The last day of our roadtrip started with a near fight. See Mom was born during the Depression, she knows the value of a dollar and she doesn’t waste food. So I indulged her when she carted the remains of her chicken fried steak out of Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace. I figured there was plenty of time to talk her out of taking it in the car. But Saturday morning when she brought it out of the motel refrigerator and started loading it into Old Paint, a confrontation was necessary. Suffice it to say, the chicken fried steak was left in Bakersfield, but for the hours long drive back up to San Francisco, it kept being mentioned.
Mom: “Are you hungry?”
Me: “A little.”
Mom: “Sure would be nice if we had that chicken fried steak now. . .”
Our route home led back up I-5, but the itinerary was loose. We’d traveled down I-5 and we thought we’d go up it a bit, then figure out where to veer off. At some point, we decided we’d swing by the Steinbeck Center in Salinas and headed off that way. That led us into very interesting territory, land I thought looked more like the High Plains of Texas — complete with tumbleweeds and oil derricks. The Prius, Old Paint, performed like a champ as we cruised out of Bakersfield with Buck Owens tunes cranked up.
Then, as we veered off I-5 and headed toward Salinas, Serendipity took over. Which is often the best part of a roadtrip. That point where your plans go a bit askew and you wind up seeing something you didn’t plan on, but in the end makes the trip.
Our first brush with Serendipity was the point where Route 41 met Route 46. Suddenly, a sign informed us that we were at the James Dean Memorial Intersection, the exact spot where Dean entered immortality. There is only a small plaque, the monument is in the town of Chalone in front of the Post Office. But the intersection is enough. It’s as eerie as the famous crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 40 in Mississippi where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil. You can feel, even in the daytime, that a tragedy took place here.
From that point, the Serendipity just kept happening. In fact we were giddy with it. So when we saw a small historical marker telling us the Mission of San Antonio de Padua was 22 miles off on a side road, we said, “What the heck”. I have a vague goal of eventually seeing all the historic original Missions of California. Since I’d been able to check off Mission San Juan Capistrano off my list, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to get a two-fer.”
After a short while, it seemed as if maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea. We drove out for miles into seemingly nowhere. Then we passed a sign saying we were entering Fort Hunter Liggett, which we later found out is the largest US Army Reserve Command post with over 165,000 acres. All we knew at the time was that there were a lot of tanks and rifle ranges pointing at the road and we observed to each other hopefully that maybe on Saturday they wouldn’t be shooting. More miles into rifle ranges and we finally came to the base gate where a friendly MP let us in the gate. Of course, I hedged our bets by identifying Mom as the widow of a decorated veteran of two wars. (Turns out, if you have a piece of picture ID and a valid insurance card, they let you in.) So you drive on and on for six more miles and there, in the middle of a wide open field of oaks is the third Mission founded by Father Junipero Serra, this one started in 1771.
For my money, if you can visit only one California Mission, this is the one. Why? Because at Mission San Antonio de Padua, you’ll get the closest to the real experience of what it was like for the early California Padres. While most California Missions are now in the middle of built up towns, you can’t see anything but fields and oaks from St. Antonio. If there are few visitors and no cars, you can imagine you are back in Alta California. Add to that an incredible museum which covers both the Padres’ experience and that of the local Salinas Indians, as well as beautifully intact buildings, the wine-making rooms, original grapevines and fruit trees planted by the Padres, and this is a very special experience. Even better, the Mission is conducting some innovative programs such as retreats, including an Artists Retreat, where you room in the Mission and recharge in their unique spiritual environment. (I couldn’t help thinking this would be a brilliant place for a Yoga retreat. Quick, someone plan it.) Find out more at the website.
With the day waning and having spent so much time at the wonderful Mission San Antonio de Padua, we hit the road for San Francisco. We took a quick turn through Salinas, both to pay homage to John Steinbeck and to James Dean who appeared in the movie version of East of Eden. Lovely town and worth a visit on our next roadtrip. As the thunderclouds rolled in and the rain pelted down, we rolled into San Francisco.
It’ll take us several days and several posts to process all we saw, so expect more about our roadtrip. But we’re calling this a huge success. We saw everything we expected and wonderful things that we did not. And even if Mom didn’t quite “get” Buck Owens and even if that chicken fried steak had to stay in Bakersfield, she was a willing and able participant in a truly epic roadtrip.
Thanks, Mom, for flying Wing Man.
(For anyone who doesn’t get the reference, the title of this post refers to the song “The Return of the Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons, the rocker who was greatly influenced by Buck Owens and introduced his music to the Rolling Stones and other rock musicians who incorporated his guitar licks. See my post on Gram Parsons here.)
More pictures from this day’s adventures here.