both spring and fall, and on the summer and winter solstice. The solstice walk this winter will fall on Christmas Eve, "not a good time for first-time walkers," he says, though he plans to do it.
"Last winter we walked in a raging storm. Two of us did the whole walk."
Scott, the book's co-author, is a steadfast walker, too, having made the walk for 15 years, usually in the company of his wife, Vicki Piovia.
Scott first heard about the walk when he taught at the old World College West, which initiated new students with a ritual full-moon walk from the Marin Headlands to Alice Eastwood Camp. Scott began photographing the mountain to honor Davis, "the guy who's kept this thing going for so many years."
After years of discussion, the two produced the book. The book was designed by Victor Ichioka, Scott's closest friend.
All are welcome to join the walks, Davis says, and anywhere from 10 to 30 show up each time, some of them regulars, others first-timers. "We have had walks of over 100 people."
Davis has organized walks for wilderness literature students of David Robertson at the University of California at Davis, and about five years ago led a walk that was part of a nine-day Stanford symposium on Snyder.
Newcomers sometimes shy away from reciting the Buddhist chants, but Davis hands out written sheets for people to follow, and by the time they reach the 10th station, "the heart sutra is usually sung as though from a single voice, full of appreciation and love."
Some of the chants are Muslim, and one follows the Vedanta tradition of India.
Davis also carries a Buddhist prayer flag, in a case he treats as an altar. At the Redwood Creek station, he deploys the flag, burns incense and displays a hawk feather given to him by a native American shaman.
Except for the chanting, the walks are done in silence.
Davis, a wiry man with steel-rimmed glasses and a trim white beard, sold the Dimitroff shop six years ago, leaving him more time for walking and gardening. He is separated from his wife, though they still share the house they created. He has begun a new relationship with Dhun Sharma of Tiburon, a native of India. "I am introducing her to the mountain piece by piece."
One relationship in his life has not changed: his love of the mountain. As he wrote in the 1980 hiking booklet, "When you step out your door with eyes and heart open, the land unfolds as you walk it."
Today, he adds: "What walking does is it really grounds your life. Every time I walk I feel more part of this place."
Contact Beth Ashley via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org