Walk Across California

Walk Across California

By Jesse Hamlin

Photo by Robert Boscacci '14, map illustration by Edward Rooks
An epic journey whereby one foot is put in front of the other to discover, up close and personal, who and what and where is the Golden State. Photos by Robert Boscacci '14, Frederic Larson, and Edward Rooks. Illustrations by Edward Rooks.

Day One: Dance

Dancer David Popalisky and a dozen of his students were twirling in the sand at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach on a fog-chilled June morning, reaching skyward. They were performing a traditional Native American blessing dance with which they’d greet the new morning for the next 15 days as they walked across California—from the crashing waves of the Pacific through the vertiginous streets of San Francisco, gritty west Oakland and the bucolic East Bay hills, through the vast, hot Central Valley to the pine forests and glorious granite peaks of Yosemite.

The route: 225 dusty miles, from Ocean Beach to Yosemite. Illustration by Edward Rooks

“I bless the space above me, I bless the space below me, and I bless the space within me,” they chanted in unison, repeating the age-old phrases and steps that Popalisky, an associate professor of theatre and dance, taught to the SCU students who’d signed up for his one-of-a-kind spring 2012 course, Walk Across California. Popalisky spent nearly two years planning and raising money for a journey that gave students a singular firsthand experience of the Golden State’s extraordinarily diverse cultures and environments.

“We welcome the adventure of this walk, whatever it may bring,” said Popalisky, a 6-foot-3 sprite with vast reserves of enthusiasm, curiosity, and patience. He asked his fellow travelers what they wanted to bless as they embarked on the two-week trek that would bring them face to face with migrant farmworkers, Miwok Indian elders, the mother of a murdered Stockton boy, park rangers, politicians, ex–gang bangers, and graywater reclamation experts.

“I bless our feet,” someone shouted.

“I bless the sky,” someone else said.

“I bless the van I drive,” chimed in Edward Rooks, cracking up the Santa Clarans circled in the sand with him. A gentlemanly naturalist and wildlife artist from Trinidad (and husband of SCU Professor of Biology Janice Edgerly-Rooks), Edward Rooks proved an invaluable member of the team, driving the white Toyota van stuffed with tents, food, and other supplies; teaching plein-air drawing and what it means to have a line of perspective; and identifying the various birds, bugs, and snakes that appeared along the way: red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures, red admiral butterflies and wood-boring beetles, garters and rattlers. Electrical engineering student Russell Wetherley ’13 later called him Rooksus Edwardius in a comic ode to the wise goateed chap who can survive in many climes but whose “preferred environment is an air-conditioned minivan along California highways.”

Run, don't walk: Catherine Borst '14 has a spring in her step as the journey begins at Ocean Beach. Photo by Frederic Larson

The class satisfied two core SCU requirements that underscore the Jesuits’ holistic vision and social activism: arts and experiential learning for social justice. Students kept a daily journal of encounters with the people and landscapes of California and, as a final project, produced a thoughtful, creative work that spoke to the story they’d just lived and taken in with all their senses as they hoofed 225 dusty miles.

Why do this? That was a question the walkers heard many times from folks they encountered along the way. In part, it was for fun and credit.

“Yosemite was in the description,” said Chris Lum ’13, a biology major from Hawaii. “I’m down for adventure.”

The walkers weren’t doing it to raise funds or awareness for a cause. It was to try to get to know our home better. When folks along the way heard that, they wanted to share their stories.
 

Day Two: Footwear

Blisters. That’s what you get when you walk 15 miles a day. The walkers, whose quarter-long preparation for this epic hike included 5-mile walks around the rose-scented Mission Campus and surrounding urban zones—as well as readings about Native Americans, food justice, and environmental sustainability, and the nature poetry of Kay Ryan and Wendell Berry—got plenty of blisters. Most of the blisters started on Day Two, after a day walking from Tilden Park to Mt. Diablo in 106-degree heat. In addition to the daily circle for the blessing dance, students gathered ’round for twice-daily foot-care sessions. That helped. But there’s no escaping the sheer physicality of the walk.

“My feet are destroyed,” Julie Herman ’14 said cheerfully a few days later. She’s a biology major who writes poetry.

Along with the monumental question that Popalisky asked of the people they met—“What sustains you?”—there were elemental questions that had to be answered frequently: Is my water bottle filled? Is that a shade tree?

Garden and grocery: Bringing fresh food and a sense of community to a part of Oakland that needs it. Illustration by Edward Rooks

Robert Boscacci ’14, a communications major, took photographs and wrote poems about the people and landscapes: There’s the curly-haired urban farmer Max Cadji of the People’s Grocery in Oakland, where the Santa Clarans hiked on Day One after riding BART under the bay; the spaghetti they cooked that night in Berkeley’s Tilden Park; the spectacular sunset the following evening on Mt. Diablo. Boscacci rigged a “Lawrence of Arabia” hat flap with a small white towel to shield the back of his neck from the blazing sun. And he swapped images and words along the way with poet and essayist Rebekah Bloyd, a lecturer in creative writing who served as chaperone and descriptive writing coach. The whole group wrote portraits of places and people along the way—describing who and what they were now, and trying to imagine what they would be and do in the future. Stopping for lunch in a meadow near Marsh Creek Springs (hard-boiled eggs and peanut butter and jelly), the students composed a group haiku that Bloyd jotted in her notebook:

Nearby stream chortles
Cool water passes on rock
Destination ahead

That evening, the destination was the farm of Kim and Matt Scarlata, who raise organic tomatoes: Purple Cherokee and Berkeley Tie-Dye, as well as a variety named for their daughter, Maddie Rose. There aren’t as many farms in the area as there used to be. At a dinner the Scarlatas hosted, one neighbor talked about how hard it is for farmers to turn down big offers to buy them out.

This is part of California’s story, too. It was a clear night and the walkers slept on the Scarlatas’ lawn, sleeping bags drawn in a circle under the open sky and the shooting stars.
 

Day Five: Asparagus, Bankruptcy, Communion

Meadow song: Robert Boscacci '14 and a borrowed violin. Photo by Edward Rooks

After a grueling stretch along Highway 4, they came into Stockton single file in their lime-and-silver safety vests, walking the shoulder of a road littered with broken bottles and dead rodents and raccoons, while big rigs roared past. The route into town took the group past piles of human waste near a homeless camp along a graffiti-scrawled highway overpass. A few blocks farther along, they saw the bullet hole in a downtown building where a teenager had been shot to death. A police car was circling the block, and the cop stopped to ask what they were up to—and to make sure they understood they were heading for a perilous place. Its murder, foreclosure, and unemployment rates make Stockton one of the most troubled cities in the country.

But these walkers were not lost. They were on their way to meet the wired-up St. Francis of Stockton, Fr. Dean McFalls, who shepherded them around town. He is a kinetic 57-year-old dervish of a priest with close-cut, salt-and-pepper hair who ministers to the poor and homeless people in his predominantly Spanish-speaking parish at St. Mary’s Church, a run-down Gothic red brick building where multitasking Fr. Dean, clad in a brilliant spring green robe, juggles calls on multiple cell phones during Mass while someone else is giving a benediction. Fr. Dean took the Santa Clarans on a nonstop tour of Stockton that began in City Hall with Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston, who asked energetically, “Why don’t you tell me where you’ve been? Real quick!” In retrospect, the encounter was understandably brief: Johnston was dashing off to a city council meeting whose import was felt around the country. A few days later, Stockton officially became the largest city in the nation to declare bankruptcy.

In the park across the street, they met a woman whose son was killed by the police and was holding a one-woman Occupy protest. Then along came a remarkable young man named Michael Tubbs, a recent Stanford graduate who’d grown up in Stockton’s crime-ridden housing projects and had come home to run for city council. (He made national news when Oprah Winfrey gave his campaign $10,000; in the November election, he won.) Tubbs stood next to the bronze of Martin Luther King Jr. and talked about children dying in Stockton “because they were born into poverty,” friends and family members of his who’d been killed, and how “it takes courage to come here. So thanks.” He spoke of the privilege of going to college and the responsibility that comes with that education. “The question is how to bring purpose to that privilege. What are you going to do with it?”

That question lingered as the group listened to Mexican-American farmworkers and labor organizers talk of backbreaking work and of family, dignity, and justice. Francisco Aguilar, a retired farmworker who moved to the Central Valley from Guadalajara when he was 14, demonstrated the punishing work of cutting asparagus and beets, which he once did 10 hours a day for $14. The pesticides he was exposed to in the fields gave him leukemia, he said without self-pity.

“I passed through many things, but I survived,” he said. “If you fall down, get up, keep going. You can do anything you want.”

Like most of the others, Boscacci had never met a fellow like “Don Francisco,” as he took to calling Aguilar.

Bless this place: The energetic Fr. Dean McFalls in Stockton. Illustration by Edward Rooks

“I was moved by his story, and hope to spread it,” said the aspiring filmmaker, who found the entire Stockton experience sobering. “I’ve always lived in low-crime, friendly communities,” he said. But here, “the things we read in textbooks in history and social justice–themed classes are jumping off the pages and speaking to me live in the flesh. And that’s a fantastic learning experience.”

It was an illuminating and exhausting day: Along with everything else, there was Mass in the parish church—where the group met a second mother whose son had been killed. There was a Mexican feast at the community cultural center provided by volunteers whose welcoming generosity moved the students. And there was a second Mass, at sunset, conducted in a field by the river at a migrant workers’ camp.

Something about the experience of walking, constantly, changes your body’s chemistry, Fr. Dean told the group, when he later thanked them again for making the journey to the place he calls home. Walking is something he knows; he once spent three years walking to Israel. “It really plants you with the earth,” he said.
 

Days Six and Seven: Golden State pastoral

In the morning, Popalisky and company got a lift to the Stockton city limits, where they climbed onto rented bikes and rode 26 miles to the historic mining town of Copperopolis, pedaling a pastoral stretch of Highway 4 past walnut groves, cornfields, and a Hereford bull breeding ranch, huffing up and coasting down the rolling foothills. Being out in the open again figured into questions that Bloyd asked the students later: What does it mean to be open? What can be opened? What are the opened things we’ve seen? Doors, blossoms, the sky, the self.

Far from the bleak streets of Stockton, they swam at a Copperopolis resort and slept on the lawn of the Thomas Kinkade–like town center, where Catherine Borst ’14, a mechanical engineering student who’s a fine violinist, jammed with a local guitarist, and Chris Lum performed a dance with iridescent LED gloves.

What does it mean to be open? What can be opened? What are the opened things we've seen?

On the road to Lake Tulloch the following day, Edward Rooks pointed out an osprey nest atop a phone pole. A few miles on, they came across an organic community garden run by a bearded bear of a man who invited them to pick some fruit and eat it, gratis.

“I expected to see a lot of things I’d never seen before,” Borst said, “and lo and behold, I’m seeing lots of things I’ve never seen before, like a guy in the middle of pretty much nowhere asking us to eat some strawberries.”

She, too, was stirred by what she’d seen in Stockton. “It was saddening and inspiring at the same time,” she said.
 

Days Seven and Eight: “You guys sang the whole way, right?“

Yosemite, we are here: A well-deserved breather for Patty Catreras '13. Photo by Robert Boscacci

Near the junction to the Gold Country village of Jamestown, the Santa Clarans were greeted by Carlos Geisdorff, a round, sturdy man with a long black braid and a trim goatee. He’s the cultural coordinator for the Tuolumne Miwok tribe that has lived on these oak-rich lands for millennia. A genial man who likes to laugh—“You guys sang the whole way, right?” he asked the tired trekkers—Geisdorff brought an air-conditioned bus from the tribe’s income-generating Black Oak Casino to ferry the group up to the wooded 200-acre “rez,” as he calls his ancestral land.

In fact, they were singing, sometimes. They also came up with other words for what they were doing: sweating, sitting, sliding, laughing, stumbling, persevering, staggering, swinging across, rapping, slogging, striding, moving, stomping, noticing, meandering, limping, caravanning, struggling, mincing, dancing.

Walking a trail: Carl Geisdorff of the Tuolumne Miwok. Illustration by Edward Rooks

Geisdorff, 36, was born in the East Bay town of Pittsburg, but his grandmother was born in a shack on the reservation where he now lives with his wife, four daughters, and 200 others. He has been teaching Miwok kids to speak their largely forgotten native language and developing ways to write it. Popalisky had come to visit while mapping out the trip. Intrigued by the class, Geisdorff invited the group to camp overnight and share a meal and some Miwok songs. The group was allowed to enter the round house and taught the right way to come and go from that sacred structure. One rule: Leave the “madness” of the world outside.

“What they’re doing is cool,” Geisdorff told me. “They’re doing what Indians have been doing forever—walking a trail.”

The group learned Miwok blessings and laughing songs. Phyllis Montgomery, a 78-year-old tribal elder, painted a vivid picture of life on the land where she and her 12 siblings grew up. She talked about surviving mostly on what nature provided, learning to gut a deer, to gather mushrooms, and to grind nupa, or acorns, for biscuits.

Buckeye on buckeye: These winged and petaled Californians share a name. Photo by Edward Rooks

“It was a hard life, but not brutal hard,” said the spry elder, who expressed wonder and thanks that she’d lived long enough to see Miwok kids graduating from college. Then she served up some ancient wisdom: “If you take care of Mother Nature, she’ll take care of you. Whenever you’re out there, don’t take more than you can use.”

You couldn’t ask for a more succinct description of environmental sustainability. That’s what the Santa Clarans were talking about the next day after saying so long to Geisdorff, who’d joined them in the morning circle blessing (Popalisky lit the ceremonial stick, wrapped in medicinal mugwort leaves, presented to the group as a parting gift). Geisdorff said, “I hope the Creator blesses you in your journeys.”

They ascended into the Sierras to Groveland, where they dug into graywater reclamation issues with Regina Hirsch of the Mountain Sage Nursery. A day off to chill, then onward to Yosemite. As they approached the valley in the days to come, they saw a California Sister butterfly, and smelled pearly everlasting flowers, incense cedar, and purple lupine.
 

Arrival: “It will change your life.”

Flow, river, flow: Through the heart of Yosemite Valley. Photo by Robert Boscacci

“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” said strapping Russell Wetherley. A member of SCU’s varsity crew team, he was describing the vast panorama visible from Half Dome, which he’d just climbed with Diana Bustos ’11, a recent grad who studied arts and urban education, and who shared the chaperoning duties and doubled as videographer. They were getting hugs and high-fives from their traveling buds, who’d spent the past two days in Yosemite Valley exploring on their own.

Late the next afternoon, with Half Dome in the distance and sun flickering through golden aspen leaves, Wetherley performed his Walk Across California poems, including a potent ode to Stockton. Olivia Li ’15, a business major, read a poem about graffiti she’d seen in west Oakland—told from the point of view of the inner-city kids who’d written it—and another about generosity.

“If you want to do something challenging, take this class,” Li said later that evening, when the class gathered one last time before Lum lit up Curry Village with his swirling gloves.

Wetherley agreed: “It will change your life.” He also acknowledged that when he first read about the course, it sounded like a hippie class. But, he said, weeks and hundreds of miles later, “This is as real as it gets.”

Borst conveyed those feelings, as well as the exhilarating swing of walking and the reverence that Yosemite inspires, in the soulful violin improvisation she performed along the Merced as a family of mergansers floated past. Environmental sciences major Ian McCluskey ’15, a veteran camper and hiker, offered an evocative and funny rap on the journey. Popalisky also sang, with dramatic flair, a delightful Walk Across California song, which touched warmly on everyone in the group. “Together we did it,” he concluded, “we blessed this space.”

What else did they do? They learned, as Boscacci said, how to move at what seems a snail’s pace—“which is really our natural pace.” They learned, as Borst said, many small things: how to get blisters on new parts of your feet, and the quantity of rocks and roadkill between San Francisco and Yosemite. They learned, as Bloyd said, how little time it took to be outdoors for hours each day and see that manifested on one’s skin—“because the body has its memory.” And, she said, “I was doing this supposedly incredible thing. But what was incredible was the place around me, and that dwarfed my tiny steps. And I felt that many times.”

There, at the culmination of the journey, Popalisky teared up.

“They did everything I could’ve hoped for,” he said. “They spoke with confidence and love, and expressed things they discovered about themselves and about this great state.”

They also cultivated a sense of wonder and caught stories they never could have imagined. Many have recognized that it has changed them profoundly, though exactly how is something still unfolding.

Would they do it again? Someone will. Another Walk Across California is planned for 2014.

Moonshadow: Bedtime in the Stanislaus National Forest. Photo by Robert Boscacci

 

Additional photos from the walk

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