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Reflections from the 2019 Stanford to the Sea hike: Contemplating the stories we tell

Melissa De Witte
May 15 2019

Two hikers at the pacific

Walking from Stanford to the sea in a day is a story. The annual hike, organized by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, begins at 6:45 in the morning at Stanford’s Jasper Biological Preserve and continues for 21.3 miles through Wunderlich County Park, Skyline Boulevard, Purisima Creek with a final, four-mile push on Purisima Creek Road until finally reaching California State Route 1 at around 5pm.

The 10-hour trek comes with bragging rights and is a story past and present hikers tell friends and colleagues to demonstrate character – after all, it takes a certain type of person who chooses to wake up at dawn on their Saturday and walk 22 miles in day. 

But this is where I, as a first time Stanford to Sea hiker, pause. What is there to boast about, as I consider the complicated history of the land I had the privilege of walking through? 

Throughout the hike, a series of talks were delivered by friends and affiliates of the center. Each speaker offered their own perspective about how to take in the environment – from paying respect to its Native American roots to observing the effects of industry and climate change. As my legs got heavier with each of the 50,000 steps it took me to get from Palo Alto to the Pacific Ocean, so did the words of the stories I heard. 

In her opening remarks, Nona Chiariello, a staff scientist at Stanford’s Jasper Biological Preserve, reminded that the land has a long ancestral lineage, beginning some 5000 years ago with the local indigenous people, the Muwekma Ohlone.  

Stories can challenge assumptions. It would be easy to assume that walking through the forest by Skyline Boulevard and down Purisima Creek that the land had never been developed, said Jeffrey Schwegman, the Humanities and Arts Initiatives Coordinator in the Stanford School of Humanities and Science. 

But the environment has always been impacted by human action; and the seemingly pristine landscape is anything but, he said. Some 340,000 indigenous peoples thrived off the environment before the Spanish missionaries and other settlers came to California in the 18th century, Schwegman pointed out. He described how the Muwekma Ohlone carefully managed the environment for centuries, for example, ridding forest brush with fire and clearing meadows to attract game animals (learn more here).

Stories are often described as a power, a celebrated superhero-like magic that can bring people together. But stories can also tear people apart. 

California’s settlers had a different story in mind for the land the Ohlone cared for: development and capital. This narrative continues well into present day as regulators and industry battle over the country’s limited resources – coal, oil and gas but also clean air and water, as David Hayes, who served as Deputy Secretary of the Interior during the Obama and Clinton administrations and now the executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at New York University School of Law, reminded us at the end of the day.    

 

Nature’s unnatural roots 

Stories are everywhere. 

Robert Siegel, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford School of Medicine and avid nature photographer urged us to look under a log and see what lurks between the bark and earth. What’s the story there, he asked. 

The thing about stories, as Siegel’s question hints at, is there are some stories that risk being buried or forgotten – some swept beneath the forest floor while others remain hidden in plain sight.

For example, the many redwood logs and stumps are a reminder that most California redwoods are second growth, replanted only after the 1850s logging industry depleted many of the state’s forests. There are only a few places in the state where old-growth redwoods and sequoias remain. Some 90 percent of the state’s redwoods have been logged at least once, said Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Even our second growth redwoods are at risk – the earth’s rising temperature means less coastal fog which the towering trees rely upon for their moisture. 

Now, California is a “museum ecosystem,” said Field, who posed the question regarding how to think about environmental stewardship in an era of climate change. People say stories must be preserved; and so too must the environment – and like any museum or archive, managed.

But even environmental management today is a challenge – the other thing about stories is they contain facts with competing interests – ask any quarrelling couple, roommate or lawyer. Facts can be debated and denied. Facts have become hoaxes and vice versa, hoaxes have become fact.  

 

Rethinking what the “power of storytelling” means 

Stories and power are often described in much the same way. Power, like a story, can be influenced, manipulated, leveraged, swayed, distributed. There are also authoritative accounts and conflicting ones. There are sides that are weighed, balanced, checked and some unchecked.  Much like power, there are narratives that dominate over others. As Hayes pointed out in his talk – and in a recent article– any casual observer would believe the Trump administration has been successful in rolling back many of Obama-era environmental regulations. But state attorney generals and environmental groups have found an overwhelming success challenging these rollbacks in courts – about 90 percent of cases have been won, he said. 

Stories can be different than reality. They can be reduced or inflated. Sometimes, there can be unintentional exaggerations or creative embellishments – a close reader of this piece would notice how early in this story the 21.3 mile trek became a tidy 22. Storytelling is a risky business.

Throughout the hike, forget-me-nots dotted the trail – an invasive species I learned. What’s their story? What is it that these little flowers don’t want us to forget, so determined that they are overrunning the environment pleading to be remembered?

It was stories that carried me all the way to the Pacific Ocean. I heard stories about classes taught and classes taken. I heard anecdotes about children and childhood, growing up and growing old. We told stories even of stories – books read, radio programs listened to. And we talked about getting lost, getting found and getting lost again. 

Stories can take you to other places. When my feet finally reached San Gregorio beach and I felt the sand and water swirl between my toes, I realized that sometimes, stories can take you where you are meant to be: right here, right now. 

 

 

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