Holidays Renewed by Studying Historic Footsteps in California

Posted By Mike Padgett

Jan. 4, 2012

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – A few days before the end of 2011, we set out to study some of the footsteps of the first European pioneers in California. They were the Spanish padres.

We headed west out of Arizona on Interstate 8. Our goal was recharging during the holidays at two historic Catholic missions in San Diego County. The first was Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, called the “king of the missions” because it once covered several acres in what today is Oceanside.

The next day, Christmas Eve, we spent part of the day a few miles south in San Diego at Mission San Diego de Alcala. It’s nickname is “the mother of the missions” because it is considered the birthplace of Christianity in the far West. It was the first of the 21 missions founded, making it California’s first church.

The fountain in front of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside overlooks a peaceful valley in Southern California. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Neither of the two missions is more beautiful than the other. Each has unique characteristics, design and history.

When the missionaries began establishing the string of 21 Spanish missions, most of the Southwest – including California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah – was part of Mexico. Today, the missions are islands of quiet, whether they are in an urban core, in a small town, on a college campus, neglected, or surrounded by urbanization.

Step inside the historic missions and life’s complications slip away. Those jagged edges are polished by the soothing influences of beauty, artistry and history. The solitude inside cushions life’s noise outside. A historic site’s story, its heritage and its headstones have much to offer visitors.

If the missions’ walls and gardens and confessionals and holy water could talk, what stories and music and laughter – and heartache – they could share. Their walls and cemeteries, through many generations, eavesdropped on many words of sorrow and countless desperate prayers for rain and health and good fortune.

Spanish missions

San Luis Rey de Francia was founded in 1798. It was the 18th of the missions. We visited the mission twice during our weeklong adventure. Its location in Oceanside on a gentle south-facing slope makes it ideal for early morning and late evening photos.

San Luis Rey de Francia is decorated for the Christmas holidays in December 2011. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Our first visit to San Luis Rey de Francia was on a Friday, the afternoon before Christmas Eve. We passed adobe ruins of barracks that housed Spanish soldiers who protected the mission. Several colorful piñatas hang on a cable in the parking lot close to the church door. A donkey, a few sheep and some chickens are in shelters in front of the mission, next to the large fountain.

In the 1950s, the mission was the set for several episodes of one of my favorite childhood programs, the Walt Disney television series, “Zorro.”

Inside the church, we were greeted by the lector, who is a volunteer. He welcomes visitors and asks them to sign the register. I stopped at the donation box. The church is requesting donations to help pay for new construction upgrades needed to withstand earthquakes.

The pews at San Luis Rey de Francia will be filled by parishioners, their families and other guests celebrating Christmas. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The church was mostly empty. A woman and a man were busy around the altar, hustling to finish the holiday decorations. A photographer, with his camera on a tripod, waits patiently as visitors meander through his planned photos.

My Best Friend lights candles and offers prayers. I wander and capture photos. She waits for me in a pew near the altar. I read the mission pamphlet about the main altar: “To the left of San Luis Rey is the Archangel San Miguel or Saint Michael. To the right is the statue of San Raphael or Saint Raphael. Both statues are polychrome wooden sculptures dating from the mid-18th Century.”

It goes on to say the central crucifix is from Nicaragua and it dates to the 1700s. Overhead, the wooden dome and ceiling were replaced in the 1930s. On the right is a side altar with a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order. The left side altar includes a sculpture that, according to the pamphlet, “depicts the suffering Christ just before his crucifixion.”

There is energy here. I imagine the dedication and beliefs of the holy men, their parishioners and the craftsmen involved in each mission’s founding, construction and painting.

A short time later, we leave the church to visit the mission museum and the gardens. We see the oldest pepper tree in California, planted by Father Antonio Peyri, who founded the mission. He received the seeds in 1830 from a sailor from Peru.

The pepper tree, framed by the arch, was planted from seeds received in 1830 from a Peruvian sailor. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

I slip into wander mode again, looking for more photo angles in the late afternoon sun. I head toward the cemetery gate, but then I stop. Ahead is a young couple helping an elderly man struggle with his walker from their car to the cemetery. His arms were straight on his walker. His head, sporting a ball cap, was bowed. He appeared focused on his feet. His slow and unsteady steps were the lengths of his shoes. Maybe he was struggling with age. Maybe he was recovering from knee surgery. I can wait.

Later, my Best Friend joins me. We enter the cemetery, where we pass a jovial man who says, “I’ve been coming here for 30 years, and nothing changes.” I suppose he was saying people live and people die, and in between we leave flowers by headstones.

Above the cemetery gate is a skull and crossbones design which, according to mission literature, often is found at Franciscan cemeteries. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

As we walk the cemeteries at the missions, we read some of the headstones. Some date to each mission’s earliest years. I wonder about the goals and achievements of those named on the headstones. I walk between the gravesites so I don’t disturb them.

San Luis Rey de Francia cemetery. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The sun was getting low in the sky. We walk the grounds, enjoying the quiet, the cemetery’s water features, and the cumulative history in the headstones. Our batteries were recharging.

Back at our hotel in Carlsbad, after downloading and studying my photos, I make plans to return to the mission to photograph angles I overlooked. We plan to wait until a day or two after Christmas for a second visit.

San Diego de Alcala is about 6 miles northeast of downtown San Diego. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

On the morning of Christmas Eve, we visited Mission San Diego de Alcala. The mission was founded in 1769 at a site overlooking San Diego Bay. Because of insufficient water for crops and because “the soil was not fertile enough and the American Indians were intimidated by the military,” the mission was moved a few miles to its present site in San Diego in 1774, according to the mission’s history on its Web site.

Over the years, we’ve visited several of the 21 Spanish missions in California. Admittedly, in some cases, history shows that church leadership sometimes was oppressive. I am hopeful that in most situations, religious leadership was respectful.

The interior of San Diego de Alcala. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

We’re attracted to the missions because of their historic importance and their religious significance. California’s known history began with the padres. We find balance in silent walks through history. We are two souls in awe, treading ancient clay tiles, admiring the American West heritage that dates to the 1700s and 1800s. In whispers, we point out the brush strokes in the mission paintings and the skills reflected in the woodwork, the iron hinges and latches, the tiny gardens, and the stone paths.

Gardens at the Spanish missions usually have flowers blooming, like this red star-shaped gem in the garden at Mission San Diego de Alcala. Be sure to carry a camera. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

Through the years, we have enjoyed many regions of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington, from Taos and Canyon de Chelly to San Diego, Portland and Seattle. But there are so many more rainbows, beaches, trails, historic sites and seafood restaurants to enjoy.

When we travel, our itineraries remain fluid, like the spontaneity of jazz and blues. Each creative chord is at our fingertips and in our hearts, awaiting freedom.

And for those quiet sanctuaries we find along our way, whether in a sunbeam in the woods or in the afternoon shadows of a historic mission, we carry a book or two.

Long way home

Our return to Arizona offered a different view of California history. We planned a longer route back home, taking a detour from Carlsbad to Escondido and up the gentle mountain slope to Julian, a historic gold mining town.

The eastbound freeway from Carlsbad ends in Escondido. There, our route morphed into a two-lane state highway that, in places, reminded us of Arizona roads near Sedona, Globe or Oracle. The narrow California highway had a few hairpin curves where a rabbit could keep pace.

In Julian, we stopped for lunch at The Fajita Grill. It’s on Main Street. Google its name for more information. I ordered a chicken chimichanga. It was so hearty, I skipped dinner later that day. When you visit Julian, skip breakfast so you can indulge yourself at the restaurant.

Later, we tried to buy an apple pie in Julian at one of the pie shops, for which the old mining town has become famous. But the lines were too long. At one shop, the line was 30 deep.

It was time to head home. On slower roads, like the one east from Julian to Interstate 8, tree leaves and flowers were close enough to count. We saw livestock feeding at their troughs.

At Lake Cuyamaca, we saw people enjoying the day in rowboats and barbecuing on shore. Others sat in lawn chairs around RVs in the parking areas. The few parking spaces at the lakeside restaurant were full.

The sun set behind us as we headed east into Arizona on I-8. We saw that the stars still were aligned. Slower roads give us time to pause, to think about the stormy and smooth roads we’ve traveled, to continue admiring nature, to share more miles.

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Jan 4th, 2012

2 Comments to 'Holidays Renewed by Studying Historic Footsteps in California'

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  1. Carol Romley said,

    Hi Mike:
    What a beautiful trip you and your best friend had over the holidays.
    It is a great way to start the New Year reading your writings. I felt like I was right there.
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful adventures.
    Happy New Year to you and yours.

  2. Peg Hodges said,

    A fine story as usual and wonderful pictures – it feels as though we are walking with you through the history of the missions. You and your best friend chose a lovely way to spend the Christmas holidays.

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