Seasoned travelers often say the best way to truly experience a place is to walk it. If that’s so, 15 students from Santa Clara University and their professor will be on very familiar terms with a 225-mile stretch of California this summer. The group will spend two weeks in June walking from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park.
Beginning at Ocean Beach, the route leads to several places not found on any tourist map: a garden sowing seeds for food justice in Oakland, a farm workers’ labor camp in Stockton, a Me-wuk Indian reservation in Tuolumne.
David Popalisky, associate professor in SCU’s department of theatre and dance, is leading the “Walk Across California” class. The long trek across the state marks the culmination of a 10-week class he’s teaching this spring.
“The class is designed to cultivate each student’s sense of wonder,” explained Popalisky. “We’ll focus on sustainability, environmental justice, and social activism, as we prepare to walk among California’s diverse populations and through its natural landscapes.”
Since last summer, Popalisky has been scouting the group’s route, setting up scheduled meetings and meals with various community members along the way. The itinerary, from June 15 through 30, now includes talks with farmers, teachers, park rangers, artists, shop owners, and Native Americans. Among highlights are a lunch with food activists from People’s Grocery in Oakland; dinner in Tracy with organic farmers; a visit to a farm workers’ labor camp, with talks by workers and labor activists in Stockton and Farmington. The class will also stay overnight in Copperopolis and learn about the region’s copper mining history dating from the Civil War before heading on to meet members of the Me-wuk tribe and a water conservation educator in Groveland.
Although these activities are already set, Popalisky said much of the walk will be “discover as we go.” He emphasized that the trip belongs to the students. “It’s their job to help plan; I want them to build community from the ground up.” Small student groups will be responsible for structuring elements of each day’s walk. Then they’ll weigh in with the larger group and decisions will be made collectively.
Popalisky estimates the hikers will log 15 miles a day, walking for about five hours. The students, along with four faculty members, will travel light, carrying day packs and accompanied by a van filled with their food and camping gear. Ideally, they’ll start hiking at around 8:30 each morning and call a halt at mid-afternoon.
Through their interactions with both humans and the environment, students will gain a better understanding of many social justice and sustainability issues facing the state, Popalisky believes. And, to deepen their awareness, he’s included a personal component in the Walk Across California project.
“Students will take the time to both observe the landscape and hear people talk, to hear their stories,” he explained, “then using various art forms, they’ll reflect on and share what they’ve experienced during the day. These personal insights may relate to beauty, knowledge, or understanding, for example, and be expressed through any chosen artistic medium, such as poetry, drawing, song, or dance. It’s an ongoing aesthetic reflective process that we have begun in the classroom.”
Journal writings, short creative works, dance and poetry readings are among class activities that contribute to preparing student sensibilities for the journey, while a series of training walks throughout the course will boost their physical stamina.
As a dancer who is also an experienced camper and backpacker, Popalisky said he himself is relatively fit and active, but has never been on a two-week walk. He described his California trek as “a leap of faith,” modeled on parts of different immersion trips he’s taken. “Originally, I hoped to get 10 students to sign up, but the number quickly grew to 15, my original class maximum,” he noted. The project was also embraced by many community members near SCU and along the route who were eager to be a part of the students’ learning experiences. “The overwhelming response was, ‘wow, let’s help,’” said the professor.
To be accepted in the Walk Across California class, students first had to fill out an application explaining why they wanted to participate. They answered questions relating to their comfort level for such things as camp cooking, sharing a tent, not showering for several days, and bugs. Popalisky also asked them about physical and emotional challenges, artistic pursuits, and experience in crisis management.
One junior majoring in biology wrote: “My life is surrounded by routine comforts. I rarely have the opportunity to act outside a certain set of experiences, to choose to do things for their own sake. As much as I am middle-class happy, part of me restlessly desires something more. I do not usually think in literary references, but my first thought when I heard about Walk Across California was: It’s like Walden in motion. I instantly wanted to do the walk, just to do something I found beautiful rather than something the rest of life found expedient.”
Another student, a junior majoring in engineering, cited his experiences hiking in the foothills of his Boise, Idaho home as good preparation for the walk. And, a sophomore business major talked about his “commitment to becoming educated about ways that I can help to restructure the way food is currently produced.” He noted, “It is clear that today’s methods cannot be sustained much longer. I feel responsible to work and make sure that we can adapt and stay fed. Meeting and learning about the people that do this every day seems like a perfect opportunity.”
In the end, a broad cross-section of SCU students representing a number of different fields and interests signed up and were accepted for the class.
The main goal, according to Popalisky, is for each student to “witness the state’s environment and its people, and to understand the privileges that they may take for granted; students must understand the historical reality of their surroundings, and be conscious about each decision they make.”
Beyond that, he said, “It’s an adventure they’ll remember for a lifetime."