Couple retracing John Muir's footsteps

Couple retracing John Muir's footsteps
Oakland Tribune, The (CA){PUBLICATION2}
April 7, 2006
Section: Argus
Article ID: 3683378
Couple retracing John Muir's footsteps
Jonathan Jones, STAFF WRITER
PHOTO: DONNA THOMAS takes a look at some birds through her binoculars from
the Dairy Glen campgrounds at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont.
FREMONT Early Thursday, as morning commuters clogged Interstate 880 and
trudged across the Dumbarton Bridge, Donna and Peter Thomas were slowly
walking along a peaceful trail at Coyote Hills Regional Park, along the Bay
The Santa Cruz couple were on the fifth day of a trek to retrace famed
naturalist John Muir's 300-mile walk from San Francisco to Yosemite 138
years ago, but Thursday marked the first day it wasn't raining.
"For the first couple of days, we didn't see anybody because it was
raining," said Donna. "Today, we have beautiful weather and nice views."
Beyond the roar of airplanes overhead, the trail seemed far away from the
hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley. Goats grazed on the hills near the salt
marshes and ponds, man-made levees and mudflats.
"We're in Ireland!" said Peter as he turned on what he called his "Muir
eyes" to look at the plants and surroundings.
For the birds, squirrels and a few joggers, Coyote Hills is a haven of
peacefulness. As they approached Route 84, the noise of commuters made it
clear that the Bay Area has changed a lot since Muir, then 30 years old,
arrived in San Francisco on a steamer and set out to walk to Yosemite rather
than take the ferry to Stockton, as most travelers did at the time.
As they approached a quarry, Peter, a 52-year-old lanky man with a scruffy
beard, hat, backpack and old sunglasses he found forgotten in the
lost-and-found at a visitor's center,stopped to take a picture.
Donna, his 49-year-old wife and personal tour guide, put down her walking
poles and mapped out their route through Newark and Fremont.
A year and a half ago, after exchanging tales with other hikers about Muir
setting off for the Sierra with little more than a coat, tea and a loaf of
bread, Donna came up with the idea of following Muir's first footsteps
across California ? but with some modern conveniences.
For example, when not staying overnight with friends, they will sleep in
their Volkswagen van, stay in hotels or camp. And although they will walk
the entire route, they will be using modern transportation when they
retrieve their van at the end of each day and when they take breaks from the
When the Thomases found out that no Muir scholar or enthusiast had ever
retraced Muir's journey, the couple, longtime artists who have created more
than 150 handmade books, realized they had the perfect grounds for a new
Although they are not completely positive what the final product will be,
they hope to put together a book for travelers that traces Muir's historical
journey with their own modern adventure.
But because most of the roads taken by Muir now are major highways, planning
was not easy.
After a year of research and requests for access, the Thomases linked up
urban trails such as the San Francisco Bay Trail, parks and paths with a few
streets to create a route, dubbed "A Trans-California Ramble," to walk from
San Francisco to Yosemite.
On Sunday ? with a small grant, clothes donated from Patagonia and the
support of the Sierra Club ? the couple hopped a ferry from San Francisco to
Oakland, where they visited Lake Merritt and spent a few hours in the
Oakland Public Library before taking BART to Rockridge to stay with friends
for the night.
On Monday, the couple walked from Lake Merritt to Oakland International
Airport, then continued from there to Hayward Regional Shoreline on Tuesday.
"People should really try walking and noticing their surroundings; you see
so many interesting things," said Peter, who says he takes almost as much
joy in seeing junk that could be recycled into art sculptures as he does in
The couple typically walk 10 to 15 miles a day. Some stretches are better
than others. Neither seemed impressed with a stretch down Union City
Boulevard, which included a mile and a half of gated housing developments
with 10-foot fences, or as Peter said, "walled cities."
Like Muir, the two carry a copy of the New Testament, a map of California
and a plant press, which Donna uses to save occasional wildflowers.
But unlike Muir, who was known for sleeping without blankets and going
without breakfast and dinner, they do have a few modern conveniences such as
a cell phone, a digital camera and a laptop.
Because they have stayed with friends, they also have been fed fried
chicken, though Peter said they are just as happy eating granola and canned
"It's a John Muir trip, but it's not," admitted Peter.
After leaving the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge,
they turned onto Thornton Avenue and began walking through Newark, passing
corporate parks, cookie-cutter housing developments with satellite dishes
and large trucks that barreled down the road.
"This is the worst stretch so far," said Peter before coming to a small
marsh. "But even here, you find random bits of wetlands and (hear) birds."
As they approached downtown Newark, they turned east, following the railroad
tracks. Dogs barked at the intruders as they passed a broken coat rack,
tires, an old sneaker and empty penny rolls along the tracks.
To most people, it's junk. But not to Peter.
"There's great things out here," he said as if it were the first time he had
come across such treasures.
Today, the couple are heading to San Jose to give talks at Alviso Public
Library at 1 p.m. Saturday and at Martin Luther King Jr. Library at 2 p.m.
They plan to pick a up a trail along the Guadalupe River, head toward Morgan
Hill and Gilroy, and cut through Henry Coe State Park before hitting Pacheco
Pass, where they will mirror Muir's steps through the San Joaquin Valley to
Gustine, Snelling and Coulterville.
If all goes well, the couple plan to arrive at Yosemite National Park by May
17, although at some point when in the Central Valley, they are planning a
short break in Santa Cruz before finishing to Yosemite.
"It took Muir six weeks," said Donna. "So we know he took some breaks along
the way."
About midafternoon, after clocking 11 miles on the pedometer, they hopped a
ride from Auto Mall Parkway back to their campsite in the Coyote Hills.
Peter said he planned to play the ukulele while Donna planned to paint with
watercolors at their hidden campsite, where the evening rush-hour traffic
jams could not be seen.
To find out more about their journey, and to read some of Muir's writings
and the Thomases' journal entries, visit

Contact Jonathan Jones at (510) 353-7005 or PETER AND DONNA THOMAS walk past some California poppies Thursday
morning as they
enter the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge on their
way to
Yosemite. The couple are retracing John Muir's steps in his first walk
across California.

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