About the Path
From Natives I've spoken with and books and articles I've read, I've gained a little knowledge about his path. Please see the "Resources" section for links to more info.
Natives have lived on this continent for untold years – many members of tribes say that their ancestors have always existed on this soil, and oral histories of occupation go back many thousands of years. Prior to European contact, there were at least 300,000 indigenous people speaking over 80 languages in California alone. They also had complex practices that deeply respected nature and kept a balance. Here, Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk tells her tribe's creation story, in which salmon gave the rather hapless humans their voice and obligated people to always speak for them.
Europeans began exploring California in the mid-1500s, when British and Spanish boats began venturing up and down the coast in search of wealth. However, Spanish colonization did not take place in earnest until the late 1700s, when King Carlos III became concerned about Russian fur traders and English pirates encroaching on the outer edges of his vast but declining empire. In 1769 he sent a party, led by military commander Gaspar de Portolá and missionary Junipero Serra, to begin colonizing the area.
Natives had long ago established a network of paths across the land. Spanish colonial forces sometimes retained or forced native peoples to guide them through the territory on these trails. They incorporated sections of these trails into what they called El Camino Real (“The Royal Road”), a network of paths that led to the seat of Spanish power in Mexico City. The Spanish also established 21 missions along the Camino Real, from Sonoma to San Diego. They brutally kidnapped and enslaved local tribes, forcing them to convert to Catholicism and to build and maintain the missions. There are also many stories of Native resistance, including the 1785 burning of Mission San Diego.
In 1821, the Mexican government won independence from Spain and claimed California, only to cede it to the United States in 1848. The brutal Western quest for "resources," That began with Columbus' search for spices, and continued with the Virginia Company and Custer's gold expedition to the Black Hills, had reached the west coast in the form of the Gold Rush. In support of securing the land for mining and other extractive industries, Peter Burnett, California's first governor, declared that Natives should be "exterminated." He enacted the 1850 California Indian Protection Act, which legalized the enslavement of Natives. It was the first of many genocidal government measures including militias, $5 and $10 rewards for Native scalps, residential schools, broken treaties, and other policies that continue to this day.
To ensure control of the region, the government encouraged immigration, and parceled out the land for universities, parks, and large-scale farms. With the industrial revolution came the steam train, then mechanized public transportation and the car, as well as a desire for paved roads and fixed paths. In 1904, a coalition of American womens’ groups, eager to create a romanticized history of California's past, determined a single route for the Camino Real, which was accepted by the state as the official pathway.
The state began to build to highways on the Camino Real; U.S. 101 follows the route from Los Angeles to Sonoma County. Other sections of the Camino Real were also built over, including the I-5 freeway from Anaheim to San Diego and a handful of highways in the Anaheim and Sonoma areas. Today just a few sections run on streets, including the San Francisco Peninsula and Anaheim area. Only a short unpaved section remains, outside of Mission San Juan Bautista. The route outlined in this guide loosely follows a 1920 version of an 1821 Spanish map. Since much of the Camino Real is now unwalkable, this route is a patchwork of paths that runs on or close to the old road--greenways, dirt trails, city and suburban streets, rails-to-trails, and highways. Really, all north-south travel through this area, by car or foot, has been forced onto this single path.
The path starts at the site of the Coast Miwok village of Huchi, occupied by Mission San Francisco de Solano in Sonoma. It runs through all kinds of landscapes and communities: over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, through army bases, past the vast farmlands of the Salinas Valley, through breathtaking parkland, by industrial areas, across cities and suburbs, along wetlands, and on scenic coastal bluffs. It ends approximately 800 miles south at a Kumeyaay village site now occupied by Mission San Diego.
Why Walk the Path?
Those of us who are settlers on this land are deeply disconnected to the cycles of nature and the land that we live on, as well as the genocide that the government has inflicted on Natives, the destruction of the land, and violence on many other non-white groups. How can we begin to envision another way of living? In my opinion, one way is to listen to indigenous leadership. Although this is not our land, the walk can be a way to get out of our daily routines, live without the things that we're told we need, humble ourselves, and appreciate what's around us.
It's a walking meditation, of sorts. A chance to experience the nature and history of California, step by step. To cut across boundaries imposed on the land. To really connect to a place that most of us only know from our cars.
There's no official trail, no guideposts, and this trek isn't easy. Along the way, you'll do some hard walking along busy roads. You'll need to wrangle lodging at campgrounds, hotels, hopefully the houses of friends and family, and maybe a few convents. You'll have to find food where you can. You'll meet people from all walks of life with amazing stories to tell. You may feel frustrated, alone, and tired at times, but you'll likely also find beauty in unexpected places and be borne along by the generosity of others.
Is This Walk for Me?
If the idea piques your interest, check out this guide to learn more about the path and how to plan for it. Do some walks on segments of the route, and see if you enjoy the experience.
I firmly believe that most people are physically and mentally capable of walking this path. It might sound daunting (I was very daunted), but human beings are built to walk long distances. You will likely find that it's easier than it might sound. The process of planning and training can go a long way toward inspiring you and building your confidence.
Of course, it isn't necessary to walk all 800 miles to enjoy and learn from the experience. Alternately, try a few legs or do the walk in segments over a longer period of time.
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