View Gallery

Available in

Alta California

From San Diego to San Francisco, a Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State

List Price: $17.95

June 9, 2020 | Paperback | 6 x 9, 432 pages | ISBN 9781640094444
Order Now From

This national bestseller chronicles one man’s 650-mile trek on foot from San Diego to San Francisco–sure to appeal to readers of naturalist works like Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, Paul Thoreau’s On the Plain of Snakes, and Mark Kenyon’s That Wild Country.

In 1769, an expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá sketched a route that would become, in part, the famous El Camino Real. It laid the foundation for the Golden State we know today, a place that remains as mythical and captivating as any in the world.

Despite having grown up in California, Nick Neely realized how little he knew about its history. So he set off to learn it bodily, with just a backpack and a tent, trekking through stretches of California both lonely and urban. For twelve weeks, following the journal of expedition missionary Father Juan Crespí, Neely kept pace with the ghosts of the Portolá expedition–nearly 250 years later.

Weaving natural and human history, Alta California relives Neely’s adventure, while telling a story of Native cultures and the Spanish missions that soon devastated them, and exploring the evolution of California and its landscape. The result is a collage of historical and contemporary California, of lyricism and pedestrian serendipity, and of the biggest issues facing California today–water, agriculture, oil and gas, immigration, and development–all of it one step at a time.

“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 might not have thought possible in 2019: they make you fall, or refall, in love with California, ungrudgingly, wildfires and insane housing prices and all . . . What a journey, you think. What a state.” ―San Francisco Chronicle

About Nick Neely

NICK NEELY holds an MA in Literature and the Environment from the University of Nevada, Reno, and MFAs in nonfiction and poetry from Hunter College and Columbia University. He is a recipient of PEN/Northwest's Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, a UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship, and the 2015 John Burroughs Nature Essay Award. The author of Coast Range, he lives in Hailey, Idaho, with his wife, the painter Sarah Bird.


Praise for Alta California


Long-listed for the 2019 Northern California Golden Poppy Book Award in Fiction
High Country News, One of This Season's Best Reads

"Neely is a skillful writer, wry and watchful . . . Alta California is also rich in little-known history, much of it pulled from the journal of Franciscan father Juan Crespi, who accompanied Portola . . . 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 might not have thought possible in 2019: they make you fall, or refall, in love with California, ungrudgingly, wildfires and insane housing prices and all . . . What a journey, you think. What a state." --Peter Fish, San Francisco Chronicle

"Constantly vibrating at the background of Neely's journey is his single-minded focus on the original trek . . . That ghostly 650 miles of the original trek, known as the El Camino Real, is a great way to talk about how much has changed, but it's also an artful way for Neely to think critically about some of our founding mythologies . . . Neely also is an excellent field guide . . . He is, moreover, a thoughtful observer of people in public, the way we live and the way we work, and the decisions we've made about how to manage our land, the so-called 'built California' he's spending months traversing . . . Immensely rewarding." --Nathan Deuel, Los Angeles Times

"His eye for detail is sharp and incisive. The best parts are when he gives a natural history to the unnatural landscapes of places like Legoland. How wild and scary was California 250 years ago, and how wild and scary is it now?" --Heather Hansman, Outside

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

"Throughout the narrative, the author offers precise and often lyrical descriptions of landscapes and vistas, sky and sea, flora and fauna . . . A sprawling record of a unique adventure." --Kirkus Reviews

"A good book entertains you, but great books transform you in sneaky ways. And it wasn't until weeks after finishing Alta California, when I found myself driving down the Peninsula through San Mateo, past Palo Alto, turning toward the coast instead of San Jose, on my way toward Monterey, that I realized the trick the author had pulled: In the length of a book, he had taken a newish transplant to the Bay Area (me), and completely transformed my sense of our shared landscape by walking me through its current names and their histories--both troubled and beautiful." --Patrick Thomas, San Francisco Chronicle

"Neely's account is a solid mix of adventure story and history lesson. Recommended for anyone interested in California history." --Library Journal

"Neely's prose is luminous; his eye for detail ensures that you can practically envision yourself in the surroundings, but he doesn't lose sight of the bigger picture, either. In addition to telling the story of his journey and providing a vivid history of California's evolution, the book also tackles contemporary issues like oil and agriculture, immigration, public land issues, and development." --Jaime Herndon, Book Riot

"With irony, humor, and sincere love for the weirdness and beauty of California, Nick Neely offers a place-based adventure narrative for the Anthropocene, powered by energy drinks, taking refuge in Starbucks oases, contemplating the routes and routines of Spanish explorers nearly three hundred years ago, and revealing the resilient natural history of bushtits and coyotes amid the suburbs and highways that are contemporary California. If Cheryl Strayed or Bill Bryson had dared venture into the unexpected wilderness of the coastal region between San Diego and San Francisco, and if they had the athleticism and ecological background of a Nick Neely, they might have written something like this fascinating and entertaining travelogue." --Scott Slovic, editor of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment

"[Neely's] travelogue account of natural and human history is sprinkled with firsthand encounters with wild animals, a tarantula, ants, nettles and poison oak, as well as detailed descriptions of Native cultures and Spanish missions. He also touches on more modern-day topics such as immigration, agriculture, resources and development." --Kate Daly, The Almanac

"Beautifully written . . . Neely goes on an ambitious plunge into the heart of his home state . . . It's a journey worth taking--and savoring." --Dean Kuipers, Alta

"A wonderful read . . . This book is not only [Neely's] account of the journey itself, but a reminder of the history of our state, both natural and human." --Elayna Trucker, Napa Valley Register

"In his new book, Alta California, Neely chronicles his own journey and the layered insights he gained about history, ecology, geography and society along the way. With a background in journalism and environmental science, Neely's ever-observant eye catches all the minutiae of both the natural world he traverses and the human influence--past and present--he encounters. As a writer, he collects and organizes all these diverse images and narrative elements into a story that is both richly thoughtful and a highly entertaining read."--Chris Melville, Idaho Mountain Express

"A collage of history, chance encounters and personal reflection." --Margaret Wappler, Los Angeles Times

"Few American landscapes have been loved and filmed and written about with more passion than California's coast, fewer still with such profound cultural amnesia. Nick Neely's beautifully written Alta California, chronicling his bizarrely quixotic 650-mile walk through subdivisions and beaches and highways, offers precisely the antidote that our cultural moment demands. Tough-minded, poetic, and relentlessly strange, Alta California creates an entirely new vision of the Golden State." --Daniel Duane, author of Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast

"In fine detail, Neely binds the past to the present. He is as fearless and curious with Legoland as he is with prickly pear fruit or poking under urban bridges. Sleeping wherever he can, he goes wide-eyed into this journey, experiences magnetized to him. He could have chosen more beautiful places to walk, certainly easier routes, but his fealty to this Spanish expedition is unshakable, and he is willing to meet every obstacle and trinket along the way. The book becomes a pilgrimage, every step noted, weighed out, and laid over history where Spanish boot prints and horse tracks underlie car washes and racetracks. Time becomes so thin you forget which century you're in. That's clearly what he wants. Neely's writing makes now as real as 1769, and as relevant. This book does everything you want it to: time travel, precise reporting, and a journey into an ordinary world that turns fantastic." --Craig Childs, author of Atlas of a Lost World

"From the moment Nick Neely finds a way to hike out of the concrete confines of the San Diego airport and begins his walking trek north to San Francisco, he is a on a grand adventure. The good news is that we get to go with him. Following the tracks of ghosts, the 'Sacred Expedition' of Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolá, Neely's inspiring odyssey includes not just encounters with mountain lions and coyotes and hikes through some of the most stunningly beautiful places on earth, but side trips across army bases and to Legoland. He hikes across highways, skirts suburbs, and sleeps in dry creeks, making the 'developed' world feel unknown and primal. As he does so, we experience the same wonder he feels and begin not just to understand California's past, but to glimpse its troubled, yet still beautiful, essence. An essential book for lovers of adventure, nature, and the Golden State itself." --David Gessner, author of All the Wild That Remains

"This engaging book is what happens when a skilled naturalist brings his sharp eyes to the bizarre juxtapositions of the California landscape. Present and past, nature and culture, bungalows, Spanish missions, military bases, and the Native American Peace and Dignity Journeys mix and mingle with the California Oil Museum, Legoland, Cannery Row, water ouzels, and saxifrage. What a hike Nick Neely has taken, a true voyage of discovery on foot through the wonder and horror of how we have inhabited this place." --Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit

"Part travelogue, part historical chronicle, part personal meditation, Alta California blends research with wry observations as Nick Neely deftly meanders from south to north, from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first. Familiar landmarks take on new meaning as he literally and figuratively connects the present to its past, delivering a book that will change how readers view the California coast." --Miriam Pawel, author of The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation

"I savored Nick Neely's long California trek with great delight. Alta California is a travel narrative like none I've ever read before: frank and funny and unapologetic in its refusal to see a landscape without including the myriad histories that compose it. This is the kind of book I know I'll find myself dipping back into again and again." --Elena Passarello, essayist and author of Animals Strike Curious Poses

Praise for Coast Range

"Neely is a graceful, subtle writer with a sharp eye for the easily missed details of his surroundings."--Outside Online

"What makes Neely's collection so compelling is the detail, his artful engagement of our senses to feel the weight of the agate, taste the flake of the fish, trace the letters carved into the madrone trees, and then smell the sour decay of atonement and fall in love with this place." --Orion

"Neely poetically and introspectively guides our attention to things we might not notice or might not know, his curiosity and wonder driving each story along with his splendid powers of observation, plus a bit of research . . . Each piece feels like an adventure, an opportunity to appreciate the world, a tiny mystery solved." --Missoula Independent

"Finely tuned essays that vary intriguingly in form and tone . . . Neely capably explores the complexity of his subjects with polish and finesse, looking carefully and thinking deeply." --Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Neely's fascination with a huge swath of the Pacific Northwest coastal range is evident in this quiet essay collection that focuses on small details described in carefully studied prose . . . This is the sort of introspective writing that will appeal strongly to readers seeking to gain a deeper appreciation of their environment, and those with curiosity about or longing for the region he knows so well. Neely clearly spent a lot of time watching and listening, both to the people and animals that call the area home, and his observations have real staying power."--Booklist

"Fans of Joseph Wood Krutch, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir will enjoy these essays even if they are not familiar with the specific geographic area." --Library Journal

"In Nick Neely's new book, Coast Range: A Collection From the Pacific Edge, he aptly captures that childlike sense of wonder about the natural world . . . The essays are just as pleasant to read for his meticulously arranged prose and artfully crafted imagery as they are for their educational qualities."--Idaho Mountain Express

"Nick Neely is a searcher and, lucky for us, a collector as well. Coast Range is his collection, his 'open-air curiosity cabinet, ' full of newts, agates, madrones, mushrooms, coyote, salmon, paw prints, bones and beautiful sentences. He is a precise writer and his essays are brilliant in the shining sense. But as well as being an accurate observer of the natural world, he is an exuberant participant, and we are both pulled in and lifted up by his generous, buoyant and ever-curious spirit. An important book, and one full of life and joy." --David Gessner, author of All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West

"These are nature essays with a difference: the sureness and delicacy with which Nick Neely directs our attention from the miracles of the outer world to the gyroscopic peculiarities of his consciousness make for a very satisfying reading experience." --Phillip Lopate, author of To Show and Tell and The Art of the Personal Essay

"Welcome a strong new voice for the silver beaches, pine forests, and shining rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Like the agates in his pockets, Nick Neely's essays are highly polished, translucent, but shot through with hard veins of natural science. Imagine Wallace Stegner in conversation with Ed Ricketts, when they are both young and still astonished. Then you can begin to understand the creativity, the power, the beauty, and the fun of Coast Range." --Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Great Tide Rising

"What a superb writer Nick Neely is and just the kind of natural history observer we need in a time of fierce change. He enlivens chiton, newt, hummingbird in the sapling outside the Safeway, and more, with keen eyes and ears, quick veers of mind and syntax, and an abiding sense of the connection between the wild and the made worlds. Precise, gorgeous and imaginatively wed to both science and myth, his rendering of Coyote brings the creature smack-dab into twenty-first-century America, as soul-troubling as ever he was in myth and landscape. A fine collection to read and savor." --Alison Hawthorne Deming, author of Zoologies and The Edges of the Civilized World

"I hate nature essays, but I like Nick Neely's nature essays. That's because while there's nature here, he doesn't default to reverence in the face of the sublime; he doesn't crow about conservation or bore us with rhapsodies of trees. Instead he's drawn to people, weirdos and obsessives like himself: homesteaders, trappers, buffet captains, game wardens, biologists, and duchesses. This book's an obsessive and glorious cataloging of the natural world and its effects: how it changes us and is changed by us." --Ander Monson, author of Neck Deep and Letter to a Future Lover

"Neely's vigilant, wry commentaries on his native patch of the west coast are not only in the tradition of Thoreau's Walden but in an older and wider one that he shares with Thoreau: what Thoreau calls 'the great-dragon Tree' of mythic vision that is associated with Homer and Sophocles but also lives in Aristotle, Herodotus, Pliny, and other classical naturalists." --David Rains Wallace, author of The Klamath Knot

Related Products