Heart of Blandness: A Walking Tour of Silicon Valley

Walking is the only pleasant form of traveling by land. You need no special equipment, training, money, e-tickets, antidepressants, or Twitter followers. Whatever clothes you're wearing will do fine; a hat and shoes are optional. When I've got a few days to spend somewhere, I spend them walking around. So I spent a few days walking around Silicon Valley.

We all know Silicon Valley, whether we want to or not. It's where the carefully cultivated children of privilege go to make immense amounts of money—not so much by selling goods and services to regular people, for a profit, but by selling companies to other Silicon Valley companies. It's a Ponzi scheme that nobody there really complains about, because everyone is pretty wealthy at the start. Failure in "the Valley" usually means a buyout, or exile as a consultant or freelancer, still providing a standard of living far beyond what 90 percent of Americans will ever enjoy.

Silicon Valley is also marketed as The Future of Humanity.

But as a human landscape, it's a crushingly boring sunny suburban slab of freeways, fast food, traffic, and long smoggy boulevards of faded retail sprawling out to endless housing developments of sand-colored stucco boxes. It's Phoenix with milder weather, Orlando minus the mosquitos.

Tech-loving travelers come from around the world to see Silicon Valley, but there's nothing to see—no Times Square, no French Quarter, just low-rise office parks and security guards circling the parking lots. Could anything be gained by walking from corporate landmark to corporate landmark? Maybe not, but two days of walking always beats two days of looking at a computer, even if I'd be walking from technology company to technology company.

I looked on a map—Google map on an iPhone, because I'm as guilty as anyone—and found the four big names that usually come to mind when "the Valley" is mentioned. There they were, in opposite corners on the map, like princedoms in medieval Germany: Facebook, Apple, Yahoo!, and Google. Roughly in the middle sits Stanford University and Sand Hill Road, a precision system of entrepreneurial education, networking, and funding that ensures a steady supply of new princes and an occasional king.

From an East Bay BART station to an empty express bus across the Dumbarton Bridge, I got to Stanford and stood blinking in the sun for a while, watching homeless men go through the trash at the transit center.

My pedestrian route would require more than 30 miles of walking around this anti-pedestrian landscape. I did it over two long-but-disconnected days, splitting the suburban hike only because it was impossible to find a hotel at any price after my first 15-mile day—there was a tech conference with big-name music acts flown in to entertain the millionaires, and not even the old wino motels on El Camino Real had a vacancy.

The fog mostly stays up in San Francisco or along the coast, so the days were mild and sunny down here on the peninsula, where it eases into what remains of the bay marshlands. With the Santa Cruz mountains on the horizon—the vista that Mountain View is named for—this coastal plain must have been something like the Serengeti before the Gold Rush of 1849. The California Grizzly roamed the wetlands, great herds of pronghorn antelope ran through the grasslands, and the still-present mountain lions watched from the rock outcroppings and stands of oak.

After the Gold Rush, the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford established his gigantic rancho 30 miles south of San Francisco. Like so many Californians since, Stanford was determined to build a civilization in this paradise that would rival anything on the East Coast, anything in Europe itself.

Today, Stanford University stretches over 8,180 acres—that's 10 Central Parks—of multi-level garages and the occasional academic building. There are students here and there on bicycles, but very few pedestrians and none of the relaxed hanging around and clouds of marijuana smoke common to Cal Berkeley across the bay. Stanford's northern boundary is marked by a Neiman Marcus-anchored shopping mall and the legendary Sand Hill Road—legendary because it's where the venture capital firms have their offices in lookalike stucco-and-smoked-glass strip malls and corporate parks. Bits of plastic bags and kleenex flutter in the roadside weeds as a steady stream of luxury sedans and sports cars zoom past.

I am hungry and equipped with nothing but a bottle of water and a light jacket in my daypack. The breakfast hour turns to lunchtime and I turn to Yelp, which directs me to the closest mall, across the street from Palo Alto High School.

The student lunch crowd is clearing out for the wealthy housewife-and-retiree contingent. In California enclaves like Santa Barbara and Santa Monica and Palo Alto, it is the height of urban life to drive to a particular type of rough-wood-and-mission-tile mall and have a hundred-dollar lunch while sitting outside next to the acres of parked cars. I pick the French-style cafe for my own delayed breakfast and get an outdoor table, where I watch a promenade of silly little dogs and their owners clad in Patagonia layers and running shoes.

The local paper is mostly real-estate ads, the crime blotter heavy on Oakland men arrested for various property crimes. (The police, effectively a private security force for the rich, have pioneered the use of license-plate readers to identify potential criminals from across the bay.)

There's a brief report on Steve Jobs' childhood home becoming a historical landmark, alongside a story about an old man in a Mercedes hopping out and punching a bicyclist. I'm not far from Steve Jobs' final residence, so I ask Siri for directions and eventually type it all into Google Maps myself, because Siri is worthless.

Jobs' neighborhood is pleasant and quiet, most of the houses from a time before the rise of those vulgar modern mansions spilling over every legally available square foot of residential lot. Of the houses I see for sale, my real-estate app says the most affordable is a very modest three-bedroom rancher for $2.5 million. It's a blandly beautiful day, like most days here, and I am the only person on the sidewalks beyond a domestic servant talking to her mobile phone while walking a furious little dog. A few bicyclists race by in their bicycling costumes, and as I approach the Apple co-founder's house I spot construction workers across the street, converting a ranch-style house into a multi-story monstrosity.

Old Palo Alto is an agreeable walking neighborhood, and Jobs routinely took advantage of it—according to that Walter Isaacson biography, the Apple CEO's favorite kind of business meeting was an hours-long walk with his tech executive buddies. Tour buses apparently bring loads of foreign visitors to this relatively modest home on Waverly, but on this midday afternoon I see nobody around but a pair of Latino gardeners working near the garage, one with the leaf blower and another spreading wood chips.

A few blocks to the southwest, it's a honky tonk highway of rundown apartment courts and mattress stores surrounded by seas of cracked asphalt. This is El Camino Real, the old King's Highway and one of many wide boulevards and freeways that connect the various pockets of the valley. It is demeaningly loud and ugly here, and after one short mile I stop for coffee and a rest at a Peet's franchise. All the tables are occupied, so I sit at the counter along the storefront glass and eavesdrop on the three meetings happening immediately behind me. There are two Indian guys in suits trying to sell something to each other, a woman who looks like a realtor pitching a Christian dating idea, and another two people who keep banging their laptop screens together on the tiny table. John McAfee, the fugitive and anti-virus software guy, is scowling from the cover of the local alt-weekly paper.

My pilgrimage route leads to Cupertino now, which means more chain stores and suburbs and condo units with carports. Within a mile of Apple headquarters, I'm stuck at an endless red light where one six-lane boulevard crosses a busy four-lane road. I take out my phone and snap a picture of this suffocating banality.

Heart of Blandness: A Walking Tour of Silicon Valley

There's a neighborhood of Eichler knockoffs, like the modernist mid-century house where Steve Jobs grew up, then a 1970s block of Brady Bunch houses in various states of decay or vulgarization, and then the cement-block wall at the end of a cul-de-sac opens to an immense office park, white charter buses loaded with the 5 o'clock crowd headed back to San Francisco.

Mixed in with the infamous private buses is a tour charter waiting for a Chinese group. They're pouring out of the on-site Apple Store, carrying elegant white boxes filled with iPads and iPhones that were manufactured not here, but in China.

Heart of Blandness: A Walking Tour of Silicon Valley

Take a tour of Wall Street and you'll find dozens of fancy restaurants where you can order a steak and a martini and listen to traders bitch about their bosses and their wives. Silicon Valley doesn't encourage lunches "off campus," so every big tech company has a master chef overseeing a menu of delicious and fresh food. The employees have no reason to leave—gyms, coffee, even haircuts and routine car maintenance can be handled without leaving the mothership.

This makes the employees entirely dependent on the company for every aspect of life. And it ensures that the surrounding neighborhoods are completely starved of people and decent places to eat. The restaurant closest to Apple's world famous headquarters at One Infinite Loop is some dubious Marie Calendar's-style mall diner called "BJ's." Within a few blocks, it's all liquor stores and check-cashing joints and freeway overpasses.

Heart of Blandness: A Walking Tour of Silicon Valley

The Facebook office park is surrounded by marshland, at the edge of the unfashionably rundown East Palo Alto, but again the campus is so insulated from whatever's around that it hardly matters. You drive in, you park, you leave when it's time to sleep. Across the giant boulevard is a construction site—the new Facebook campus, a self-contained rectangle that might as well be on an island—and a mini-mall with a taco stand, a nail parlor and a Jack in the Box.

This is one of many times when I realize that walking the entirety of Silicon Valley is not illuminating at all. Nobody at Facebook walks this rotten road with its mile-long run-down apartment complexes and the Comcast bill collector leaving shutoff notices on the doors. Nobody at Facebook cares about East Palo Alto's terrible murder rate. Besides, that will all be fixed in a few years, when these last "bad neighborhoods" are recolonized and rehabilitated by the pioneering young couples making ends meet on combined annual salaries of $250,000.

Highway 101 runs through this side of the Valley, a treacherous concrete river that can only be crossed by the occasional overpass or pedestrian bridge. I navigate down semi-rural residential streets, the mature trees busy with weird black squirrels. This patch of big woodsy lots with modest houses gives way to a short stretch of mismatched apartments and cottages all managed by an affordable-housing agency. A dry creek in concrete casing runs around it like a moat. One tiny bridge, barely big enough for a single car and nearly obscured by overgrown trees, leads out of the poor part of town into Palo Alto itself. This is the most dangerous part of the whole journey, because of the luxury sedans racing across the tiny bridge. It is an effective and apparently legal method of keeping The Poors where they belong.

Heart of Blandness: A Walking Tour of Silicon Valley

A terrifyingly long and tall pedestrian/bicycle bridge—the kind of place guaranteed to get the calmest person thinking about earthquakes—gets me back over the 101 beyond a new complex of investment firms and a Four Seasons hotel. As with any place where the rich travel by automobile, pedestrians using the sidewalk are led away from the luxury buildings hidden behind menacing walls. But there is a respite from the concrete, finally, as Baylands Park provides trails and views of hawks swooping down into the marsh grass. It's only a mile or so before I'm forced back to a bleak bicycle lane along Highway 101's frontage road.

This dull landscape of truck exhaust and noise doesn't end until the Intuit campus, miles of buildings dedicated to Turbo Tax programming, employee cafeterias, ergonomics, shipping, and of course security. My phone claims I'm walking along something identified as the "Berlin Wall." While I never match the name to a specific place, the whole built environment is a Berlin Wall. Minus a badge from a big tech company, I'm an East German just gawking at the featureless buildings, wondering if the people inside are half as bored as I would be, stuck in there, trying to understand tax forms or wrist braces.

Anyway, who cares about Intuit. Sure, it makes a lot of money selling popular products that really do "empower" people, at least in the realm of tax preparation and household accounting. When you tell people you're walking through Silicon Valley, they mostly ask about Google. The Googleplex.

Heart of Blandness: A Walking Tour of Silicon Valley

In the popular culture, it's a private utopia where everybody makes a ton of money and still gets everything for free: gourmet dining, bicycles, hoops, and soccer fields, transportation to and from distant apartments in San Francisco. But like every "campus" around here, it's tedious and dull, pushed up against the scraped dirt zone around a golf course, muddy drainage canals full of beer bottles and old tires cutting between the buildings. The family of mallards down there seems pretty happy. All the people are talking to their phones, even the ones walking alongside other people. A few whimsical statues based on the Android logo are there for tourists to have something to photograph.

As at Apple's HQ, the dining choices are nonexistent. For a hungry two miles, Yelp cannot find a single restaurant open to the public. Eventually there's an office park deli and a noodle shop, and then nothing again until I see a an empty pizza place and a deserted sports bar. The sports bar will at least have beer, I hope, but I sit at the empty bar completely ignored for a full fifteen minutes. It's enough time to recharge my phone.

Heart of Blandness: A Walking Tour of Silicon Valley

When the razor-wire fencing appears with the ominous government warnings, it's only a clumsier version of the social control methods the big corporate campuses have perfected. This is NASA's spot at Moffett Field, where giant military blimps were once housed in the even bigger Hangars 1, 2 and 3. As I walk along the airfield, security men in white pickups glare at me from the other side of the fence. And not long after my walk, the local newspaper reveals that Google is taking over this historic airfield, too. The executives already use it for their private jets.

The Silicon Valley style of techno-libertarianism is effective enough as propaganda that smart people are still surprised by Google's routine behavior, whether providing the NSA with limitless data on the people who foolishly trust Google with their privacy, to the American space agency handing over its longtime home at Moffett Field so Google can run a private airline on U.S. government runways.

But the libertarian computer wankery is really nothing more than a mythology churned out by born-rich people who've convinced themselves they've "bootstrapped" themselves into immense power and wealth.

Silicon Valley is actually a century-long experiment in Military-Intelligence Capitalism, going back to 1912, when a Stanford graduate got a radio patent, started up the Federal Telegraph Corporation in Palo Alto, and immediately signed the U.S. Navy as a major client. The Pentagon and NASA and DARPA and the vast American intelligence octopus have all rewarded Silicon Valley with billions of dollars in contracts, year after year. Surveillance experts move seamlessly between the worlds of "private" Silicon Valley and the "government" back in D.C. and Langley and Silver Spring, and the FBI is active around the world enforcing the Valley's trademarks, patents and copyrights.

As my long urban hike ended with another corporate campus—Yahoo! this time, a company so boring that I didn't even bother crossing the lawns to look inside the main lobby—I felt the way Mark Twain felt about golf. Wandering all over the automobile sprawl of Silicon Valley was "a good walk spoiled."

Still, it was roughly accurate. A civilian can go to a lot of trouble and walk around the perimeter of these technology campuses, but the guts of the operation are completely hidden, like Google's cooperation with the NSA Prism program or Facebook's shady selling of "Likes" from third-world click farms or Apple hiding Steve Jobs' incurable cancer for years. The dumbest Silicon Valley blowhards talk openly about separating Silicon Valley from the rest of the state or even from the rest of the governed world, but in reality it has already happened.

Ken Layne walks about 25 miles a week. You should try it! But probably not in Silicon Valley. Image by Jim Cooke; photo via Getty,