Saturday, May 23, 2009



is brightness. It is the brightness

gathered up of all that went before. It lasts.

And when it does end

there is nothing, nothing


Climbing up the slope of Pilot Peak ridge into the park, the trees grew denser, diameters thicker, topography grander, history more pronounced in glacial U’s and successional ecosystems, fire scars and granite. And finally, for the first time the entire trip, I came to a road I had walked before – the 1 mile stretch of trail from the Merced Grove to Hwy 120 in Yosemite National Park.

From here to the end, I followed the directions of Peter and Donna Thomas, as far as I know the only other people to have completed the walk in any official sense since Muir in 1868. The manuscript of their guidebook, soon to be published, was essential to finding my way to the Old Big Oak Flat Road that once carried stage coach passengers into the valley. Thanks to Peter and Donna Thomas, and be sure to look at their website:

The Thomas’s directions led uphill through Ponderosa and Sugar Pines, through the first snow crossing of the trip, and deep into the fiery late afternoon light so unique to California. The whole world was silhouetted in “hammered gold and gold enamelling,” making the difficult uphill climb seem almost out of a dream. At the top stood the Crane Flat Fire Lookout, around 6600 feet above sea level. Across the helipad to the East, the frosty Sierra crests, like waves frozen before breaking, stood lively against the sky. To the West, the verdant foothills rolled into the central valley, and beyond them in the hazy distance, the coast ranges.

“My God!” I thought. “I’ve come all that way?” The thought was no less perplexing than when several months ago I looked east from the summit of Mt. Diablo near Oakland, and saw the white caps of the Sierra barely discernable in the distance, and thought, “My God, I’m going all that way?”

I stood for a while at the lookout, taking in the state of California. For a moment, it all made sense. No wonder Muir stayed here. No wonder he came up with a powerful and personal philosophy about conservation. He walked the state. More than once. He knew the details, from rock to plant to person and up to mountain top. He attached a significance to the story of the land itself that few others could. He inserted himself into that story bodily, intellectually, and spiritually, beginning in his second day in the state. Then the flash was gone. “Do what is right,” I thought. Then I began to descend. One day left. 16 miles. Then the valley. The jewel. The end and the last. All the work, the ideas, the love of the entire trip gathered into one place for one moment. Lastness is brightness.

The next morning I departed early, knowing a long day was in store. Early in the day, I climbed up further, above 7000 feet, as ponderosas grew taller and thicker, dwarfing me and seeming to put the “old” in old growth. This first uphill stint, with the air thinner at altitude, left me with doubts about whether I’d finish or not. It was May 9, I was a day or two ahead of schedule, but the gravity of the park ensured I would not rest that night until I reached the valley floor, even though it meant a blazing pace over difficult terrain and no stops for food (a lot of trail mix).

Near Tamarack Flat campground, my doubts grew as long stretches of the trail were covered in snow. The map showed major stream crossings ahead – Tamarack Creek, Cascade Creek, Fireplace Creek, Ribbon Creek. None of these would have bridges or easy crossings, and finding a way across the freezing, sometimes waist deep water required a slow and careful advance.

Finally I arrived at a junction with Old Big Oak Flat Road, used as a stage coach road in the latter half of the 1800’s, and no longer maintained by the park service. It quickly became apparent that trail maintenance might indeed have a profound ecological impact – this unmaintained trail was often close to impassable – downed trees, washouts, overgrowth of thick chaparral. Again, would I make it? And if not, where would I sleep? No time for that now. Keep walking. In clearings I was moving quickly, but all the obstacles dropped my pace to under 2 mph, very slow.

Had the old road not been so difficult, it would have been something akin to the last stage of the tour de france, where the cyclists ride with champagne glasses, knowing the outcome of the race, and with the scenery of Paris playing center stage. I reached the old road’s “O my! Point,” the first view of Bridalveil falls, unexpectedly around a corner. Those Victorians must have had a different sensibility than my own – I think my exact words were “Ooo s**t!” I could see now why spring was the high season for the valley, why for the next week every campground in the park would be full every night. I had only been to the park in winter or summer, and the waterfalls never pumped like this. Though I did not share Muir’s misinterpretation of the scale of the falls, I was entirely unprepared for the grandeur of the waterworks. Never before have I seen water move with such declarative, willful force, uncompromising and exuberant at the same moment. A turkey vulture swooped close overhead, accenting the grand precipice below me and the unapproachable cliffs opposite. After a long pause to try to get some reckoning of the falls, I gave up and move on.

Soon afterward, a massive rockslide covered much of the trail, making for very slow going and difficult route finding. Again, if not for the difficulty this would have been a luxurious treat. Every time I emerged from tree cover a new monument was visible: first bridalveil, then the top of El Capitan, then the entire rock face, then Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest, Ribbon Creek falls, and finally Sentinel Dome (which I’d climb later in the week) and a grand view through the gates of the valley. If not for the boulders I think I might have started running.

This entire time I couldn’t help marveling at the daring and splendor of this old road. At an age when man was constantly measuring himself mechanically against the forces of nature, this road would have certainly been impressive. To many, it might have been a hopeful symbol of progress, though to others, perhaps to Muir, a fearful portent of things to come.
What things? I had not seen anyone on the trail in several days. Arriving in the valley, at the base of El Capitan, I was greeted by speeding cars, swarming crowds, picnics, photographs, rock climbers, view seekers. The valley was packed, overrun even, on the second Saturday in May. While the big trees in the mountains above spoke to resource protection, the crowds certainly identified the public enjoyment stipulation of the national park system. On the one hand, I was glad to see so many enjoying the park, thinking in particular of those select few who might be inspired to work for its preservation. On the other hand, I was struck by the “Disneyland” aspect of it all – one representative sample, perhaps now a memorial, of what nature might once have been like. The grandeur of the valley walls providing enough exaggeration of the myth to demand respect. Again, I can see the underpinning for choosing “circus” landscapes, as they tell a more compelling story about the power of nature and the consequent importance of its preservation. Again it seemed clear that in spite of all the good parks do, there is a need to stretch conservation beyond park borders, and to reintegrate not just “green” products, but nature and landscapes back into the human dominated world.

Through the crowds parked on El Capitan Bridge, I saw a familiar face, and couldn’t hide a smile. There was my dad, who had flown to California to meet me for the end of the trip. After calls to my mom and sister, the journey was complete. We found a likable spot in El Capitan meadow and ate bagels, cheddar, nutella, and peanut butter. San Francisco to Yosemite Valley. April 6 – May 9, 2009.

The lines quoted at the top are from the final poem of Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares. In many ways, “Lastness” is a poem about death. It describes the persistence of life beyond death through connections with the surrounding world. For Kinnell, many of these connections come from the natural world. Life exists outside the borders of the skin, just as nature exists outside the borders of a park. At times new perspective requires the grandeur or terror of big places and big ideas. Journeys then do not provide an end, but instead a beginning, just as in the poem, death is not an end, rather a brightness that lasts. Indeed, what ended with Muir’s walk continues now through conservation efforts worldwide, and the occasional walker. For me, the end of the walk is as much a beginning as an end. The world of the walk may be at an end, and in a way that is disappointing – in Muir’s words, the days of the walk were some of the “largest days of my life.” But so many ideas and questions were generated, so much new perspective acquired – the brightness of the trip, from beginning to end, will last. I hope that I can generate the same kind of lastness through my own efforts, though I don’t expect the same amount of acclaim or success that Muir acheived. But using experience, narrative, and perspective to fuel and to color the work and thinking I hope to do in conservation will require that kind of lastness that Muir found, the collection of experience, thought, and ambition he put into his work. And so from the end, I look back at a collection of my own time, step by step, from weary lows to triumphant highs and all the important space between. I look back at life lived differently for a while, a hearkening back to history and forward to new visions of a landscape. I look back without looking back at all, for all that took place is with me still.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I’ve always been a fast walker. I think my typical pace on the trip has been about 2.5 mph, including stops for food, photographs, and writing. But the last 4 days of the walk (May 6-9) were a new pace, as I covered 60 miles on the ground and climbed nearly a mile up. Sometimes when the motor gets turned on, it can be hard to turn off. Or maybe it was simply the gravity of those dense granites that make up the park, pulling me more and more quickly to the end.

From Greeley Hill, I continued east through the Stanislaus National Forest. I made a stop at Bower Cave, once a popular tourist destination, now fenced off, swarmed with swallows, and overgrown with poison oak. Remnants of an old stage cling to the walls of the pit, though the dance floor is gone. I climbed up and around the cave, then down to the bottom, despite stories I had heard of rattlesnake fights and rashes. There was something of a ghostly atmosphere in the cave – knowing it had once housed so many travelers on the way to the park including Muir himself, hearing now only the cries of swallows, not seeing another person on the road for several days – all these contributed to the feeling. Something too of history gone by – the kind of entertainment provided by the cave wouldn’t work for the modern traveler, regulations and designations of the land itself might no longer permit such use if it were sought (much like they no longer permit constructing beds out of cut pine boughs, as was Muir’s custom). For the moment, the cave’s natural and human histories seem to have diverged, though the not-so-friendly folks who tried to run me out of town the day before (did I mention that the shorter, heavier set man of the pair began bleeding profusely and mysteriously from his finger mid conversation?) mentioned that there had been murders near the cave in recent memory, a bitter rapprochement.

Ghosts of past and present stayed with me throughout Stanislaus NF. These ghosts, as ghosts like to do , appeared not in person (after meeting the two fellows on dogtown road, I didn’t see another person for 2 days) but came out in the surroundings. There was evidence of the region’s mining history. I am still unclear whether mining continues in the forest today, as “placer claim” markers dot roadsides, mining claim signs come brightly out of the verdure, and “no mining” signs often accompany private property markers. Near one stream was a well used during the “Groveland Fire,” embossed on the rusted metal covering. At times there were clear lines through the forest, where logging or managed burns had taken place. The constructed world was not untouched by the natural, as flowers crowded road cuts, washouts and potholes made roads impassable for cars, and rivers and valleys dictated a great deal about land use and the distribution of public and private land.

Late on May 7, the valley I was walking through became steeper and steeper, and finally I saw the first signs of granite on the hillsides. I camped at Anderson Flat, and dined on the best meal of the trip – corned beef and cheddar potato soup mix, combined with just a little water to make something close to mashed potatoes and corned beef hash. Followed, of course, by the tediousness of bear-bagging, though I admit it is exciting to stay in bear country. A few days later, in the park, I saw a bear, seemingly unaware of his own circumference, almost like a man in a bear suit, cross the street and try to squeeze between two rocks not quite wide enough apart.

The highlight of May 8 was an off-trail stint straight uphill, from around 4500 to 5500 feet in just under a mile. I followed a dry creek bed to a deer trail, having at times to crawl under thicker patches of madrone, and reaching the summit as sweaty as I’ve ever been. My partially cotton shirt, anathema among most campers, dried quickly in the sun. (I side with Colin Fletcher here in suggesting that I am not a camper, backpacker, tramper, or hiker, but simply a walker. The others all carry heavy technical, ethical, and social baggage that don’t often find traction with me). A few miles further along the ridge, through one last tract of private land, and there it was. On a shabby barb wire fence, the green and white sign marking the boundary of Yosemite National Park. The jewel that drew Muir, that has drawn millions over the years, and that drew me as well. As powerful as the journey has been, it takes the gravity of a place like Yosemite to draw one so far. The park’s sheer power and splendor almost strike fear, terror even as the pure granite bursts surprisingly from the Earth.

A friend once argued that he agreed with Daoist teachings, that place is nothing compared to mind, and that whatever place can offer exists already within the mind. No. Place and imagination cannot be separated. Each inspires and colors the other, just as on a larger scale people and nature cannot be truly distinguished, their interactions shaping one another (seen so clearly in the National Forest alone). Even within humans, places provide the substrate that inspires imagination and intellect – what is present in the mind might be unlocked through spatial experience. Some places, like Yosemite, move us almost out of body entirely, defying our human sensibilities and constructions and giving us a new, non-anthropocentric perspective. I agree with Steinbeck, who argued that many of our national parks are more like “Disneylands” representing outliers in the ecology of the country. But I can understand too why such outliers might be so eagerly protected, and why they might remain important in shaping environmental thinking.

And so, at the boundary of the beginning of journey’s end, place was thus coloring my thoughts and expectations. I stepped over the fence and entered the park.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Finding Forest Freedom

The journey through the San Joaquin Valley was an interesting one, providing experiences, conversations, and its own "ebb and flow" that will be invaluable in thinking about the trip and the questions I've been asking.
But the difficulty of walking on roadsides, the long and repetitive views along large farms and orchards, the skies hazy with clouds and particulates shading the relief of the sides of "the tub" (Sierra and Coast Ranges), all made for hard days and low spirits. I felt certain parts of the trip slipping a little, with resulting fear and frustration.
And so I admit the power of the senses, so loved and well described by Muir, to shape the kind of intellectual curiosity we often think of (and write about) as separate from the world of personality, of joy and despair, of dreams and wanderings. The intellect is not secular; Muir's belief in this likely helped lead to his success.
Today I began climbing the Sierra foothills in earnest, traveling from Coulterville at just over 1700 feet to a high point about 6 miles east of the town in National forest land around 3200 feet. Most of this climb came at once - I walked the uphill backward, still thinking of my Achilles injury, a decision I may regret tomorrow when the legs burn.
I spent much of the day trying to identify trees and shifting ecosystems as I move uphill. I began along Maxwell creek, thick with riparian shrubs, though surrounded by grassy and grazed ranchlands. As the climb began, I grew excited at the first Ponderosa Pine, a sign of the mixed evergreen forest that would dominate throughout much of the day. The understory was low shrubs and California Black Oaks, Quercus... the name escapes me at the moment. Higher still, conifers became more and more dominant, and at around 3000 feet Ponderosa Pines and Incense Cedars crowded the sky. On south facing sunny slopes Pacific Madrones crowded the roadside, looking like photos of an explosion. I crossed a few creeks, including two crossings of Bean Creek, whose water I avoided being clearly downstream of a mine. It is probably gold rush era and no longer in use, but the Bay still suffers from gold rush era mercury inputs, so I opted to remain unslaked. The road quickly became dirt and gravel, with only a few cars passing the entire day.
Returning to the forest today, I rediscovered the freedom I love about walking, which was lost a little in the San Joaquin. The time to stop and look, to think, and the absence of deadlines all seem so much more pronounced in the slow space of the woods. Coming from a series of long and dangerous days along roads, it felt like a breath of fresh air, or perhaps a cupful of non-mercury bearing water. And to cap it all, my first view of snowy Sierra crests, bringing happy shouts and arm swinging at my hilltop viewpoint.
Worth exploring further, today's road followed a tongue of private land extending deep into the National Forest land. This made for one very tense encounter with suspcicious landowners unused to scruffy walkers, and somewhat unwilling to accept my explanation. I can't blame folks in this part of the state for wondering why or how I came this far or what the hell it is I'm doing - I've yet to find a worthy tagline. To the point, the divisions between National Forest land and private land were quite marked, with the private lands telling tales of their use for grazing, lumber, &c.
This evening I've talked at length with Ken Pulvino, whose Greeley Hill residence is my internet, dinner, and lodging for the night, about some of these issues. Ken has filled me in about geotourism and his efforts to rename hwy J132 as the "John Muir Highway." Ken has filled me in a lot about the specifics of the area and the potential for economic and environmental alignment that might take place here. Thanks so much to Ken and Teri for the great hospitality and great conversation, I'll write more about thoughts and consequences of the latter when I've thought it all over more and sleep is not nagging quite so incessantly...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Approach

I've fallen quite far behind in the blog due to the access issues previously described, but again, a brief summary follows:

April 30: San Luis NWR to Livingston. My first glimpse of both the San Joaquin and Merced Rivers. Walked through what seemed interminable vineyards of Gallo Winery, crossing a number of small canals and a variety of other water-related infrastructures before arriving in Livingston. My longest day so far at just under 18 miles. My first view of the Sierra Nevada at the very end of the day.

May 1: Day off in Livingston. Met with Amy Moffat of the Great Valley Center to discuss some of the human issues of the modern San Joaquin Valley. Talked with ranger Daniel Rizzo of McConnell state park about the difficulties of land management in the valley, and some of the ins and outs of the state park system.

May 2: Livingston to Hopeton. The Earth began to stir, the first hint of topography since Apr. 27. Interminable vineyards replaced by interminable almond orchards. Heavy morning rain, but dry afterward. Tried to stop at an almond processing plant, but it was closed for the day. I spoke to an organic farmer briefly, fended off a few angry growling dogs (and a few vocal gangsters driving uncomfortably close...), and met a Muir enthusiast from the area who, after offering me a ride, pointed out the bluff where Muir herded sheep the summer after his first ramble to the valley.

May 3: Hopeton to Lake McSwain. With the sky clearing and the pace quickening eastward, the Sierra and foothills were finally becoming visible with some detail. Most of the day's scenery, however, came in the form of the Snelling dredge field, a kind of mountain range in miniature along the banks of the Merced. Large cobbles are piled up for at least 10 miles on either side of the town of Snelling, the remnant of dredge mining not from the gold rush, but later attempts around the turn of the (19th) century. I've seen many smaller dredge remnants since, but none quite so impressive, or oppressive, as this long field near Snelling.

May 4: Lake McSwain to Lake McClure, Barret Cove Campground. Today I finally began traversing the topography of Sierra foothills, following the road through ranches and metamorphic outcrops. To the east, the Sierra began to loom beyond the foothill valleys. To the west, the entire San Joaquin Valley was visible, with foothills misty in the distance. Even some major roadways and rivers shimmered in the afternoon light.

All this is behind, but today marks my last day in "civilization" of the trip. The next few days through national forest land and into the park promise a different kind of experience and "reading" of the landscape. I'm feeling pulled along by the closeness of my destination, but trying my best to think hard about the intervening lands and people. Until then, just trying to stay out of the mouth of the bear, or "in bocca al lupo"

A Nod to the Doubters

There were many who doubted that I'd be able to blog as I walked across the state of California. I went to great pains to ensure library access nearly every day of the trip, and was feeling vindicated early on when I was able to post often.
While I checked on the locations of libraries and the availability of internet access of more remote libraries along the way, I overlooked scheduling. In Santa Nella, in the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, I arrived at the library at 12:30 to find that it had closed at noon. Further east, in the town of Stevinson, I made sure to arrive at the library before noon, and found that it did not open until 12:30. The Snelling library was open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, but closed when I was there on a Sunday. My last post in Livingston was cut short when I arrived late and the library closed early.
Those who expected these kinds of difficulties are proved right. My own optimism may have pushed aside practicality. Nonetheless, I have been impressed with California's library system, the widespread availability of internet, and the generosity and helpfulness of libraries along the way. Even in remote areas like Coulterville (pop. 115), my current location, the modern world is only a few clicks away. If you can time it right.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Alive and well

It has been a long stretch without time and access to the internet, but I am still alive and well, achilles healthy, legs feeling strong, and even a day ahead of schedule. With limited time for writing now, I'll give only a brief outline of the last few days.
April 22: Anderson Lake to meeting at Gilroy Outlets, overnight at Coyote Lake
Aprill 23: Henry Coe State Park, hunting hollow entrance to near Wagon Road and Center Flats Road intersection
April 24: Henry Coe State Park, to Dowdy Ranch Visitor's center
April 25: Henry Coe State Park, Dowdy Ranch to Bell Station at Highway 152
April 26: Rest Day
April 27: Bell Station east on hwy 152 to Pacheco State Park, meeting with Ranger D. Poole at the park, continued east over pacheco pass on 152 to San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area
April 28: San Luis Reservoir to Volta Wildlife Refuge north of Los Banos on Henry Miller Road
April 29: Kesterson unit of San Luis NWR, walked across San Luis NWR to refuge bunkhouse on Wolfsen Road

Much more to come....

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A quickening pace

Over the past few days, I've walked from San Jose to Gilroy, the southernmost tip of the "Bay Area" at the south end of Coyote Valley. I've walked along the Coyote Creek Trail, a multi use path managed by SCC parks dept, and Monterey Highway, the dirt road Muir would have taken from San Jose to Old Gilroy and the pass to the east. Wheat was the crop then. Orchards have since displaced wheat and the historic oak woodland/savannah of the area.
It might be more appropriate to say that housing is what is "grown" in the valley now. Last night, Ranger Phil Hearin of SCC parks showed me a view of the valley from above, pointing to the bright lights of the last few years of development set amidst surrounding darkness. All those lights have come on within the last 5 years, many within the last 2 or 3, Hearin said. Even expecting this kind of development in the valley, the space and pace of it was still a surprise to see.
If this kind of development were composed of rocks instead of houses, future geologists might be puzzled. Instead of the steady layering of development upon development seen in places like San Francisco or Oakland, the developments in Coyote Valley have erupted suddenly, and with more random distribution, creating a strange pattern of light and dark at night. In the daylight, it remains bizarre to walk past stately home that might fit well in suburban Connecticut to a vacant field next door.
Some unsurprising facts: the valley has been hit hard by the economic downturn, with foreclosures up nearly 30% this year, according to Hearin. Farmland is constantly diminishing, with much of it being bought by developers.
More surprising: other farms have been abandoned, said Hearin, not because of pressure from developers but because of the complaints of new and unusual neighbors, displeased with the noise and early morning schedule of the farmers.
In short, the community itself, not just the land it is built upon, has changed rapidly. In the "Valley of Heart's Delight," the valley of Muir's "ether baptism" in rambles, what has become of the famed American pastoral dream? The farmer standing away from the city, not too far, with stars and stripes waving behind?
Perhaps it is being lost, diminished with each passing generation. America is young still, with much of its history yet to be forged, with changes coming rapidly and constantly. Or perhaps the dream is being relocated, from the land lived upon to the land visited. Parks, local and remote, might provide some satiation for pastoral longing for new suburbanites on old farmland. Or maybe the pastoral is being technologically updated, appearing now in green buildings, CFLs, and low flow toilets. I've seen many of these expressions in the last few days: the recreation intensive parks of Santa Clara County, the stubborn farms persisting in Coyote Valley, the new light bulbs and lawn designs at the Gilroy outlets.
It's been an overwhelming time, moving in and out of locales replete with varying degrees of naturalness and development. Even the place I slept last night was in a park across the creek from a juvenile detention facility ("escapes are frequent," ranger Hearin informed me just before I unfurled my sleeping bag... the after dark adventures continue, giving my mom gray hairs...). It's a lot to think about, with the change seeming fast paced even for a walker. It must seem so to the residents of Coyote Valley as well, as their world rapidly reconfigures to a new set of demands and pressures.