How far can you walk without stopping? How far can you walk in a day? There was a time in our not so distant past when humans needed to know that answer.
How far is it to water? How long can I stand to track this animal? Where will I be at sundown and where will I make camp? So long as you accept the contemporary definition of “modern” as correct, that being the most recent .00000001 percent of human existence, none of these questions are worth asking in modern life.
So while it sounded a bit strange to friends, it wasn’t at all strange to me and a small band of cohorts to contrive an adventure that would provide some answers.
With family obligations confining us to a day’s return at any given moment, we looked in our backyard, pulled out the topo maps and Google Earth, and saw a clean line from the highest point of the most prominent peak in San Diego to the coast. 61 miles of rural, urban, wilderness, and a couple fair sized bodies of water we could cross. Throw in a speckling of private property and, unknown to us at the time, restricted Indian reservation land, and you had the makings of an adventure.
At 1:07 a.m., on the second night of walking, we arrived at an unintended destination, the shores of Mission Bay three feet above sea level. Although we traversed into and out of the San Diego River watershed, due to a routefinding error, we ended up mostly following San Diego’s most prominent watercourse.
We walked through the most remote portion of the county, past miles of mini marts. Through million-dollar ranch land and illegal migrant encampments. We saw snakes, deer who wanted nothing to do with us, and a confrontational band of teenage Syquan Indians drinking beer in a truck beside the shores of a lake white men are not allowed to sit by.
We were called out by a pack of wild coyotes while we slept, but did not heed their call, and my brother was almost mauled by six German shepherds when we walked past the driveway they were trained to protect.
But mostly we walked, and breathed, and took in the effect of a dozen decades of community and water development on a naturally arid landscape.
The controversial Sunrise power link is supposed to trace this route. A way to connect a massive solar array in the low inland desert to the city, it purports to carve a slice through San Diego’s precious backcountry. It’s a Solomonic choice only man could conjure for himself: clean energy, scenic catastrophe.
I thought I might find a clear answer to the question of what I felt about that paradox. But even as I walked past a fenced enclosure containing a dozen shiny new footings for the high-tension lines, I didn’t really feel moved in either direction. But I did find a new question: How could my county be so carved up by property grants to its native inhabitants and to a handful of private citizens to the extent that an ordinary man cannot legally cross it from east to west without traveling on paved roads?
I found other, less heady questions. Where do blisters come from? Does caffeine, as it seems, truly help stamina? How can a satellite image of a wilderness area be so misleading as to scale?
But as for my original question. How far can I walk in a day? Well, farther than that, I guess…
Ross Garrett is a climber and surfer and the director of operations and development at The Surfer’s Journal. His walk covered 61.03 miles, 9,617 feet of elevation climbed, and 14,684 feet of elevation descended.