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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Back on the Road

It's good to be back, but the break, some new (and very hot) weather, and a new setting have changed some aspects of the journey.
After a week off, it took a little while to get back in the swing of things. I had to recoordinate the swing of arms and legs, rediscover how to walk and look and think all at once, become comfortable again explaining the project and hearing what people have to say, and immerse myself once again in the world of the walk. By the end of yesterday I was getting there. Halfway through today I am close. The injured Achilles remains a challenge, more mentally now than physically. Any kind of sensation in my left ankle causes me to worry a little, with varying degrees of distraction. I've also adopted walking poles (never thought I'd see the day...) to help ease the burden a little. These too require a new rhythm and are distracting in their own way, requiring physical attention and providing a rhythmic clink on hard surfaces. This morning I carried them on my shoulder, for better or worse, to hear the songbirds around Coyote Creek Trail in South San Jose. It may not be the Dorian mode of the legions' march, but it paces me well. Despite reconfiguration, the pleasure of of walking has not dissipated, and I am happy to be once again on my way.
The bright sun, 90 degree heat reflecting off asphalt and concrete, and limited shade are quite a change from the rain-drenched days at the beginning of the trip. A new set of conditions to adapt to. I'd walk naked to stay cool if I could, but from Swedish, Scottish, and Irish stock I'm about as sun-sensitive as they come. So it's been long pants, long sleeves, and lots of sunscreen for me, with salty results. Last night was warm and breezy though, reminiscent of my home in Alabama around this time of year, and I was delighted to sit and sleep outside.
The new setting is a more urban one. I walked through downtown San Jose yesterday, catching up with the Coyote Creek Trail and finishing at Hellyer Park. The park, run by Santa Clara County Parks Dept., is well within the city limits. I met with Don Rocha of the parks dept yesterday, who pointed to the additional management challenges in city parks - providing access and recreation while still preserving resources, trying to limit vandalism or poor management by park neighbors, and accomplishing all this with a limited set of tools appropriate to a city limits (no controlled burns in San Jose citylimits, for example). Talking with Don brought up a really important issue - the recreational component of protected land. SCC parks dept. includes recreation as a key component of their mission, only recently including resource protection among their priorities. When I asked Don if they feel additional pressure from developers and the like to give up land, he said to my surprise that the opposite was true - there is pressure to lock up more land and limit access for its protection, a practice contrary to the department's goals of providing access. For some, the issue of access is essential to the desirability, function, and politics of a park. I have certainly benefited from public access, walking through many parks, trails, and protected areas over the past few weeks. Parks like Hellyer with heavy use on a daily basis, "backyard parks" as Don Rocha called them, can suffer from this kind of easy access. Along the Coyote Creek trail, the creek's waters, shores, and hollows, are all filled with trash and other signs of people, and the trail itself is paved. Don Rocha pointed out that even more remote parks in undeveloped uplands suffer major impacts from trail construction and use, despite the commone perception that this infrastructure is harmless. Thus, on the other hand, I can also sympathize with one of Edward Abbey's more outlandish claims that there ought to be some wilderness areas off limits to people altogether - it would be interesting to see how this worked, though chances are that if nothing else, a lot of clandestine weed farmers would quickly take root...
In additional to the managerial difficulties of urban parks, there were some personal ones for me as well. I spent the afternoon lounging in Hellyer park, watching runners, recumbent bicyclers, fishers, fellow loungers, some better stewards than others. Much of the park is a grassy lawn, allowing for a variety of activities, and having consequences for me, though still unknown in the daylight. I spoke for a while with the park's senior ranger, thinking back to pre-development landscapes. Before he left, I asked him where to sleep. He replied, "pretty much anywhere, though you may not be alone..." Bums walking coyote creek trail at night. Poachers (poachers? poachers!?) fishing the park's lake illegally under cover of darkness. Neither a group I'd like to run into in the night. I therefore spent some time finding an out of the way spot to sleep. I was trying to decide whether to look more or less like a bum - if the former I might be thought a bum and left alone; if the latter, the unusualness of a man sleeping outside his home might steer people away... After deliberation I decided that none of these preparations really mattered and went happily to sleep, weary from the return to walking. I was awakened suddenly and violently in the middle of the night.
There are a lot of obvious ways to tell whether a park allows overnight stays or not. Hellyer doesn't. It mentions this explicitly in a number of places. It has no campsites and locks its bathrooms after hours. It closes its entrance gates when the sun sets.
There is another, less well known way to find out. Sleep in the middle of a grassy lawn. If you are awakened, drenched, as sprinklers continue to startle you and soak your belongings, you probably are in a park that does not accommodate sleepers. If you then move, to a dry spot, only to have the original sprinklers shut off and new ones turn on feet away from you, startling and drenching you a second time, you can be just about sure that the park isn't designed for overnight guests, even if they've made an exception for you. If you find yourself in this situation, just hope it's a warm night.
Before I close, running out of computer time as usual, I want to again extend a very kind thanks to both East Bay Regional Parks District and Santa Clara County Parks District for their support of the project - it has really made the most of the trip to have your help, and I appreciate it dearly. Thank you for accommodations, meetings, and support and interest in what I am working on!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Different World

There is no doubt that I will remember the past week as a unique time on the trip.
The Achilles strain resulting from fleeing the gunshots at Calhoun got more and more aggravated as I continued walking. Strain culminated the morning of April 13 in Ed Levin Park. Luckily for me, that day and the next day had been scheduled as very low mileage rest days, because that morning I awoke feeling nearly unable to walk. My friend Peter Wright had joined me the night before, fortunately, so his car was only a mile from the park. We walked there slowly, Peter generously taking my pack, and me leaning heavily on a walking stick I found (I should pause for a moment to note that this was serendipitously the best walking stick I have ever found. A perfect height, just up to the neck, light but very strong with little spring, and beautiful patterns of bark and worm carvings. It had two joints, one perfectly where the hand naturally fell, the other lower, correcting for the upper kink and allowing the stick to plant vertically in the ground. The diameter was just right for my hands, with middle finger just barely able to reach thumb while holding the stick. As a generally non-walking stick person, I must admit it was a really fine piece of equipment, one I was sad to leave behind. If you are interested, I left it in a grassy patch between street and sidewalk less than a block south of Calaveras Rd on Piedmont Rd in Milpitas. Let a new hand find its fortune...)
Originally I hoped to return to the walk in a day or two. But a visit to a physician and a lot of reading about severe tendinitis suggested a nagging injury. I opted then, for a few extra days off my feet to avoid a few extra weeks off my feet down the road.
A real disappointment. It's remarkable how quickly we can adjust to our surroundings. Supplanting the chill night breeze was the hum of electric lights. Replacing stale bread was fresh pasta. Despite my efforts to stay out of the way and keep my headspace intact, I felt the pull of modern apartment living once again, the gravity of the couch, the greedy eye-strain of the television, the sinking release of a warm bed. It's been hard to remain fully engaged in the questions behind the project.
This contrast revealed a personal side of the trip up to this point. The trip has been a break in the fattening, overupdated, climate-controlled convenience of the world I am accustomed to. Fast talking, fast moving, fast living, have all given way to a different kind of pace and a different kind of thinking. I have often tried to explain this trip to friends and others not as an event, but as a different way of living for a few weeks. Moving so drastically from one world to the other has shown me the ways in which this was true.
I don't mean to speak didactically here, only personally. Certainly it is hard to complain about convenience, company, and kindness that come with the world most of us live in. But for me these qualities can become cloying, leaving little room for any kind of physical or mental exhalation. For me, the first leg of the trip was just such a breath, followed quickly by a sharp gasp.
All this being said, I stand by my belief that every experience is worthwhile. What is the saying, Sun Tzu or some such, about while not fighting we are sharpening swords? This has certainly been one benefit of the trip - time off has allowed a chance to reconfigure my backpack, which now has a much slimmer and more effective combination of belongings. I've been able to plan more carefully and find more contacts for the latter half of the trip as well, and am now excited to have added an organic farm to my list of meetings along the way. Tomorrow I'll get a much needed shave and haircut. I'd hate to frighten the tourists in the valley (they say the average visit to Yosemite is 4 hrs, with the average visitor weighing considerably more than the average bay area resident. While I don't doubt these statistics, I certainly wonder how they could be collected - a secret subterranean scale beneath the entry kiosk?). More abstractly, the experience of living at home in the middle of the context of walking has been informative, with the shadow of each experience on the other adding to what light alone can tell. It has affirmed my conviction in the importance of walking as well, both as an experience and as a designated time to work distraction-free on the project. Taking a step back never hurts.
Now, with all this being said, I can't wait to get back on my feet. Monday. The anticipation is mounting again, just as it did before I left originally. The experience thus far has been absolutely unique, rewarding both physically and intellectually. I look forward again to plunging fully into the questions driving the project. And now I have come to understand more carefully the personal side of the trip, and what it offers and has already provided for me outside of athletic or academic context. It's only been possible to parse these components from afar - on the walk the physical, intellectual, and personal fit connect and overlap, making for a unique and encompassing experience.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


On April 11-12, Easter weekend, I walked, somewhat appropriately though unplanned, from Mission San Jose up and over Mission Peak, all along former Mission lands. Mission lands, infrastructure and roads have helped shape the course of development throughout the bay's history, so I thought it would make a worthwhile stop. I didn't really get much new information from the small museum and church other than a delicate and "politically correct" treatment of the mission's history with the Ohlone, and a sense that the mission fathers were much shorter than I am, as I had to duck through every doorway.

The climb up to Mission Peak was an uncannily alpine experience, in spite of a summit elevation just over 2500 feet. The steep path to the top was made by some unsympathetic planner, as it climbed sharply up ridges with no switchbacks and no shade, making for a slow and sweaty climb that seemed much longer than the mileage suggested.

The path was teeming with people, hang-gliders, and cows, who freely roamed the slopes along the trail where signs specifically prohibited human trespassing. There was even a "trail patrol" officer who found a good viewpoint and whistled at the many walkers daring to venture off trail. Along the trail, I picked up lots of small bits of trash, remembering that sooner or later they'd likely wash to Eden Landing where a wandering villein and a fresh group of internationals would have to wearily bag them up.

Near the top of the peak, the grove trail paralleled the peak, shaped like a large rocky boomerang above. Cliffs overhead could have easily fit in the Sierra (with a little less grass and a little more granite), as could the ground squirrels scurrying below. Again, a place filled with strangely alpine sensations given proximity to the bay.

Side trails led to thick oak groves and wildflower meadows Muir would have gasped over. I wish I were a botanist then, and could have carefully analyzed a square yard of flowers as he did in "Rambles." Such a comparison across 141 years might tell an interesting story.

Finally I returned to the trail, and took a short detour to the windy summit of Mission Peak before descending to my campsite on the other side of the ridge. The campsite was surrounded by barbed wire fence. At first I wasn't sure why, but found out at dinner time. I walked out of the gate to fill a water bottle and found myself face to face with a juvenile cow, looking distinctly unhappy. A look past him and there was a whole herd, not looking much sunnier than the first. I held up my hands pacifyingly, and spoke a few kind shooing words. The cows advanced. I took a few steps back toward the gate, and the cows tracked me. Retreating more quickly and back inside the gate and barbed wire, I watched the cows claim the water spigot, fortify it, and advance again. They lined up in ranks outside the campsite like Hitchcock's Birds, staring balefully at me and my Ramen noodles. One took what a tough-guy piss on the fence, never breaking eye contact. This was less alpine.

More alpine was the weather that night. Sunny all day, clouds rolled in as night began to fall. The wind quickly whipped the clouds over Mission Peak and into the ravine below, trailing moisture through the campsite, and driving me early into the tent. By dark, I was literally camping in a cloud. The scene was a surprise revisit of wet nights past, but offered some truly stunning scenes of Sunol Wilderness and the hills east of Mission Peak, as the weather above the ridges changed by the minute. The setting sun cast its shifting hues over the clouds, which shaded the land below in sharp relief. Flowers and peak above, clouds, valleys, ridges in the distance, a stark and lovely scene. I went to sleep with the wind whipping wildly at the flaps of the tent.

Clouds shifting over the tent and valleys beyond near Mission Peak

The next morning was more peacefully idyllic, with the sun illuminating valleys and peak, flowers and grasses, and birds singing. Throughout the day as I walked from Mission Peak to Ed Levin County Park along the Bay Area Ridge Trail, I was accompanied by birds and wildflowers.

I walked past the radio towers atop nearby Mt. Allison, shown as a small square of private property on the map. At first I felt a little disheartened, thinking, "Give 'em one square inch of private property outta the park and look what happens.... Cancer towers sending waves to the boob tube." Or something like that. But then I thought back to the previous day, the wide trail up Mission Peak, the crowds, the trash. The towers probably require little maintenance and personnel, have a small footprint atop the mountain, and with no moving parts have little effect on wildlife. I could be wrong of course, but perhaps the benefit of limited public access to this private property works as well or better than the park at protecting the surrounding ecosystem. I am going to try to follow up with both EBRPD and someone related to Mt. Allison or radio towers more broadly about the relative impacts of each on the land. But these kind of chance encounters and the thoughts they engender are good reminders of the benefits of walking.

Descending from the ridge to Ed Levin Park, I began to worry. Running from gunshots on Calhoun a few days before, I had badly strained something in my Achilles. It had been nagging me in the following days, but with no real effect on my pace or mileage. On the steep decline, it really began to nag. If I took a bad step or on an especially steep segment of trail, I found myself repeating "Achapatawatapala," some expression of the sensation between left heel and calf. Some linguist will surely correct me, but it wouldn't surprise me if this was how some early words formed. Achapatawatapala. The McInturff dialect for tendonitis.

In spite of worry, the descent from the ridge offered a remarkable scene, with green hills suddenly blooming into suburban and then urban development. In a way John, you got your wish, with the beautiful mountains protected and the valley degraded beyond centuries of repair. But even you had to admit the allure of the valleys in "Rambles," didn't you? It's time to stop trading the high for the low, time to move beyond an exclusively fee simple system that cannot be integrated into lowlands. Take a look from the hills above the bay, perhaps these thoughts will come to you too.

I find myself dialoguing with Muir as a way of thinking, a point counterpoint between tradition and the necessity of a present and future that might not have been predicted by very many. If nothing else, I have read how sharp a debater Muir was, so I know I have to keep sharp myself, think hard, know the subject well, and support my convictions with evidence and observation. In some sense this trip is a grand dialogue between myself and Muir, and between the expectation of the past and the reality of the present. Each has something to learn from the other. At least in the latter case.

Transpiration and Transubstantiation

The morning of the 10th, I left Garin Regional Park early to join a Save the Bay cleanup project at Eden Landing Ecological Restoration Area with international students from CSU East Bay in Hayward. The morning was cold, damp, and windy, but we all warmed up quickly as we hunched over picking up the cigarettes and Styrofoam littering the wetland. Nearly all the trash present was cigarettes and Styrofoam, telling fragments of a "disposable culture." I am going to chide my cigarette smoking friends about throwing butts on the ground, seeing now where they end up en masse. Why is it acceptable to throw cigarettes on the ground, when so much other litter is not tolerated? A strange and unfortunate phenomenon.

It was a valuable experience to see the terminus of the city's detritus, flowing through storm sewers and finally into fragile wetlands. These wetlands not only collect visible trash (plastic bottles take 450 years or more to degrade), but also heavy metals and other chemicals that can make habitat restoration difficult and dangerous. I'd recommend a similar cleanup highly to anyone interested in their hometown. The force of words is much weaker than the force of experience — taking a look at your own trash where it doesn't belong is a powerful thing, and I am resolved to be more diligent about disposables.

I spent the afternoon speaking with Larry Arden of the Alameda Creek Alliance, who spent several hours pouring forth his detailed knowledge of the history of Alameda County (Niles district of Fremont was the original Hollywood, something I did not know), of Alameda Creek, and of various efforts in conserving creeks watersheds, and fish in the bay area. Larry told me that the Alameda Creek Alliance's original role had been something of a moderator between the numerous (17 was the number he gave) government organizations with a stake in the creek. His metaphor was a "17-armed octopus, with each arm not knowing what the other was doing" trying to manipulate and manage a river — a clearly cumbersome task. The Alliance helped bring these groups together to protect the creek and meet the needs of the community, and restore fish runs.

Though I am aware that complicated management of the environment is a major factor in California, the number 17 was a startling one for the creek, the bay's largest watershed outside of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Even if intentions of every group were similarly positive, achieving consensus and affecting change seem titanic feats.

I think I surprised Larry when I had him drop me off north of where he had taken me to show me the creek so that I could avoid skipping any part of the route. I didn't want to miss Quarry Lakes and Lake Elizabeth, two large parks in the heart of Fremont, the latter of which I had heard described as a "cesspool," by whom I won't say. Quarry Lakes, formerly operated by as a quarry, is now owned by the city of Fremont, operated by East Bay Regional Parks, and used by the Alameda County Water District for percolation ponds, if I understand correctly. It provides walking trails within the city as well, keeping me off the unpleasant cement sidewalks of Mission Blvd.

The afternoon of the 10th, I was in a wonderful mood. The last few days had brought rain day and night, but the afternoon of the 10th brought the first blue skies of the trip. Sun struck skin, and the little machines of the body stirred and whirred in excitement, from skin to soul. Muir would come up with some kind of transubstantiation metaphor no doubt, perhaps pausing to sermonize to sky above and flowers below. I simply walked on in quiet joy.

This is not to say I don't love the rain. I'll never forget the two rainy days in Garin Park, the mist casting an impressionistic glaze over unreal hillsides, unwillingly scenic. But the sun meant convenience, warmth, access, vision, the beauty of the booster. It's hard to say they were too far off, at least in that regard. And the sun made me feel back on track, after a few days alone and with no meetings planned. It may not have been providence, but it worked as a sign in me that all was working out.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Statistics and Logistics

The last few days have been full of many kinds of experiences. I have been out of cell phone and internet range, but will try to put up several posts today and tomorrow to catch up.

I think first I'll add some specifics about my route so far, and pictures, which I have finally been able to move from camera to computer.

Lake Merritt, "jewel of Oakland," from 14th street and Oak, April 6

April 6: ~7 miles walking. Walked from my apartment to Caltrain, rode Caltrain to 4th and King stop in San Francisco, walked to the Ferry building, took the ferry to Oakland, walked through downtown to east 14th street (formerly Oakland Rd.), walked through downtown to Lake Merritt and around, walked a bit further to a friend's house (thanks again to Zanetta, Carolyn, and Alessandra for the hospitality!)

Sun breaking through trees near Grass Valley Creek, Anthony Chabot Regional Park, April 7

April 7: ~9 miles walking. For parts of the Bay Area, I had to take public transportation to make meetings and to keep my daily mileage from swelling out of control. People ask if this is "cheating" in my mind. My answer is, no, as I am still walking the entirety of my proposed route. I don't have any issue with taking other forms of transportation when I have to stray far from my route, especially if it allows me to meet with more people and see more things. On the 7th, I walked 9 miles, and probably took other forms of transportation at least as far.

Morning — took the bus to Oakland Coliseum, walked to San Francisco Estuary Institute. Walked around Arrowhead Marsh in SFEI's backyard. Walked from East Bay Regional Parks District Office to Oakland Zoo, east through Knowland Park to Anthony Chabot Regional Park, through Chabot to my campsite at Lake Chabot.

An oil-change's flower bed, Mission Blvd., Hayward, April 8

April 8: ~12 miles. Walked out of Anthony Chabot Park, took Redwood Road through Castro Valley and Hayward to Mission Boulevard. Detours in Castro Valley and Hayward for food, internet, and to stop at the Hayward Historical Society Museum. Walked south on Mission Boulevard to Garin Park. Unfortunate detour up Calhoun Street and back, then further south to Garin Ave. entrance of the park. Another mile or so around the park.
A break in the drizzle at Garin Regional Park, April 9

April 9: ~4 miles. My first "rest" day. Walked around the park, restless in the rain.

April 10: ~7 miles. Walked around Alameda Creek and Niles Canyon. Backtracked and walked through Quarry Lakes and Fremont.
Steep-sided Mission Peak, with hang-glider above and bay cities below
Wildflowers for Muir atop Mission Peak, April 11

April 11: ~6 very steep miles. Walked to Mission San Jose in Fremont, then to the summit of Mission Peak, finally over the ridge to the campground beyond. Around 2200 feet of elevation gain from trailhead to summit.

Mission Peak from the south, Bay Area Ridge Trail, April 12

Descending from Bay Area Ridge Trail, South Bay in the distance below, April 12

Monoculture of flowers near a private residence in Ed Levin County Park, April 12

April 12: ~13 miles. From Mission Peak along the Bay Area Ridge Trail and into Ed Levin County Park. A few confusing detours led to a little extra walking. A bit more to meet a companion.

April 13: ~2 miles. Descended from Ed Levin County Park to Milpitas. Walked around New Chicago Marsh and Salt Pond A16 in Alviso. Chiefly a rest day

April 14: 0 miles. Rest day

Having recently reread Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, in which the older brother keeps assiduous statistics on his life, I decided to add a small section of my own.

Total miles ~62+ miles, averaging just under 8 miles a day. A straight shot from Oakland to San Jose is a little over half of that, meaning I have walked about double the actual distance the crow flies as I have zigged and zagged. The walking tempo will quicken along the flats of the Coyote Valley south of San Jose and the San Joaquin Valley, before slowing again on the climb up to Yosemite. The trip average ought to be somewhere around 10 miles per day.

In total I've gone from the flats of the bay (around sea level) to the ridges of the coast ranges and back 3 times, and would estimate elevation change from these climbs and descents at around 12,000 feet, though the many smaller hills and valleys throughout the trip would surely add to that total.

I've spent around $50 on food so far, coming out around $6 per day. Not a bad rate, though a few more greens in the diet might be nice....

I've taken 2 showers so far, and have yet to do any laundry. Maybe that is not good information to report to prospective companions, since I only have only 1 extra shirt, 0 extra pants, and 2 extra pairs of socks and underwear. The adventure hat has been worn a few times, though not yet in the city.

I've had 14 meetings and stops along the way, with 11 different groups. I've met 10 people along the way who have heard of me and this blog, or whom I've directed here. Thanks to those who have followed up!

I've been walking during many major holidays, including the anniversary of the first expedition to the North Pole and Scotland's National Tartan Day (April 6), Ponce de Leon Day (April 8), Jackie Robinson Day (April 11), and Easter (April 12). Tomorrow is my half-birthday. April is also International Guitar Month, Keep America Beautiful Month, National Frog Month, National Humor Month, National Mathematics Education Month, and National Poetry Month, among others.

Let me know if you think of more good statistics or logistics, and I'll try to keep track!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Goodbye, Weasel

A quick update from the past two days.

On the 8th I walked from Anthony Chabot Regional Park to Garin Regional Park, exiting at Redwood Road, following it through Castro Valley and Hayward, and then heading south on Mission Boulevard toward the park. The folks at EBRPD once again offered their kindness, helping me with directions and ideas at the Chabot entry kiosk. The trail out of Chabot offered great views of the bay and San Francisco, and the developed hills surrounding the park. I ate a breakfast of peanut butter with a plastic spoon as I walked down the muddy trail.

It can be tricky to remember things as you walk. I come up with acronyms to help. JAD. Jerky and Antler Delivery. Japanese Against Dinosaurs. In reality, Jeffers, Adventure, Discovery. I won't go in that order though.

Based on the rainy travails of the previous night, the exciting walk through Knowland and Anthony Chabot, and the first blood of the trip (cutting my finger deeply with a pocket knife), I decided the trip ought to be updated, maybe even upgraded, from expedition to Adventure. A is for adventure. or Antler. Or Against. Anteaters Against Adventure. Nothing wrong with a little adventure to stir mind and body, invigorate, and inspire creativity. Good to use different parts of the brain.

Discovery. That one is less interesting. Not worth explanation for now. Dinosaurs on the other hand....

Jeffers. Robinson Jeffers is a poet I like, a pantheist and nature writer. Jeffers wrote about divinity in all things. He saw divinity most clearly perhaps in the workings of nature, viewed from his stone house in Carmel. Jeffers reminds me of Muir in the sense that both see an overlap in the aesthetic and the divine. Jeffers sees the divine in the "storm-dances of gulls" and the "secret rainbows" in clam shells, Muir sees the divine in the light flooding the Santa Clara Valley, and the rich color of a single flower-patch in the San Joaquin. To see divinity in nature is in part to give up the centrality of man; this works as a justification for the protection of nature for each author. I will return to this idea at the end of this post if I have time, as I gave it a considerable amount of thought, and it gains much more nuance when man's own divinity enters the picture....

Putting together some ideas from the first few days, it strikes me that most who have a passion for conservation also have a dream about the world as it should be, or as they would like it to be. For some, this dream is a spiritual or aesthetic one. For others, this dream is historical or nostalgic. The world should be as it really was, or as it is remembered. For still others, this dream is of a pastoral world. A simpler place between the country and the city prevailing in human culture and subconscious since at least Hesiod, and likely before. Often nostalgic and pastoral dreams go hand in hand — for many the world as it was and should still be is a more pastoral place. The list will go on, I'm sure, as the miles add up. Already though, it is easy to see the complexity and difficulty of dealing with such diverse interests. And the actual practice of conservation, moved from top down or ground up or indirectly or accidentally (the latter two come up much more often than I would have expected — according to Larry Arden of the Alameda Creek Alliance, much of the pollution troubling the creek was coming from people parking on the roadsides and trashing their surroundings. After a few dead bodies showed up in the creek for various reasons, the SFPUC shut down parking and the riparian corridor has subsequently made a strong recovery....) is just as complex. A challenging predicament. But I surely already knew that.

A few highlights from the past few days. I got my first blister on Redwood Road in Castro Valley, and taped it up outside the library. (The library system still impresses me - an hour of free internet!) Miles later I'd develop a bruise on my left heal from walking too long on the concrete. Blisters heal, let's hope heels do too.

I turned off Mission heading for the back entrance to Garin Regional Park. Winding up Calhoun street, I saw a house or ranch that looked more like an illegal cock-fighting hideout built of old pieces of wood and tin. The top of the steep road was thick with no trespassing signs, and a light rain began to pour. A parking lot came into view, with several cars and a police cruiser, and what struck me first as a mini-meth shed. Nevertheless, I saw what looked like a trail. A pause for a breath. Putting one foot past the NO TRESPASSING sign and CLAP! CLAP CLAP CLAP! CLAP CLAP! CLAP! A few expletives and I was ducking behind a mound of earth, certain I'd just ben shot at, glad to find no holes in me. Wasting little time, I sprinted, backpack flopping, drying socks flailing, down the steep and winding shoulder of Calhoun, past the cawing cocks, some confused middle-school students, and finally to the safety of the whizzing cars of Mission Boulevard and the bright colors of Auto Zone and El Pollo Loco. Jesus, I thought, I've never been shot at before. Looking over my shoulder the rest of the way, I finally climbed to the main entrance of Garin Regional Park as the sky grew darker with rain and fading sunlight.

Setting foot in the park, some ancestor's blood stirred in me, and I was reminded of Scottish Highlands that I've never seen. The park does with curves what the Sierra do with angles, defying a sense of physics and stability — how could such steep sided mounds be permanent features? They look more like sand dunes shaped by the hands of a giant infant, and populated with lowing cows and deer occasionally peeking over the horizon above. The trail to my campsite followed dry creek for a quarter of a mile, and I felt in a safe haven. I told the ranger my story from Calhoun street. To my surprise he only laughed, letting me know that it was only a police firing range. While I was relieved that no one had been threatening my life recently, I was almost a little disappointed to have not survived something more harrowing, and to have embarrassed myself in front of chickens and middle-school kids.

The next day was uneventful — a rest day in Garin, a short walk around the park, and lots of rain. After another rain-soaked night, I decided I could no longer make much use of my old tent, the Weasel, and sadly abandoned it before leaving the park. You will be missed, old friend, and not forgotten. I hope tent heaven is full of sunshine and soft-bodied women.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On Uncertain Ground

Yesterday was a very busy day, and gave a new and exciting cast to the trip.

In the morning I had a long conversation at SFEI -- the San Francisco Estuary Institute -- about their historical ecology projects. In brief, they have prepared accounts of landscapes in the Bay Area and the change that has taken place over time using accounts and photographs from the earliest Europeans to modern times. This work can then be used by governmental or conservation groups to identify what landscapes are able to be restored, and how to prioritize conservation and restoration efforts.

It was interesting to hear that government agencies like Santa Clara Valley Water District have been the chief funders for these projects, reflecting a change in the attitude toward the environment of both organizations and their constituencies. Many utilities' efforts now work to incorporate environmentally friendly practice and to make use of the historical ecology provided by SFEI.

Following this meeting, I met with Ralph Kanz of Alameda Creek Alliance at Arrowhead Marsh in the backyard of SFEI. Ralph showed me around the marsh, pointing out three endangered clapper rails among other birds, and offering a flurry of information about California land, history, and his experience with conservation in the last few decades. There was an honesty and an urgency in Ralph's discussion of the environment that helped remind me of the significance of efforts to improve land conservation and protection. The area is home to clapper rails, but also to his family for the last 150 years.

After several organizational and logistical phone calls, my next stop was the East Bay Regional Parks District office. After introducing myself there, I was offered nothing but kindness and generosity from the folks working there. A special thanks to Tiffany Margulici, Richard Winn, and Karen McClendon, whose interest and help yesterday was crucial for the next week of the walk. Thanks again!

I walked from the EBRPD office through the Oakland Zoo, and up a dramatically steep slope overlooking a wooded canyon, the fringe of Oakland's Knowland Park. Bordered on either side by suburban development, the rectilinear park stretched east for several miles along a creek through hills and canyons, oaks and grasses, rain and sunshine. Around 4 pm I finally had lunch, not having had time to eat since breakfast around 9, and scarfed a whole avocado as I walked through a terrific thunderstorm. Stormy skies hovered over the bay, offering hazy vistas of downtown Oakland, San Francisco, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Balance on the dirt fire roads was tricky in the rain, but I managed to stay on my feet.

At the east end of the park, I cut south through a thin vegetated terrace between two private properties. Perhaps the most frightening part of the day, as I had to crawl, climb, and maneuver through dense tangles of poison oak. After trotting down a driveway (apologies to the owner, whoever you are...) I found myself on Golf Links Road, near the entrance to Anthony Chabot Regional Park. I let the poison oak know aloud what I thought about it, and what I thought about myself for not having avoided it. You can imagine how that conversation went.

Entering Anthony Chabot, the park seemed a world away from the scruffier parts of Oakland I had come from earlier in the day. Abundant trees and grasses, steep ridges overlooking river valleys with long views north and south, all glimmering from the fresh rainfall. I entered at the Woolridge parking lot and made my way across a ridge then down an incredibly steep, muddy trail to grass valley creek and the columbine trail below. I was glad to have learned to snowboard a few weeks ago, as I was sliding down the trail as much as walking. I had a pretty spectacular tumble around one corner, the kind you wish you could witness.

The bottom of the valley was a paradisiacal moist forest of tangled oaks, ferns, and salamanders, causing me to exult and exalt verbally. I followed the trail around the steep ravines above Lake Chabot, finally reaching the family campground at the top of an incline.

With tired feet, I unpacked at the campground, made a small fire of Eucalyptus leaves, bark, and branches, and relaxed into dinner. I got a little too comfortable by bedtime, and assumed that the bad weather was behind. Around 11pm a downpour began again, and I had to scramble barefoot to keep my belongings dry and shove them all, with me diving after, into my small one-man tent. As it turns out, the tent, an old model of my dad's, is not quite as waterproof as it once was, making for a cold night and a morning nearly floating in the puddle on the tent floor beneath me.

The title of this post describes both the slippery, wet, and steep terrain of the day, the unusual ecology of Chabot (dominated by Eucalyptus trees planted in the early 20th century by the water district), and the variety of perspectives I got throughout the day. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature is a book of environmental essays from a diverse group of authors. Hearing from SFEI, Ralph Kanz of ACA, and EBRPD today made for an abbreviated version of this kind of variety, but touched on the difficulty and complexity of resolving environmental issues when so many interests and goals are at stake. With about 60 seconds left of internet at the library, I'll conclude this somewhat rushed post, and hope to expound a bit more on some of what I learned from the day later.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Preparing for a Trip and A Day In the Life

Day 1 has come to an end, and I am comfortably accommodated by kind friends.

I ought to step back and describe life in the weeks since my first post.

The pace of the last few weeks has been frenetic. I have contacted hundreds of different organizations, individuals, companies, farms, and government agencies to set up appointments along the walk. Engaging with many different kinds of groups will be essential in understanding many different strategies and practices of land conservation. I have endeavored to plan a path and accommodation for each day, though some confusion about "group campsites," which require a dozen or more campers for reservation, has created some difficulty. I've also been trying to coordinate with Stanford professors, journalists, and others hoping to meet before, during and after the trip. My room has been brightly lit for several 14+ hour days of work (a mere nothing to investors and doctors in residence... but more than I prefer...), bringing to bear those alienating elements of the city, often traced by pastoral historians, in contrast with the Range of Light. The brightness of Ellison abutting the brightness of Muir. It has been a strange and contrary practice to prepare in such detail for an event that is not an event, but truly life lived in a somewhat different way for a while, and has elicited a strange and confusing nervousness.

One result of apprehension, excitement, and weariness in planning this trip has led to some rambling rhetoric, seen in today's posts. Muir too may have had his moments of exhausted gushing, sermonizing from stone pulpit to flower congregation.

While there is still some planning to be done, much is complete, and it is relaxing, if somewhat tiring, to finally be out the door. With that, I offer a brief protocol for "A Day In the Life."

Step 1: Wake Up!

This is not as easy as it sounds. Up late packing, a little nervous, or perhaps just uncertain, about the novelty of what lay ahead, I had some trouble falling into the few hours of sleep I had time for. Indeed, few have been on this kind of journey before, leaving advice, precedent, and expectation difficult to find.

Step 2: Breakfast and Prep for Departure

In cooking breakfast, checking my backpack and room for everything (already I have realized a few things left behind), and getting set to leave, it occurred to me how many details of the trip are difficult to consider beforehand

Step 3: Goodbyes

Saying goodbyes to friends over the last two days has helped the reality of the trip ahead of me sink in, but also confirmed concerns that it will be a lonely road.

Step 4: Start Walking

At last, walk to the train station. But what's the point? This question keeps coming up. Why walk, why not approach questions remotely?

There are good reasons to walk. As I mentioned in my first post, walking is a way of compressing data, like mapping or research. It uses specific parameters of time and distance through which to view and analyze a problem. While being in a certain place for a certain time clearly has its limitations, walking is only one component of the project. In theory, walking combined with various kinds of reading and map work before and after the trip will be complementary in the data they provide.

Much of conservation is place specific, and walking allows the specifics of place to more easily enter in. By having a chance to develop impressions through walking in addition to looking at data and literature, specificity of place will come into sharper relief, and offer a more clear picture of appropriate management.

Walking also allows a time and place for speaking personally with people. This too adds perspective and depth to what can be discovered remotely.

In a practical sense, walking helps draw attention to the project and the important issues surrounding conservation. I imagine I would have a harder time meeting and conversing with groups if it weren't for the allure of the walk, and journalists would be much less likely to discuss the drier points of land management without a good story at work in the background. One of my goals for the project is to increase awareness of potential for private individuals, landowners, and groups to have a positive impact on conservation, and the walk as an event provides a banner for this goal.

Finally, I often draw an analogy between walking and reading. In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury discusses the importance of reading, explaining what sets books apart from more passive forms of expression. A book, he says, can be put down. In between the pages of the book, the reader can pause to insert his or her own thoughts and ideas, or grapple with those posed by the author. Walking is much the same, allowing for pause and consideration of the landscape, rather than inscrutably rapid motion over it.

Step 5: Look, Speak, Write

I spent the morning walking through San Francisco and Oakland, observing carefully. Tomorrow I will have a conversation with the San Francisco Estuary Institute and East Bay Regional Parks District at their offices in Oakland. I have spent much of today, and likely tomorrow as well, writing about the experiences so far. Observing, conversing, and writing are three of the major practices I can accomplish on the walk to help understand conservation in California.

Step 6: Sleep

I cannot wait.

Day 1 - Underway!

Greetings all,

The trip has begun!

A tired morning, a walk to the train station, a cramped ride with backpack on lap and book in hand, a long and pleasant meeting with Maria La Ganga of the LA Times, a ferry ride from San Francisco to Oakland, a walk through downtown Oakland, and finally arrival at the Oakland public library on the shores of Lake Merritt have comprised my day so far. Here I sit typing in the library, a process I'll have to get used to as I've determined to use libraries along the route for internet access and blog posting.

Muir was a man who loved to write to and update his loved ones and journal extensively on most of his journeys - with one exception being his walk from San Francisco to Yosemite. It is a shame he did not write more, as this was his first visit to a place that would become tied to his name. Instead of the language one would expect however, Muir briefly touches on Yosemite in the final paragraph of the essay about the walk, "Rambles of a Botanist," focusing chiefly on the flowers of the Central Valley.

Though I did not at first realize the significance of Muir's unexpected focus, I now find this a fascinating part of an infrequently read article by Muir. Muir's later works often praise wild places while vilifying the character and environmental degradation associated with cities. In "Rambles," however, he praises the Central Valley, already a changed landscape, for its beauty, admiring it with more detail and affection than he does the Sierra, and emerges from his "ether baptism" not in Yosemite Valley, but in the Santa Clara Valley.

I too am interested in the possibilities of human dominated landscapes. While Muir focused on the aesthetic and emotional, I will focus on the potential for conservation and maintenance of ecosystem functioning. Once again, the history and account of Muir's original trip proves a perfect backdrop for my own.

Perhaps this, the first day of the trip, is the right time to unravel where this idea came from in the first place. I have long been interested in lands that lie at the interface of "human" and "natural," and have found these distinctions to be closer to a gradient than is typically considered. Two years ago, a friend of mine, Peter Wright, mentioned that he had read "Rambles of a Botanist" for a class, and that the essay described Muir's account of his walk from San Francisco to Yosemite, his first journey in California. From this conversation, the basic framework of this project quickly emerged. As a figure, Muir represents the beginning of conservation as it has been practiced in the last century, and his transect of California is ideal in a number of ways: it traverses the major geological and ecological provinces of the state, as well as dominant types of land use and management, from the highly urbanized to the highly untouched. What better circumstance to explore gradients of management and of naturalness, what better context to consider the past and future of conservation? Additionally, Muir's strong rhetoric about separating people and nature differs from my own thinking. While I agree that parks have been instrumental in protecting genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity, I think a broad array of strategies will be required to maintain and more effectively protect diversity and landscapes in the future. Many private lands are highly productive, well-watered, and supportive of ecosystems, sometimes more than protected lands. Disregarding these lands as tainted and irrecoverable seems a mistake. In the past few days I have driven by several razor-thin riparian corridors. They may not be ideal environments, but are an improvement from the concrete channelized rivers so often seen snaking through the Bay Area.

Given my academic interests and leanings, and a love of walking, I decided to pursue the idea of recreating Muir's walk with a new perspective on conservation and the land.

Time is running out on the computer, so I will leave this post unproofread and rambling. The important thing is, I am out the door and on the way, at long last, and eager to see what I can learn from the trip as it unfolds. Hopefully I can post a longer message tonight. A kind thanks to Zanetta and roommates for hospitality.