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...


  1. It was a joy to share an evening with Alex and his father Michael. I suspected prior to their arrival that my wife, Teri, and I would have a great time hearing about the trip. However, it was also a very pleasant surprise to be able to savor what has become for me an almost forgotten realm of sophisticated discussion about a shared love --- English Literature, with his learned dad, Michael. I would highly recommned to others along Alex's route that they take advantage of the chance to share in his journey.

  2. To Alex & Maria(la times reporter:

    Hope things are well for both of you.

    Thanks Alex for sharing your very interesting , useful & informative recent reconnaisance of John Muirs initial route.
    and reminding me that sprinklers are the future in nighttime security alarms.

    For your info, in the version of your story published in the LA Times front page article on sat 5.9.09 under the title " Stanford grad student walking 320 miles in John Muir's footsteps "the web address given i.e. www.muirwalk.blogspot. dont work. Here's one that does work:

    Thanks also Alex and Maria for making me aware that the snowy egrets, Giant Garter Snake & lesser sandhill cranes still live.

    Thank you Maria for making it known which parts of the route Alex took to avoid. Now traverlers who want to noise,sprinklers, gunshot sounds,trash,trucks,cars and dirty air can go directly to the climbing from Coulterville to Greeley Hill.

    In an attempt to share with you both also i.e return the favor.i.e to avoid dangers and searching and go directly to the fun stuff. You should be aware that if you are ever
    at Elysian Park in Los Angeles & walk to the tops of the hills south of stadium way & the 405 freeway. You may also hear gunshot sounds like someone is shooting at you.
    Because of the LAPD target range there. On the other side of the 405 freeway i.e north of the 405 & Riverside Drive. If you walk north on Harwood to the LA River & squeeze thru the hole in the fence there. Theres a certain time of the year i.e march or april(it varies from year to year) when there are thousands of cannibalistic baby toads there. This may me a reason why this area is called frog town. I dont think these toads are endangered though but rather they may be invasive.

    If you both remember from your reading of The Journals of Louis & Clark that many of the indian tribes said that when they died they go to the SandHills to the West.

    With this in mind consider that Further south near the intersection where Imperial Highway hits Vista Del Mar i.e at the entrance to Dockweiler state beach. Theres a large Sanddune in the North East Corner of this intersection the is very large & shaped like a volcano. However the inside dome area is the location of a dry sometimes wet pond that has lots of endangered species that live in it.However you may have to get permission from the University that has made this dune into a conservation area to gain access to this site.

    Further south still i.e at the intersection of Bell ave & 32nd st in Manhattan Beach is another sand dune being used for exercise by many different groups its called SandDune Park. It gets real crowded here so when you climb to the top of the dune youll find 32nd st heads west downhill thru beach homes to the beach. Where the ocean waves hit the shore here if you look south you can see the Manhattan Beach Pier. Recommended walk if its a minus tide day in your tide table you read daily.Theres another sand hill in Redondo Beach further south that is now completely covered by houses, streets etc. Every so often when a new house is built they find indian graveyards.Then bury them back up and build the new house.

    Thousands of miles across the pacific and into the isolated middle of the Indian Ocean . Theres a small simi atoll like island called Diego Garcia. Nowadays theres a US military base there. I've heard that the Giant Hermit Crabs(differentiated from Coconut Crabs) no longer exist there on the inner lagoon side of south part of the atoll. Also, if you would like to get seeds from an almond tree that hasnt been altered genetically. Theres a wild almond tree there also. Same thing with the Stangler Fig tree.

    Thousand of miles back to the east in the southern pacific ocean north east of australia.Here's a highly classified defense secret revealed. The migratory path
    of the Giant Sea Snake from Australia to the Giant Sea Snakes main island northeast of Australia. This migratory route is the same route used by US Navy ships
    when they travel east-west in the area north east of australia.

    Hope this adds to your future explorations of California and the world in general.

  3. Like everyone who is following this blog, I am intrigued by the adventure. But I could not help but sign-up to follow your blog because you are really an exceptional writer. I learned about your journey from today's LA Times and took notice of the few snippets that they quoted. I logged onto the blog and became hooked by your literary style. Great work.

  4. Alex,

    Congratulations, the article in the LA times was great. I agree with the previous post, you are a great story teller. When the SF Chronicle printed the article about our walk the worst thing w could say that happened was that we had problems with finding a place to sleep - you almost get shot at. Who could equal that. But really why the article was so important, why your walk is important is that it addresses the real problem we both encountered so well: it is really difficult to walk across California. All the roads have actually made walking west to east across California more difficult. We see walking this route, in John Muir’s footsteps as a “green” activity. Any time you are walking to get somewhere you are not polluting as you would be when driving. This trip across California could be an eco-tourism opportunity for the state: a “green”, “urban backpacking” vacation. But for this to become be a reality we need more people like you out there walking, bringing the possibility to the public awareness. Keep up the good work.

    If you get the chance stop at the Le Conte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite. That’s where the trip outlined in our guidebook to following Muir’s walk will officially end. It is the Sierra Club’s home there and the curator, Bonnie Gisel, knows more about John Muir than almost anyone.

    Your friends,

    Peter and Donna Thomas

  5. Alex,
    I'm envious of your trip & your dedication. I have a few comments in regards to your daily experiences. I will have to start thinking in terms of my half birthday each year as you did.I assume you are using polyester socks & underwear as they dry quickly. Your description of living in a "fattening,overupdated & climate controlled" world said it all! I applaud your patience in taking time off for the achilles problem to heal.This is a common runners ailment that simply requires time to mend. Have any encounters with sneaky racoons? Finally have you considered relating your adventure to Huell Howser of KCET, PBS TV & California's Golden Parks fame?

  6. Dear Al,
    Your Mom and I spent a happy time "with you" as we read your blog together after our quarterly meeting on friday nite. It's a fascinating read and I loved the image of you with "happy shouts and arm swinging" as you reached the hilltop. One is immediately drawn into the journey by the clarity and elegance of your writing and it's a real experience to share it with you. At inevitable low moments, remember your cheering section behind you, as always. Miriam

  7. Alex- Glad that the trip is going well! Take care,


  8. Dear Al,
    I've forgotten how to write you back so if you got 4 messages before this, just consider the source. You are a terrific writer as well as world-class walker and I feel as though you took many of us along with you thru your blog. Thank you. In moving things to a small cabin on the Elk River last weekend, I was much more aware of my natural surroundings because of your journey and having seen parts of California thru your eyes. I kept a journal of sightings of a doe and fauns, cat and baby kittens, Canadian geese, ducks, beautiful trees and wildflowers and am getting a book so I can identify all kinds of little brown birds. Thank you for making me more aware of my natural surroundings and for focusing much of your prodigious energy on helping to save our small planet. Your life is already making a big difference and will influence many others thru the impact of your writing. Proudly, Miriam