San Francisco Missions Trip
Thursday, November 17, 2016
We left early from Los Angeles and mostly avoided traffic on the 405 and 5 N. After we got through Tejon Pass, we took a scenic, hilly route through the countryside and arrived on US-101, which was built on the historic El Camino Real, the King of Spain's Royal Road, connecting all 21 of the Alta California missions, with a one day journey by horseback separating each of them.
Our first stop was one of seven missions we hoped to see on this trip, Mission San Miguel (before the trip, we had seen 14 of the 21). We enjoyed the brickwork and the belfry near the front of the grounds. We sat in the car and ate a little lunch and then followed the brick fence past agave and prickly pear to the entrance to start our tour. We found the mission charming and photogenic, despite being small.
We didn't have to drive much further north on US-101 before we arrived at the town of San Juan Bautista, named for Mission San Juan Bautista. The town had a charming feel and the historic center of town, with the mission flanking an open fairground and the state historic park preserving the old western buildings on two of the sides, leaving the fourth side open with a view of the fields and valley below. This was one of our favorite missions to see, with a beautiful chapel inside, complete with wider wings and more arches in the interior, and a beautiful white façade and belfry. It is a real stand-out and in a charming, scenic little town as well.
We stopped and asked about getting barbecue sandwiches but the tiny store where we stopped said it was under different ownership and they hadn't bothered to change the sign. Disappointed we got back on the freeway and drove to the town of Gilroy and stopped for an afternoon dinner at Taqueria Cancun, which was surprisingly clean, very affordable, and enormously filling: we ordered a pork chile verde taco and two tostadas (the second was only a dollar more).
We were grateful for a very filling and affordable meal and made our way northwest out into the hills and mountains of Sanborn County. It got colder as we went into the shadowy canyons and higher altitudes. We knew the campground would close at sunset and since it was November, we knew we had to get there fairly early in the afternoon to find a campsite at Uvas Canyon County Campground.
Aside from the tall sycamores and oaks and otherwise beautiful mountainous canyons, the only other interesting site on the drive in was a private community called Sveadal, dedicated to promoting and perpetuating their common Swedish heritage, especially with their Annual Midsummer Celebration in June. It looked like a sort of place where groups could arrange to have a retreat and it was indeed a beautiful setting.
We set up the tent as it got darker and climbed inside to stay warm. We went to bed early but unfortunately the campground was not completely empty and some neighbor had a really loud barking dog but things calmed down as it was really too dark and cold to do anything interesting at this time of year, in terms of enjoying the outdoors, as people like to do when they camp, so most of the campground just tried to sleep through a cold evening.
Friday, November 18, 2016
As we packed the tent and exited the campground we were greeted by a small group of ten turkeys, enjoying the shadows of the morning in the canyon. We stopped and got as many photos as we could, and we were surprised that they weren't too skittish when we followed them around with the camera.
We enjoyed the beautiful drive across the countryside and into San Jose. The angular light and banks of fog combined with the lush green grassy hills to create a memorable magical morning. This was standard California scenery at its finest.
At one point as we hurtled down the highway we saw a quail jump onto a fence and then it was instantly pounced upon by a hawk, who began tearing it apart for breakfast. It was a little bit much to take in while driving and although we were shook up, we managed to avoid swerving out of our lane.
We met up with some of Jared's family, who had planned to spend the weekend in downtown San Francisco and had just arrived at the San Francisco airport. While they took an Uber across town to meet up with us we drove to a parking garage and walked a few blocks to meet with them at Mission Dolores (Mission San Francisco de Asís). We did the tour of the mission, the cemetery, and the wonderful Basilica next-door and had a little bit of time to chat and catch up.
We walked a few blocks to grab some goodies at Tartine Bakery, then parted ways while the tired travelers took an Uber to their hotel in the heart of downtown San Francisco. We met up with them a few blocks from their hotel at the famous bakery and chain in San Francisco, Boudin Bakery. Here we got some butternut squash soup (very autumnal, with sweetish spices but not too sugary) in a sourdough bread bowl, as well as beef chili. When some of the rest of the group made it, they also used the chance to get some hot food on a cold day.
We parted ways and drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge across the city of San Rafael to see the mission there. The San Rafael Mission is very small but they also have a beautiful church on the same site. We enjoyed their historic mission bell, which looks exactly as you would expect. It matches the 1904 commemorative bells that line the route of the El Camino Real (now mostly coterminous with the US-101 running between Los Angeles and San Francisco).
We went to China Camp State Park at about dusk, and stopped at many of the overlooks to enjoy the electric blue water and even follow some more turkeys around. In one group of turkeys we found nine and in the other eleven. If you are keeping track that is thirty turkeys on my birthday! What a fun present. We also saw many other kinds of birds especially down in the water, and heard frogs in the wetlands area close to the campground.
We set up our camp while it was still dry and carried the air mattress from the car up to the site that we had reserved. As campsites go it wasn't super cheap, but as places to stay within driving distance of San Francisco, we got a real deal and I am sure it was quieter than the hotel where Jared's family stayed!
Saturday, November 19, 2016
We got out fairly early in the morning to explore China Camp State Park and saw yet more turkeys, perhaps a dozen in a large group, pecking at the ground and using their special turkey trails to go up the hillside, crossing the road very carefully and orderly.
We had a cold breakfast in the car and the rain picked up as we stopped a few minutes away at the buildings and docks of the fishing village, commemorating the last of 26 Pacific Coast Chinese fishing villages, where they mostly used nets to catch shrimp. We learned about Frank Quan, who just that summer (August 2016) had died at the age of 90 and still lived at the park until his death. Decades ago, when the park was created to preserve what was left of the village, he was allowed to stay and live there.
We drove north to the town of Sonoma, in Napa Valley. Here we saw a number of historic sites, including Mission San Francisco Solano, now a State Historic Park, with great exhibits that are more frank than the Catholic-Church-owned missions about the terrible devastation wrought by the diseases brought by the Spaniards, and how the Native Americans were basically forced into labor and had their culture mostly replaced by Spanish Christianity.
Across the street from the mission are more buildings in the Sonoma State Historic Park and exhibits dedicated to the time in California history when it was briefly under the flag of the Grizzly Republic. There is an interesting gift shop that sells replicas of the original sloppy, almost cute, grizzly bear flag.
We also saw Vallejo House, an awesome ranch where Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, an important figure in California history, lived and worked the land. It was rainy but the greenery and old-timey architecture made an otherwise dreary day into an interesting and relaxing day.
On the way out of town, we stopped at Schellville Barbecue and got a single sandwich which we split: the Triple Crown, with pork and two kinds of beef, as well as delicious french fries.
We were stuffed for the drive back south over the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco, where Jared's family had worn themselves out by visiting the Legion of Honor Museum and seeing the art there in Golden Gate Park.
We wasted nearly $20 getting sundaes for ourselves at Ghirardelli Square, and seeing their demonstration set up for how chocolate is made. Royal got a salted caramel and I got a mint bliss.
Eventually we were able to meet up with Jared's family for dinner, first parking near the Boudin Bakery where we ate the day before, then walking to a nearby Mexican restaurant that was much too busy, and walking another mile to meet up with the rest of Jared's family at another Mexican restaurant called Cadillac. The food was delicious and the service was great and there was more than enough food to go around. We did not order anything but even eating other people's food there were still leftovers for us to take and we were double stuffed.
We drove back out of the city and over the Golden Gate Bridge and down the highway to sleep at China Camp State Refuge, and luckily the rain had abated somewhat while we climbed into the tent. We had to punch in the access code to get through the locked gate, since it was past sundown, but everything went smoothly and we were back in bed.
Sunday, November 20, 2016
We woke up at our campsite at China Camp State Park and packed out the sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets into the car while there was little rain, so running down the hill with them was not too much of a problem. A few minutes later we saw a few turkeys walking through the campground and Jared even met a little newt in the bathroom, who was presumably also trying to escape the rain and moisture. We also saw some quail but they escaped into the bushes before we could get the camera.
We managed to pack and fold up the tent and tarp despite the torrent. These we would later have to sweep and hang out in our courtyard at home because they were so muddy and soaked.
We drove south to Mission Soledad, a very small mission not far from US-101. It was a plain mission and they had preserved the foundations of the walls of several buildings, and they had a lot of plans to renovate or even rebuild old buildings of the compound. The little church itself is in reasonable shape but what we found most interesting, besides the setting amongst fields of lettuce and cabbage, was a table created out of many ceramic tiles that showed each of the twenty missions as well as quails and monarch butterflies, all very Californian.
We drove south on US-101 to a certain point where we took a very isolated route away from the freeway. Not far from the active Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation, Mission San Antonio de Padua itself is quite large, very pastoral and feels like what it must have felt to be at the mission one hundred years ago. The overcast autumn weather, the surrounding rugged landscape, and the remoteness really put a mood over the whole place. This was truly one of our favorite missions and is in pretty good shape, with beautiful façades, bells, tiles and rooflines, a well-kept courtyard, and active Franciscan monks studying there. They are doing more renovation work but it is in pretty good shape any way.
The rain started as we left and it continued raining on the drive home, as we took US-101 to California 46 to Interstate 5. There was no rain from about Bakersfield to the Tejon Pass, but once we made it over the pass and into the Los Angeles Basin and San Fernando Valley (the Pacific side), the rain picked back up again. We were able to go grocery shopping on the way home and unpacked the car and ate leftovers of Mexican food and fresh cookies, recovering a little from our long trip and getting ready for a relaxing Thanksgiving week in Southern California, our first in 12 years! (That's a dozen Thanksgivings kindly hosted by Jared's family, in Mesa, AZ.)