A Pilgrim’s Odyssey, or There and Back Again, Part 1

The day before Thanksgiving in support of this blog I pulled a stunt: I traveled the entire length of El Camino Real. Okay, that’s an exaggeration; I didn’t go all the way from San Diego to Sonoma. But since I live in the Bay Area my interest in El Camino focuses on the Santa Clara Valley and the San Francisco Peninsula. So that’s what I did. I took a single journey up El Camino Real from downtown San Jose to Mission Dolores in San Francisco, some 45 miles. I didn’t drive; that would have kept me from properly sight-seeing. I didn’t walk or bike, but maybe I will some day. Horse, ass, and ox were out of the question, so I did the next best thing. I took the bus.

I’ve known for a while I had to take this trip. I’m blogging about El Camino so it’s required for credibility that I put some rubber on the road. Over the years I have made countless excursions to El Camino as has everyone who lives or works remotely close to it, but many of my trips are perpendicular. I take cross streets to El Camino, do my business, then leave. Naturally I’ll go up and down the street for short distances as required, like from Stanford to Mountain View, or from Santa Clara to Sunnyvale. But for anything longer than 10 miles, we all do the mental calculation and find another way like U.S. 101 or Interstate 280. I did a little experiment with Google Maps directions to see how far up El Camino it would send me. For a 5.1 mile trip from San Jose to Santa Clara, it says take El Camino. But stretch it out one more block to 5.3 miles and it sends me up U.S. 101 instead; it’s out-of-the-way but shaves two minutes off the trip.

My point is I’ve always experienced El Camino Real in short bursts because in this day and age we have many transportation options. El Camino has become a destination and has faded as a long-distance thoroughfare. That’s fine; that’s progress. But for the sake of this blog and my own curiosity I decided to go back to its roots and take a good long journey up the King’s Highway to see what I could discover.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving was the perfect opportunity to take this trip. I had the day off from work. My wife had to work and my son’s school was closed for the day but my father-in-law was visiting us from the East Coast so my skedaddling left him free to spend the day with his favorite grandson. My intention was to leave early like 6:00 AM or 9:00 AM but it didn’t work out that way. I spent the morning writing the El Camino International Airport posting and by the time I finished that it was nearly midday. This delay would come back to bite me later.

I had  planned out the trip the night before. I would take a bus to downtown San Jose then catch the northbound VTA line 522. The 522 is a limited-stop express bus line which starts in East San Jose then goes through Downtown San Jose up El Camino Real to the Palo Alto Caltrain station. In Palo Alto I would transfer to the SamTrans 390, which continues the trip up El Camino to Daly City. Originally I thought I’d terminate my trip in Daly City but then I had the idea to transfer to Muni and continue up Mission Street in San Francisco to 16th street, then walk a few blocks to Mission San Francisco de Asís, a fitting terminus. The plan was to spend a little time at the Mission, then take the same buses in reverse all the way back home.

I packed light but I was well-prepared. I wore an old pair of blue jeans in case I sat in something regrettable—an unshakable bourgeois prejudice against public transportation. I wore my good hiking boots for the walk to the Mission, though I didn’t opt for the hiking socks. Up top I dressed in layers because temperatures can fluctuate: a long-sleeve wicking undershirt, a thick fleece pullover, and a lightweight jacket. My favorite wool cap completed the ensemble. I brought a backpack but it didn’t have much in it: a pen-and-paper notebook for journaling my journey, my favorite El Camino books as good luck talismans, a video recorder, and a Solio charger for my cell phone. I had a pile of dollar coins and a roll of quarters in my pocket for hassle-free fare. And of course I had my smartphone for staying in touch, looking up maps and schedules, and taking geo-tagged photos.

The original plan was to pack snacks and stop for lunch somewhere along the way, maybe in between buses in Palo Alto. But Wednesday morning I was working so hard and running so late that I neglected to eat breakfast. It was lunchtime by the time I was ready to leave but I didn’t want to take the time to eat lunch before I left so I made a gut decision: I would fast for the whole trip. No food, just water. It felt like the right thing to do, a spiritual fast to consecrate a pilgrimage to a holy place along an ancient road. It wasn’t about religion, but I find that El Camino Real is a multi-faceted symbol that reaches me on an instinctive level so when the symbolic gesture of fasting occurred to me, I went with it. Besides it was low-risk; if I really needed to eat I was hardly in the wilderness. As I was to learn, on El Camino Real you’re never far away from a Taco Bell. So before I stepped out my front door I popped a multivitamin (a modern concession), loaded a quart and a half of water in my backpack, and off I went.

Time: 12:15 PM
Place: North San Jose
Route: VTA 66 Southbound
Fare: $6.00
Total: $6.00

At 12:07 PM I walked a couple blocks to the bus stop and had a short wait to catch the VTA route 66 (get your kicks!) downtown. I bought a $6 VTA day pass. There were plenty of seats so I chose one in the middle on the right side of the bus. I quickly realized that the seats in the middle of the bus were set very low so it was difficult to see out the windows. The seats in the back were higher and had better views so I made a mental note to sit back there on the next bus.

At the timepoint stop at the Civic Center Light Rail station there was a bit of commotion and yelling outside but it turned out to be the light rail operator and a buddy of his joking with our driver. I got off at 2nd and Santa Clara downtown and walked a block up Santa Clara to catch the 522.

Next installment…The Blue Blur.

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