I’m not sure when I became obsessed with California’s Missions, but now I’m convinced I have to visit every single one of them. It may be an odd fascination, but, if you live in California, perhaps an understandable one. A little background: California’s system of Missions were the organized colonizing tactic by Spain for their Western New World territories. Apparently, they divvied up the Americas between the Dominicans, the Jesuits and the Franciscans, with the Franciscans eventually given the exclusive goal of colonizing what was then called Californio. Their job was to establish Missions, which would serve as settlement areas, provisioning stations for the King’s soldiers and outposts of colonization along the coast. Stretching from San Diego to Sonoma, the Franciscan Brothers founded Missions approximately 26 miles, or one day’s ride, apart on what would eventually be California Highway One. They stopped at Sonoma because above that, the Russian fur traders were in control. And, well, no one wanted to go up against those guys.
What I’ve always found fascinating about the Missions is that most of them are a concentration of California history — from the local Indians who incorporated much of their artwork and skills into the building and running of the Missions (sadly, many times under near slavery), to the military and political history of California from the Spanish era through Mexican ownership of California to the Gold Rush and American domination.
In any case, in more than twenty years of living in California, I only seem to have visited nine of the twenty one Missions. Here’s the list I’ve managed to check off, with the order of their founding and various notes:
21. San Francisco de Solano (Sonoma): One of the most rustic of the Missions and the only one founded when California was under the control of Mexico (which had overthrown Spain). This is a sentimental favorite as it’s one of my “hometown” Missions. If you close your eyes halfway and ignore the cars, the town of Sonoma can look not much different than when it was the “last outpost” before Russian territory. Well, except for the gift shops, the art galleries and the Basque Bakery. But still.
20. San Rafael Arcangel (San Rafael): The number of times I’ve driven by this exit on my way to Sonoma. . .and I finally just stopped today.
6. San Francisco de Asis (San Francisco): Another hometown sentimental favorite, especially since I live near the area called The Mission District after it. And who can resist a Mission prominently featured in a Hitchcock classic (Vertigo).
12. Santa Cruz: Just recently made it down here to find that very little is left. In fact, the recreation of the Mission building is apparently not even built on the right spot due to a later basilica having been built on the site.
15. San Juan Bautista: One of my favorite Missions, both for its isolation, which gives it an air of authenticity, and the fact that it’s another Hitchcock filming location (Vertigo, again).
2. San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo (Carmel): Old Father Serra’s favorite and arguably one of the most beautiful, especially the extensive gardens.
3. San Antonio de Padua (Jolon in Monterey County): This amazing gem of a Mission is worth seeking out, and seek you will have to do. It’s in the middle of one of the largest Army Reserve training bases as we found out when we stumbled on it during a recent roadtrip. But its isolation gives it an eery authenticity.
7. San Juan Capistrano: Yes, that Mission, of the Swallows fame. We headed for this Mission as part of that recent roadtrip and were not disappointed. One of the highlights: kitchen gardens restored as they would have been in the Padres days and fairly well preserved tanneries and winemaking equipment. You can really get the sense of what a humming center of industry the Missions were (alas, mostly with Indian labor.)
1. San Diego de Alcala (San Diego): Sadly, I wasn’t really paying sufficient attention to this Mission. At the time, I was more interested in finding a good Margarita and listening to the Mariachi bands at the Bazaar del Mundo.
Sadly, I’ve neglected the Missions that are in my backyard, such as Santa Clara, San Jose and, until recently, Santa Cruz and San Rafael. But maybe that’s because we in Northern California seem to have neglected our Missions. They seem to be surrounded by urban sprawl, knocked down by earthquakes and rebuilt (or not) without much elaboration.
I’m sensing a need for a roadtrip that will let me catch some of the jewels of the Central Coast on one trip: San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, Santa Barbara and Santa Ines. There are others and I’ll have to figure out a way to cross those off my list.
Part of me thinks, I should figure out a way to see several of the Missions the way the Padres would — on foot or on horseback. Another part of me realizes this is ridiculous and a Mission tour by Prius would be enough of a challenge. Or maybe the greatest challenge would be to find someone who would want to tackle this with me. Without even asking, I’m pretty sure Andy has a Mission Limitation Code in his brain that would activate after one basilica.
He’s still not forgiven me for dragging him to twenty temples in one day in Thailand.