Secret labyrinth near Shell Beach draws travelers seeking solace
It appeared mysteriously, without immediate notice, a hand-cut labyrinth pressed into the tall grasses between Shell Beach and Goat Rock.
The spiral path was lined with stones to guide the traveler to a center marked by a growing shrine of small objects.
Breck Parkman, then a senior staff archaeologist and anthropologist for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, went out to investigate, amid initial trepidation that it might be associated with something unsavory such as satanic worship.
The labyrinth that seemed to materialize out of nowhere sometime in the late 1990s was on state land and the initial impulse by parks officials was to scurry out and clean it up.
But as Parkman soon discovered with research, labyrinths are not sinister, but in fact an ancient archetype, often associated with spirituality, religion and meditation, and have been found in Egypt and Greece and throughout Europe. Perhaps the most famous labyrinth in the world was set into the floor of Chartres Cathedral in the early 13th century and used by monks for spiritual contemplation.
Parkman persuaded officials to hold off taking action against what amounted to an unauthorized trail.
“The longer we waited the more we ran into people using it who seemed to be very emotionally tied to it,” Parkman said.
Parks officials had to be persuaded, but eventually decided to quietly turn a blind eye to the labyrinth and let it remain. And over the last two decades it has become an established, but still largely word of mouth destination for people who want to traverse its universal circuit and perhaps, leave an offering.
When the grasses are tall in summer the narrow sinuous path worn down by the passage of many feet, lies concealed in a meadow, unseen by people hiking the nearby Kortum Trail. A piece of rough wood marks the threshold. Unless someone leads you there, it would be as hard to spot as a field mouse, hiding in plain sight. As the grasses die back, however, it is sometimes revealed. More than one visitor has noted and photographed a large black raven that is frequently perched on a nearby fence post, observing as they enter.
Initially, people would bring painted stones and leave them along the path. But with the passage of time, it has evolved into something more - a place of remembering and where people come to lay down their grief or connect with lost loved ones in the form of shells, small objects, letters, and other tokens.
Offerings set in tiny tableau line the path, ending in a center that is filled with a disparate collection of objects left by a multitude of pilgrims over many years, from a set of beads and a toy pony to a watercolor of a unicorn and a bracelet imprinted with the word “Angel.”
The labyrinth has come to fill a need for many people who may not always know where to go with their pain.
“Not everyone feels comfortable in a church. People have to grieve. Some people like to sit in a church and light candles and think of the past and loved ones who are gone. Other people go out and take a hike and do the same thing. Those are both manifestations of the need to mourn and remember. As long as you're remembered, you're not truly dead. When no one remembers you, you're truly gone,” said Parkman, who has returned many times to visit the labyrinth, take photos and study how it is used.
In Taoism there is a belief that in certain sacred places, “dragon veins” or invisible lines, connect the yang of heaven with the yin of the earth. Parkman wonders if the Shell Beach labyrinth is, for many, like one of those places, a sort of temple without walls flanked by the vast blue expanse of sea and sky.
“People are so hungry for a place where they can find solace or have a place to hold their grief and loss,” said Lea Goode-Harris, an artist, poet and designer of modern labyrinths, including one in the shape of Snoopy's head at the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. “There is so much tension in the world right now.”
In the not too distant past people were guided by long-held social and religious rituals that gave some common framework for how to deal with life's passages. But many rituals, seen as old-fashioned, or lost with the fracturing of extended families, the abandonment of organized religion and loss of connection to ethnic roots, have left some people feeling a bit unmoored.
“We've lost that ability to have rituals. Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung talk about the importance of a society having some sort of markers to help us make transitions because life is about change. And our culture specifically has such a hard time with change,” Goode-Harris said. “That's one of the things the labyrinths have to teach us. Instead of banging your head against a wall you're invited to make a turn in the path. It teaches us about change.”