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Chumash Territory  .  Santa Ynez Valley Overlook  .  2012


When I first thought about doing this walk, I conceived of it as a very personal journey. I share some of my story in the hope that it's helpful to you as you consider walking the route, or just hear the background.

I (Stephanie D.) was born and raised in San Francisco. I grew up Catholic and attended parochial school, where I learned about the missions during 6th grade history class and took at least one field trip to Mission Dolores. However, if you told me then that I would someday walk the Camino Real, I would've been extremely surprised. I hated walking even two blocks to the store.

Also, I didn't feel connected to the Camino Real or the missions--even the Spanish nuns taught us that Serra and the missionaries forced the indigenous peoples to convert to Catholicism and to build and maintain the missions. This was a terrible legacy. 

I overcame some hardships and got a college education so I could do something I considered meaningful with my life. But I found that I needed to pay down some school debt and earn enough money to live in San Francisco, which was becoming increasingly expensive thanks to the tech and tourism industries. For a few years I worked well-paying but stressful jobs in order to make ends meet. I began to feel profoundly disconnected. Underneath it all, I felt like something was deeply wrong in San Francisco, the city at the end of Manifest Destiny. Waves of fortune-seekers had been crashing on these lands for centuries now, seeking gold, seeking land, some kind of wealth to possess. We were a nation of hungry ghosts, and no amount of money or success ever seemed to be enough.

In a country where you are told to lose your language, your cultural ties, your religion (except maybe Protestantism), step away from your family and succeed by yourself, it seemed like there was little left but the dollar and an inorganic structure of schooling and bizarre notions of success to guide you to it. 

I wondered what all of us even had in common--those of us who had always been here, those who came here by choice, and those who came by force. The only thing I could think of was the land. Maybe something as simple as walking on the land might help ground me. Maybe it had some answers, as improbable as that sounded at the time.

I thought about walking in California, but I imagined that in many places, like the Cuesta Grade by San Luis Obispo, access was entirely blocked by freeways or private property restrictions. There was also the PCT, but I didn't want to get away from my normal surroundings, I wanted to understand them better.


Finishing the Camino de Santiago at the Cathedral in Santiago, Spain

El Camino de Santiago

I thought back to a friend's passing reference to a square in Pamplona where pilgrims came to rest on their walk across the whole of Spain. At the time I thought it was impossible and pointless, but I admired their fortitude. I looked up the walk and found that it was called the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), a 1,200-year-old Catholic pilgrimage. The route leads from points across Europe to the city of  Santiago, on the western coast of Spain. The pilgrimage was founded during the Reconquista, at the purported burial place of St. James, and served as a bulwark against the Moorish advance up the continent. 

Although I had misgivings about traveling a pilgrimage route created essentially as part of a military maneuver, I decided to walk with and contemplate those contradictions -- no human endeavor is without them. Also, before the path was a pilgrimage route it was a Roman trade road. Before the Romans, it had another purpose. The idea of following the same route where so many people had walked over so many centuries, for so many reasons - faith, conquest, zealotry, banal chores, atonement, trade - seemed, in the end, like a fitting enough way to consider humanity. 

Life on the Camino would be nothing like my citified routine. I'd be walking for weeks by myself, with just my house on my back. I hoped all that exercising and time alone would help reset me. I also looked forward to doing things I love: live close to the land, learn about history, and appreciate art and architecture. And to meeting people from all around the world on the same simple quest with the same simple goal-- reaching the cathedral in the city of Santiago. 

The Camino happened to be located in Spain, the country that founded the state of California on Catholicism. In a way, it was also like taking a trip back to the mothership. (Though not a very motherly mothership).

In March 2011, I set out to walk 330 miles of the Camino. As millions had done before me, every day I woke up at 7am, packed my gear, got a café con leche at the local bar, and walked 18 miles through the Spanish countryside. I saw some beautiful scenery, a few cathedrals with beautiful artwork, and lots of little villages with churches that looked exactly like mission chapels. Often I was often alone, but I also met locals as well as pilgrims from across the globe; I loved meeting people, hearing their stories and connecting with them, even if just for a few minutes. I experienced all sorts of kindnesses. My Spanish improved.

Often the Camino was breathtaking, but sometimes it was ugly. Sometimes all that walking was boring. Sometimes I wanted to throw certain pilgrims out the window. Every night my feet burned. But there was a magical timelessness to being out on the road, and living outside of my normal parameters. 

My expectations weren’t high, and nothing extreme happened, so I was surprised how much the Camino affected me. You don’t need very much to be happy, and maybe I never really understood that; I certainly hadn’t lived it for three weeks. I had connected to something universal, and that was really, truly meaningful.


El Camino Real

I returned from the Camino de Santiago with an appreciation for the benefits of long-distance walking meditation. I hope to get to know the nature, history, and people of my home state on foot. This land isn't mine either though I thought that maybe by walking on it without trying to possess it, I could learn something. It was definitely a leap of faith. 

I decided to raised funds so that I could map, scout by car, and walk a route. In return I would create a free, online trail guide so others might trek it and have their own experience on the path. I distinctly did not wanted to monetize the walk. So many projects that Americans undertake have a self-promotional angle, because we must monetize things to survive. and in my mind this walk was the opposite of that. Nor did I want it to be fodder for a book, even though I have an MFA in Creative Writing. I almost didn't publicize that I was doing the walk at all, but friends convinced me otherwise. 

Like the Camino de Santiago, on the walk in California I would live relatively simply. It didn't matter what I wore or what I owned. I wouldn't be riding in cars or buses, and would have minimal Internet contact. The trip was not tied to a charity. It would be just me, a 22-pound backpack, my camera, and occasionally some friends who would join me. 

I started the walk on April 11, 2012. Every morning I got up, packed my gear, and put my feet on the ground. Walking at a normal pace, I covered about 15 miles per day. 

I met a kindly Tlingit couple in the Mission Santa Ynez parking lot who pointed out the area in the yard where the whipping post had been. I was welcomed warmly by the Franciscans, who seemed steeped in a humanitarian religious practice, but did not acknowledge the terrible acts of their predecessors. I was saved from dehydration by an unemployed seedman who told tales of Monsanto burning heritage seeds and broke bread with a kindly man whose grandfather had been a pioneering agribusiness geneticist. I walked with my brother for 8 days, the longest we had ever spent by ourselves, and cried when he departed in San Luis Obispo. I got caught up in a police manhunt in the Central Valley, had shabbat shots with a Sobibor survivor in Santa Barbara, watched a pack of coyotes hunt sheep near Mission San Antonio. I experienced countless acts of generosity from strangers. 

I trekked through all types of landscapes and communities - across the Golden Gate Bridge; by vast farmlands in the Central Valley; through small, meth-addled towns; up quiet dirt roads over scenic mountains, through the gridlock of LA, and along the coast. I stopped at all 21 missions.

All told, I covered about 800 miles in 57 days. My greatest personal learnings were how generous people can be and just how much I make mountains out of molehills, and if someone tells you "no," ask other people. Above all these walks did change my life trajectory; they showed me the way out.

Huge thanks to those who donated to support the walk, and to the many wonderful people I met along the way. Your generosity made this free, online guide possible.


Dancing to the oldies in the bathroom at the  Buellton Pea Soup Andersen's. Very amused because I had walked all the way there.


I kept walking. I learned more about history. I read Steinbeck’s East of Eden and thought about how little the Salinas Valley had changed.. I thought about the Tlingit couple. I wondered if the seedman ever got another job. I waited. And waited. I didn't know what I was waiting for.


In 2016 I was profound moved by the Native resistance at Standing Rock in opposition to the DAPL pipeline. While the camps were still open I joined a Native-led prayer walk, from San Francisco to Washington DC, that would stop at Standing Rock. Although the camps were closed a few weeks after I started the walk, the journey was life-changing. Since then I’ve done more prayer walks and continue to learn.

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