Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State

By Dan Clendenin

Nick Neely, Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2019), 411pp.

From July 14 to November 6, 1769, Captain Gaspar de Portolá led a Spanish expedition of sixty-three men and over fifty mules from San Diego to their “discovery” of the San Francisco Bay, where today a historical marker commemorates them as the first overland expedition across what eventually became California. The Portolá expedition was, in fact, a long time after Spain’s initial explorations of the California coast, the first of which was by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542, followed by Sebastian Vizcaíno in 1602.

Thanks to several journals that they kept, it’s possible to recreate much of Portolá’s route, and in particular how they established twenty-one Catholic missions along the 650-mile trail to resupply their venture. The writer Nick Neely (born 1984) actually grew up in the town of Portola Valley, in the heart of what’s now the Silicon Valley. In this book he chronicles how he retraced Portolá’s expedition based upon the original journals. The book is only partly about the twenty-one missions. It’s much more of a natural history that connects “Alta California” of 250 years ago with modern day California. The contrast is delightfully jarring.

Back then, some 300,000 native Americans lived in today’s California, and a major theme of the book is the extermination of these peoples due to the Spanish missions. The original diaries also document the plant and animal life back then, like the great many grizzly bears and antelopes that roamed the land. Much of Neely’s walk, by contrast, is through urban landscapes and suburban strip malls. For the most part he camped along the trail, even in the rain, but he wasn’t an idealistic purist. Every now and then he would stay at a Motel 6 or take a bus. He stopped at Legoland in San Diego, and went to a baseball game in Anaheim. He gladly enjoyed Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, gas stations to replenish his Gatorade, and the couple times that his wife hiked with him for a few days.

For me Neely’s book was a reminder about how self-serving our limited sense of history can be. Think about it: the Spanish were crawling the California coast almost 500 years ago, 230 years before the United States even became a nation. For more on California natural history I also enjoyed the books by Carrie Gibson, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2019), 560pp; and Mark Arax, (New York: Knopf, 2019), 562pp.

Dan Clendenin:

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