Hiking in a Place Built for Cars – El Camino Real from San Francisco to San Jose

About a decade ago, my mom and I were stuck in traffic on a California freeway when we spotted one of the ‘Mission bells’ that, hung from a pole shaped like a giant Franciscan walking stick, mark the path of the old “El Camino Real,” a road that linked the 21 missions built by Spanish missionaries from San Diego north to Sonoma. 

Looking around at the idling cars and ugly beige sound-blocking walls on either side of us, we started talking about how different everything must have looked, when the missionaries walked here—each mission was built a 3 day’s walk from the next—and how interesting it would be to try to walk the same route today.  

A few weeks later, my mom and I met at Mission Dolores on a foggy San Francisco summer morning. We were both carrying small backpacks, with just the basics: a water bottle, a change of socks and underwear, a toothbrush and a credit card. We were going to walk along a relatively intact section of the King’s Highway that ran from here to Mission Santa Clara. 

Mission Dolores in San Francisco
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I’d lived in an apartment right around the corner for three years, after college, but as we set out, everything felt strange and exotic—California is built for cars, and while I’d driven to Silicon Valley without a second thought many times, I didn’t know anyone who had ever decided to walk there. 

We also weren’t sure it was going to work. Would there be sidewalks? Would the path break off at a freeway, leaving us stranded? Before our walk, my mom and I looked for information online, but found only one person who said he had done this walk—a man named John Black, who had set out like a real pilgrim, with no money in his pockets. John Black said that when he needed anything, God provided it. I found an email address for him through a website, and my mom wrote him asking for advice on routes, but we didn’t hear back, and were both doubtful that he really existed. 

Now, we made good time down Mission street, past fancy restaurants, then laundromats, bars with names like ‘Pissed Off Pete’s’ and ‘Pass Time,’ and busy storefront churches. We were still within the city limits, with the surprising encounters you expect when you walk around a place with a lot of foot traffic. Outside a hotel offering weekly rates, a neatly-dressed man with coke-bottle glasses introduced himself, then said he and his wife Leanne were homeless, could we help? In front of a majestic old bank that was now a Salvadoran vegetable market, an old woman winked and wished us a good day. Then the street emptied. We crossed a freeway overpass. Now we were entering the unknown.

concrete freeway overpass
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The road here was lonely, but we still had a sidewalk. After a while, across the street from a used car lot and the ‘El Camino Inn’ (“stay here in pursuit of happiness”), we saw a roadside Mexican restaurant, and decided to stop. The cavernous dining room was empty, and we asked the hostess if we could use the bathroom. The bartender wandered over from the Niners’ game. “You’re walking?” he said, disbelief in his voice. “To Santa Clara?”

“From Mission Dolores to Mission Santa Clara,” said my mother. The bartender shook his head and walked away. The hostess pressed paper bags of chips into our hands. The bartender reappeared, carrying two cups and a pitcher of ice water. Then they wished us luck. 

Just beyond the restaurant, the sidewalk disappeared. We walked on the road’s shoulder, but agreed that this wasn’t safe, and that if it went on for too long, we should probably give up. 

But before long we reached the city limit for Colma, the place where San Francisco—which ran out of room for cemeteries in 1900—buries its dead. By now, we hadn’t seen anyone on the street for hours, and it was beginning to feel a bit spooky. Then our spirits lifted: the sidewalk had reappeared. 

Overhead, the billboard ads suggesting that if we were ‘Bankrupt!?’ we should consider buying a car gave way to the more somber sales pitches of headstone purveyors. We passed graveyards whose names sounded like housing developments (‘Hills of Eternity,’ ‘Eternal Home’). We read the inscriptions: So teach us to number our days/ that we may get to the heart of wisdom. A young man with a backpack came towards us on the sidewalk. He looked at us with deep suspicion, put his head down and walked past without a word. 

The wind picked up, the novelty wore off, and the silent presence of 1.5 million souls in this necropolis began to weigh on us. “Talk about Hills of Eternity!” said my mother. “How much further do you think we have to go?” 

Finally, we came upon a cluster of brand-new terra cotta condos. But even here there were no people. We kept going, and twenty minutes later reached a spanking new Trader Joe’s store, apparently built to service the condos which, we noticed, didn’t have any front doors: residents seemed to enter and leave underground, through the garage. 

At a picnic table bolted to the ground next to the parking lot entrance, we stopped to sit. I asked my mother if she thought we were still in Colma. She wasn’t sure, so I walked over to a man in a well-worn polo shirt standing by his car. “Excuse me,” I said. “Where are we?” 

He looked at me like there was something wrong with me. “Daly City,” he said, with a sneer. He stepped into his Honda, slammed the door and drove away. 

I stared after him. He was completely wrong: We had left Daly City behind hours ago. 

As it began to get dark, we discovered long, lonely crosswalks with traffic lights that carried us over a series of arteries that fed the freeway, and made us feel like ants. The airport shone like a space station in the distance and we decided it was time to call it a night. We checked in at the next hotel we came across, the ‘El Rancho’ Best Western. After dinner, my mom and I shuffled past the ‘Cortes meeting room’ and the ‘Aztec gym’ to our room and wondered if whoever came up with these names didn’t know where the Aztecs had lived, or didn’t care. Before we dropped off to sleep, we talked about the man with the Honda. “Well,” said my mother, voicing what felt like one of the lessons of the trip, “I guess when people are driving all the time, they don’t know where they are.” 

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Photo by Mike Peel

In the morning, my uncomplaining mother’s feet were hurting. She had blisters from wearing hiking boots—she hadn’t considered that our hike would be taking place almost entirely on concrete. “Tennis shoes would be better,” she said. When she added, “I’m not completely sure I can walk all day,” I knew the situation was serious.

We asked the hotel receptionist if there were any shoe stores within walking distance. “The Payless, at Tanforan,” she said, with a smile. That was half a day’s walk back, we tried to explain. She gave us a blank look. There was a Starbucks a block away, she said. 

Outside the coffee shop, we asked two elderly women in tracksuits and tennis shoes. “Tanforan,” one responded. “There is nothing here,” said the other. “Nothing.” 

We wandered slowly up a side street, both thinking this was probably the end of our journey. Just then, I looked up: not twenty feet from where we had stopped the old ladies, there was a sign over a shop window. “Healthy Step,” it read. Several sets of walking shoes sat in the window. 

Inside, the woman who worked there—it was her uncle’s shop, she explained, and she had come over from the Philippines to help out—said they used a German orthopedic solution that returns your instep to its proper shape. With the right support, and a willingness to put up with a little discomfort, anybody can achieve the ideal foot. “The ideal foot?” said my mother. “Sounds good to me!” 

The woman advised against new shoes—they’d only encourage the current, non-ideal form—and told my mother to step on a piece of paper laid over a giant ink pad. She held up the result: A long, thin arc made by a high arch, the round balls of the feet. I tried one, too. “Mother and daughter?” said the woman, looking at our prints, which were nearly identical—mine was just a little smaller. “Can you tell?” said my mother. “I’ve met a lot of feet,” she said, with pride. We left, with matching inserts. After a few minutes, my mother said, “It’s amazing. It really works. I couldn’t have walked today.”

We were silent for a minute. We were both thinking about John Black—who, by the way, does exist. A few days after we finished the walk, he wrote my mother: 

Hi Sherrill,

I am so sorry I did not get back to you before you left. I have to get my emails at the library and sometimes I just can’t get there very often. If you are still walking and can get your emails, I would be happy to fill you in on route information and help you any way I can. Email me and let me know where you are now, or where you will be and what you need to know.

Are you intending to do all the missions? If you are, me and my family might join you when you come through our area (Missions Soledad, San Antonio de Padua, and San Miguel). I can coach you through each section if you like. Also, feel free to call me at home and we can cover a lot more information on the phone.

Are you intending to do all the missions? If you are, me and my family might join you when you come through our area (Missions Soledad, San Antonio de Padua, and San Miguel). I can coach you through each section if you like. Also, feel free to call me at home and we can cover a lot more information on the phone.

Peace be with you,
John

This little miracle set the tone for the rest of the trip. The sun shone and we knew we were going to make it. We spent the next two days walking along strip malls built side by side and half-empty. We were dismayed by the terrible, ugly sameness of the architecture, but delighted with individual store owners’ entrepreneurial ingenuity, from the ‘Step Ahead Carpet Store’, to the ‘Bon Vivant Travel Agency’; the ‘Bruce Lee’ hair salon and the ‘Gone Crazy Western Motel’ (they had giant plaster cactuses out front). There were Goethe and Shakespeare streets; cuisine from Kabul right next to Vietnamese Pho and Wienerschnitzel restaurants. Still, in the time after we left San Francisco, we met no more than a handful of people on foot, and we couldn’t help wondering why on earth we Californians, who have the most temperate weather on earth, built a world for ourselves where we never get out of our cars, and have covered our beautiful landscape in stucco. 

Finally, after three days, my mother and I found ourselves sitting on the grass, exhausted but happy, in front of the sweeping arches of the Mission Santa Clara. Before we called a taxi to take us to the station for the 40 minute train ride back home, my mom spotted an inscription: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. We couldn’t have imagined anything better. 

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