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A Christmas Pilgrimage to the Missions
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A Christmas Pilgrimage to the Missions

Original Article and Photographs by Kenneth A. Larson © 2005 - 2017
Written December 25, 2003 to October 2005

Day One - the Drive North:

My in-laws had moved to Morgan Hill near San Jose a year and a half earlier and my wife and I had seen most of the northern missions in previous visits with them. Since I live in Southern California, I had seen all the southern missions. This left a number of missions in the middle. We decided to drive from Los Angeles to Morgan Hill for Christmas 2003. The plan was to leave early and attend the 9:00 A.M Christmas Mass at Mission San Miguel Arcangel, then see Mission San Antonio de Padua and Mission Nuestra Sonora de la Soledad on the way north. We would also revisit these three missions on the way home.

I had planned for some time to attend the Christmas Mass at Mission San Miguel which was one of the best preserved missions. My father had several times said, "There it is, look at it" as we zoomed past it on Highway 101. I was looking forward to my first visit at zero miles an hour. On December 22, 2003, about 10:00 AM, San Luis Obispo County was struck by an earthquake. I heard of minor damage along the coast, but nothing about the mission. I send an e-mail to the mission, but there was no reply. I hoped the mission was alright.

We needed to get an early start, so I set my alarm clock for 5:00 A.M.. Then I decided I needed a bit more time, so I moved the minutes dial back 15 minutes. I awoke to the alarm clock and started getting ready. Fifteen minutes later, my wife said, "Weren't we going to leave at six, it's six now?" I looked at the clock and realized that I had forgotten to also change the hour hand on the alarm clock and it was set to 5:45, not 4:45. We had been mostly ready the night before, but now we scrambled to squeeze an hour of final preparations into about six and a half seconds.

We finally hit the road only a half hour late, heading north from Los Angeles on Interstate 5. It was Christmas Day, 2003, and we were relieved when the Cal-Trans Road Conditions Hot Line told us that the Grapevine was free of snow and the pass was open. We passed Fort Tajon which we had visited a few months earlier and entered a part of California that my wife had never seen before. It wasn't snowing, but it rained most of the way. My wife, an inexperienced driver, drove part of the way, but several hours driving in the rain made her nervous.

We drove north through the rain on Interstate 5 for two hours. Even in the overcast light and rain, there is a beauty and fascination in the Central Valley, one of the major agricultural regions in the country. We needed to connect to US 101 at Paso Robles, so we took State Highway 46 west for another hour. The first half of the journey on Highway 46 took us through Kern County and another of California's natural resource, oil production. As we drove through the rain of this Christmas morning, we watched the oil pumps doing their part to reduce oil imports.

Kern County Oil Pump
At Paso Robles, we turned north on US 101 about seven miles to San Miguel. We had been rushing to make the 9:00 A.M. Christmas Mass at Mission San Miguel Arcangel and we were still behind schedule because of our late start. It was 9:15 when we arrived at the Mission and I realized that the time didn't matter and that my fear had been confirmed. I had been unable to get information before hand, but now with my own eyes I could see that the Mission Church had suffered serious damage from the Paso Robles Earthquake just three days before. The front facade of the church was badly cracked and surrounded with chain link fencing and yellow hazard tape. There was no Mass to be late for. My father had driven past the Mission many time, refusing to take the time to stop. Now my three month long plan to see the Mission on Christmas Day was dashed. It will be many years before I can see the interior of the church with its original native art on the well preserved walls. Contributions to the repairs can be sent to:

Old Mission San Miguel Parish
775 Mission Street
P.O. Box 69
San Miguel, CA 93451-0069

Friends of Mission San Miguel
P.O. Box 69
San Miguel CA 93451-0069
(Update, the church reopened in Fall of 2009.)
Earthquake Damaged Mission

We slowly walked around the Mission taking photographs. My wife held a large umbrella over my camera as it was still raining. It was quiet and peaceful, but the air should have been filled with the sounds of music from the Christmas Mass. We got back in the car and back on US 101 north to our next destination.

I had tentatively considered stopping at Mission San Antonio de Padua on the north bound trip, but decided it was too far off the highway to take a chance of being rained out. Also I had uncertainties about accesses to the military base it sits in, and wasn't even sure the mission was open on Christmas Day (I later confirmed it isn't). Besides, we still planned to stop on the return trip in three days, so we decided to skip this mission until then.

It was not long until we were exiting Highway 101 to see Mission Nuestra Sonora de la Soledad. The mission is just a short distance off the highway so we did stop despite the rain which was a bit harder now. This time, my wife waited in the car as I held the umbrella myself. It was even more peaceful and quiet than San Miguel had been. The Mission was closed for Christmas and isn't one of the more frequently visited missions even when the sun is shining. The mission is now surrounded by agricultural lands but was not successful in its day. The thirteenth coastal mission founded in California, this was probably the most unlucky. The climate was not good, the wind blows hard every afternoon, the water supply wasn't dependable. Few priests stayed long. Today, it is one of the least restored of the missions. Only one side of the quadrangle has been restored and as I stood in the rain, it was quite clear how the other adobe walls had melted in almost two hundred years of rain. I juggled the umbrella and camera for a half hour and got back in the car. We had already planned to visit this mission again on the return trip.

Solidad in the Rain
Mission San Juan Bautista Just After the Rain
San Juan Bautista

We were ahead of schedule now and I made an unscheduled stop at Mission San Juan Bautista. Like the previous two missions, it was closed for the Holiday and it was still raining but starting to clear. Again, I had the place to myself while my wife rested in the car. A few shots in the rain and we were on our last stretch of today's drive. It was only about 45 minutes to Morgan Hill to spend the rest of Christmas Day with my wife's parents and brother.

Day Two - Two Missions and a Theme Park:

The next day we would see two more missions, as well as have some fun. We had breakfast with my wife's parents and followed my father-in-law to Fry's in San Jose, about a half hour from Morgan Hill. As an Environmental Designer, I enjoy seeing the different motifs at the Fry's stores. The one in San Jose had a Mayan theme.

Mission San Jose is not in the City of San Jose, however Mission Santa Clara de Asis is just across the border in the City of Santa Clara, minutes from San Jose Airport. We had stopped a time or two before in the afternoon while waiting for a flight home, but I wanted to revisit the mission this morning. Founded in 1777, Mission Santa Clara grew into Santa Clare University, the first University in California and still a major institution of higher learning, and now surrounding the mission. The mission church is the centerpiece of the University. Actually, this is the sixth mission church, built in 1928. There are only a few original adobe buildings remaining, a few steps southwest of the current church. A wedding was about to start and we didn't want to be in the way, so we concentrated on an unusual mission marker. Near the entrance to the University, to the north in a large lawn area, is a rectangular sidewalk. The sidewalk marks the outline of an earlier mission church. One corner even continues in to an adjacent street.

Santa ClaraSanta Clara Mission San JoseMission San Jose

Then we traveled north on Interstate 880 to Fremont. We were headed for Mission San Jose which is in Fremont, about a half hour north of the City of San Jose. This makes Santa Clara the closest mission to the City of San Jose. We found the mission without too much difficulty, right there on Mission Boulevard, and found a parking space in front of the church just like in a TV show. Had we visited in 1978, we would have seen a quite different scene. An Anglo styled church building, more like something from the east coast, had been built on the site after an earlier earthquake had damaged the original adobe structure. A Rectory of later construction joined the wooden church to the last remaining adobe structure, part of the Convento. The Rectory was removed in 1979 and the church sold and moved to the nearby community of Burlingame. In 1984 and 5, one of the most faithful reproductions of a mission church in the entire mission system was built on the original location. We toured the museum within the Convento and then the church and cemetery. The church is large and evidence remains of the earlier mission constructions. We stayed about an hour and a half in the sunshine that had been absent the day before, and then moved on to our next destination.

Continuing north on I-880 through Hayward, San Lorenzo, to Oakland afforded views of the Bay and the harbors. We exited right onto Broadway and right on Grand and followed the signs to Children's Fairyland, locally popular, but otherwise a lost treasure.

I had fuzzy memories from childhood of a magical park in Oakland where all the popular fairy tales were represented in sculptures, buildings, and rides. Adults are not allowed without a child as it is for children and the management of Children's Fairyland wants to maintain the magic for children. Since we don't have any children of our own (not counting the four-footed variety), I wrote ahead and got special permission for my wife and me to visit. I have occasionally worked on Theme Park design and my wife is a preschool teacher and we both wanted to see this magical place. We enjoyed walking the paths and photographing the vignettes.

After 40 years, I didn't have any specific memories, but the feeling of magic persisted. There was the Hickory-Dickory Doc Clock slide that I did remember and countless scenes that I did not remember. I'm sure most of the park has been rebuilt or added to over the years. We were too big for the rides and slides, but not too big to look and marvel. Knowing we would probably never be able to return, we stayed several hours and shots many rolls of film. We felt very privileged to be allowed into this "children only" world.

On the way back to the car, we walked through the surrounding Lakeside Park with its large gazebo and geese. Back on I-880, this time traveling south, we were hoping to get back to Fremont in time to visit Ardenwood Historic Farm, but we were too late. Then we tried to find some other sites that stayed open longer, but couldn't find them either, so we continued south to dinner with my in-laws in Morgan Hill.

Day Three - Returning Home.

We said goodbye to my wife's family and got back onto 101 south. It was about an hour and a half to our first mission for the day, a return to Mission Nuestra Sonora de la Soledad. On our way north two days earlier, it was raining. Now it was clear and the adobe was drying out. We arrived shortly before the mission opened, so I had time to photograph the exterior. The site was still muddy but I explored the best I could. The melting adobe walls behind the only standing building were once shops and store rooms and the like. Signs labeled what uses these ruins were once used for. The museum and gift shop are small compared to some other missions and the church is also small, but there is still more to see than several missions in the Bay Area. Although not a high priority mission for most people, there were a few other families visiting as we were. Once the Mission opened, we were able to view the exhibits and the church interior. The mission was founded in 1791 and struggled along until secularization in 1834 stripped the church of its missions, and most building began a slow decline. The mission site is small and surrounded by agricultural fields. A large Bar-B-Q stands at one end of the parking lot, its use I can only imaging at this small mission. A caretaker's house also adjoins the parking lot. The mission was quiet and peaceful and it's fitting for the mission to Our Lady of Solitude.

Back on Highway 101, we were again heading south. It wasn't long before we reached the turnoff to our next stop, Mission San Antonio de Padua. Just before King City, County Highway G14 runs south as 101 veers to the south by southeast. Mission San Antonio is the most isolated of all the missions. This was a beautiful and peaceful drive through rolling hills and gentile curves through quiet ranch land and pasture lands. The road was almost deserted. Shortly before reaching the town of Jolon I unexpectedly noticed the ruins of the Dutton Hotel. The Dutton Hotel was built by Antonio Ramirez in 1849 along El Camino Real between Mission San Antonio de Padua and Mission Nuestra Sonora de la Soledad. This now forgotten adobe once played an important part in the local history. It became the nucleus of the town of Jolon but now is a ruin, fortunately partially protected by a roofed structure.

Dutton Hotel
A few minutes later we were at the check point and entrance to Fort Hunter Liggett Reservation. Fort Hunter Liggett is an active military installation and all the usual proper forms of identification and proof of auto registration and insurance were required. Once on the base, we drove about ten minutes west. It was open and quiet as we passed military buildings and equipment. To the right on a hill beside the road is the Hearst Hacienda which is now the camp headquarters but was once used by William Randolph Hearst Jr. Many visitors to the mission mistake the Hacienda for the mission. We kept driving a few more minutes and finally a turn in the road and before us, in the middle of an oak covered valley was the Mission.

My favorite mission is La Purisima, but San Antonia wins for the most breathtaking approach. As you enter the drive to the mission, stretching out before you is an open valley of native grasses with a mission in the center. The drive passes a few ruins of out buildings. My only complaints is that the parking lot should have been to the side, as I feel cars spoil the illusion and my photos. The mission is wonderfully restored and has one of the grander facades of the missions. Mission San Antonio de Padua was founded by Father Junipero Serra on July 14, 1771. This mission instantly became one of my two favorite missions. Only La Purisima de Concepcion equals San Antonio for an open natural setting. Aside from the cars, it probably looked like this two hundred years ago.

Mission San Antonio de Padua Mission San Antonio de Padua

We spent several hours exploring the restored buildings and the ruins of the outer buildings. The museum is larger than most other mission museums. The church is large, unfortunately, there are no regular services to use this beautiful space. The mission is a typical quadrangle and several exhibits fill the rooms. The surroundings are filled with ruins of numerous out buildings, aqueduct, and the river, about the way the padres probably left it. A few hundred feet in front of the quadrangle is the grist mill. Most of the missions had mills and I have visited several. This is one of only a few missions I have only visited once, and I hope to revisit soon.

It was now early afternoon and we had one more mission to visit along our remaining 300 mile journey home.

It was another half hour drive along G14 and G18 until we were back on Highway 101 a little north of Paso Robles. Another half hour and we were back at Mission San Miguel. It was a little dryer than when we left it two days earlier and there were many more tourists, standing around disappointed as we had been. There hadn't been time since the earthquake five days earlier to assess the damage and safety of the buildings, so nothing was open. A month later, most of the buildings were open except the church and a year later, we returned to see everything except the church interior. It was drier and we walked the perimeter again. Mission San Miguel Arcangel was the 16th mission founded in Alta California, founded on July 25, 1797 by Father Fermin Lasuen. The mission was named for Saint Michael the Arcangel.

A short distance away is another historic adobe which was also closed because of the earthquake. It was still closed a year later.

From here we returned to Los Angeles the way we came. Well, not quite. There was a lot more traffic from the Grapevine south and we crawled back the last 60 miles. We were disappointed that San Miguel, the one mission I was most looking forward to seeing, was closed due to the earthquake only 72 hours earlier. However, we did see six missions, four that I had never seen before and made a total of eight missions stops in three days. And we had special access to Children's Fairyland, a park only open to adults if they bring a child, a park that had been a very fuzzy memory from my own childhood. Eventually San Miguel will repair its church and we will revisit, we maybe even see San Antonio again in the same trip. I will revisit the missions as long as I am able.

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This page last updated: Friday, 28-Apr-2017 12:54:19 EDT

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