Form, Emptiness, Finding Home

By Catherine Girardeau

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The Circumambulation of Mount Tamalpais:
A Limited Series

What do I find on this walk, season after season?

1. Redwood Creek, 8 a.m.

The word circumambulate, from the Latin roots circum (around) and ambulare (to walk or go about), denotes an intentional meandering that celebrates the sacred by entering into relationship with it through movement. Circumambulation is practiced by many religions around the world as it cultivates devotion and unity, both in an individual’s mind and body and in the community that practices together, as one. In 1965, poets Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsburg, and Philip Whalen created a route for a circumambulation around Mount Tamalpais—Mt. Tam, just north of San Francisco—with designated places to stop and chant along the way.

In this limited-run series, four writers from different backgrounds share their own experiences about the circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais. Each of them offers a unique perspective on their relationship to ceremony, their connection to the mountain, and the transformative nature of this practice. Andrea Ross’s essay speaks to the power of observation and of seeing “familiar things in a new way;” Forrest Gander’s takes us on an audiovisual journey into “lived sensations;” Judy Halebsky’s abecedarian poems move between the mundane and the spiritual: “send up a flag so the spirits can find me. / when I call, they come.” And in the final piece, Catherine Girardeau guides the reader through each of the ten stops of the mountain, where she finds “clarity out of confusion” and a way home.

  – Leonora Simonovis
     Series Curator and Currents Editor

Fifteen literary-leaning, Buddhist-tending, good-humored people gather in a circle. The hike leader, Laura Pettibone—tall, taut, plain-spoken, mischievous laugh—hands out maps and chant sheets, passed down through generations of leaders.

We chant the Heart Sutra.

Laura is walking through cancer. 

Up the Dipsea Trail, legs burning, fog lifting, perfect spiderweb reflecting sky.

2. Tree Out of Rock, Scent of Bay Trees

Gnarled live oak grows twined around a rock. We chant to the great lord of heat.

3. Ocean View

Through the forest onto a ridge. Eastward, San Francisco glitters. Westward, Sutro Tower sticks up above the fog.

4. Serpentine Power Point

Spiny ridge of green rock, a natural stone chair dubbed “the spiritual driver’s seat of San Francisco.”

We sing Gopala, Krishna’s goatherd chant.

Through a field, down the fire road to Rifle Camp. Lunch, chocolate, poems: Snyder, Bashō, Oliver. Conches blow. Cross a little bridge, hike on redwood duff around the secluded north side.

Trail turns to flinty rock. Laura tells us to pick up a stone.

5. Serpentine Cairn

Circle three times, chanting, toss our stones onto the gleaming pile.

6. Collier Spring

Clear spring water flows from a pipe. Fill your hat, cool drips down your neck for the next mile.

Laura: “The north side is where the truth comes out.” I tell her how I found the hike, making a podcast about walking as practice, how I’d suffered a shock and needed to feel the ground. Laura tells me about her first circumambulation, in her 20s. At a time when she felt lost, the mountain gave her a way to belong.

7. Inspiration Point

Out into full sun, the world an overexposed photograph.

8. East Peak

Two routes to get here: Manzanita Mangle, a scrabble straight uphill, or the longer, shadier fire road. Climb to the base of the fire tower and take in the view.

9. Mountain Home Parking Lot

Steep descent lands us here. We chant Snyder’s Smoky the Bear Sutra.

Drop off the edge, descend the Fern Creek Trail. Stop to drink and splash in the waterfall, Laura whooping and laughing like a duck in a birdbath.

A long section through shaggy redwoods, evening light slanting. Twelve miles. Sore feet. Less chatter, more thoughts of dinner.

10. Redwood Creek, 6 p.m.

What do I find on this walk, season after season?

My friendship with Laura. The community of walkers. A way to mark the seasons in a region of the world where transitions are soft. Clarity out of confusion. The mountain’s language of riffles and wind and rock underfoot.

Laura died in August 2022. She’s buried within view of the mountain. We’re raising money to dedicate a bench at Rifle Camp, renaming it Laura Pettibone grove.

“The mountain is the leader,” Laura wrote, “with each season’s delights and difficulties.”

Laura walked through those seasons, surmounted the difficulties, embraced the delights.

We all keep circling, finding home.



Catherine GirardeauSan Francisco-based writer and audio producer Catherine Girardeau has always loved walking and the natural world. She got interested in walking as a spiritual practice as a podcaster in residence at Grace Cathedral, where she discovered the circumambulation of Mount Tamalpais, and has been walking in circles ever since. She’s currently an executive producer at Pushkin Industries, where she produces Against the Rules, a narrative podcast hosted by bestselling author and journalist Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short), Story of the Week, a weekly interview show about longform journalism, and other podcasts.

Header photo of hikers on Mt. Tamalpais by Ben Carlson. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.