A chronicle of the author’s 12-week, 650-mile journey, on foot, from San Diego to San Francisco, tracing a Spanish expedition of 64 men and 50 mules led by Capt. Gaspar de Portolá from July 14 to Nov. 6, 1769.
As journalist and essayist Neely (Coast Range: A Collection From the Pacific Edge, 2016) writes, the party was tasked with mapping Monterey Bay, which Spain saw as a strategic outpost, and determining sites for future Catholic missions to convert some 300,000 natives and help the nation hold coveted territory. Several members of Portolá’s expedition kept journals to which the author refers frequently as he compares his own journey with that of his predecessors. Neely’s task has no international consequences: He just wanted to get acquainted with the land, and he shares his experiences in meticulous, sometimes overwhelming detail. Throughout the narrative, the author offers precise and often lyrical descriptions of landscapes and vistas, sky and sea, flora and fauna. He recounts his conversations, the food he ate, fences and No Trespassing warnings that impeded him, menacing traffic, signs of urban blight (graffiti, dumpsters, dumped trash), and surprising insect life: a tarantula as big as his palm, for example, with bristles “tinged with red, especially on its bulbous abdomen.” He was also bitten, between his toes, by big ants as he nestled in his sleeping bag. Along the way, Neely inevitably encountered tourist sites. At Mission San Juan Capistrano, for example, he notes the “commercialization and fetishization of California’s missions, trafficking in mystique and fantasy.” He visited the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, where he engaged with an interactive display inviting him to “Discover what it’s like to be trapped in tar.” He also saw evidence of opulent wealth at the Getty Museum, which conveys “a sepulchral feel, as if Getty’s bones were hidden behind some unidentified stone block,” and the grand 165-room Hearst Castle, which overlooks “the gilded, retina-burning Pacific.”
A sprawling record of a unique adventure.