The Circumambulation of Mount Tamalpais:
A Limited Series
The mountain is always open.
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
I first circumambulated Mt. Tamalpais in 1998 as a graduate student at UC Davis studying poetry with Gary Snyder. Another of my professors, David Robertson, periodically led students up Mt. Tam in the spirit of Snyder, Ginsberg, and Whalen’s 1965 “opening” of the mountain with Buddhist and Hindu chants, sutras, and vows.
One chilly March day, I joined David for the circuitous 14-mile route up and back down the mountain, stopping to chant at the ten pilgrims’ stations the trio of Buddhist-poets had consecrated 33 years prior.
As I trekked among groves of coastal live oak, Douglas fir, and Sequoia sempervirens, across grassy hillsides, and through California bay laurel-scented fog, I was thrilled to peek into history, retracing steps and voicing words of the original circumambulators.
Still, I wondered: as a non-Buddhist, how did these incantations apply to me? Was it appropriative to invoke them? Or was it enough that I wanted to learn about them and honor their traditions by performing them? When I asked David, also a non-Buddhist, he explained that circumambulating Mt. Tam was a way to create meaning for himself in relation to the natural world. That sounded pretty good to me. And Gary himself had once said that the purpose of circumambulating Mt. Tam was not just “…to pay your regards” but also “…to play, to engage, to stop and pay attention.”
At that time in my life, I sought novel experiences, always opting for travel to new places, to take on new challenges. I was always on the move, planning the next adventure, thinking it was the only way to experience life to the fullest. I didn’t re-circumambulate Mt. Tam until January 1, 2021.
In recent years, I have changed my view on repeating adventures. Now my quest is to see familiar things in a new way, to find the wonder in the new inside the old. Perhaps this is similar to something poet Forrest Gander recently told me: “In our culture right now, people are searching out something ritualistic and thought-provoking, something slow. And they’re looking to poetry, but all those qualities are also qualities of circumambulation.” As a writer, I feel this too: the satisfaction of the iterative process of writing is the satisfaction of spiraling my way up a mountain. I now welcome such repetition, enjoying the mindfulness it engenders.
For years, I had rung in the new year in the Mojave Desert, hiking up a mountain to a remote cave and crawling through a natural tunnel inside it. To shed the old year and greet the new one, I entered its darkness and emerged into bright sunlight on the other side. The tunnel was dusty and filled with pointy cholla spines, but I loved doing it, rebirthing myself to the new year. The cave bears evidence there of other people doing this very thing; I followed in someone else’s footsteps.
But in 2021, our desert trip was quashed by Northern California’s third COVID lockdown, and I felt like I might lose my mind if I didn’t get outside. So, my family concocted a new New Year’s Day ritual, a CircumTam. My husband found my 1998 circumambulation notes (wow!), our teenage son grabbed his phone (of course), and we three set out for a certain mountain in Marin County to usher in 2021. We performed some of the old chants and sutras along the way, hoping desperately that they would help invoke a better year than 2020 had been. But we also strayed from the traditional route, finding new paths, new sights to marvel at.
The next January 1st, we did it again, and again on the spring equinox. Last fall, we joined a dedicated circumambulation group for their quarterly trek.
For me, circumambulating Mt. Tam is about following in others’ footsteps—those of my mentors, Gary and David—to honor tradition and repetition. And to play. And to pay attention. And, as Forrest said, to seek the slow, noticing the difference in the angle of light and gust of wind, and finding ways to enjoy September’s heat and January’s sogginess.
This January, I returned to the desert cave and crawled through it, but I felt a twinge of regret that I wasn’t sweating it out on my way up and down Mt. Tam. But the summer solstice is only a few months away, and the mountain is always open.
Andrea Ross’s memoir, Unnatural Selection, about her years as a wilderness guide searching for her biological family, was published by CavanKerry Press in 2021. Her writing has appeared in Ploughshares, The Huffington Post, The Conversation, Bay Nature, Mountain Gazette, and many other outlets. During the 1980s and 1990s, Andrea worked throughout the American West as a wilderness guide, a National Park Service ranger, and a backcountry search-and-rescue leader. She is on the faculty of the University Writing Program at UC Davis.