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Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  264 ratings  ·  57 reviews


"Neely’s naturalist, erudite work will appeal to readers of Thoreau’s Walden and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire." —Publishers Weekly

"Rich in little-known history. . . Up the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county coasts, then inland into the Salinas Valley to Monterey Bay. Somewhere along here, the owl moons and woodpeckers do something you

Kindle Edition, 432 pages
Published November 5th 2019 by Counterpoint
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Average rating 3.83  · 
Rating details
 ·  264 ratings  ·  57 reviews

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Start your review of Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State
I was not a happy camper while reading this book. I found it awfully slow and mostly dull reading. And I'm a history addict, so go figure. I would NOT compare it to a Bill Bryson book. There is no comparison! I inhale his books. There was no humor in Alta California, and maybe that was why it was such a tough job to get through. I would have quit early on if it were not a book club selection. ...more
Matt Carton
Mar 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Once you get through Neely's over abundance of adjectives at the beginning of the book, then all is well. A walk from San Diego to Palo Alto. A walk along some of my favorite roads in California. Many years ago I read about John Muir's walk from San Francisco to the Yosemite Valley, and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. Neely has topped it. His observations about California's modern history and well as his eye for beauty and nature make this an incredible read. Best California t ...more
Jun 05, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: biography, history
I enjoyed the descriptions of flora and fauna but the format gets a little tedious after a while. The prose feels forced and even flowery at times.
Pamela Mikita
Nov 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book, it was long but a meditative read. I love my great state of California and was able to visualize all the places he traveled. It was so interesting to learn of our history. This is a great read, especially for a Californian.
Patty Berg
Nov 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Come along for the walk, but let Nick do all the sweating, swearing, and death-defying stuff. It's a great adventure with an amazing narrative that pings you between the Franciscans' journey in 1769 and present day coastal California.

This books feels like having a great guide who knows all the cool details. Unless you've read the Fray Crespi diaries (me neither,) what you think you know about the Portola expedition is probably from fourth grade. Neely brings you up to date as he makes his way al
Feb 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Alta California changes your perception and understanding of California, supplying rich history, details of flora and fauna, fascinating chance encounters with people and places along the route, and all of it grounded in a close recounting of the 'seminal journey' of the Portolá expedition of 1769. County by county, Neely follows the route of the Spanish explorers, but layers on his many observations and experiences, weaving an amazing trek that the reader feels she practically takes alongside h ...more
Jan 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book was a real treat to read. The amount of effort the author exerted to tell this story was commendable in its own right. As a Californian transplant from the east, I greatly enjoyed this book because of my interest in the Spanish history of California and my familiarity with many of the regions the El Camino traverses. Clearly Nick Neely was the perfect person to tell this unique story.
Feb 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
I could visualize so much of his walk as many of these areas are where I like to roam. I loved his attention to birds as well; how their presence is noted and is a form of companionship, especially when one is alone in the wilderness. Chatty bushtits always make me smile, too.
Great read for those who love this state.
Dec 21, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I had read a book not long ago that looked at the path of Junípero Serra as he founded various missions in what would become the state California and baptized thousands of Natives already living. Not sure how I found this book but it sounded something a bit similar (although this was retracing the path of a Spanish expedition that would someday draw the El Camino Real).

Neely takes the reader through various counties of California, retracing the steps of the expedition and exploring California is
Jan 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I found this book to be a true gem. As with so many other travel narratives, this interweaves history with the present journey. The Portola Expedition is the route retraced on the long walk. However, the book waxes discursive on everything from a recycling plant to Hearst Castle to environmental concerns to RV encampments. The descriptions of natural phenomena are impeccable. The trek, incidentally, occurs in the three months leading up to the 2016 election, though the election is mentioned only ...more
Brown Robin
Aug 11, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dnf
I abandoned this one pretty early on. It's blandly loquacious, and only intermittently interesting, kind of like a long walk...I'd prefer taking the walk myself. I suspect the trouble is that the narrative seems stronger to me on the history than on the travelogue (though his deadpan descriptions of his trail travails, such as ants and no trespassing areas are both refreshing and informative), and I would have preferred the opposite formula, so that may account for my disdain.

It's a book worth c
Tough book to rate, for a mix of issues related to the book and to the genre.

First, the genre.

I think travelogue books in general, and through-hike subtype books in particular, have a pretty high ceiling to get a fifth star and I'm not grading on the curve. They ultimately, unless they're great descriptors, are in part personal psychology/discovery tomes, and in cases such as Cheryl Strayed, usually don't grab me there.

On the actual through-hiking? Neely himself says that, eventually, one range
Mr Neely seems like a good fellow to share a beer with, and he’s a good-enough writer, but the book suffers from “I’ve got a book contract”-itis. It’s rather high-concept in other words. You could easily imagine him making the pitch to the publisher: “I’m going to walk the route of the 18th-century Portola expedition through coastal California and record my thoughts.”

But honestly what happens to him sheds no new light on the expedition, or the state of things in modern California, or the local w
Jan 23, 2021 rated it really liked it
Interesting account of the author's walk from San Diego to San Francisco. However, it's very apparent (though not to the author) the privilege he had to be able to complete this trip. As a white man, he was able to trespass on private property, camp along the road, hitchhike, etc. and was always given the benefit of the doubt. If he had been Black, he likely would have been arrested in San Diego. If he were female, he would have faced actual or threatened violence. If he had a disability, this t ...more
Mark McQueen
May 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
A modern day exploration of California following in the footsteps of Portola's 1769 expedition.

An engaging read about the authors hike from San Diego to San Francisco following, as closely as is possible today, the Portola's 1769 expedition up the state of California. If you like travel journals or enjoy learning about California History, this is a very worthwhile read. Nick Neely really seems to have researched thoroughly, and he does a great describing many aspects of the state of the lands t
Jan G
Nov 02, 2021 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed walking up the beautiful coast of California with this author through time, history and geological shifts. He offers subtle insights of a California starting to reconcile its colonizing history, deal with climate change and move into the future with these fault lines. You could make a drinking game out of all the instances where he points out and describes the liter-al garbage he sees along the way.

(Audible version - I walked as he talked about his walk! Very meta!)
Dec 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
“I thought that plodding through our cities and suburbs on a forgotten, but foundational, transect would be the best way to truly see what’s become of what we call California, to discover its wild and feral interstices, to immerse myself in the ceaseless detail of landscape, and to confront out past and present head on. Time, I have come to believe, is the one true wilderness. The Portola and Crespi expedition of 1769 is the seminal moment in California’s history. Coastal California is also home ...more
Jun 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
As a native Californian I loved my walkabout, reminded me of grade school and learning about the missions. Very familiar with the land he covered, excellent history and research, my husband listened too and we both commented how what we learned in the fifties and sixties is a far cry from reality. I named my cat after junipero serra, I must say in 15 years I have not come across him once in all my reading, this book has me questioning my choice. If you are a Californian and enjoy history I think ...more
Claudia Skelton
May 22, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author Neely chronicles a 650 mile hike in California from San Diego to San Francisco, following the route of the first Spanish journey about 250 years ago. He defined the foundation of the state of California which provided me a deeper understanding, as I grew up in San Diego and lived in California for many years. For me, the text was quite intense and required some very brief research inquires to learn more about the items of nature and some of the humanity history he discussed. The story ...more
Pop Bop
Aug 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
Insightful and Engaging

Having lived in Morro Bay and now spending time in Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula, (where I pause at Crespi Pond on my daily morning constitutional), I was very interested to see this book about a hike along the Portola Trail from San Diego to San Francisco. But, you know, these walking/travel narratives can be awfully tricky. Some of my favorite authors are getting grumpy and judgmental, (I'm looking at you, Paul Theroux, and even sometimes you, Bill Bryson), and
Mar 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
In this fascinating book, the author chronicles his walk from San Diego to San Francisco, generally following the path of Spanish explorers Portola and Vizcaino. I learned a great deal about California history, which is woven into the daily narrative. An excellent read for anyone interested in California. It was fun reading about places I’ve lived or visited, but you can enjoy this book even if you’ve never been to the Golden State.
Jan 22, 2021 rated it it was ok
Shelves: twenty-seven
Well-intentioned, maddeningly flowery. Neely tries to be Anthony Horowitz and falls well short. This was a tough book to push through. He does get better last the first quarter, although his love of cheap bathroom humor and unnecessary anatomical detail never fades. Expect to know a great deal about the fast food he consumes as well as details about his piss. His words. Not mine.

Neely’s quest is genuinely impressive. I wish he’d married the narratives better, wish he’d tried to be less profound,
Sep 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
If you like Bill Bryson and Tony Horwitz, and are looking for another white male writer who walks long distances while reconciling with the legacy of racial discrimination that shaped the landscape, you might enjoy Neely's trek following the path of the conquistador Gaspar de Portola from San Diego to San Francisco. The most interesting pieces of his walk occur when he takes the time to stop and converse with the farm laborers and packers during their breaks from the fields that stretch alongsid ...more
Nov 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Nick Neely '03, has written a travel journal that is part natural history, part California history and all engrossing narrative of a walk from San Diego to San Francisco in the footsteps of the Portola Expedition of 1769. Along the way he meets birds, mountain lions and interesting people, teaches us about native plants, Native American lore and local geology and has quite an adventure. Using journals from Portola's trip up the coast, he treks through suburbs, streambeds and chaparral. Alternate ...more
Feb 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is an educational and enjoyable travelogue of Mr. Neely’s hike from San Diego to San Francisco where he endeavored to track the path of Portola and Crespi, the Spanish men who famously led (and documented) a party throughout California in the 1700’s. The travel narrative includes his current day issues (e.g. how to get through the air force and marine bases) with bits of history from Crespi’s diaries describing the differences they encountered. He highlights the nature – both flora and faun ...more
Feb 16, 2020 rated it it was ok
The parts of this book focused on the history of the Portola Expedition were interesting. While the author's hiking stunt was novel, his banal treatment of it made this hard to get through. ...more
Julie Beeman Cfmg
Sep 23, 2020 rated it it was ok
The idea of the walk was intriguing but I found the writing to be boring and over use of adjectives
Conor McNamara
Jan 01, 2022 rated it liked it
It's an interesting read into California and its complicated history with the Spaniards and their colonization of California, interspersed with Neely's experience walking through areas of California I am very familiar with.

He occasionally makes some mistakes (he called Pinnacles a National Monument when it was a National Park at the time he did his hike, and he also mistook the 1 for the 101 when leaving Lompoc), but nobody's perfect and you can also blame the fact-checker/editor for missing th
Gene Hartke
Oct 01, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Growing up having learned California History by building models of a California Mission in school, later in life I grew to understanding there was more to it than what I was taught. Neely dealt with the treatment of the natives by the expedition and later missionaries openly and honestly, without distracting from the travel narrative and broader historical picture. Again, I have been aware most of my adult life that the narrative of the kind missionaries bringing salvation to the heathen is suga ...more
Nick D
Nov 17, 2020 rated it liked it
I chose this audiobook because I love the connections between history and geography. The author walks along El Camino Real, from San Diego to San Francisco, following in the footsteps of the 1769 journey led by Spanish military man Gaspar de Portolá and Father Junípero Serra and chronicled by diarist Joan Crespí.

I read only the parts I was interested in, from San Diego county to southern Monterrey. The author encounters what you would expect from California - history of the Spanish and genocide
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