Every place is shaped by dreams, and California perhaps particularly so. Nick Neely grew up in Portola Valley, and, like a lot of us, he’s wondering what to hold on to as the golden dream proves unsustainable. At the opening of his beautifully written Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, a Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State, he rightly argues that he could hike the wilderness to seek out the place’s essence but that would be avoiding a confrontation.
“In ‘wilderness areas,’ signs of former human habitation have been scrubbed to preserve the myth of an untouched, more ‘authentic’ landscape,” he writes, “and this fiction encourages us to overlook and neglect where we actually live.”
Taking a hard look at “where we actually live” is an essential path to figuring out how to live there, and Neely goes on an ambitious plunge into the heart of his home state, re-creating, on foot, the 1769 overland expedition of Gaspar de Portolá, who laid out the Camino Real and its string of Catholic missions from San Diego to San Francisco and changed the native culture of what was soon to be called Alta California.
Using the diaries of expedition missionaries Juan Crespí, Junipero Serra, and others as a guide, Neely backpacks through the dense cities and suburbs of the southern half of the state, hunting for coffee and the occasional cheap hotel, crashing through coastal scrubs, and avoiding homeless encampments. He sneaks through military bases, fenced-off private developments, and golf courses as he tries to walk in the footsteps of the past. Along the way, he takes the measure of what has changed in the past 250 years, and—most important—what has not.
Early in his trip, passing through San Juan Capistrano for the return of the swallows, Neely references a local tribal member who notes that the birds were there in Portolá’s day. “Those swallows that flew over this land long ago,” he adds, “also flew over a people, my people, the Acjachemen…. They—we—are still here.”
The Portolá expedition was the beginning of the end of the state’s precolonial cultures, as the missionaries converted people Crespí called heathens to Catholicism, eventually enslaved them to build the missions, and “pacified” tribes, like the Miwok, who fought back. But many are still here. Their history did not stop. Neely finds, for instance, a small spring, on what is now the property of University High School in Los Angeles, that is fenced off for ceremonial use by the Gabrieliño-Tongva people.
Moving northward, Neely digs out California’s formative stories and relates their relevance—the great swamps (las ciénegas) of Los Angeles, now “confined, shaped, and manicured”; the Hearst empire’s molding of the Central Coast. His book is a landmark work of history, though his critique of environmental and cultural issues leaves us in despair over human appetites. We pine for a great awakening, a model of how to live within this landscape and not obliterate it. But there are no answers here.
Instead, we get a rich and detailed portrait of what is. Neely’s journey is one of reconnection. When he finally lies down at the foot of El Palo Alto, the ancient redwood—on what is now the Stanford campus—by which the Portolá expedition made its final camp before returning south, he notes: “Is this how one discovers one’s own home, by starting at a great distance and then slowly returning, spiraling in?”
It’s a journey worth taking—and savoring.
• By Nick Neely
• Counterpoint Press, 432 pages, $26