Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Walk Along Land's End

Author: John McKinney
Edition: First Edition, Hardback, HarperCollinsWest
Read: March 2012
238 pages
Rated: 3 out of 5

The book started as a walk for the California Coastal Trails Foundation—a group trying to map a plausible coastal trail for California. He gives this up to explore himself rather than write another guide book. He still has the thought in mind throughout the book.

What changed his emphasis from trail building and reporting was the destruction of the coast line. From the border with Baja California northward he founds significant places of development, and not just in the cities. This is a theme throughout the book from San Diego to Los Angeles, to Santa Barbara and northward to Santa Cruz and even on the Lost Coast. He dislikes the thought of even planned wilderness. He figures why plan the wilderness when it has been quite nicely for thousands of years?

So you get word pictures of what is so glorious about California and its coast and how we are spoiling paradise. He loosely follows the trail of his guide, the 1913 author Joseph Smeaton Chase and his book California Coastal Trails. You hear interesting stories of the area—both present and past.

McKinney says this is not a guidebook, not even a guide to trails he was on, but more a guide to the path taken by my feet and by my heart. (xiii)

On the California coast, dry equals warm. (xvi)

McKinney meets up with two German tourists in Torrey Pines State Park. They ask the question, Why do you go? He is at a lost to answer the question. He then thinks and tells them that he came to get lost, lost in the palm and pine, lost for a time from metropolitan life, lost in the challenge of a long trail, lost in what remain of the will California coast. (28) Evidently this was not satisfactory to the tourists because they scurry off. But to me, this is similar to a quote from Randy Moregenson in the Last Season by Eric Blehm(314)--Here’s your one chance to get lost, fall in the creek, find a beautiful place.  Later on McKinney says that he goes to places like Torrey Pines because they celebrate life,... because they have been made by humands to set aside a place where we can see, feel and touch the living remnants of a once wild coastline. (30)

He talks about the inner conflict he feels, between wanting to put on the miles and the traveler who wants to experience. (33)

As he goes, he ponders Dana's and Chase's works and the land they describe in 1835 and 1912. He then realizes that even his more recent 1960's memories of an area are no more relevant 30 years later. I wonder what he would think now, 15 years after that? Particularly since McKinney is only 1 year older than me and I remember some of the same things he does. (42) Or even how I remember the mountains I visited as a youth.

He mets up with the family of Carl Ghormley, who not only walked all of the California beaches in 18 years, but started a significant charity to help Mexican children (died in 2005). As they were walking, the discussion turned to how his family related to the beach. He said that it was easy to walk and not see anything. You have to keep your senses open, seek it out, try to understand. (57) They then talk about how California seems to vanquish its history by ignoring it. Also they expressed their emotions about finishing their walk—a kind of sorrow at finishing the project. (59).

There is a chapter where he passes by his childhood area of Santa Barbara. He describes his feelings of seeing the tar and oil. He helped clean up birds from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and talks about how it turned him into a conservationist and distrustful of the influence money can bring to a situation. (88) In the book he talks about how he has been assured that a Santa Barbara oil spill cannot happen again since all sorts of precautions are taken. Of course, there is a tinge of doubt considering powerful men downplayed the damage inflected upon the wildlife of the area. Also this was written 14 years before the Gulf oil spill. You just wonder what McKinney thinks.

The ethics of how you live is woven in McKinney's story. Such as the Los Padres ranger who rather than give his tool to someone else to maintain, he sharpens it. The idea that specialization is not necessarily better. This ranger is a generalist in the age of specialists.

How to manage or a better phrase, let be the wild areas of our State is one of the central questions in the book. McKinney is afraid that wild areas will be managed and tamed by well meaning plans rather than setting apart wide areas and just letting it be.

Part of the trip is going through the Diablo Canyon area, where he was once arrested for trespassing and protesting. It is interesting reading his history of leading a group of fellow protesters through the wild to get arrested at a different place than the rest of the protesters. And then his take on seeing the area 15 years later. He is part of the ceremony opening the Pecho Coast Trail, paid for by PG&E.

In a way, McKinney asks a pertinent quest, Is the end of the big cone spruce the end of southern California?  (158) He had just commented on the the Big Cone Spruce is only found as far north as Santa Barbara County. But through out the book he broods on how we are doing away with what made California a paradise while putting up condo's, shopping centers and the like in our bid to develop everything.. He is very much of an advocate of creating a vision of the coastal use—not as a place to play, but as a living thing in which we are trusted with. (180)

I do love his description of the Russian Orthodox patriarch coming to Fort Ross. He gives a service there, commemorating 200 years of presence. Then at the close, he lights a cannon, with a boyish grin and is excited by the roar and flame.

Later on he talks about his relationship with religion. When he visits the redwoods of Northern California, he seeks out a place called the Redwood Monastery. They have tried to find a place in their lives by setting right relationships with God, man and the natural world around them. In the process, they have been able to purchase a sizable area of old growth redwoods for a place called Sanctuary Grove. He talks about how the Catholic church has been a sanctuary for refugees. This monastery looks at this mission as being a sanctuary for wildlife and nature. (224)

He also talks about a picture he saw there, Christ by Jamini Roy. It shows a transparent cross. McKinney's comment is that it is Christ which transforms us, not the cross. But it is his guide, Sister Diane who talks about neither the lumber company nor them, nor conservations who own the forest. Their goal is to ask, with Christ's blessing, mercy on for the earth. (226)

On McKinney's personal belief, he states that he is both a Christian and a conservationist, but one who does not believe in an Old Testament God.  He specifically signals out where God has intervened in the natural order of things—parting of the Red Sea and stopping of the sun for Joshua. He is a man who believes that God is out there and does not participate in this world. And yet we do see McKinney seeing Christ transforming us, not through the cross but through Christ. He does sound like someone whose belief system is not very well formed. (233)

But the part which attracts me is the tension he feels between his Christianity and his conservationism. He says that he can believe in a God which has ordered and given meaning to natural history. He also goes on and states that we cannot avoid our stewardship of the earth by either ignoring it or leaving it to God to handle. McKinney calls us to be part of the human drama of conservation and before calling on God. Where I part with McKinney is in a couple of places, not with the goals, but with what he sees as the relationship with God. I view this as a partnership with God, where we are stewards for him. So I do not see a tension here. I see the tension more with a fallen world of humanity and the mess we are in is because we do not have our purposes aligned with God's.

His conclusion is the that he has gone from exaltation—gladness of experiencing the beauty, and grandeur of what he has experienced. Then to the despair of where man has replaced nature with its shopping centers and parking lots—he uses the word desecration. Then to where he leaves us. The coast is a place in itself, not as a relationship with him.

 McKinney succeeded in not making this a guide book as it is more of his thoughts as he travels the coast. So in that way, he is like John Muir and other people who tell of their travels and advocate the need for wilderness. Did it change my views? No since I am in the same camp. Will it move me to advocacy? Maybe. He is more heavy handed and his thoughts are too impressionistic for my tastes. But it has not been a waste of time of time to read. It gives me a better understanding of coastal issues, but maybe not how to advocate for them.

New Words:
  • paseo (34):  1. A leisurely stroll. 2. A place or path designed for walking. 3. A street or boulevard.
  • Pulaski (124): a single-bit ax with an adze-shaped hoe extending from the back
  • aeolian (135):  wind

Good Quotes:
  • Going to the mountains is going home. John Muir, San Francisco Bulletin, August 3, 1875
  • It seems to me we already spend too much time quantifying California and not enough time knowing it. (xv)
  • Old maps are best; they have more of the places I like to visit. Newer maps tell of bigger places, crowds and asphalt, geography I prefer to avoid. (xvii)
  • Why should sixteen be the only society-sanctioned age for rebellion? Like wine, rebellion tastes better with age. (37)
  • Improvise a trail at the right time in history and you're honored as a hero and get a plaque. Improvise a trail at the wrong time in history and you are threatened with arrest. (97)
  • Beauty itself is not heartbreaking. Beauty that's unobtainable, beauty that's defaces, will break your heart every time. (147)
  • I've always been more than a little uncomfortable with contemplating inner nature when there's so much outer nature around me. My ways have never been as interesting a study to me as nature's. (162)
  • We sly hikes know that just because a trail vanishes from the map doesn't mean it vanishes from the face of the earth. (163)
  • One meets out-of-the-way characters, naturally, in out-of-the-way places. (168)
  • roads now make the coast easier to reach, but harder to know. (169)
  • Prayer may be a far better defense against evil than cannon, but it's not nearly as much fun. (198)
  • We all need one place on the map, one place in our hearts that is lost. In a wild place, lost from the mean streets, we can find ourselves, our best selves. (219)
  • The growth of redwoods can be measured by counting their rings. By what measure can we determine the growth of human consciousness? (232)

  • McKinney's website, The TrailMaster
  • Chase, Joseph Smeaton, California Coast Trails, Written in 1913
  • Dana, Richard Henry, Two Years Before the Mast, written 1835
  • Backbone Trail
  • California Coastal Trail
  1. Web Site
  2. Wikipedia
  3. California Coastal Commission

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