North from the Coast and Inland

In Travels With Myself on July 17, 2013 at 4:19 am

Looking at a map of California, one could argue that I 5 is the transportation spine of the state, running as it does from the Mexican Border pretty much right up through the center of the state to Oregon. If so, then US 101 (and CA 1 where they overlap) is one of the major arteries running through the western part of the state delivering people and goods to the coastal areas and agricultural heartland. I am not knowledgeable enough about plants to know exactly what was growing, but 101 north of Santa Barbara passes through some of the most amazing farmland I have ever seen. And once you get above San Luis Obispo you are in wine country, and the locals will tell you that the wineries around Paso Robles rival the Napa in size, number and quality. Whether vegetables or grapes, the fields are green and lush, stretching from the edge of the highway to the edge of the hills in the distance; almost as far as my admittedly presbyopic eyes can see.
The beauty of this part of the country is only rivaled by the wind. There seems to be no place west of Colorado where the heat of the afternoon is not accompanied by winds which seem determined to blow directly across whatever road I am driving on. Now, those better versed in meteorology and related issues can correct me on this, but here’s what I think I have learned. Cooler ocean air on the Pacific coast comes ashore and forces the warm air up over the coastal ranges, where it cools and then rushes down the other side into the valleys. That rush of wind creates gusts that sweep across the center of California, forcing the air that has been warmed all morning to rise up over the next batch of mountains (the Cascades, perhaps, or the Sierra Nevada), cool, and rush down in its own turn into the next valleys. This process then continues up over the Rockies into the valleys and plains of Utah and Western Colorado. Because major routes like US 101, I 5 and I 15 run primarily north to south, the winds blow across them rather than following them. None of which makes it easier in the understanding to drive in it.
I have often been taken by the way communities choose to identify themselves. In Connecticut, for example, Willimantic calls itself “Thread City.” (I have never felt that “Romantic Willimantic” had any real chance of getting traction.) Along those lines, Los Alamos has a sign at the city limits proclaiming that it is the “Valley of the Cottonwoods,” while Buellton claims more mundanely to be the “Home of Split Pea Soup.” Also, it is impossible to drive more than a few miles without encountering a “San” or a “Santa” something. I had never imagined there were so many saints in the Catholic pantheon; from Antonio and Ardo to Barbara and Clarita, through Lucas and Maria to Monica and Paula; which doesn’t even include well-known ones like Diego and Luis Obispo and Juan Capistrano.
The preponderance of saints, however, also means an abundance of missions, which are as plentiful here as lighthouses in New England. I stopped today at Mission San Miguel Arcangel, just above Paso Robles. An artist friend, Eric Spencer, whom I had lunch with in Paso, had told me it was worth the visit. What I found was interesting for its odd mix of the worshipful, the historic, and the touristy. My first view of the Mission was a brick bell tower .around the compound, I discovered simple, but surprisingly beautiful cactus gardens, a cemetery where hundreds of Native Americans had been buried, but where the prominent gravestone was for a family named MacDonald. When I got around to the front of the Mission, it looked for all the world as if it had been plucked from old movies and television shows: Zorro, or the Cisco Kid.
The church itself, and the attached structures, which house the monastery buildings and the gift shop, were well preserved, the stucco walls patched with plaster, and the red tile roofs solid. The grounds were dry and dusty, but filled with interesting artifacts, like an old olive press and an abandoned well sealed with a large stone, and incongruously, a small cannon. A walk through the well-marked self-tour, showed me the tools of 18th century mission agriculture, the weapons of the Spaniards who once ruled here, and the miscellany of everyday life, tucked into small, dark rooms and curious alcoves and passageways. The outer wall of the courtyard was allowed to show the effects of time and wind and human conflict, the top broken in places, the gates dark with age and gapped between the boards.
But placed within these historic contexts there was something of the tourist and the theme park that caught my eye. A building that contained the rest rooms had been placed at one end of the compound such that it created behind it a gate to nowhere. And the structure had been designed with the illusion of bricks showing through crumpled stucco, large fake holes revealing fake bricks. The effect was, I admit, successful in a theatrical sort of way, but since the actual historical structure showed no such wear, I wondered why it was thought necessary to fake it on the bathrooms. In the gift shop, the usual selection of Christian religious symbols, rosaries and books about the mission were interspersed with oddities like plastic boxes of sharks’ teeth and small ocean shells, tee shirts, fake Spanish coins, and expensive bottles of Mission San Miguel olive oil.
The inside of the sanctuary, however, was spectacular. The church contains some of the last remaining original frescos of the period. It’s hard to describe adequately the soft blues of the pillars painted along the walls, the brilliant yellows and pinks of the space around the altar, the great starburst above the altar itself, with the all-seeing eye in a pyramid at its center, like the eye on the back of a dollar bill. To the right, a long narrow staircase, painted a brilliant blue leads to a pulpit that floats against the wall, while a blue “roof” seems to hang dangerously above it. (For those following my travels on Facebook, I will post photographs. Told of these things ahead of time, I had remembered to bring my camera.)
I left the mission feeling refreshed and heartened. As I head north, I am finding that California has more surprises for me. Every time I take a break from the highway, in the small towns, the little cutoffs or the scenic rest areas (and I get off the highway often to let go of the stress of driving against the winds), I discover small treasures, and not a few great inspirations.

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