• Otter Views: Mission Accomplice

    by Tom Stevens

    A friend’s birthday sent us on a southerly circuit this week that looped from Mission San Antonio to the Big Sur coast on a road I had never traveled. En route we saw tame elk, wild turkeys, gray whales and 13 condors fitted with radio transmitters. It was a very California trip.

    The catalyst was a Carmel photo exhibit featuring images of the various missions founded long ago by the peripatetic Franciscan friar Junipero Serra. The show reminded me I know less about the Camino Real missions than any California school kid. It’s rather shameful. If someone asks: “Are you smarter than a fourth grader?” I have to shake my head sadly.

    So I paid close attention to the photos of the missions. All the iconic features were there: weathered crosses, scalloped bell towers, candle-lit madonnas, praying wooden hands, roofs of Spanish tile. While the show represented all of Fr. Serra’s missions handsomely, particularly soulful photos of one place kept catching my eye.

    “Where is Mission San Antonio?” I asked.

    “It’s off Highway 101 south of King City,” my friend said. “Or you can get there from San Lucas. You know San Lucas? No? How about Hunter Liggett? No??”So that was the genesis. If I were to become as smart as a fourth grader, I would need to start soon. A Hunter Liggett-Big Sur loop was proposed to fill in some of my blanks, and to enable my friend to photograph the San Antonio Mission.

    According to a tri-fold I bought in the mission gift store, most of California’s 21 historic Catholic missions have been engulfed by or encroached upon by cities. But because it sits sacrosanct amid a vast military base, Mission San Antonio commands serious acreage. This helps people like me visualize how a working mission might have looked. Of course there’s a Spanish-tiled masonry church with its customary columns and bell tower. But this mission also had visible remnants of a tannery, a two-man pump well, an aqueduct, field crops, an olive press, a grist mill and granary, grape and fruit orchards, and an Indian sweat lodge. There was also, portentously, a large, walled, Indian graveyard.

    While my friend photographed the church, the courtyard and the far-flung grounds, I kicked back in our rented monastic room and read “The Life and Times of Fray Junipero Serra.” This was easy to do, as the room had no TV, VCR, CD or radio. Music was provided, as in Saint Anthony’s day, by the birds. The room also had no key. Instead of warning you to lock your room upon leaving, a helpful note from the mission reminds you to “unlock your door so you won’t be locked out.”

    As birds sang and wild turkeys gobbled, I read that Spain had been posting Catholic missionaries to the New World since the time of Columbus. But the North and South American continents are big dogs, and “Alta California” was at the end of the tail. It wasn’t until 1769 that a missionary party from Mexico planted a cross at Presidio Hill in San Diego to found the first California mission. As “The Life and Times” put it: “In 1769, the area was still untrodden by Christian feet.”

    Having not attended fourth grade in this state, I always thought the missions then proceeded in a northerly line from San Diego, each new one built a day’s march from the previous one. How wrong I was. Turns out they hop-scotched all over the place. For instance, the Monterey mission (now at Carmel) was number two, and San Antonio was third. San Diego had to wait for number 7 (San Juan Capistrano) before it had a day’s-march neighbor. Go figure.

    The marching part was true enough, at least for Junipero Serra himself. “Life and Times” claims he walked 5,500 miles through Mexico and Baja before even reaching what is now California. Then, pulling up lame, he rode a mule to the San Antonio mission. This seems appropriate, since San Antonio is now surrounded by a huge Army base, albeit a low-profile one. The day we drove through, no sentries manned the gate houses, and no on-base passes were issued or needed.

    Hunter Liggett didn’t really feel like a base — more like a 20,000-acre scenic park of rolling hills, limpid streams and wildflower meadows. Granted, we did pull over for a 15-truck convoy of 18-wheelers hauling desert-tan cargo containers. And there were those roadside barriers warning of “Live Fire Exercises Today.” Okay, it is a base.

    One Hunter Liggett exit is the serpentine Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, which loops and swivels through the Santa Lucia Mountains like 22 miles of dropped rope. It ends in Big Sur, home to whales and condors, about which, more next time

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 3, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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