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Nick Neely | Alta California | Counterpoint | November 2019 | 49 minutes (9,706 words)

Evening approached as I strolled west, back toward the ocean, past San Luis Rey’s trailer parks and down the river levee’s bike path, vaguely looking for a place to camp or simply reassurance that there would be a place to camp if I walked a few more miles. The river channel was a bottomland of scrub, deadwood, and patches of sand, with larger cottonwoods shivering, a revelation of groundwater. Hard to imagine a flood in this dry land that would warrant a levee of this size, but history must justify it. Several figures in a culvert raised my guard as I first approached the levee, but it was only three kids with their pit bull, sharing a joint.

In the distance, parachutists were swinging in descent. Camp Pendleton marines, I thought at first, but the base was north of the river, beyond a ridge. These were just civilians falling toward the Oceanside Municipal Airport for a thrill and the evening view. On Benet Road I crossed the river, seeing on my phone’s screen another dotted line, a trail, one that might be less traveled. Maybe I could camp there. Past the driveway to Prince of Peace Abbey, past a scrapyard with battered cars piled up, I came to a sign where the road dead-ended: No Trespassing — Area Patrolled. A man was changing the oil of his old vehicle just there. When I asked if anybody went down that way, his mumbles were unintelligible, but my impression was, No, it was a bad idea. A semitruck idled nearby with its driver hidden behind tinted glass. Feeling a little desperate, I turned around.

Back near Benet, I scrambled down an embankment, away from the river, into a weedy triangle of meadow at the mouth of a minor canyon, and I waded toward an unruly stand of what looked like bamboo, hugely tall, segmented, dusty to the touch. Inside this thicket were low caves you could walk through hunched, a warren of cane tunnels. I thought about pitching my tent inside one of these caverns, but they were dim, and claustrophobia set in. Unsettled, nearby I found a patch of ground between some bamboo and giant fennel, stalks my height with yellow umbels. Again too nervous to set up my tent, at last light I laid out my pad and bag and put my lime-green earplugs in, rolling them delicately between my fingers. The world dampened. Very quickly I had learned that earplugs were essential urban camping gear, suppressing the restless engines and guttural compression brakes, the choruses of dogs and the distant trains. At the same time, they made me feel more vulnerable.

Sometime after dark I heard a man’s voice and pulled the foam from my ears, kneeling in my sleep bag. Was he wandering toward me? Car doors opening and closing. Muffled voices. After about five minutes, I relaxed. Through the wind, I heard a man say, “Obama’s not such a bad president, if you really think about it.” Which put me at some ease. Then later, “Oh yeah, this is mountain lion country. . . . They’re the apex predator.” Pablo Tac told of a cougar in Mission San Luis Rey’s horse pasture: “Here too the workmen found a California lion . . . and because they were many, the lion was afraid of them and the cries which they let out following it. It ran leaping here and there around the pasture. The Indians hidden behind the trees threw stones at it until one struck the middle of the forehead and it soon weakened, falling. He then died.” But I was less scared of a mountain lion than of a couple of humans stumbling upon me.

I was less scared of a mountain lion than of a couple of humans stumbling upon me.

The voices didn’t come closer. They only faded in and out with the breeze and my own pulse. In the darkness, an impressive drill within Camp Pendleton then came to my ears: the whomp whomp of choppers, the boom of shells or noisemakers. It was like hearing a war over the ridge, though I have no way of really knowing what war sounds like beyond movies and news clips. Lying on my pad, I imagined young marines on belay or running through the sage with night-vision goggles. They were negotiating their nerves, like me. Did this happen every night? Were they about to charge over the ridge? Yet the noises closest at hand were equally startling. Several times I awoke when rodents rustled in the dry cane. A rabbit, I believe, flashed once in the moonlight that silhouetted the stalks above me like inside-out, shredded umbrellas.

In the morning, bushtits, my friends, filtered through the fennel and cane over my sleeping bag as I opened my eyes — a rambling flock of about a hundred, though it is always impossible to count these rapid gray Lilliputians. I watched as they bathed in the dew beaded on the bamboo leaves, then shimmied and puffed their downy undercoats in the sunlight. I studied their eyes: the males have golden irises, the females all dark. Also saw or heard yellow chat, house finches, goldfinches, warbling vireo, California towhees, and a fox sparrow. Nearby, a dozen beehives to capitalize on the fennel. When I walked out of the weeds, a jeep and a sedan were double-parked in a pullout along the meadow, their doors cracked for air. Inside was a tangle of blankets, heads, and shoulders. Other people camping here for lack of a better option. Those voices.

* * *

Five miles down the San Luis Rey River bike path, on Oceanside Beach, I saw a bird perched on a post, but when I raised my binoculars, it was a lost flip-flop. An aircraft carrier floated on the horizon, probably nuclear powered and with over five thousand personnel. An Osprey — a hybrid helicopter-plane — was flying loose circles around it. Camp Pendleton was hosting a monthlong international war game, I learned, the biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercise, which explained the barrage of noise overnight. Units from Canada, Mexico, and Chile were on hand to train, strengthening cooperation between allies. I could see smoke rising from the guns of the carrier below its control tower: phantom enemies, out there somewhere.

Brown pelicans soared low, classic, in formation until each peeled off from their V, one by one. Parents were doing their honest best to defend their kids’ skin with mists of spray-on sunscreen. Through it all, you could hear the Osprey reverberating, and I began to wonder if rotors and warships meant something quite different to those who live on the San Diego Coast, something more like beach volleyball. On Oceanside Pier, which stretches nearly two thousand feet into the Pacific, a fisher in a hoodie sat on a pail eating a dripping mango as he waited for sand shark. He’d caught one recently with store-bought shrimp. South of the pier, grandstands and tents had been erected for one of the world’s largest women’s surf contests, the Paul Mitchell Supergirl Pro. I had missed it by one day, but some of the women had arrived to practice. They stretched on the beach before throwing themselves into the waves. I leaned on the pier’s fish-gut railing to watch as they studied the waves’ particularities, found their timing before tomorrow’s heats, with sun-fried hair that might have caused Paul Mitchell to turn a one-eighty in his grave. They gouged the ocean, gliding to a feathering crest before snapping their hips to cut the other direction, “rail to rail,” from one edge of their boards to the other. They were writing on the fleeting page of the ocean, staying ahead of collapse.

* * *

I had just stepped off the beach, readying to head north before I ran out of daylight, when I heard a commotion across the reedy mouth of the San Luis Rey River impounded behind sand. A dozen or so young men were jogging slowly, exclaiming and chanting with feathered staffs lifted in the breeze. They were headed for the breaker, and I turned back, wondering what this gathering could be about. Clearly it was tribal. They beat me to the shore, where they left their sneakers and socks and waded into the shallows up to their shins. Surfers bobbed beyond them. Over the onrush and sibilance of the froth, they said “Ho!” as they turned to face each direction with their scepters: skyward to honor the heavens, then down at the shallows to honor the water, and finally toward the beach to honor the earth.

A woman named Kimmy, in oval shades and with swaying brown hair, explained this to me as we watched. She was Apache, but many tribes, she said, were represented, including Luiseño. I had encountered the Peace and Dignity Run. These guys were running as a group—relay-style, a mile or two per leg — from Alaska to Panama, where they would meet other Indigenous runners who had begun in Tierra del Fuego. “This fulfills the eagle and the condor prophecy,” one runner told me. “When they meet in the land of the quetzal, there will be peace on earth.” It is a prophecy forever waiting to be fulfilled, since the relay has occurred every four years, on an Olympic schedule, since 1992.

Several of these men were so dedicated as to go the whole way. They had started in May. Others had joined for only a few days or just an afternoon. They were sleeping in community centers and on hardwood gym floors. They had spent the night at Mission San Luis Rey. I asked Kimmy where she had started. “I started just over there, in the parking lot!” she said with a laugh. “I have my kids, and I have a lot of health issues. But I told my daughter, in four years I’m going to do it with them.”

When the runners left the waves, a circle formed on the sand and, to my surprise, I was invited to join.

When the runners left the waves, a circle formed on the sand and, to my surprise, I was invited to join. I was reluctant, but they insisted. My intuition was to observe rather than participate, but how could I say no? Taking part, when invited, is better for the soul. Mel Vernon, captain of the San Luis Rey Band of Luiseño Indians, lit a sage bundle with his orange lighter, and a young woman smudged us in turn, clockwise around the circle. She drew circles around my face and down each of my freckled limbs, as if conjuring an invisible figure before me. The smoke unwound on the breeze, pungent and brief. She turned me around and smudged my back, tapping me on the shoulder when she had finished. It would take her the whole ceremony to smudge everyone in the circle.

Mel greeted us briefly. He was not a chief, but a volunteer. “If it were paid,” he later told me, “people would have beat me out for the position long ago.” He had kicked off his sandals and his gray ponytail spilled from a red ball cap. “Thank you all for being here,” he said. “Whoever put the ocean here had a good idea. The Creator! Back when he was doing things the right way. When water was pure, and fish were safe. This was the highway for our people, the river” — Kimmy had mentioned that, once, canoes could travel inland to the mission — “and it’s just an honor to be a part of what you’re doing with the Peace and Dignity walk, and what that represents. This is a wonderful thing for our tribe, and an acknowledgment of our culture.”

Many others stepped forward:

“My name is Emerson. I’m Diné, Navajo. This run had a little bit more meaning for me, because Camp Pendleton was my home for eight years. This was a very powerful run for me. I felt like I had warriors around me, running with me.”

“My name is Randall. I don’t think any of us could have imagined a more perfect place to end our day than in the water, where we could reach down and touch the second of the four sacred elements. And just the hospitality that we’ve been shown. Some of us started in Alaska. We are almost three months into a seven-and-a-half-month run. The only thing that surpassed the beauty of nature that we ran through was the generosity of the communities that we went through.”

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“My name is Willy. I wanted to say that I had a vision once in which Jesus Christ, our Lord, came to me, and he said, ‘It’s good that you believe in me, but don’t discredit your ancestors, because they gave their life just like I gave my life for my people.’”

Finally the visitor was asked to introduce himself. I took a deep breath, because I was afraid or even a little ashamed to say that I was following in the footsteps of the Spanish, though my project was wholly different from theirs. I couldn’t bring myself to do it in the moment. I hedged in front of the group:

“My name is Nick. I just started walking from San Diego to San Francisco, so I guess I’m going the wrong direction. It’s great to run into some fellow walkers, runners . . . whatever mode of transportation you take. Thank you for inviting me into the circle. I’m glad to have been on this beach. And yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the mission. It was a humbling experience to learn of the hardships there, and also of the triumphs.”

“Fresh legs!” yelled Emerson.

“Not that fresh!” I replied.

The runners rolled out four blankets of various sizes in the middle of the circle and, below them, a little altar was fashioned: a conch shell, a rattle, a dish of cut glass filled with ocean, and a spotted gourd. After everyone had spoken, the men began to retire their staffs. Each was laid on a blanket, and some of the carriers turned a circle before doing so. There are circles within circles within circles. “We’re all one,” another runner told me, to explain why he participated. “We bleed the same.” Decorated with ribbons and beads, each staff had been gifted to the runners by a different tribal nation during the journey. The most captivating was a length of skeletal cholla cactus wound with a desiccated gopher snake, a version of the Rod of Asclepius, that emblem of healing and medicine. The blankets were bundled and tied. They would be unrolled tomorrow morning, for the next leg, but I would be miles north by then if I could pass through Camp Pendleton.

* * *

The Portolá party had to veer around seaside mountains, and I would have to veer around military bases. I knew from the start that Camp Pendleton would be an early roadblock, so I had called ahead to see about receiving permission to pass through. For three days, the expedition had traveled from the San Luis Rey Valley through the heart of what’s now the Camp over rolling sagebrush hills and through canyons that impressed Crespí. He named them Santa Margarita and Santa Praxedes; he was mainly in the business of naming valleys, not mountains, which were of little use. “Of all the places we have been coming across, not one is bad,” he wrote. “I have greatly enjoyed viewing the beauty.”

I reached the camp historian finally, and she kindly helped arrange a tour. Walking through the base was another matter. I had half imagined being escorted along the roadside by a disbelieving marine, but no tax dollars were devoted to this. You can apply to bicycle through Camp Pendleton’s southwestern, coastal portion, but Portolá’s route was inland, and I didn’t have a bike, and I wasn’t sure I could ride with a heavy backpack on. That could end badly in a ditch or on the grill of a Humvee. Highway 101 dashes through the Camp, but California Highway Patrol would pick me up if I tried to stroll those eight miles. Nor can you travel the beach; you would have to sneak through something called Assault Craft Unit 5. Maybe there is some way to walk this stretch, but I took the expedient, less honorable route. I walked to the I-5 on-ramp near the Camp’s south gate and, with a few swipes of a finger, hailed a car. Portolá did not have that luxury. But he did have a horse. My incredulous driver ferried me eight miles to the next exit at Las Pulgas Canyon and left me under an overpass.

It was another ten miles or so to San Onofre Bluffs Campground on the old coast highway, also technically through the base, though outside its main gates. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I was allowed to walk this stretch either, but several cyclists reassured me, and soon I relaxed and stopped glancing over my shoulder for a detail of black cars. Off to my right, a two-thousand-acre brush fire had erupted over the brown hills in the Camp, no doubt ignited by one of those military exercises, which often include live fire of blank ordinances, and I thought about how the Luiseños, before they were Luiseños, would have seared this ground regularly. “Over most of this march we found it burnt off by the heathens,” Crespí wrote, a refrain in his journals.

Tribes throughout California tended the landscape by setting yearly fires. Along the coast, lightning strikes and ignitions are rare compared with other parts of the West, so normally coastal sage scrub and chaparral torch only once every few decades. This relative stability allows the shrubs to reestablish dense, climatic stands that, from a foraging perspective, are less fruitful than grassland. They’re also thorny. Coastal natives came to depend on the seeds, foliage, fruits, and bulbs of the herbaceous annuals, which, after a fire, quadruple in diversity to capitalize on the newly cleared space and rich ash. In particular chia seeds, Salvia columbariae, were prized, and, pound for pound, this grain delivers five times more fat than other grasses and three times more than acorns, which are also less reliable. All along their journey, Portolá and his company were presented with baskets of gruel or porridge made from chia or other minute kernels that existed in bulk only because California’s natives set blazes, creating a mosaic of grassland and shrub. This tending-by-fire was so rewarding, so nutritious, that it may be why agriculture didn’t develop in California. History shows that typically it would have among such a sizable population, but there was no need.

This tending-by-fire was so rewarding, so nutritious, that it may be why agriculture didn’t develop in California.

Now flame was racing in the nowhere of Camp Pendleton. Behind the foothills, which had generous firebreaks plowed on their shoulders like long epaulets, the dull-orange and jaundiced smoke mushroomed and roiled into the troposphere with an intensity and alacrity that, from this distance, looked soft and leisurely. I spooked once when a muscular helicopter whomped down the coast and hovered nearly overhead to land on a bluff-top pad, for training I guess. A peloton in its Technicolor jerseys whirred through a tunnel under I-5 that framed a metallic blue, a raw oval of ocean, and I followed it. Soon this old highway emptied out at the San Onofre Bluffs Campground, where I descended one of its famous paths, Trail 6, and walked the kelp-laced cobble, the shore’s original road, until, cold and worn as a beach stone, I climbed again at dusk with heavy thighs and found the campsite number I’d reserved. It was across from a Highway Patrol checkpoint, its floodlights blazing all night. De facto, Camp Pendleton’s two hundred square miles are one last defense against smuggling and undocumented immigration, though it’s far from the Mexican border. At least by foot. Maybe that’s why it’s impossible to walk this lovely coast from Oceanside.

* * *

A California thrasher the shade of the bluffs drank through its decurved bill from a morning puddle, maybe my own, below the outdoor shower, its gullet pulsing. When a train passed along the highway, the bird danced a nervous circle, head tall, but returned to crouch and sip until my neighbor’s pit bull puppy, Juno, flushed it into the chaparral. Juno, get back here! Juno! At nine, Richard, my guide, picked me up at Trails, as San Onofre Bluffs is better known, in his Jeep Grand Cherokee. It was surprisingly satisfying, cathartic, to again throw my pack into a back seat. An easy talker, Richard had a chalk-white beard and mustache around full lips, a black felt cowboy hat, and a white vest over a blue checkered shirt. His teak bolo tie was inlaid with turquoise. He was a former marine, but had never been based at Camp Pendleton, though he had been discharged there in 1967 after three years of service: “I said, ‘I’ll see you guys later.’” As we drove, he rattled off the famous breaks nearby that fell under the umbrella name of Trestles — Lowers, Middles, Uppers, Cottons, Church. Surfers had to park a fair hike from the beach and carry their boards underarm, a second pair of arms swaying at their waists like neoprene shadows. “I mean, this is world-class stuff,” said Richard. He’d become a Camp Pendleton docent five years ago and almost never gave solo tours. “I was real skeptical, too. I said, ‘I’m not going to give a tour to one guy.’ Then I said, ‘Well, who is this guy?’ And I looked you up. Ah, you’re serious. You’re rocking and rolling.” I told him I wasn’t so sure. “No, you are. So I said to my wife, ‘I’ve got to show this guy around.’”

“Do you have an ID, just in case?” Richard asked as we drifted up to Camp Pendleton’s north gate and stopped in front of a marine with a camouflage cap riding high on his shaved head. I reached for my wallet.

“Good morning, Corporal, how you doing?” said Richard, flashing his credential.

“I’m living the dream.”

We laughed. “That’s good, buddy,” Richard said. “Have a great day. These guys . . . living the dream . . .”

He turned up some classical music as we turned left, up Cristianitos Canyon. It was on this day, July 22, that Crespí and the expedition’s second padre, Father Gómez, performed the first baptism in Alta California here in this canyon. A white wooden cross ten feet in height marked the pullout, and I assumed that was the entire commemoration. But Richard began to crunch down a gravel path lined with white painted stones. “Where are we headed?” I asked. “We’re headed down to the actual site,” Richard replied. The path took us past glossy manzanita and down concrete steps to the base of the river terrace, where there was of course a dry gravel wash. As the steps ended, we entered a glen of sycamore and willow. “There’s the well they had, supposedly,” said Richard, pointing. It looked like a campfire ring of river stones, only filled with the wrong element. The baptismal font sat on bare dirt beneath a wooden roof that the marines had built on two posts to keep off the rain, leaves, and sun.

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

The Portolá party had camped lower in the canyon at “a middling-sized pool of very good fresh water at a dry creek,” which Crespí dubbed the stream of San Apolinario. “On our reaching this spot,” he continues in his journal, “the scouting soldiers told us that they had seen yesterday a girl infant in arms who was dying. We requested the Governor for two or three soldiers to go with us, and then we two Fathers went to the village to try to see this infant in arms and baptize her if she was in danger.” The padres would have walked up the valley Richard and I had just driven, the hem of their robes fragrant with the sage and swishing through long grass. “We did find her in her mother’s arms, scarcely able to nurse, but the mother would not in any wise let us see her. We gave her to understand, as well as we could, that we did not wish to harm the child, only to wash its head with water, so that if it died it would go to Heaven. As well as he could with her clutched to her mother’s breast, Father Fray Francisco Gómez baptized her; she was named Maria Magdalena, and I have no doubt that she will die and that in passing by we have won this soul’s passage to Heaven.” It was the feast day of Mary Magdalene, the apostle of apostles who stood by the Crucifixion and witnessed the Resurrection.

Imagine the terror of this Juaneño woman: her daughter, barely hers, is on the cusp of death, and she is being asked to hand the child over to utter strangers, their pale skin an anomaly or possibly a disease. They gesture that they want to trickle water over her. That this will send her to the sky. In this both tender and invasive moment, California begins to tip. The land itself goes through a small rite that honors one culture at the expense of another.

Imagine the terror of this Juaneño woman: her daughter, barely hers, is on the cusp of death, and she is being asked to hand the child over to utter strangers, their pale skin an anomaly or possibly a disease.

“Whoa,” I said to Richard, “that’s some undrinkable water.” The contents of the font were as pink and viscous as strawberry yogurt, thick with cyanobacteria or some maroon algae. The former, I’d guess. It was a red tide welling up. You could not look into it without thinking of the blood of California’s natives, soaked in the alluvia of this creek, and of the blood of Christ, which swept through this region to bury them. The dappled ovals of light that poured around the sycamore leaves played across the well’s glossy surface. My own shadow moved at its edge when I leaned over to look in. Three gray, half-polished river stones rested at its bottom, fallen or pushed in from the well’s gap-toothed rim. On the bank above us, about fifteen feet away, grew a single ornamental rose as if it had drawn this red water directly into its petals.

Who had built this rustic stoup? Richard didn’t know, but we imagined it might have been stacked and mortared before the ranch became Camp Pendleton in 1942. Old concrete steps and chunks of wall were half-buried under leaf litter and sycamore root. “The water is still here,” said Richard, “there’s still water underneath.” All this green testified to that; it was a refreshing bower, a place where several e’waas might have stood to avoid the summer light, and maybe a seep had been dug then. “God, what great trees, aren’t they?” said Richard in a high-pitched hush, looking upward past the felt of his brim. “Oh man, wow. Gosh.” He was reveling in the breeze, the simmer of leaves on petiole. We were both imagining what it would have been like to be here, in a village, in 1769, under these sycamores. “Ah man, God,” said Richard, “that baby is huge.” He whistled quietly, shwoo. We estimated that one tree was a hundred feet tall, circled in places with sapsucker holes, where the woodpeckers would harvest insects drawn to the sweet stickiness of the wells they had made. We could hear, but hardly see, lesser goldfinches in the canopy’s motions.

Through the willows of the gravel wash, out in the mown field of the valley that no doubt was once cultivated with lima beans, you could see the plain beige boxes of mock dwellings — “combat placements,” Richard explained, with dark empty doorways and windows. The marines use them for training. They would storm these huts imagining themselves in Desert Storm, leaning against the jamb with their rifles tucked upright to their pounding chests before swinging into the opening, barrel first, clearing one structure after another. Scattered in clusters throughout Camp Pendleton, they can’t help but evoke the e’waas that once were here. Yet they stand in contrast: sharp lines and edges, all drywall, more Lego than woven dome. Crespí and Gómez stood on this ground. Their uniform was of the cloth, not of the military, whose camouflage now steals its design, it seems to me, from the bark of a sycamore. But the distinction is tenuous. When the padres visited this Juaneño village with a guard of soldiers, they were also going door to door, searching and converting. They were the first. Portolá’s soldiers gave this place the alternate name of la Cañada del Bautismo.

Before we left, I wondered aloud about the font’s depth. “Let’s see if I can get a stick,” said Richard, but I found a suitable one first, a sycamore poker. Bubbles rose as I prodded the mud below this anoxic soup, only a few inches deep — an act that, I realize now, might have been a touch sacrilegious. “Oh, it’s stinky,” I said.

“Ohh,” said Richard. “I bet it is. Oh man.”

“You wouldn’t want to be baptized in that now,” I said.

Richard guffawed. We imagined this pink slime running down our foreheads. “No way, man, no way,” said Richard.

* * *

We drove south on San Mateo and Basilone Roads, two days back in time by the measure of Portolá’s progress. Past 62 Area, with its barracks of beige cinder block and brick-red sheet metal that reminded me of college dorms. Several dozen recruits, “new boots,” stood in rows. Retired tanks were on display like boulders washed out of the mountains. Roadside obstacle courses, ropes to ascend and logs to hurdle. We passed a lap pool with a high dive that, in this heat, almost looked inviting. “They do a lot of training there,” said Richard. “It’s not fun. You got a whole pack and gear, and you got your rifle, and they shove you off that high deal. You land like a rock, man, and you gotta try and survive. Oh, it’s a bitch! God, I remember it really well.”

We sailed by an elaborate training complex that posed as several blocks of a Middle Eastern city, dropped out of the blue. Richard told me it was wired with cameras so a session could be replayed, the way a football team studies postgame footage. “It’s so they can critique a guy and say, ‘Hey man, you just killed thirteen people in that hut. You killed them all, and they were civilians.’ It’s that kind of training that saves lives.” Sometimes actors are even hired so that soldiers have to negotiate a busy town or chaotic market street. Women sidle up to distract the marines in a foreign tongue; other performers carry baskets and plastic water jugs. There are food carts with fake kebabs on the grill. There are sheep mannequins for good measure. After mock bombs go off, and insurgent gunfire rings out, casualties are staged and these actors become an angry crowd that must be pacified and controlled. The dream is peacekeeping, but from another angle, it is pretend invasion and colonialism.

We rolled over these parched hills, “out upon tablelands very clad in dry grass, save a few wild prickly pears and sagebrush,” as Crespí wrote. Past bulldozed firebreaks a hundred feet wide that ran up ridges with pockets of oak in their folds, and past blackened tracts where only cactus had survived a burn. Tough, scorching land for vaqueros or marines. “This is nothing compared to Afghanistan,” said Richard. “It’s got humidity, a hundred twenty-five degrees. It’s insane. It is really insane.” After about fifteen miles, almost back to Oceanside, we reached the base’s southern end, where the Portolá expedition had camped on July 20, the night after their stay in the San Luis Rey Valley. Crespí had called this valley Santa Margarita Virgen y Martir, and the Santa Margarita River still occasionally floods the base’s airfield, which was once the site of the area’s largest Native village and, afterward, the mission’s vineyard. I thought to photograph the tarmac, until Richard gently stopped me. “They really don’t want you doing that,” he said.

* * *

On the way back to San Onofre, Richard and I made one last stop, at the Las Flores Ranch in Las Pulgas Canyon, where my ride from Oceanside had left me only the day before, though it now seemed like ages ago. I had turned a huge circle, even more in time than space, over the last twenty-four hours. “Now the name, Las Flores, came from the Portolá expedition,” Richard explained as we drove. “When the troops were here, they camped there. And one of the senior officers said — and I can’t repeat the name — we’re going to going to call this place ‘Las Flores of the dablalagahadahaga.’” Richard couldn’t remember that name either. “And then somebody else said later on, ‘Let’s just call it Las Flores.’ Because flowers were everywhere. Flowers and fleas. That’s where ‘Las Pulgas’ comes from. The fleas were unbelievable.” At this canyon’s watering hole, Crespí and Father Gómez marveled at a “good-sized garden” of wild roses and grapes: “It had been burnt off by the heathens not long since, but the roses were springing up again with very handsome shoots, and we were still able to find a very fragrant rose blossom that I plucked, and could see a great many withered rose buds amongst the burnt matter.” He called it Los rosales de la cañada de Santa Praxedis. But a subsequent group had been bitten alive. I wondered aloud what the fleas subsisted on, before Spaniards: Maybe small mammals? Richard had no answer.

Quickly it became clear that Richard’s mind was on one thing, and it wasn’t roses: “We have one of the original grapevines from the ranch at Las Flores here. Last year, we must have had a hundred bags of grapes off that vine, and these grapes are like no grape, I would say, that you’ve ever tasted. But they’re not ready yet.”

He was so wrong. At this Monterey-style adobe — U-shaped and plastered white, with two stories on the oldest wing that once enjoyed an epic ocean vista, before the ranch’s trees grew up — someone had hung bunches of grapes, a wine varietal the color of honey, on the wire fence. “What the heck?” said Richard, in surprise. “Bob must have cut some and put them out here, and they’re ripening.” We were both smacking our lips, teasing the granule seeds between our teeth, savoring the sun-warmed pulp, mm mm. “This thing is going nuts,” Richard gushed. “Somebody is giving it plenty of water.” He tiptoed through the wavy sprawling vine to see the extent of the spoils. “If only we could get a stick, so we could raise it up and take’m,” he said. A stick is the world’s most useful tool.

The Las Flores adobe was built in 1868 for the son of John Forster after he acquired the ranch from Pío Pico. After years of neglect and fighter jets rattling its mud walls, now it was being painstakingly restored and retrofitted to withstand earthquakes. But Las Flores’s history was older: it was first the site of an ­asistencia — a way station — between Mission San Luis Rey and Mission San Juan Capistrano, built in 1823. Passersby could rest for the night and feed themselves and their mounts. This place of assistance and its large white cross were so prominent on the brown seaside tablelands that ships mistook them for Mission San Juan Capistrano. Richard led me to the ruins, but first he pointed to the grapes and said, “Grab a stack and take them with you.” We walked toward the ocean over land once sown, in all directions, with lima beans and now with ground squirrels and the coyotes that pounce on them in an elegant, mangy arch.

‘Honest to God, this is the El Camino,’ said Richard. ‘There were monks and priests, Indians, walking on this trail.’

A dirt road materialized with a seepage across it at willowy swale that we skirted, pushing back some branches. “Honest to God, this is the El Camino,” said Richard. “There were monks and priests, Indians, walking on this trail.” El Camino was less a single road than a braiding of paths that meandered like a stream. Unlike today’s straightened highways, the original El Camino bends and turns organically around phantom shelters and stands of brush. Here it was dust and vanished footprints, the ruts of trucks. “That one section back there,” said Richard, “I remember walking on it and getting a feeling like, ‘Whoa.’” He shivered. “I had, like, a moment.” Spirits also have been reported in the Las Flores adobe: a brown-robed priest like Crespí at the foot of a bed and, more recently, a skinny vaquero. A conservationist working on-site confessed to Richard and me, “He does not like you peeing on his cactus, from what I’ve experienced.”

We moseyed up to the ruined asistencia, a melted hump that belied its onetime size and looked more like a termite mound than a human creation. Even from a distance, you could see white specks in its molten shape and, at my feet, in the local mud, were hundreds of tiny white snail shells and other calcareous artifacts of a former ocean that had been dug and poured into molds — uplifted first by tectonics and then by shovels and hands. The asistencia’s remains were fenced in by chain-link, a large perimeter indicative of its real footprint. What was left, marooned at center, had been covered by a sun roof to keep it from eroding further. I was probably standing on liquidated adobe.

We listened to the swaying-grass woosh of the highway and thought about travel in former times: three miles an hour if, like me, you’re walking. “Just think about this property with no sounds,” said Richard. “Birds, ocean crashing sometimes . . . Boy, what a piece of property. You know, if the Marine Corps didn’t own it, can you imagine what it would look like? Oh, yeah — the Mission Viejo Company would have developed it.” It’s estimated that Camp Pendleton’s land — twenty miles of shoreline with inland ocean views and one of the most desirable climates in the United States — would command at least $5 billion from developers.

* * *

When I arrived at the San Mateo Campground at the foot of Cristianitos Canyon, I stood in a shower stall and drained my fifty cents’ worth: four minutes of blessed hot water. Showered again in the morning, because why not, and took my time breaking camp. It was too damn hot to hike through the whole middle of the day. At a shady picnic table, I jotted a few notes while I borrowed a charge for my camera and phone, a constant concern, from an RV hookup. By mid-afternoon, RVs were lined up and idling at the campground entrance, the weekend crush. I crossed the road and waded through tall, burry grass in my sneakers toward a jeep trail that led up the northern, buffy ridge of Cristianitos, thinking about Richard’s admonition: “I’d definitely have boots on if I were to walk through here.” Rattlesnake country. This was Camp Pendleton land also, and again I wasn’t sure I wasn’t trespassing.

I was headed inland, into Orange County, almost due east toward the Ortega Highway — Ortega was the Portolá expedition’s lead scout. In the chaparral, more ghostly combat placements stood with their vacant windows, like cardboard boxes tumbled into the scrub, and I imagined the marines orienteering between them, humping a pack like me. From above, I could see and hear a few of them accelerating on Cristianitos Road back to 62 Area on motorcycles like Tom Cruise in Top Gun, though that elite navy flight school long ago moved from Miramar to Fallon, Nevada. Under humming, stick-figure electrical towers, the road climbed the ridge. The Portolá expedition must have remained low in the canyon, but I couldn’t walk there. Soon I was trudging up and down a massive firebreak of soft, tilled soil, the width of three lanes, an invisible fence dividing Camp Pendleton from San Clemente suburbia. Mountain lion prints in the dust, I was pretty sure, wider and more ovular than a dog, clawless. The hills the color of a cougar. How can I describe the shades of brown that are Southern California and its straw-filled terrain? Dirty blonde and rosy brown, invasive khaki, coffee with milk, the rusty umber of California buckwheat, potato skin to the horizon. But studded with green. With oak, manzanita, and toyon, wherever there is leakage or a little luck, a dearth of fire.

Looking into the valley, I tracked the bone-white roadside cross that marked the Cristianitos historical site as it passed behind me, and out here in the empty scrubland I could imagine myself a traveler in former times. “The ranchos,” Richard had told me, “they all had these crosses as a sign to travelers to say, ‘You’re welcome here. You can come here and get a meal, your horses will be fed. Spend a night, spend a week — no bill.’” There had been one above the Santa Margarita hacienda and one beside the Las Flores asistencia. Of course, this cross in off-limits Camp Pendleton meant no such thing.

The soil passing beneath me was flecked with mica, a rifle shell crushed and bent, a scattering of scrub-jay feathers from some minor unnoticed catastrophe — the end of a particular blue. Coyote and bobcat tracks, too, and the unbroken snake-bellies of bikes. Quail whirring, clucking, into a thicket that had snagged a Mylar balloon. Even looking through binoculars around here seemed a risk, like I might get in trouble for spying. And I was spying on everything.

For the first time, I had decided to wear my long-sleeve shirt, and already I knew it would save my skin on this journey, though already it was soaked through. I salvaged an empty water bottle from the trail, just in case I found a spigot: in the sun, you start to second-guess your preparation. The long hillside was a crisscross of sidewinding roads, firebreaks, and single track; then all of a sudden an office park appeared, which looked surprisingly like a bloated combat placement, as well as the utter oasis of a golf course, Bella Collina, a counter-vision to the sage and chaparral. A golf course in Southern California can use as much water each day as a family of four does in five years. It was a glimpse of a different, artificial season, and it made me wonder if this landscape might have been lusher when the Portolá party walked through. This green was so obviously false, titillating, pornographic, but the interface of pastoral and scrubland was somehow irresistible to the eye: a work of art. Someone was sweeping up balls on the unirrigated driving range — yet another rangeland — in a cart with Plexiglass sides, a plume of dust rising in his wake. From the clubhouse, a wedding rang out — pop music, the cheers after the couple was announced, “We invite you over here for a cocktail hour, while the family is taking pictures” — and it made me feel alone. But around the bend, above Avenida Pico, I found rubescent house finches feeding on thistle heads big and spiny as artichokes — bracteate, armored as if by “plates of metal” — and watched them tease the seed free and sever the kernel from the cottony pappi, which floated into the air, all of it lit like a torch in the sunlight. I thought of my wife. She would love to paint these thistles.

* * *

Avenida Pico dead-ended in a cul-de-sac where some teenagers had parked their Audis and Mustangs in a fan and were milling about, taking pictures by these sleek hoods, as if they’d only just gotten their licenses, which was more or less true. “Let’s go meet the BMWs,” said one of them, in all seriousness, before they sped off. The cul-de-sac and Cristianitos Road, which I’d planned to take north to the Ortega Highway, were blocked by a tall fence and gate, and the finer print of the No Trespassing sign read Rancho Mission Viejo. Reluctantly I started down a walking path that traversed the hillside in my general direction. But when I saw the fence had fallen away, I took a deep breath and dropped down the dry-grass slope onto Cristianitos Road. The day was escaping me, and this was the direct and historic route, más viejo than Mission Viejo.

Richard’s words about Camp Pendleton echoed in my mind: “The Mission Viejo Company would have developed it.” I was at the southern end of Rancho Mission Viejo, the remainder of John Forster’s and, later, James Flood’s enormous ranch, one that combined the Santa Margarita y Las Flores, Mission Viejo, and Trabuco land grants: 230,000 acres in total, or 359 square miles. Obviously, you could walk a straight line in such an acreage for days without coming to its end. When the marines co-opted Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, they took the entirety of the rancho’s coastline. A “mere” fifty-two thousand inland acres remained, the Trabuco and Mission Viejo tracts, and it belonged to the O’Neill family.

This green was so obviously false, titillating, pornographic, but the interface of pastoral and scrubland was somehow irresistible to the eye: a work of art.

How the O’Neills came into the picture is an unlikely story that speaks to James Flood’s enormous wealth: he didn’t much care whether he gave away an enormous ranch. Richard O’Neill was a butcher and then a meat wholesaler in San Francisco’s market district, and he supplied Flood’s saloon, the Auction Lunch, with fresh cuts each morning. They became friends. Then Flood became one of the wealthiest men in the world when he finagled a controlling interest in the Consolidated Virginia Mine, one of the Comstock’s largest. It produced about $136 million, and ever after Flood invested in all directions. His Bank of Nevada seized the struggling Chowchilla Ranch near Merced in the Central Valley, and Flood asked his friend and meat-seller O’Neill if he would manage the ranch. O’Neill knew his beef and made it profitable.

Looking for a ranch of his own, Richard O’Neill eventually inspected Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores when it came up for sale after Forster’s death. He approached Flood, and in 1882 they made a handshake agreement: Flood would pay the $450,000 price, and O’Neill would manage it, with his portion of the earnings going toward a half share. The deal was never in writing, but amazingly Flood’s son made good on the promise in 1907. When the Santa Margarita Company dissolved in 1939, Richard O’Neill Jr. took hold of the inland Mission Viejo and Trabuco Ranches while Flood’s sister and descendants kept the coastal Santa Margarita y Las Flores. Three years later, the marines came calling and suddenly only Richard O’Neill Jr. was left with land. In this way, the O’Neills were again lucky.

My first coyote of the trip appeared in a field beside the road, but by the time I wrestled my binoculars out of my back pocket it had slipped into the tree line. From then on out, I kept my binoculars in my more capacious front pocket for quick access. The road crossed a dry creek and came to an intersection with another gate, waist height with another Mission Viejo No Trespassing sign. It would be hard to argue I hadn’t seen this sign, but I’d come this far; I hopped it and accelerated, feeling like those San Clemente teenagers in their convertibles. “Just think about this property with no sounds,” Richard had said, and now I experienced it. There was nothing mechanical, not even planes, only the notes and scratchings of birds and an anemic breeze. I could hear myself think. Then a barn owl flushed from an oak window, startling me, pale and golden with rounded wings and a heart-shaped face. Like so many large, empty land holdings, these Mission Viejo miles were in many ways an effective preserve.

I knew this road through Mission Viejo was Portolá’s route because, even from the heights of Camp Pendleton, I’d seen the formations that Crespí wrote about: “At some knolls upon a tableland . . . we went through the midst of two mines situated at ground level with very good red-earths and ochre, which had been dug out a bit by the heathens in order to get the paints which are their party, and Sunday, clothing.” Even from afar, these banded slopes reminded me of the famous Painted Hills of Oregon, where the clayey strata of white and red are so steep and alkaline that nothing grows. Finally I neared them. The white layers were likely a soft mudstone of ash, while the reds were a sign of a warmer time that had leached the stone and left iron oxides. The natives wore these colors for ceremony and sunscreen. I wanted to gather some of this pigment for myself, but this “mine” was behind yet another gate, down a short road. I thought about what I would do and say if a ranch hand or patrolman came upon me: I’d gotten lost; I was trying to find my way out. Maybe I could dive off the road into some brush. But it was lined with barbwire, woven through with cactus and poison oak.

‘Just think about this property with no sounds,’ Richard had said, and now I experienced it.

Suddenly two cars were up ahead, and I stopped in my tracks, stutter-stepped, and then just kept walking. A young man in an SUV with a “Real Estate at Rancho Mission Viejo” decal on its door looked at me with something like amazement as I raised my hand in mock naivete. Behind him was a sedan full of old ladies with glasses. I wondered where they were going. I wondered if they would make a call about me. I picked up the pace.

Then up ahead I saw something else moving, crawling, across the pavement: a tarantula, the size of my palm, and hairy. Its bristles were tinged with red, especially on its bulbous abdomen, which looked almost like a filbert paintbrush. I hovered over it, and when I reached down with my camera, it slowed on its eight legs and circumspectly raised its rump in warning: their abdomens can release a cloud of urticating (stinging) hairs with barbs that irritate the eyes and nose, or fingers. It walked with a metronomic hitch, each hoary foot meeting the pad of another as it stepped. It slowed whenever it sensed my hand or foot, and once two fang-like spinnerets emerged from its abdomen, an intimidating bluff.

This, I’ve learned, could have only been a lone, mature male — females almost never leave their burrows during the day. I saw several others crossing the road. We were wandering Mission Viejo all together in the warm evening. Normally they hunt insects, and even lizards and frogs, by night, injecting their venom into the animal to predigest it, but these tarantulas were on a different mission: each in search of a female in her burrow lined with silk to keep the walls from caving in. He might travel as much as three or four miles each night until he found her. He would follow her scent to the den’s opening and rub the strands of its silk funnel and, if she was receptive, she would emerge. Afterward she might eat him.

* * *

Nearing the highway, I hopped another gate. Just as I was about to breathe easy, three more cars came down the road from a sandpit facility. I wondered if they’d gotten word from that earlier caravan and were out to intercept me. But they drove past me and stopped at a second gate at the highway, and several of the men left their cars, but only to open and shut the gate. I walked west on the shoulder of narrow Ortega Highway until, at last light, I dove back onto Mission Viejo land through a gap in the barbwire where the fence tapered to a massive concrete culvert. I thought about sleeping in the culvert itself, but went up the hillside. Too nervous or tired to set up a tent, I kept imagining that someone might spot me from the ridge above. But in a ranch of this size it was unlikely. The night was warm and I unzipped my bag, turning it into a blanket, and I lay underneath it. A few stray ants found their way in. Big ones. I tried to ignore them, even after one bit me between my toes. Bright moon, unsteady dreams.

Sometime later I shot upright when an animal called loudly twenty feet from me. It sounded like “Whoa,” or “Nooo,” or “Zoe” — a gruff exhalation, almost human. It was like no deer snort I’d ever heard. I fumbled for my headlamp and swung the light. Only bare earth and grass. I didn’t think it was a wild boar. I wondered if it was a mountain lion. My heart was racing, and for a few minutes I sat upright in the moonlight. I told myself that, whatever it was, it was gone.

Later I confirmed it, after listening to recordings of vocalizations. It was a mountain lion: an animal that can leap eighteen feet into the air, and up to forty feet across the ground. That can easily weigh 150 pounds and will take down larger prey by leaping onto its back and severing its spinal cord at the neck, biting its jugular, or clamping its windpipe shut until it asphyxiates. I wonder if this ghost cat kept walking, unsure and ultimately afraid of what I was. They walk six or so miles each night on a much larger territorial circuit — almost the distance I was averaging each day. They need roughly one deer a week to survive. Or maybe the cat sat nearby to watch me settle back into sleep, its muscular tail flicking silently in the lunar glow.


Nick Neely is the author of Coast Range. The recipient of PEN/Northwest’s Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency and the 2015 John Burroughs Nature Essay Award, his work appears in Orion, Mother Jones, Ecotone, Kenyon Review, and The Southern Review. He lives in Hailey, Idaho, with his wife, the painter Sarah Bird.

Excerpted from Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State, by Nick Neely. Copyright © 2019 by Nick Neely. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Counterpoint. All rights reserved.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath