Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ten Years After: Touring the Southwest

Ten years ago, in September 2002, I took a three-week road trip around California and the American Southwest. The reason for it was simple: I had some time to kill. I needed to be in San Francisco on September 10 to give a presentation at Seybold SF (remember the biannual Seybold shows?), and then I had to be at an event in Las Vegas three weeks later. At that time, I did not fly (what I refer to as “the good old days”) thanks to a series of horrible flights in early 2000 that involved bad turbulence and even worse airlines. So it made no sense to take the train out to SF, come back to Saratoga, then go all the way back Las Vegas. So I made it a lengthy “working vacation.”

Prologue—A Horace of a Different Color
On September 6, I took the train from Albany (two weeks before they opened the new Albany-Rensselaer station—gosh, I remember what a pit the old one had been!) to Los Angeles, via Chicago, rented a car at Union Station in LA, and, upon hitting the 110 Freeway, immediately remembered why I hated Southern California for the three-and-a-half years I lived there—the traffic. I will never complain about I-87 (Saratoga to Albany) again (oh, yes I will). I made it up to San Francisco and, after spiraling around for 45 minutes, I finally hit upon the one combination of streets that would lead to the hotel I was staying at (the one-way streets of San Francisco are very difficult to navigate). Driving in San Francisco is like a bad video game—kind of a combination of a maze and that old arcade game Paperboy, where random objects—like bicycles, vans, trucks, pedestrians—shoot out at you at random.
I did my shtik in San Francisco, then drove down the coast, basing my itinerary on an idea I got from a coworker of mine: visit the California missions between S.F. and L.A., for a little bit of a California history lesson, with stops at Hearst Castle and Solvang. In L.A., I stayed with David G. in Torrance, took a day trip to Catalina, and then set off to explore Arizona (Lowell Observatory, Monument Valley, etc.). There was even an ostrich farm.
This was a working trip and not an actual vacation; TrendWatch—and there were two versions—was very much active at this time and I had a lot of assorted projects to work on. I had, at the time, a tangerine Apple iBook (ugh, the thought...) with a built-in screaming superfast 56K modem. This was before WiFi (and even before any kind of high-speed Internet access was readily available, although I had Roadrunner at home), and I had to get e-mail and file stories and reports using dial-up in hotel rooms—I remember how slow that used to be, and if anyone ever sent me a picture, it could take hours to download. How far we’ve come in 10 years!
What also struck me during this trip was how superfluous all the possessions in my life really were; basically, everything I needed to do my job and live my life fit in one large-ish suitcase, a garment bag, and a laptop case. I really didn’t miss all the other crap that cluttered up my apartment (aside from a few CDs, although I had a first-generation iPod with me at the time, but it didn’t hold much).
While I was on this trip, I wrote a frequent (if not daily, then every-few-days-ly) travelogue, which I would e-mail to selected friends and family (I did not start this blog until a year later), along with custom postcards.
I came across this stuff while organizing some backup CDs and hard drives and thought it would be interesting to post these after all these years. So over the next week or so, as my schedule permits, I will post these travelogues. Here is the first installment of what I called “Missions Impossible,” starting just south of San Francisco, chosen because it was the site where Alfred Hitchcock filmed portions of Vertigo.
Phase 1: Missions Impossible
Mission San Juan Bautista (named after John the Baptist) is the 15th in a chain of 21 Spanish missions constructed up and down the California coast during the 18th and 19th centuries. Stretching from San Diego to Sonoma (north of San Francisco) along El Camino Real (“The Royal Road,” which comprises much of U.S. 101 today), the missions were a rather unique attempt by Spain to colonize the New World, specifically California, which they rather optimistically called New Spain. To that end, the Spanish monarchy ordered the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church to get on with it. Their primary goal, naturally, was to convert the indigenous peoples (the Native Americans) to Christianity.
The missions were set up to function as religious, cultural, and agricultural centers and smallish towns rose up around them. The Native Americans were nonplused at first, but eventually warmed to the idea (as if they had a choice), and they were trained in masonry, candlemaking, farming, ranching and, of course, winemaking (from Day One winemaking was big juju in California—after all, wine is a crucial element in the Catholic faith). For protection against other European powers, presidios (or “forts”) were located nearby. The first mission was actually built on the grounds of a presidio, but everyone quickly learned that the soldiers were, shall we say, far less charitable toward the Native American population than the padres (enforced conversion is bad enough, but raping and slaughtering is something else entirely) so the decision was quickly made to put some distance between the two structures in the future.
Priesthood has its privileges.
The first mission was constructed in what is now San Diego (whence the San Diego Padres), and the Franciscans gradually migrated north. When the 21 missions were completed, they were spaced exactly one day’s journey apart. In fact, most of today’s California coast cities and towns started as missions—San Diego, San Fernando, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo (named after Saint Louis, the bishop—“obispo”—of Toulouse), Santa Cruz, San Jose, Santa Clara, Carmel, and others.
San Francisco, it should be noted, began life as Mission San Francisco de Asis (after Francis of Assisi), although it became popularly known as Mission Dolores, after the Arroyo de los Dolores where the mission was built. The town that grew up nearby was originally called Yerba Buena, which means “good herb.” Yes, it’s San Francisco but that doesn’t mean what you think—it was a reference to a species of mint that grew abundantly in the area. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.
The mission period did not last long. Europeans brought disease to the Native American population, and a series of devastating earthquakes in the 19th century damaged or leveled many of the early missions. In 1834, California was taken over by Mexico, which enforced “secularization,” forcing the Church to give up the missions, and the missions fell into abandonment and ruin. In the 20th century, private organizations have helped restore many of the missions, and most are still active churches. Which is fortunate; whatever one’s gripes with the theology, the fact is that these structures are quite magnificent.
Anyway, back to San Juan Bautista. Mission San Juan Bautista was constructed in 1797 and almost immediately the padres knew it was a bad idea. They didn’t know it at the time, but the mission was built right on top of the San Andreas Fault. Doh! It was reported that for a time in 1798 the priests had to sleep outside as the ground shook nearly constantly. Talk about your holy rollers… Anyway, all this whole lotta shaking going on did not do good things to the structure, and today only about half the original mission remains.
Filmgoers may remember Mission San Juan Bautista as a location in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and much of the location is recognizable. The livery stable in which Jimmy Stewart has his famous kiss with Kim Novak remains intact (complete with plastic horse), and the bottom of the belltower stairs which Stewart couldn’t climb are still there. As for the belltower from which Kim Novak falls to her doom, that had never been there to begin with. The original belltower had been destroyed in the 1906 earthquake; Hitchcock used special effects to optically insert a belltower where the original had been. 
In the 1970s, a campanile (“bell wall”) was added. Although it is in the style of similar structures that were in vogue during the mission period, San Juan Bautista never had one before.
From seeing Vertigo, one gets the sense that the place is out in the middle of nowhere, but it is actually right in the middle of downtown San Juan Bautista. Not that San Juan Bautista is a bustling metropolis, but two blocks from the mission is a downtown “strip” that includes a few pubs, restaurants, and antique stores.
Although I had not (apparently) included separate write-ups of the other missions—the next travelogue is from Hearst Castle—they included:

  • San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in Carmel, founded 1770—still well-preserved, but amazingly ornate and, well, gaudy.
  • Nuestra Senora de la Soledad in the remote town of Soledad, 45 miles south of Monterrey, founded 1791—had fallen into disrepair (it is quite far from any kind of civilization) but was (at the time) in the process of a modest restoration.
  • San Antonio de Padua, north of Paso Robles, founded 1771—I must have skipped this one in favor of visiting Hearst Castle which was nearby.
  • San Miguel Arcangel, north of San Luis Obispo, founded 1797—in pretty good shape, although I recall little about it.
  • San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded 1772—located right in downtown San Luis Obispo, was still a working church, as I discovered when I blundered inside right in the middle of mass. Fortunately, the San Luis Obispo Brewing Company was right down the street.
  • La Purisima Conception, founded 1787—one of two missions located near Solvang (which gets a whole travelogue unto itself). This was to the west and was in some degree of disrepair, and at one point I nearly blundered into a wasp’s nest.
  • Santa Ines, founded 1804, located just on the outskirts east of Solvang—I have no pictures but I visited it, though did not linger. I think it also doubled as the tourist bureau for the area.
  • Santa Barbara, founded 1786—I did spend an afternoon in Santa Barbara visiting the mission, as well as the Natural History Museum, which had a giant squid on the ceiling (the museum, not the mission).
That was the last of the missions I visited, deciding to skip the ones in L.A.

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