Step by Step Across California: A Conversation with Nick Neely

By Scott BurtonJanuary 17, 2020

Step by Step Across California: A Conversation with Nick Neely
IN 2016, Nick Neely walked from San Diego to San Francisco to retrace the first overland Spanish expedition into what’s now the state of California. He left the San Diego International Airport with his backpack on July 14 and walked north at the pace of the 1769 expedition of Captain Gaspar de Portolá, camping where it had each night until he reached San Francisco 12 weeks later. 

The resulting book, Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State, was published by Counterpoint Press in November, on the 250th anniversary of the expedition’s sighting of San Francisco Bay.

Weaving natural and human history, Alta California relives his adventure, tells the story of Native cultures and the Spanish missions that soon devastated them, and explores the evolution of California and its landscape. The result is a collage of past and present, of lyricism and pedestrian serendipity, and of the biggest issues facing California today ― water, agriculture, oil and gas, immigration, and development ― all of it one step at a time.


SCOTT BURTON: What initially drew you to the Portolá expedition?

NICK NEELY: The germ of this book is found in my first book, Coast Range, a collection of natural history essays. Arguably it was an actual seed: while writing a piece about the madrone tree — a smooth, sinuous, and ruddy tree with fiery berries that we have along the West Coast — I learned that the tree had been given its name by the Portolá expedition. In his journals, Padre Juan Crespí compares the tree to the madroño, a Mediterranean species that is a close cousin, and the name stuck. When I read that (I remember where I was sitting, and I remember the sense of epiphany), I wondered what else the Portolá expedition had given name to. Turns out it was things like Los Angeles. Moreover, I wondered why I knew so very little about the expedition, though it was California’s “founding” event and, in fact, I had even grown up in a town called Portola Valley, near where the expedition finished its push north. That very day I had something between a sneaking suspicion and a deep feeling in my bones that I would take on this walk for my next book, that it was the perfect solution to what I wanted to attempt as a writer: a somewhat radical combination of human and natural history that would dwell in part in our built environments. Only then did I begin to learn about the history of the expedition. Portolá and his men set out with their horses and mules on July 14, 1769, from a new base camp in San Diego in search of the fabled port of “Monte Rey,” which had been described more than a century and half earlier by a maritime Spanish explorer, Sebastián Vizcaíno. The Spanish hoped this port could be a harbor for trade ships. Portolá was also ordered to scout for sites for Catholic missions to convert the indigenes and help claim the territory before Russian fur traders or others could make a bid for it. When the Portolá expedition arrived at Monterey, however, they didn’t quite recognize it (Vizcaíno’s description was rather exaggerated) and so they continued on and ended up becoming the first Europeans to glimpse the San Francisco Bay in early November 1769 — 250 years ago.

Like me, you are a native Californian. What was growing up in Northern California like for you?

Portola Valley is west of Palo Alto and Stanford University, tucked against the Santa Cruz Mountains. It is a small, mostly sleepy town that has become increasingly fancy, behind its veil of oak leaves, with each tech boom. It is also blessed with a lot of nearby open space — both backyards and preserves — and that is mainly what I think of when I think of childhood: rambling around in the chaparral (taking pains to avoid the poison oak) or fooling around with the bark of eucalyptus, which uncoils like wrapping paper tubes when you whack your friend or sibling with it. If I wasn’t playing sports, I was poking around the oak forest around our house. My parents gave me some binoculars, and I did a lot of casual birding as kid (very cool, I know), studying the plain titmice, the chestnut-backed chickadees, and the acorn woodpeckers which had made a granary of the nearest telephone pole. I watched the wildflowers, too, and we had for example a lily called a soaproot growing along the driveway which, I learned in fourth grade — the only year that California kids study their own history — the Ohlone people had used to subdue fish in creeks and to make brushes, baking the bulb and then pasting it around its own fibrous husk to create a handle. (The mission history I learned that year didn’t sink in as much, and it’s obvious now the extent to which its dark side, the atrocities perpetrated on California’s natives, was sugarcoated.) I wasn’t a wild child running around barefoot, but I liked to observe and wonder about how the woods worked. So definitely you could say that the real seed of Alta California was my infatuation with the landscape I had close at hand. I was lucky to live there and lucky that I was able to appreciate it.

How did your understanding of California change in the course of your work on the book?

That’s a tough question. For one, I hardly knew Southern California at all. I grew up in the Bay Area, but my whole life I had spent only a handful of days in Southern California, and those weren’t on my own terms. So walking the coast from San Diego north was, to put it mildly, a real introduction, one long overdue. And yet this feel of introduction held true even when I arrived in country that I thought I knew. You have to walk it to realize how little of it you actually know. Thoreau famously wrote, “I have traveled a great deal in Concord,” and I understand now that your “home place” is the only place you can travel a great deal. Only by pacing some terrain repeatedly, slowly, out your backdoor, can you truly get to know it. For another takeaway, I learned just how richly layered and confused the history of any one place is. I’m obviously more of a natural history guy, so taking on the historical dimension of this book was a new and improving challenge for me. Ultimately the combination taught me something I knew intellectually but hadn’t deeply felt until this book: the depth to which our natural and human history are entwined or the same. I think writing this book taught me this not just about California, but about the world.

I’m placing your book in a genre of work about walking and writing on certain paths or ways. A few high-profile recent examples come to mind: Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods about the Appalachian Trail, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild about the Pacific Crest Trail, Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways about ancient British walking routes, just to name a few. The genre isn’t a new phenomenon, one thinks of famous early American cases like John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf and Emerson’s “Nature” and Thoreau’s “Walking.” Did these or any similar books inform your thinking about and writing of Alta California?

On the one hand, they did. I like to joke/not joke that the contemporary books you mention by Bryson and Strayed are the albatrosses hanging around the necks of pedestrian writers like me. I had always dreamed of hiking the PCT, and of course once you’re a writer it would be hard to dream of doing such a thing without writing about it. It would feel unnatural. In the post-Strayed world, however, it is hard to know if there’s a space for that book, at least in the commercial sphere. Which isn’t everything or the main thing. But when I hit upon the idea of retracing the Portolá expedition, which would take me through urban, suburban, rural, agricultural, and wilderness areas, I knew I had hit on a vital project, at least for me personally. It could be something new, and I wouldn’t need Bryson’s slapstick humor or Strayed’s tough backstory to make it interesting. I could just be me, looking around and making connections, doing it my way. Doing it the old way, which means looking closely and learning to be closer to the earth, even if it’s paved over, even if only for a time — closer to the place you live. I haven’t read MacFarlane’s book, but his emphasis on the old ways inevitably harkens back to Gary Snyder’s The Old Ways (1977), which harkens back itself … the old ways never get old, if you remember them. I have a degree in Environmental Literature, so all of the above have been an influence on me. But when I proposed this book, and when I set out, and when I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking very much about influences (while writing the book, I hardly read for inspiration, only for research). I was just putting into action a philosophy and style that no doubt was the result of all that subconscious stew and those years of imitation. I was finally putting it into action for the sake of a project I really believed in, and one that felt like it might be my territory, literary at least.

The book feels like a long verse poem, a sort of antidote to the hyperactive speed of modern life. I texted you at one point to apologize for taking so long with the book and you responded that you were glad I was reading it slowly because that’s how you intended it to be read, slow, like a walk, so it can be savored. I can’t imagine it’s easy to create this effect and I think it’s a testament to your observational skills and ability as a writer that you were able to create it. When writing the book were you aware of this dynamic, this space you were creating for the reader?

Thanks, and yes, I wanted the book to be immersive. That’s the word I landed on and had ringing in my head at times during the writing. I wanted the book to embody the feeling I had on the walk as much as possible, which was part wonder, part serendipity, part relentlessness, part melancholy. Another word I had in my head as I drafted was “cinematic” — not in the sense of drama, but in the way a camera might pan to quickly portray a setting, and how montage can then extend that “panning” through time. I often thought about how, within a paragraph, I could attempt to do the same thing, pulling the reader through space and time via close observation and composite detail: a sense of the mountains, a near-at-hand detail that you couldn’t make up, a line of dialogue that came to my ear and thus to my notebook. I also made a decision not to skip over wide swaths of California or any individual days — I think every single day of my walk is represented, in fact — which probably isn’t a choice most writers would have made. But I hoped the book could be a genuine survey of the state on many levels (I name over 70 species of bird along the way, for instance), and it would seem both unscientific and unimaginative to favor some days or places over others. All were remarkable. I could also get away with this kind of survey because I was walking through varied terrain, and later, in the essaying based on what I encountered, I was poking into eclectic subjects: the lemon industry in one section, water scarcity in the next, et cetera. In a book about the Pacific Crest Trail, by contrast, it might be tough not to glide over long stretches of time and trail, because the experience — except to the most exceptional eye and writer (or reader) — would soon feel redundant.

In reading the book, it really feels like you are enjoying yourself on the walk. Like you are in your own universe. Is that fair to say?

That’s true, completely. It was the time of my life, though exhausting, and I did feel out of time, because I was at once hunting for signs of the past and striving to be as present as I could be. Very few people are lucky enough to live at the pace I was living, a slow movement of eight to 10 miles a day. Most trekkers go double that, and I was going slower still because I was lingering and loitering. I did my best to keep myself awake, that is observant and receptive, by talking into my recorder. I wanted to be attuned to the things we normally overlook. I was filtering particles from what I was seeing like a barnacle with its feathery arms in the waves. As a result, eight miles often took me all day (barnacles don’t move fast). At the same time, I was oblivious to many of the things we pay attention to, such as the news. I completely missed the last three months of the 2016 presidential campaigns, which was a kind of grace (though I do remember seeing a yard sign in Menlo Park, on my final day, November 6, that I may never forget: “Meteor 2016: Just End It Already.”) And when I had finished the walk, readjusting to being at home did feel a bit like reentry, like I had just parachuted into the sea in my capsule and would need some time in a decompression chamber. (This was probably accentuated, too, by the outcome of the election, which made me question the value and immediacy of my whole project, something I know many of us experienced.)

California isn’t a walker-friendly place. Can you speak to some of the logistical challenges you faced along the way?

You’re right that California isn’t very walker-friendly. People talk about the California Coastal Trail. My response is, “What trail?” We really have a long way to go. I might even argue that the cities are the most walker-friendly places, though we could and should certainly do better within them. Not all streets have sidewalks (a convenience I have mixed feelings about, because we don’t really need more pavement, either), and of course cars are dangerous. But the walk became a real challenge east of Santa Barbara when Highway 101 was suddenly the only option. So I took to the train tracks, which were safer and quieter by far. That the coastal trail remains so piecemeal is an embarrassment and an indication of the extent to which we’ve let private property define and control the coast, California’s biggest asset, and define and control our lives at large. I was not especially afraid to cross private property (as the book shows), but I did draw the line at military installations, because I didn’t want to end up in a stockade. While the Portolá expedition had to detour and zig inland wherever they met seaside mountains that were too sheer for their pack animals, my main detours from the their historical route were around Camp Pendleton, Vandenberg Air Force Base, and Fort Hunter Liggett. Thinking again of the cities and suburbs: I guess my main complaint there would be the lack of public restrooms. You shouldn’t have to buy a soda or a bag of fries to use a toilet, nor should you have to duck into a fast food restaurant to press the water tab on the soda machine — those were my approximation of the natural springs that the Portolá expedition relied on.

When you’re an old man, looking back on your life, when you think about this project, what do you imagine you will remember?

There’s so much from the walk itself that I imagine I will remember, and a lot of it is doubly or triply impressed upon me because I relived it — and refined the phrasing of it — as I wrote. I also will remember the certain idealism and gumption inherent in a project of this nature. In some ways, I took it on pretty casually, but it was a fairly epic undertaking that, especially when it came to the writing, I ultimately found intimidating. There was some inherent structure to my project — I was following the route of the Portolá expedition, and I was going to be in conversation with the expedition’s diaries. But in terms of what else I wrote about along the way, there were few boundaries and that’s how I wanted it to be. So I will also remember how scary it was (is) to be in the middle of a book-length piece of writing with no end in sight. My first book was a collection of essays, so a piece of writing this length was a new experience, and this book in particular was pretty freeform. I spent months not only going down rabbit holes but also spinning my wheels because I had built the project up in my mind so much. I am hoping that, for the next book, I will have the confidence to know I just have to keep going, to stay the course and not worry when I am at sea.

Joan Didion once wrote, “California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country.” Why do you think California seems so difficult to pin down? Is it necessary to do so?

Well, to start, it’s big. If you’re trying to pin down California, you’re trying to pin down more people, more habitats, more coastline, et cetera, than in any other state. And pinning down that amount of people and landscape is hard to do, and I think it’s ill-advised, because the exceptions will be as much as the rule. Beyond the laws of ecology and evolution, California is just another expression of human nature and/or culture, like everywhere else, so I suppose you could say that the qualities of frontier greed, violence, and romance exist here especially because European culture arrived only recently — 250 years ago. That the wisdom and maturity that, in theory, develops with a long habitation of place hasn’t yet come to us (or returned to us), despite the encouragements of voices like John Muir in the 1800s, Gary Snyder in the last century, and Rebecca Solnit in this one. I could wax romantically about why romance and mythology persist on this far shore. Things like maybe there is something about having the sun set over the ocean that seems to renew possibility and generate optimism at the end of each day. But it would only be another sort of romance and boosterism, which as categories have in and of themselves gone a long way toward defining California. To a great extent, Didion’s worrying over the “weary enigma” of California is itself a weary project and a perpetuation of these mythologies, and one that doesn’t interest me a great deal. California isn’t so much an enigma as it is an ongoing hot mess of fast and mostly free-for-all development and consumerism. Like most other places.

You have described Alta California as a “love letter” to California. What does the state mean to you?

It is a love letter, in a sense. I poured my whole self, or as much as I could, into the book in the walking and writing of it. Following the metaphor, it’s true that I did take pains to describe the object of my affection in as rich and detailed a way as possible. Which isn’t to say that I exaggerated, that I lost myself entirely. I hope the book is also, or at least often, clear-eyed, laying bare the ironies and the ways in which California has really damaged itself due to blindness, or for the sake of making a buck. I guess you could argue the book is a love letter written a good way into a relationship, where honesty holds more sway, seems like less of a risk, and is hopefully appreciated — a means, in fact, to deepen that love. As for what the state means to me … I don’t have a good answer to that. It certainly is a part of my identity, more so than ever now. And I think California is fascinating and unique, but it’s not exceptional. No place is exceptional unless all are. I hope that argument comes through ultimately in the book.

Toward the end of the book you write, “Childhood goes so fast in the end and yet it never finishes.” Portolá’s expedition and yours conclude close to where you grew up. You even walk past the hospital in which you were born. At the end of the book, you reminisce on your childhood and your family joins you for a celebration. Was writing the book, in some sense, your way of reconnecting with a young Nick at a time when you were about to become a father for the first time?

I knew the project would reconnect me with my time as a kid in Portola Valley, but connecting with my childhood wasn’t the goal of the book (and in point of fact, I’ve never felt disconnected from my childhood, which lives on richly in my imagination). A lot of the “natural” characters that accompany me — Anna’s hummingbird, wrentits, species of oak and certainly poison oak — were old familiars that I have much fondness for and already had a degree of knowledge about. I made the conscious decision not to bring up my childhood until I reached my old stomping grounds and neighborhood, because I didn’t want it to define the book, and I also thought this late personal thrust would be a surprise and help buoy the reader — a way to offer something new 400 pages in. The book is seen through my eyes, but I didn’t want it to be about me (though all books, in the end, are about the author and are highly revealing). At least on its sleeve, I wanted Alta California to be outward-looking, rather than an interior exploration or a coming to terms with my past (as in Strayed’s Wild). I actually wrote an alternate prologue that was about my connection with the California environment as a kid, but for the above reasons, I went with the existing one that places the reader on a cliff’s edge as I’m about to walk into the off-limits Hollister and Cojo-Jalama ranches. As for my kids, they weren’t in the picture yet, but we were planning on having them pretty soon. I only considered them insofar as I knew it was now or a lot later, if ever, for a trip of this kind. But I hope they will like the book eventually and have a better sense of their dad and where he was from, and thus maybe a better sense of themselves.


Scott Burton is a literary interviewer based in San Diego.

LARB Contributor

Scott Burton is a librarian and literary interviewer based in San Diego. Feel free to email him at [email protected].


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