Saturday, May 23, 2009


Before I began the first leg of the walk I visited the Oakland Museum, now called the Oakland Museum of California.  The OM opened in 1969 to deserved fanfare; the building is innovative and alone worth a visit.  The art, natural history and historical collections are fantastic and they place so much material wealth of art and artifact into a context that is sweeping and eye opening.  The OM Natural History exhibit may have been the real genesis of the notion of seeing all of the state in fine scale. 

 A school field trip had introduced me for the first time to the incomparable “A Walk Across California” exhibit when I was about ten or eleven years old.  This display of animals and plants in dioramas and laden cases highlighted what could be discovered in a cross transect exploration of California’s nature from the mid-coast to the Nevada border’s Basin and Range environments.  Having tromped the East Bay Hills daily, Sunday-driven to the coast, and backpacked four times, for weeks at a time, in the alpine Sierra by the ripe age of ten this place was full of old friends in its frozen flying gulls, shellacked coyote brush, and taxidermied black bear.  I visited the Natural History exhibit many times in my youth, and frequently as an adult, usually after catching one of the great temporary shows this museum presents.  The game has always been to find the species I had seen myself, with a compelling yearning to see the ones I hadn’t.

 On the day I recently visited the museum, a sentimental sort of “where it all began” exercise, there were about six OM staffers hanging about expectantly with clipboards.  My innate resistance to questionnaires and a few avoidance moves allowed me to hurry past their greatest density around the large three-dimensional map of the state.  This overview of my intended walk was so full of topography it was best left unexamined to prevent discouragement.  The exhibit began with a Coast exhibit.  I knew I was not going to start at the coast so I perused more richly the Outer Coast Range exhibit with characteristic redwoods, steller’s jays and Doug iris, through the Inner Coast Range, the holder of the classic oak-dotted, hot grass and chaparral swathed slopes of places like Mt. Diablo and the sere ramparts of the western Central Valley.  Then through the Central Valley, my current birdwatching Mecca, a place of heat, flat water and agriculture-with-a-capital-C.  I continued on through the Western Sierran Slope, which the museum breaks into two biotic zones, the Sierran Slope Foothills, and the Sierran Slope Snowbelt. The first zone is a place remembered for huge fast rivers and the smell of pines in the heat.  The alpine High Sierra was a summer playground for my family.  Then from the imaginary height of the precipitous eastern escarpment (I have always loved that word) we pass down again into the desert-like playas and White Mountains of the far east of California.  A mere hour and my Walk Across California was complete.  If only…

 On the way back out of the exhibit my curiosity and semi-polite manners succumbed to the eager hopefulness of the assigned interrogators with clipboards.  A woman in her twenties asked me what my favorite places in California were, what I liked best about the exhibit etc.  She probably would never have found a more prompted, ready-with-an-answer person than me; someone who was at that very moment thinking hard about what the museum and California means to her, in particular its natural legacy.  I asked her after she finished why she was asking and she said that the Natural History exhibit was going to be redesigned completely and this was a day for visitor input.  She really could not engage me in my questions about the design that were above and beyond the questionnaire and referred me to one of the design coordinators for the museum who was sitting off to the side.

 I introduced myself as someone who really loved the current exhibit and went into its inspirational effects on me as a child and to this day, including my mega-walk.  She spoke of the need for the exhibit to be less curator-driven and more visitor-driven in its displays.  There would be re-creations of places that people were familiar with (hence the questioning of visitors for places that were meaningful), and so there might be a Yosemite, or Ano Nuevo display.  There would also be an exhibit on the threats to these wild treasures.  I defended briefly the motivational aspect that a curator or teacher’s vision can impart, but I also knew that all museums were changing in these ways.  Just as the landscape of California itself has sloughed off its old uses to a great degree, progress has given us “real estate” –that now looks more homogenous and visitor driven too – in its malls, tract homes and other highway-side conveniences.    

I liked the fact that the original display was a bounty of possibilities in full array.  None of the exhibits became too familiar over the years because they were esoteric in their number of things presented.  Those things presented were not portrayed as so fragile that my emotions were battered by hints of imminent demise.   I didn’t feel personal responsibility, just wonder.  The old exhibit helped me to love what I was seeing, to want to get more intimate with the weirder denizens I had overlooked, and put the whole carpet of ecological communities in context for me, for life.  The exhibit’s last day is August 23, 2009 and I recommend all to go see it, again.

The Walk Across California exhibit at the Oakland Museum

The topographic map that in my opinion is a bit full of steroids, the Sierras can't be that steep can they? 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Walk Across California

My life, which is my geography, has been split between those places that mean something to me for their natural vibrancy, their indescribable connection to my spirit, and those places that bear the weight of my human history.  Nature has always been the balm of my tumultuous times. To a young person buffeted by difficult meanings and unclear negotiations of life, nature and its trails offered a clear path and a moment’s release from the wild ride of growing up.  Later nature provided a framework for study, hours indulged in botanizing or observing animals, often in the happy company of others equally enthusiastic.  Emotions distilled from loss, urges of generosity, and the gift of beauty found a deeper purpose in activism to save wild bits and odd creatures.   This walk stems from the gratitude of a life held in the complicated fabric of nature – a world of such diversity of form as to leave a mind speechless and in that rarest state of all –still.


Rite of passage


Turning fifty years old this year I have wished to create a suitable celebration or monumental recognition of this fortunate chunk of time.  Like many of my cohort of mid-lifers whose parents have died I feel like I have “queued up” for my own exit. Now is the time to get in some accomplishment before it is too late. The quantum leap in my role in the “scheme of things” is the immediate impetus for a perhaps overly ambitious project. My choice of marking my place as having once indeed lived has developed into a plan to walk across California.  The walk qualifies as a “big deal” but I am no athlete and I have chosen to do this trip in chunks, and when that is not possible, in bits. 


I have wished to cross California on foot for at least twenty years.  The notion served as an idle dream born of the responsibilities of family life that had kept me tethered to home for much of my daughter’s young life and my parent’s last days.  The frustration of the lack of hiking and backpacking in my life led to the creation of my alter ego Phoebe Black, a woman, like the black phoebe bird, that flies away from her perch to return again and again, a life of many trips with little distance.  It was a comfort to adjust the realities of motherhood to an understanding that a lifestyle could be forged that was a response to different demands, treasured demands, but different.  I stopped thinking of myself as migratory and became instead a flycatcher.  Life was a constant activity of hopping here to the grocery store, and then home, and here to a trail, and home, and here to a school, and here to a patch of birding, and then home, always home again. 


This walk will have a similar structure.  Four years ago my family of three moved to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. I had lived in California in the East Bay hills for my entire life prior to this abrupt change. Now I plan to return to California for short trips when I can, to walk for as long as I need to get across the state.  My now fourteen-year-old daughter Irene is ensconced in a boarding school in Victoria British Columbia (her desire not mine), and this phoebe has bigger chunks of time to fly away from her perch.  I will return to my Washington home territory, after gleaning my nourishment, my favorite food of California, taken in as I walk.  My walks will be assisted by my car, my bike, motels or camping sites, meals in restaurants, showers, friends and most importantly by my husband Stephen Evans who will accompany me as much as possible since I am not particularly brave.  Steve will also serve as photographer and by his own insistence on knowing where he is, as co-navigator.  In the summer our daughter will join us for her own march across her birth state, hopefully not perceived as a forced trek.   At this writing I have cobbled together four separate days of walking, and one stretch of five days for a total of approximately seventy-five miles and the landmark of having reached the Central Valley.  Future writing will recount these days, and a new chunk of walking is planned for early June.