matija poppy outside La Purisima MissionI can now cross four missions off my list after today — although two were just drive-bys and will have to be visited properly tomorrow. But today was as much about trails as it was about the missions. At some point, driving down Highway 101 to the first mission on my list (Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad), I made the decision that I should stick with that highway. It’s not always the most scenic route, but it was basically built on top of the old El Camino Real, the Kings Highway which the padres traveled in their journey to establish the missions. Turns out much of it, at least down in the Central Coast, must look not much changed from when Father Junipero Serra was trudging up the coast with burros, rosaries and bibles. And if El Camino Real is typical of a lot of America’s major highways, it probably goes even further back than that. Surprisingly, a good number of America’s older major highways started in pre-history as migration paths for large game, then became traditional trading routes for various Native American tribes. When Europeans came, they used the trails for their purposes such as wagon trains and stage coaches. Finally in the 20th Century many were paved and made into official highways and interstates. I’m guessing that must have been the evolution of Camino Real. Winding through mountain passes and down into valleys, Highway 101 is starting to make sense from a padre’s point of view. Although I’m still not always understanding why they picked exactly the spots they did for the actual missions, the paths they used to travel between them clearly offered fast, easy traveling and took advantage of the logical passes through mountain ranges.

Lompoc Valley Road

The padres didn't do scenic. They seemed to love flat stretches of road that got you across valleys as fast as a burro could go.

flower fields in Lompoc

Not that Camino Real isn't frequently scenic these days. Did you know a huge percentage of the flowers raised for seed are grown in Lompoc Valley?

El Camino Real in La Purisima

There's even a stretch of the El Camino preserved in front of Mission La Purisima. Yup, this is what it looked like in padre days.

The local Native Americans, in contrast, didn’t seem as afraid of rough traveling — at least if we go by the road between Mission Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara that is dubbed The Chumash Highway. I suspect the padres would have taken the other route my GPS was offering me, slipping down to the Cabrillo Highway, also known as The Pacific Coast Highway. Not that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo probably even set foot on that particular stretch when he was scouting out the coast back in the 1500s. From what I’m reading, he sailed up and down the coast, coming ashore only occasionally to plant a flag and claim an area for the King of Spain. The Chumash seemed to have picked the highest, scariest mountain pass and scrambled up and down it, leaving cave paintings at various points along the way. (Today, they are putting their energy into a massive casino complex which is surely the largest commercial enterprise in Solvang.)

Lake Cachuma, Bradbury Dam

The Chumash probably wouldn't have seen this sight. Lake Cachuma has been considerably changed by Bradbury Dam. But I offer it here as it was one of the few turnouts where I could stop the car and photograph.

So now about those missions. I could easily write a full post on each of them. And maybe I will in some sort of post trip wrap up. For now, here’s a whirlwind tour. First up: Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

Mission San Luis Obispo

It's smack in the center of this charming college town and seems to be a vital part of the community.

wall detail at Mission San Luis Obispo

Loved this wall painting detail which features native flowers, grapes and a Piñon Jay.

The bulk of my day was spent at the Mission Mission La Purísima Concepción. This huge complex (by mission standards) was meticulously restored with full period detail as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp. (I could definitely write a full post just on this story.) If you can only visit one mission, and you really want to know what mission life was like, La Purisima is the one.

Mission La Purisima

This mission is the only one featuring a linear, columnated design. The restorations include the barracks, the workrooms, gardens and orchards.

longhorn bull

The park has even stocked the mission grounds with heritage breeds of the animals the padres would have raised, including burros, turkeys, pigs, sheep and this longhorn.

Burro powered olive press at La Purisima mission

This burro-powered olive press would be a hit with Cousin John who is always pushing us to adopt centuries old production techniques in our winemaking.

By the time I got to Santa Ynez, the Mission had closed, so I’ll save the visit for tomorrow.

Mission Santa Ynez

Santa Ynez is beautiful and overlooks a stunning vista of the vineyards, but the mission seems oddly marginalized in the faux Danish town of Solvang.

I plan to be knocking on Mission Santa Barbara’s doors first thing and, hopefully, ahead of the school groups. But I drove by to get a night-time shot.

Mission Santa Barbara at night

She's called The Queen of the Missions for a reason.

And tomorrow, the Mission continues. Today’s pictures here.