A Map of Point Reyes

Waterfall and a rocky beach on a misty day

Nearly a year into the pandemic, my girlfriend and I resolve that, on our days off, we would try to go to the ocean as much as possible. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, this is easy enough: we can bike out to the Alameda Shoreline or the Albany Bulb, though sometimes we venture farther. 

Desiring more distance from our work lives and computer screens, one night, we plan to drive out to Point Reyes National Seashore. On Google Maps, I zoom in and out of the peninsula’s towns and coastlines, its estuaries and inlets. Glowing light green and blue, the yellow line of Highway 1 traces its eastern boundary.

I search the apartment for a book to pack and bring along, something pleasurable to read. I flip through Alex’s poetry collection. A slim volume presents itself: a compilation by Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, and Denise Riley. I skim stanzas and read one of Nelson’s poems out loud as Alex stirs something on the stove:

say something awful, say
she leaned on the fork

say something nice, say
your sexiness is an aporia,

but that just means nothing can ever demolish it.

“Is that a nice thing?!” Alex laughs.

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The next day, walking down Limantour Beach, we joke about these lines. Which is to say, playing with their form becomes a kind of running joke. 

“Say something awful,” I say, leaning against a slight rain.

“The animal is dead,” says Alex. 

Suddenly, we stop, and I follow Alex’s eyes across the sand. The “dead animal” is so large that, at first, I question whether it’s an animal. Lying awkwardly on its side, it looks out of place, as if haphazardly tossed up on the beach by a wave. Slowly, I realize that this landmass of silver and gray is, in fact, an elephant seal. 

Keeping our distance, I think it’s a trick of the light when I see its stomach rise but then its entire body twitches and ungulates. A sleep tremor. Underneath my damp sweater, the hair on my arms prickles. “This animal,” I say, “is definitely alive.” The vitality of its sleeping form breaks the form of our word play. 

A seal nest at Point Reyes
A seal’s nest at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Tori McCandless, January 2021.

Later, I will learn that elephant seals spend 90 percent of their time in the water. Unlike other seals, they hunt at a depth in the ocean where sunlight struggles to reach and photosynthesis is impossible. Our meeting is unlikely. 

In About Looking, John Berger suggests that we have lost the moments in our lives when humans and nonhumans make eye contact, look at each other, stumble into moments of acknowledgement. He argues that there is something tragic about this loss of mutual recognition across species. 

Standing on the beach, I think: maybe the animal’s eyes don’t need to be open? I did not need to feel acknowledged by this hummock of a seal in order to feel held, if only momentarily, in its world. 

I imagine him encountering squid in what is called the “twilight zone” of the ocean. When you cannot clearly see those around you, there are still other ways of knowing that they’re there. The elephant seal’s livelihood hinges upon such ways of seeing. 

As we stand watching, Alex suggests, “Maybe we shouldn’t wait for him to open his eyes.” Carrying our shoes in our hands, both awed and relieved, we make a wide berth.

How do I know this place? What kind of map is this?

Plodding along the shoreline, our walk develops a plot. Unfolding like a map, our path along the sand forms a route and is interwoven with words. The tideline leaves strands of seaweed, drawn out like topographical lines we trace with our feet. While Alex wears two pairs of gloves and a hat, she insists on going barefoot. 

During the week, staring at a screen all day edges on sensory deprivation. I look at the ocean and long to be in it, believing that submersion is the opposite of deprivation. Most days, I read about being outside while missing being outside. But being outside, of course, generates a different kind of knowing.  

As the fog rolls in off the Pacific, every now and then, we turn to see if the seal is still on the sand. From this position we can also see the damage that last year’s fire season caused. The silhouette of blackened trees crop up in the distance like spent matchsticks. Despite being cold, I do not want it to stop raining. 

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Earlier that morning, I pushed coffee cups aside and spread my National Geographic map of Point Reyes out on the kitchen table. I chose a trailhead and decided that, this time, we’d drive up through Lagunitas instead of Novato. With my finger, I traced a new route along paths marked Estero and White Gate. My map is a durable thing, being both waterproof and tear resistant. As an attempt to render and bound place, it’s also immutable. 

But the peninsula itself is a tangle of ongoing processes, effervescent and alive, produced and consumed. In one place, a thin green line intersects with a dotted black one. Here, on a cool July day, we picnicked with our housemates. It’s closed now for wildfire rehabilitation.

Critiquing the panoptic perspective of maps in The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes that maps “transform the bewitching world . . . into a text that lies before one’s eyes. It allows one to read it, to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god. . . . [T]he fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more.”

How many viewpoints are a “fiction of knowledge”? Although I’ve driven through Sonoma and Marin more times than I can count, I am still dependent on Waze to get myself to Point Reyes. Frequently, I also use AllTrails to choose a hike. A panoptic eye held in my pocket or placed on the dashboard of my car; I question what it conceals rather than reveals.

I fold the laminated map in two. Like a bird’s-eye view from nowhere, this “lust to be a viewpoint” cannot capture the dynamism of place. A wildfire is not a thin red line or a dotted trail of ash. It also ignores so many other pleasures. How to know a place through words and hikes, or poetry and seals? How to navigate this tangle?

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We encounter two other sleeping seals on Limantour Spit. Alex speculates, “Do you think they’re camping out? Waiting for other seals to swim in? Or staking out territory?” I respond that I’m not sure. “Maybe both?” 

Up ahead, some turkey vultures congregate around a pile of driftwood and something that looks like a small boulder. I head toward the dunes to check it out. I find, not a boulder, but something that looks like a skull, about three feet by two feet in size. Where a spinal cord would have been connected to the base of its neck, someone has placed a sand dollar. I want it to be a part of a whale and I don’t. Because if it is, this young calf did not have a very long life. Based on size, it can’t possibly be a seal, unless it actually isn’t a skull.

Boats anchored in a harbor
The author’s hometown harbor. Photo by Tori McCandless, January 2021.

When we’re back within cell phone range, I post a picture of it on Instagram with the caption, “Any speculative skeleton identifications are welcome!” My former housemate, an animal biologist, responds, “How big was it?” and later, “Must be a whale. Looks whale-like. Did you take it home?” I answer that I would have needed to rope myself to the skull to drag it anywhere. 

I would rather go to Point Reyes than any other nearby place to be outside because it reminds me of where I grew up. When I’m there, I am pulled back to memories of walking through Squam Swamp and checking my legs for deer ticks, cresting dunes, and feeling the wind off the water. But I am also from an island that lauds its colonial history, a history that is embedded in, and defined by, a history of marine extraction, which is to say: commercial whaling. I do not want to wrest skulls or bones from this beach nor any other.

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Thinking through the complicated history of mapping, geographers Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin, and Chris Perkins call maps “visual images with rhetorical power.” Elaborating on what they mean by rhetorical power, they draw from the work of landscape architect James Corner to argue that, “A territory does not precede a map, but that space becomes territory through bounding practices that include mapping. . . . Maps are not a reflection of the world, but a re-creation of it; mapping activates territory.” 

The “activation of territory” is inevitably bound up in the project of settler colonialism. Such a project depends on the map, which becomes a way to “know” and set limits around a place; a way to bring land back to empire.

A map of Point Reyes National Seashore Park
A map of Point Reyes National Seashore. Image from the National Park Service, 2021.

In the right-hand corner of my map of Point Reyes, a small historical blurb relays, “The Coast Miwok Indians were the first inhabitants of the peninsula. Over 120 known village sites exist within the park. Sir Francis Drake landed here in 1579, the first European to do so. In the early 1800s Mexican land grantees established ranchos. These were followed by a wave of American agricultural operations which continue to this day in the Seashore’s ranching zone.” 

In five sentences, colonial history sweeps onto the peninsula and is textually embedded in place. This “visual image with rhetorical power” becomes a god’s-eye view from nowhere, while reinscribing a history of violence in a blurb akin to a footnote. The “120 known village sites” do not show up on my map of the park—they are pushed off the map. “Practices of subjugation are also spatial acts,” writes Katherine McKittrick.  

If you look up the history of Point Reyes on the National Park Service’s website, it will instruct visitors to the park’s recreated Miwok village to “try to imagine the lives of the people who lived so intimately with the land.” I question how the past tense of “lived” ignores the continued presence of the Miwok; how their presence, in McKittrick’s words, thus becomes “ungeographic.” 

● ●

Two winters ago, Alex and I hiked out to Alamere Falls. Twisting around groves of eucalyptus, caught up in conversation, we missed the turnoff and ended up at Stinson Beach before having to turn around. Miles later at the end of the trail, we stood above a slick, gray waterfall. I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel”:

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Though not a critique of colonialism, Bishop’s poem does press on the imperial implications of travel. She questions the touristic gaze and what it means to live in a place that is not yours. Point Reyes is only an hour from Berkeley, but I am undoubtedly a visitor. Within the poem and amidst our hike, what reverberates are the incommensurate difficulties and pleasures of wanting to become familiar with a place without laying claim to it.

Balancing on the rocks, Alex and I took off our boots and waded into the ocean. Enjoying the cold water, our “sighting” turned into “citing.” As we watched seagulls drop shells on the rocks, Alex quoted the opening of Anne Sexton’s “Gull”:

You with your wings like spatulas

“Our hike has a bibliography now,” she said. A citation looped into a site. Marking points along the path with text, words volleyed back and forth, entangled with the moments in which we stopped to feel the fog on our faces. Today, we joke, if Anne Sexton were to write a poem about elephant seals she might say: You with your girth like two refrigerators.

● ●

The face of Alamere Falls and the bluffs along Limantour Beach are striated: sedimented matter embroidered with patches of moss, backed by bishop pine. Endemic to California, bishop pines are “pyrophytes,” a type of chaparral species with a closed cone. Which is to say, without fire they will not regenerate, though summer heat often melts the cones’ resin and releases seeds—producing a crackling sound if you listen closely.  

A person walking along Limantour Beach with bluffs in the distance.
Bluffs just beyond Limantour Beach. Photo by Tori McCandless, January 2021.

My copy of Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula notes that Thomas Coulter first “discovered” the bishop pine in 1831. Twisting this taxonomy, I thread in Elizabeth Bishop and classify the pines along this road as really exaggerated in their beauty . . . gesturing like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.

The waterfall itself slides across a surface of Monterey Shale, though in the northern part of the peninsula, shale eddies out and is woven into granite. Stephanie LeMenager writes, “To sediment is to remember the material histories of modernity, reconstitute our own materiality as animals, and make of memory something durable: matter.” Walking the coast, geologic striation appears as a narrative-made material. In the strata of rock, matter constitutes its own memory. What kind of map is this? 

● ●

At the end of the day, getting into the car, a skein of loose threads trails us home: not a net or a boundary, but the reticulation of words tangled up in place, impressing and pressed into memory. How do I know this place? And how do I know place? What kind of map is this?

Featured image: Alamere Falls in Point Reyes. Photo by Tori McCandless, December 2019.

Tori McCandless is a Ph.D. student at UC Davis in the department of English. Their research focuses on nineteenth-century American regionalism and the intersections of geography, genre, and queer & trans studies. Twitter. Contact.