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Stanford grad student walking 320 miles in John Muir's footsteps

Alex McInturff, a 23-year-old earth sciences student, finds that much has changed as he retraces the conservationist's trek from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley in 1868.

May 09, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

MERCED COUNTY, CALIF. — The rangy young hiker trudged along the narrow shoulder of Pacheco Pass. Trucks clanked loudly by, close enough to make his baggy pant legs flap in their wake. Grit blew. Trash swirled.

And the smells! Car exhaust. Smoking tires. Overheated clutches.

When you walk in John Muir's footsteps, it's not supposed to be like this.

"Every car that passes you has a different sound, and you wonder which one will be the death knell," Alex McInturff said as he walked along California 152, hiking poles bristling from his loaded-down pack.

The night he crested Pacheco's summit, his dreams were filled with flashing images and "the same kind of anxiety I felt during the day as the cars went by."

What a difference a century or so makes. In the spring of 1868, Muir landed in San Francisco and walked to Yosemite Valley -- the famed conservationist's first ramble through the Golden State.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
John Muir's trek: A map accompanying an article in Saturday's Section A about a Stanford University graduate student who is retracing the conservationist's 1868 trek from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley misspelled Millerton Lake as Mullerton Lake.

Muir called Pacheco "this rich garden pass" and enthused in an 1872 essay that it dropped him into a Central Valley that resembled "one flowerbed, nearly four hundred miles in length by thirty in width . . . bounded by the mountains on which we stood, and by the lofty, snow-capped Sierra Nevada."

The 320-mile hike is believed to have been replicated only once before McInturff strapped on his backpack in San Francisco and hit the road April 6. The goal of the Stanford University earth sciences graduate student is to see how California manages open space from its most picturesque city to its most famous park.

McInturff, 23, hopes to reach his destination early next week. But even by the midpoint in his nearly six-week journey, a few things had become abundantly clear: Much of Muir's garden "of peerless grandeur" has given way to vineyards, orchards and row crops. Smog and dust obscure the Sierra Nevada.

Government agencies and private organizations struggle to maintain the largest remaining swath of wetlands in inland California. And, in a state renowned for backcountry trekking, it's now awfully hard to hike the beaten path.

Legal campsites are few and far apart. Parks and preserves aren't linked by trails. Maps don't tell a hiker everything. (Where in East Oakland is it safe to walk?) And with all due respect to Google, not all of California has been scrutinized by cartographers. (Do you turn right or left at that windmill in the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge?)

Gone are the days when a camper as blithe as Muir -- one friend wrote that the naturalist "knew less about camping than almost any man I have ever camped with" -- could walk for nearly two months across California with a plan like this:

"We had plenty of time and proposed drifting leisurely mountainward . . . by any road that we chanced to find; enjoying the flowers and light, 'camping out' in our blankets wherever overtaken by night, and paying very little compliance to roads or times."

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McInturff spent a year plotting his adventure -- the route that might approximate Muir's, the places to sleep, the people to interview about the California landscape, the occasional ride for a side trip, the libraries whose Internet access would allow him to post to his blog. (McInturff's entries can be found at www.muirwalk.blogspot.)

He borrowed a one-man tent from his dad and a backpack from a friend. He packed one extra shirt, two pairs of socks, a rain shell and a first-aid kit that would be tapped regularly for blister relief.

Itineraries, directions and phone numbers were tucked into a Ziploc bag for protection from storms. McInturff brought a journal for observations and a well-worn copy of "Paradise Lost," a nod to Muir, who traveled with Milton's masterwork. McInturff also carried Muir's account of his California transect, an exuberant paean to the natural beauty of "the Great Central Plain."

Today, the Central Valley struggles with rampant growth, choking smog and high rates of poverty, unemployment and foreclosures. Even Muir rued that the region's charms are "fading like the glow of a sunset, -- foundering in the grossness of modern refinement."

But he was so awed by the profusion of wildflowers that he marked off a square yard and counted them. He found 7,262 in bloom, some purple, others a "pure, deep, bossy solar gold, as if the sun had filled their rays and flowerets with the undiluted substance of his very self."

Granted, McInturff was trekking a few weeks past full bloom, but on the busier byways of western Merced County in late April, about halfway through the trip, it was easier to catalog garbage than gold fields.

Heading east on California 152 before taking a sharp left on California 33 toward Gustine, McInturff scouted the highway's shoulder. Since leaving home, he had stumbled on a new Samsung cellphone and passed a generous scattering of mattresses.

"Some of the things look almost placed," he said, musing over the artistry of found objects. "A plastic thing of laundry detergent next to a plastic thing of whey protein, perfectly parallel."

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