Land's End

Land’s End is a place of many corners. It is a place of order and chaos, of land and sea, of risk and relaxation, of anarchy and governance, of common words and hidden secrets. It is a place of exploration. It is a place of storytelling.

Humans are confined to the ground, and so human places are ruled by two dimensions only. Land’s end is no exception — though, instead of north-south and east-west, or even left-right and forward-back, this place is governed by the length of the coast and the vertical direction. Travelling along the coastline, you walk through stories. Climbing up and down, you traverse the rules. The top layer is where Law reigns, and that is where you start your journey.

People like rules. Rules bring order. Rules bring security. So, when you arrive at the crowded parking lot, you find troops of locals enjoying the well-marked hiking trails. Girl scouts sell cookies; couples walk hand-in-hand; groups of high schoolers dressed in green learn about local endangered sea creatures. As you walk on ahead, you see why this spot is so popular. Contorted cyprus trees protect you from the wind and sun, while placards overlooking views of the Pacific tell tales of seventeenth-century explorers, ancient geological perturbations, and World War II naval battles. Gazing over the edge, white surf crashes onto the unforgiving jagged rocks below.

A sign stands before you. “DANGER,” it warns, “Sheer Cliff. Stand Back From Edge.” Its dire tellings stave off the public, keeping them away from the Below. But today, you are not them – today, you feel intrepid. Today is a day to break the rules, to defy the warnings, and to explore.

Indeed: not far past the sign you see a clearing, a gap in the otherwise impermeable flora and geography. Meticulously sidestepping down the steep, narrow social trail, you leave behind the Top, the realm of order and Law. Your trail soon opens into an alcove among the cyprus. At first it feels serene; at last the air feels clean from human noise. But as you listen in, the aether is far from motionless: waves crash in a fuzzy blue hum below, and the wind causes the tree canopy to creak and squeak like an old galley. You continue, alternating between narrow passages and  clearings, a path like an ant hill’s interior, through one of the few places in the world where the human law of two dimensions appears to be broken. The trail is so steep that right before your eyes lie the tops of the next trees, placing you at the entrance to a three-dimensional temple of leaves and light that you can see but cannot quite reach.

This phase of your journey empties onto a beach, onto one of the rare sandy clearings amidst the rocks and turbulent wave crests. This is the farthest edge of Land’s End, the only place where the Top’s reign extends as far down as the water itself. You are reunited with the many who descended from a stairway cut into the hill on the other side. At its upper end is a Chartres labyrinth laid out in stones placed in the gravel, walked by many but disturbed by none. Up top there are views of the Golden Gate and the vast expanses of ocean and bay freckled with white brushstrokes of countless sailboat sails.

But you are not ready to return to the Top. You take the lower, hidden path that traverses back among the rocks at water’s edge. The stones beneath your feet are weathered blocks of granite, green sandstone, and broken concrete. The corner of a room lies on the rocky beach covered in fist-sized clumps of congealed seafoam which the wind picks up and flutters like oversized snowflakes. A stream of recent rain trickles from the hillside, through the rocks, and into the ocean, diluting it invisibly. Broken concrete slabs still bear tiles, some inscribed from days past by minds creative or simply bored. You have entered the realm of public secrets.

The going is not easy. This trail is unmarked and scrambles up the cliffs. It traverses gravel patches that threaten to slide and dump you into the merciless waters. Above you, somewhere, the crowds enjoy the common trails, but you are here.

The struggle is worth it: wave crashes send shockwaves through your feet and hands unlike any that common land can offer. You are alone in a land both known and unexplored.

Near the end, an impassable cliff approaches. The cape sheds vertical walls into prohibiting sea. But a careful foray up the rocks reveals two caves. One is cinder-blocked, holding back mysteries yet unknown. The other lies open, waiting.

A cool breeze passes through the cave. Thunderous wave-claps echo through the tunnel, yielding little peace. Stone gaps leave windows to open channels below that suge with blue, passages within reach yet wholly inaccessible. Here, the Laws of humankind are merely rules, and the rules of self stand as Law. Only one path remains: forward.

You clear out to a small platform before a watery channel. Between you and the rest of society lies a single eight-inch wooden beam. You look down and look away - the drop is not far, but it still manages to curdle the blood in your breast. Now, though, it is too late to turn back. You balance across the beam, walk around the obscuring rock face, and emerge into people yet again. The final reward for your adventure is the ruins of Sutro Baths, a renowned bathhouse destroyed in the great 1906 earthquake. Concrete terraces and shallow pools remain to grant joy to children and adults alike. Everyone here is free to explore the baths’ nooks and corners. Above the concrete chunks your eyes follow Miyazaki Hill; above that, the crowded parking lot and the entrance to that very first trail.

A building’s facade proclaims, “LAND’S END.” But you know this here is just the beginning.