We had a two-week vacation, and decided that it would be fun to drive down the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California and then drop off our rental car and take a train back home. I’m calling this journey the West Coast Wander, and plan to blog about it every other day so as not to totally alienate those who have no interest in travel, and yet allow those who do to travel vicariously with us. Here’s the first in the series, if you want to start at the beginning. I hope you enjoy it, dear reader.
Throughout our journey along the California coast, we kept passing, taking pictures of, and peeking into various historic Spanish missions. The complicated history of the mission system intrigues me a great deal. Unfortunately, time was limited, so I allowed myself to pick one mission to explore in depth. The one I chose was San Juan Capistrano.
I’m convinced I made the right choice because on this day we spent many hours in that beautiful mission, exploring the gardens, the bells, the statuary, the exhibits, the courtyards, the chapel, and of course the ruins of the great stone church. What a beautiful, peaceful and spiritual place this is.
It was founded by Junipero Serra in 1776, the year of American independence, and I wonder if that had any effect on this mission. Granted, California did not become an American state until 1850, so it may have been peripheral to their daily lives, but still, it was right on the same continent. I wonder what they thought. I wonder, again, what they thought during the Mexican-American War, especially after California was claimed by America in the aftermath thereof.
Sitting in one of the quiet little courtyards, I could imagine this mission being a peaceful little enclave as history boiled all around it. But that is a very Euro-centric view indeed. Actually, this place came here by force and by theft and by violence.
The Acjachemen, a band of Native Americans who had occupied the area for 10,000 years, saw it less as an enclave and more as a usurper. They did not welcome Father Serra, but he was backed by the Spanish military. These people were going to be converted whether they liked it or not. Even so, the majority of the population wasn’t baptized until 1790.
Before the mission, the Acjachemen had collectively owned hunting and fishing areas, and also had private property within their many villages. The mission put an end to that by taking over most of the land for cattle grazing and horticulture. And of course, much of the population was wiped out by European diseases, and their shrinking numbers meant they became increasingly easy to dominate.
By 1812, 1,361 Acjachemen lived in the mission compound. That must have been awfully crowded. But as they died off from disease, that population had dropped to 800 by 1834.
The Acjachemen resisted assimilation, so the missionaries separated them from their children so that their culture and traditions would not be passed on. The children would be torn from their families at the age of seven, and not see them again until they were married young adults. If the people disobeyed the priests, they were whipped or jailed. For some reason, this did not make for genuine religious converts. And yet Serra was made a saint.
By 1826, the Mexican Governor emancipated the Native Americans in some of the missions, but not in this one. But as word spread, it was all but impossible to get these tribes to cooperate in any way. By 1833, they were requesting their land back. They got it, sort of. Most were never given legal title. So they reverted back to a dependence on wild fruits and game, and by 1841 most of the area was ranch land owned by Mexicans.
When California became a state in 1850, what few land rights the Native Americans had under the Mexicans were erased, and so, for the most part, were the Native Americans. When you see things through that lens, it’s confusing that this mission is so beautiful and peaceful today.
Now what you see is flowers and butterflies everywhere. You see religious iconography that would make you believe that this was a very piously Catholic place. You see a statue of Father Serra embracing a Native American child as if the place was all about love.
Also, the Father Serra Chapel is known as a place of comfort for all those who have been touched in any way by cancer. It is wonderful, thinking that people come here to feel that emotional burden lifted, if only for a brief moment. In fact, when we entered the Chapel, there was a woman weeping so hard that her whole body was shaking, as her husband quietly stroked her back. I wanted to hug her, but of course I didn’t intrude. So yes, despite its history, this mission does serve a purpose, even today.
It also had a kind of jarring patriotic message on our visit. The courtyard is full of American flags. Wouldn’t Father Serra find that ironic? I view this as another attempt to make this place all about the good. It wants to be seen as devout and faithful and nationalistic and on the side of right. (All while America’s squeaky-clean image gets more tarnished by the year.)
Oh, and then there’s the story of the swallows. Who could forget that? It seems that the swallows come back every year, like clockwork, on March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day. They do so because Father St. John O’Sullivan invited them to come to the mission, as there was room there for all, even birds that most of the townspeople viewed as pests.
A romantic notion, but it seems that these birds tend to come sometime around March 19th, give or take a few days, and they stopped coming entirely from 2009 to 2017. According to Wikipedia, that was because the mission was no longer the tallest building in town. Urban sprawl, don’tcha know.
That’s a problem, because much of San Juan Capistrano’s economy is dependent upon tourism, especially swallow-loving tourism. You can get the story of the swallow in just about every shop. Swallow ornaments and artwork abound. There are swallow t-shirts and post cards and you name it, the swallows have swallowed it. There’s even an annual Swallows Day parade in non-pandemic years. These birds are a big deal.
So what the mission did was consult a swallow specialist. They played swallow calls throughout the compound to lure them back. In 2015 they added a man-made replica of swallow colonies to give them someplace easy in which to nest. So now the swallows are back, due to a bit of trickery, and all’s right with the town.
So, yeah, I have very mixed emotions about this mission. Right now it’s full of flowers when it used to be full of slaves and squalor. But if I lived here, I’d probably hang out in these courtyards all the time. In the here and now, it’s a delightful place to visit. I didn’t want to leave. But I’m sure glad I wasn’t here in the 1800’s. In fact, any sane person back then would run as far away from it as they could.
And yet, here I was, basking in the sunlight, enjoying all the flowers, wishing a butterfly would stay still long enough for me to take a picture, and feeling grateful that a stranger who needed desperately to weep was able to do so. The world sure does keep spinning.
After that, we visited a few of the nearby shops and then had a really, really excellent meal at a place across the street called Ciao Pasta. I had a steak salad and dear husband had a shrimp and salmon salad. The steak all but melted in my mouth. If you ever get a chance to eat at this restaurant, do.
We took a detour on the way back to our hotel, back to Long Beach so we could check off a few other curiosities on our wish list. The first is claimed to be America’s skinniest house, and the second is the largest mural in the world, which is wrapped around the Long Beach Arena. It’s called Planet Ocean. You know how much I love murals, so I had to see it. We saw a lot of other really cool public art along the way.
There were a lot of other things in the Los Angeles area that we were unable to see for a variety of reasons. I only list them here because you may want to see them yourself. We didn’t visit the Bottle Village in Simi Valley because it was too far out of the way. We didn’t eat at the Apple Pan, a historic diner. We didn’t go to Universal Studios to see all the Harry Potter stuff because it was expensive and time consuming. We didn’t see any live show tapings or tour the Queen Mary because of the pandemic. We didn’t go to the farmer’s market because we were there at the wrong time. We didn’t ride the Balboa Ferry or visit Crystal Cove State Park to body surf, either. All of these are excellent arguments for a repeat visit, but there’s so much of the world that I want to see that I hesitate to do “repeatsies”. Time will tell.
We headed back to our hotel, The Checkers Hilton, which is conveniently close to the train station we would be going to in the morning. It’s a grand place, but it had a surreal tinge to it, because much of the area around it is boarded off due to the pandemic. In fact, a security guard had to escort us from the parking garage, through a boarded up building, to get us to the hotel lobby.
We seemed to have the entire multi-story hotel to ourselves. We had a snack at the rooftop snackbar, which affords beautiful views of the nearby library with its pyramid. No one else was there, which was all the more strange since the main restaurant was closed due to the pandemic. We didn’t see anyone in the hallways or elevators. It was like a ghost hotel.
A ghost hotel, so naturally, dear husband left me all alone there. Ha. Well, I could have gone with him to drop off our rental car at the airport, but I had had enough of LA traffic, so I stayed in the hotel and took a nap. He had uber-ed back to me in no time, and nothing supernatural had happened, so, now being car-less, we decided to walk to an area restaurant for dinner, as there appeared to be many to choose from within blocks of the hotel.
Easier said than done, it seems, because much was pandemically closed. If it was a ghost hotel, it was living in a ghost neighborhood. No cars on the streets. Spooky, desperate-looking panhandlers seeming to float down the sidewalk, making me feel equally nervous and guilty.
Finally we happened upon the Veggie Grill. It’s a simple place with a limited menu, but I must say I had the best tuna melt I have ever had in my life in that restaurant. Maybe the fact that I was relieved that something was still open added to the flavor.
We decided to make an early night of it because we would have to uber over to the train station in the morning, to catch the train back home. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought about the fact that there would be two sleeps until I saw my beloved dogs again. And yet I was grateful for this epic journey of ours.
I thought about a book I saw in a gift shop in San Juan Capistrano that day. Its title was, “May you live a life you love.”
Oh, but I am. I truly am.
Hop on over to Day 12!
Hey! Look what I wrote! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5