Hurtling Toward The Range of Light
A cross-California bike-packing ramble follows in the footsteps of the original conservationist, John Muir.
IN MY EXPERIENCE, most journeys worthy of the name begin not so much with that first step prescribed by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, as with a series of trivial delays and procrastinations followed—finally, when there is no other option—by a mad dash. And so it was that on a clear Sunday morning in late June, in the company of an unflappable photographer named Osceola (after the famous mixed-blood Seminole war chief), I found myself sprinting through the streets of San Francisco on my old hard-tail mountain bike, with full camping and cooking kit and a week's supposed essentials in tow, harrowingly late for the Oakland Ferry. We leapt curbs and ran four-way stops, greatly exceeding the top speed recommended for our new cargo trailers. Finding Market Street closed to traffic for a parade—the sidewalks thronged from Castro to the Ferry Building—we blew past the traﬃc police and pedaled straight down the gullet of the route, cheered on by the crowds as though we were the warm-up entertainment. We hit the gate just as the boat was backpedaling in from its first cross-bay run, a lucky three minutes behind schedule.
Our plan was to ride our bikes across California, from San Francisco to Yosemite, following, as much as possible, the roads and trails John Muir had rambled along when he first made his way to the Sierra Nevada in the spring of 1868. We wanted to explore—and experience first-hand—the changes in the landscape. We wanted to see what was left, if anything, of “the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness” that Muir (like Thoreau before him) had hoped would be the salvation of the world. But also—and perhaps even more importantly—we wanted to travel as Muir had: free and unfettered, driven only by curiosity, listening to the birds and chatting idly with whatever characters we might meet along the way. Unfortunately, where Muir had allowed himself seven weeks to reach Yosemite, “drifting leisurely mountainward… by any road that [he] chanced to find; enjoying the flowers and light, ‘camping out’ in [his] blankets wherever overtaken by night and paying very little compliance to roads or times,” the most we’d been able to wrangle was seven days.
It was “about the first of April” when Muir stepped off a crowded Panama steamer in the Port of San Francisco. He would go on to become famous in his own time, and a legend in ours, as the scraggly-bearded Scot who regularly sauntered into the high country with nothing but a crust of bread and a handful of tea, who showed Ralph Waldo Emerson the “Range of Light” and hard-sold Teddy Roosevelt on the concept of national parks. He would be a founder and first president of the Sierra Club, and in volume after volume of fervently descriptive prose would articulate a kind of deep metaphysics of wilderness that continues to drive and inspire nature lovers and conservationists worldwide. But that first spring in California, nigh upon his 30th birthday, he was just a young man with no particular prospects, a bright-eyed tramp with a plant press, a notebook and a pocket map exploring the world.
Having no interest in the booming City by the Bay, his first action was to inquire of a passerby the quickest way out of town. “But where do you want to go?” the man asked. “To any place that is wild,” replied Muir. “This reply startled him,” Muir would remember later, describing a reaction with which we, too, would become familiar (“To Yosemite? On a bicycle?!”). “He seemed to fear I might be crazy and therefore the sooner I was out of town the better, so he directed me to the Oakland ferry.”
And so we left that clapboard city of high-seas winds and fog, more or less as Muir had, left the street-art hipsters and megaphone evangelists, the hamand-Gruyère pop tarts and “significant” ice cream flavors—and landed in Oakland’s Jack London Square. (So long New York. Howdy East Orange.) There was nothing terribly significant—culturally, geographically or otherwise—in our own brief passage across the bay. But as we posed for snapshots with bedazzled parade-goers and answered the first in a long series of questions with regard to our provenance and destination, we began to feel a shift in perspective. We were now outside of normal time and routine. We were on a journey, self-propelled and self-supported, rambling in the grand American tradition of which Muir was a prominent co-founder. The entire world was before us. And all we had to do—assuming we had it in us—was to sit in the saddle for 50 miles a day and pedal.
In 1868, the conventional route from San Francisco to Yosemite was by steamboat to Stockton, followed by another 16 hours’ hard travel by stage (with multiple changes of horses) to Coulterville. From there, it was three or more days on horseback up into the famed Yosemite Valley. These days, the most direct route (I-580 E to CA-120 E)—the one Google Maps recommends—runs less than 200 miles nearly due east along a reliable course of gas stations, big-box stores and In-n-Out Burgers, and takes about four hours in a car. True to form, Muir added more than 100 miles to the trip, first meandering southward between the bay and the Diablo Range, all the way to Gilroy, thence over Pacheco Pass to the San Joaquin Valley, and from there up along the Merced River to Coulterville. Luckily for us, a pair of artisan bookbinders from Santa Cruz, Peter and Donna Thomas, had retraced Muir’s route in 2006—calling it the “Muir Ramble Route,” or MRR—making numerous detours to avoid freeways, oﬃce parks and other radical changes in the landscape, and to seek the wildest way. It took them 34 days to cover the route on foot, and four years to publish their detailed walking directions. Theirs, it went without saying, was the route we would take.
Finding a farmers market in full swing at our trailhead, beside Jack London’s original Klondike cabin (moved from the Yukon to Oakland in 1970), we couldn’t help but linger overlong, savoring our newfound rambledom. We bought asparagus, cherries, fresh linguine and pesto, a hunk of crusty wheat bread and, in honor of Jack London’s time in the Far North (and John Muir’s before that), a good slab of smoked salmon. The cherries went into my handlebar bag for snacking, the rest into the dry-bag on the trailer for that evening’s feast, wrapped in a plastic sack with a nugget of dry ice. Then, finally, we plugged into our respective soundtracks—Osceola’s a world of “70’s funk funk,” mine leaning more toward Dylan and Townes Van Zandt and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot—and rolled out along the railroad tracks.
Southward we rode, in and out of industrial backstreets, down long, flat glory-sections of officially-designated Bay Trail—paved or gravel paths through regional shoreline parks and pocket wildlife refuges, along drainage channels, sloughs, salt ponds and wetlands in varying states of restoration.
We learned to follow the Thomases’ directions at about 10 times the speed intended. We saw feral cats and avocets, stacks of rusted flatbed trailers, dredging rigs and driving ranges, herons and blackbirds and Canadian geese. Along the sidewalks and chainlink fences grew wild proliferations of mustard and fennel. There were softball games and barbecues, kites, families out for strolls along the breakwaters speaking languages from all over the world, and kids learning to ride bikes without training wheels.
“All this used to be fields,” a local San Leandro man explained to his son, pausing beside a newly installed interpretive sign about migratory shorebirds. For years, the Port of Oakland had been dumping fill into the marshes here, between the Oakland Coliseum and the airport. “People used to bring dogs out here to hunt rabbits.
But then, as they say, progress.” In 1986, the Sierra Club brought suit and earned a judgment of $2.5 million to restore the estuary, now an important stopover for shorebirds on the Pacific Flyway. The air was filled with the distant rush of the Nimitz freeway and the wail of train engines. The man looked out across the wetlands. “But this is nice,” he added, “that they did this.”
On the south end of a place called Union City, we were forced to halt briefly while a Mexican cowboy, on foot and backlit by the setting sun, drove a herd of cattle down off one of the many flood-control levees that keep the San Francisco Bay and its estuaries out of the fields and neighborhoods. We bedded down that night on a pair of picnic tables in Coyote Hills Regional Park on the site of an old dairy farm dating back to Muir’s time, still less than 30 miles from the ferry dock in Oakland.