Point Reyes National Seashore: A Wild Paradise

An outdoorsman discovers his new "happy place": a calming stretch of flowers, berries, and the rocky Pacific Ocean

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Life has been a whirlwind lately, and things will only get faster in a few weeks when my book tour begins. I am getting headaches, something I don't normally suffer from, I got my first cold in more than two years, and, on especially fun occasions, my right eye has started twitching. Lunches on most days have been triple-decker stress sandwiches. Hold the mayo.

Last week on a particularly eye-twitchy morning, I decided I needed to escape from my computer and drive away. I needed to go to my Happy Place. And while fans of Happy Gilmore all know that a man's happy place does in fact involve women in a merrywidow carrying pitchers of beer, that's not what I was thinking of at that particular moment. No, I needed to see the ocean. I needed to smell salt.

All of us, not just foragers, anglers, and hunters, have our own Happy Place, and it's usually outside somewhere. It is a spot where we become children again, wide-eyed and wondering, eager to follow whatever zig-zag trail our whims lead us down. It is a place we know intimately, yet discover newness each time we visit. It's where we dream about being whenever we are down.

My true Happy Place is 3,000 miles to the East of where I sit. It is Block Island, part of the chain of islands that include the swankier Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard—which, for the record, is not in fact named after Martha Stewart, as one young person insisted to me the other day.

But as stressed as I was, I was not about to jump in my truck and drive 3,000 miles; road trips of that magnitude will come soon enough. Thankfully, I have a new Happy Place: Point Reyes National Seashore, on California's North Coast.

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The ocean is etched into who I am, at a cellular level. No matter how far from shore I find myself, I ache for it. I yearn for the chill caress of its fog, the throb of the surf—even the stink of low tide.

Point Reyes salves that ache. Even well inland, I can still feel its closeness, from the birds to the wind that tore through the hillsides I walked last week. The peninsula, an hour or so north of San Francisco and two hours from where I live, is more than just a pretty place. It is alive with Nature's bounty. Mushrooms in fall and winter, quail everywhere—although, like all game animals, they are protected on Point Reyes—and berries in summer. Spring? Spring is a crazy-quilt of flowers.

Wild iris are a commonplace, blue beacons dotting the countryside. Underfoot, carpets of wild violets blanket sheltered spaces.

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The violets are edible, the iris poisonous. These are plants I know well from the East. They are old friends. But as I walked, the peninsula revealed to me other sights I had not seen.

This is a sea pink. I found it at the top of one of the tallest hills in Point Reyes. it looks like a ready-made corsage, only in miniature.

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Not five feet from the sea pinks was another new flower for me. This one was odd, a hairy-scary looking thing that could pass for a tiny version of Audrey, the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors. This one's real name is "pussy ears." I am assuming whoever named it was referring to cats...
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Every mile I walked I found something new, something I'd never seen before. In between my little discoveries, I saw plenty of deer, and few other people. Wisps of fog rushed through the pines like ghosts late for a date with eternity. My ears were filled with the breath of the pines, and, far below me, the boom of the Pacific, a barely audible bass note.
I was on this hill checking my huckleberry patches. If their spring flowers hold into summer berries, this should be an epic year for the berries here in NorCal. Every bush was coated.

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The huckleberries aren't the only good things to eat on this stretch of Point Reyes. Within a mile, I found violets, cow parsnip, wild grape, salal berries, wild strawberries, manzanita, fiddleheads, yerba buena (a kind of mint), yerba santa (a lot like sage), horehound, miner's lettuce, dandelion, salsify, blackberries, currants, and even Oregon grape.

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I almost shouted out loud when I spotted the Oregon grape's canary flowers; I'm certain I had a shit-eating grin on my face that I did my best to hide from a couple passing hikers. I'd been searching for this berry for two years. The only other place I've found them is, oddly, the parking lot of my gym—and I don't feel like getting arrested for poaching berries, so they're off limits. I can legally pick up to a quart of these at Point Reyes, however.

Oregon grape is tart and bold, while its neighbor, the salal, is sweet but lacks acid—put together they are a perfect combination for pies, ice cream, syrup, even wine or liqueur. I can't wait to return for them in July.

And that's the thing about a Happy Place. It beckons to you always, no matter the season or the harvest. When you arrive, it welcomes you with peace and loveliness, and, quite possibly, a good meal. As I drove home after a day on the hillside, I listened to the radio: familiar, comforting songs playing, my headache forgotten. And finally, my goddamn eye had stop twitching.

Images: Hank Shaw