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May 8, 2009
Preparations: Where to walk

Russell at Mossdale Crossing bridge outside of Lathrop (in the pouring rain), near Highway 5 and the San Joaquin River

ďThanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.Ē
Ė Charles Kuralt

For my upcoming 160-mile birthday walk, I have decided to walk a path as close as possible to the one that we normally drive when we travel from the Bay Area to Gold Country. The one and only reason is that I would like to see all of the things that I normally miss when Iím whizzing by at 65+ miles per hour all the time.

Following this guideline has been difficult, and at times completely impossible. The simple facts are that (1) it is illegal to walk on the freeways, and (2) sometimes there just arenít any other roads that run anywhere near the freeways.

The first fact is a good rule that I happen to wholeheartedly agree with. The second fact caught me repeatedly by surprise. When I think of Gold Country especially, I think of a time when there were no cars Ė when men and families forced their way across the mountains and deserts in wagons, by horse, or on foot. (It still amazes me to think that hundreds of people died traversing distances in months that we can now drive in minutes.) Apparently, we now live in a time when you physically cannot get from Point A to Point B without a motorized vehicle capable of freeway speeds.

For the most part, I have been able to find walkable roads that run near to, if not adjacent to, the main freeways. There are three sections that have given me a particular challenge.

First is the Altamont Pass itself. Crossing this pass is one of the high priorities of my walk, as these mountains separate the Santa Clara Valley (the ďBay AreaĒ) from Californiaís Central Valley. This is a section that my son Joss specifically wants to walk with me. Plus, itís strikingly beautiful, especially with the hundreds of windmills that cover it. California State Highway 580 crosses the pass, and in fact traffic slows to a crawl twice a day as thousands of commuters drive from their bedroom-community homes in Tracy and Livermore to their jobs in the Bay Area.

Fortunately, this first challenge was fairly easy to solve. Just north of Highway 580 is an old road called Altamont Pass Road. We use this as an alternate when traffic is heavy, and I will use it once more. Iím actually looking forward to this part of the walk, on a little-traveled winding road that parallels the railroad tracks.

Altamont Pass Road (red) meanders to the north of Highway 580 (blue)

The second challenge is where Highway 205 (which 580 turns into) runs into Highway 5 just east of Tracy. Highway 5 is the main north-south artery of California, running all the way from Canada to Mexico. At the junction where 5 meets 205, 5 happens to run parallel to the San Joaquin River. There is no road that runs parallel to either 5 or 205. There is not even a road that crosses 5 or the San Joaquin River where I will be (other than 205 itself and a railroad bridge).

The junction of Highways 5 (north-south) and 205 (east-west) Ė there is no road that goes from the east side of Highway 5 in Lathrop all the way to Tracy

When I first tried to map a walking route from Lathrop to Tracy that avoided freeways, mapquest gave me a whopping 24+ mile path.

It was Gail to the rescue, as usual. She spent hours poring over the aerial-view maps of the area on google. Finally, she called the city of Lathrop and spoke to a very nice City Manager. Apparently, there are several tractor tunnels that cross underneath Highway 5. These donít appear on any map, as they are intended specifically for the local farmers who need to cross back and forth from the west to the east. Even better, there a fairly new footbridge that crosses both Highway 5 and the San Joaquin River. And even even better, there is a footpath that follows the ridge of the levee next to the River.

Of course, none of these show up on any street map. So despite Gailís reassurances, I needed to know not only that I could cross Highway 5 and the San Joaquin River, but that I could also continue my journey all the way into Tracy. I didnít want to cross the River and end up in some farmerís cow pasture in the middle of nowhere.

So on Saturday, May 2, Gail and I drove up to Lathrop to scope out the situation for ourselves. In the pouring rain, we walked the levee path and the footbridge. We discovered a foot/bike path that connects two otherwise dead-end roads, creating a complete link between Lathrop and Tracy. This path was also not on any map Ė in fact, the route that was on the map turned out to be fenced closed. Overall it was a worthwhile trip, and an enjoyable way to spend a rainy day.

The third challenge is back on the western end of Highway 580 near Pleasanton. Here, there is simply no road that runs anywhere near Highway 580. The only through road runs several miles to the south. This wouldnít be so bad, except that all of the motels are back up near the freeway. The only solution here is that I will have to walk several miles out of the way to the south, then walk several miles out of the way back to the north in order to eat and sleep.

In Pleasanton, I will walk several miles to the south (red), then turn and walk several miles back to the north Ė because all of the motels are next to the freeway (blue)

Iíll talk more about exactly what Iím eating and where Iím sleeping in my next entry.

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