Family takes a tour of California's historic missions

LA Times | Travel

Virtually every California fourth-grader is required to work on a project about one of the 21 Spanish missions in the state, and the stakes are high. The project accounts for a healthy chunk of a child's grade, so it was with a bit of breathlessness that Addison, my 10-year-old daughter, brought ...

By Geoff Boucher // 03.12.08

Virtually every California fourth-grader is required to work on a project about one of the 21 Spanish missions in the state, and the stakes are high. The project accounts for a healthy chunk of a child's grade, so it was with a bit of breathlessness that Addison, my 10-year-old daughter, brought home her teacher's advice that students should visit a mission and preferably pick one that sets them apart from their classmates.


California missions: An article about California missions in the March 16 Travel section identified Lompoc, site of La Purisima Mission, as a community in San Luis Obispo County. Lompoc is in Santa Barbara County.

Instead of the typical amusement-park trek or guilt-reducing visit to Grandma's, we were packing bags in the name of "scholastic tourism." That was just the first surprise. The second was that the trip, which included stops at four missions in four cities, would be as much a learning experience for my wife, Tracy, and me as it was for Addison and her little brother, 6-year-old Benjamin.

I grew up in southern Florida, where history doesn't exactly seize your imagination ("Just think, some of these buildings are 40 years old."), and Tracy grew up in the state's northeastern corner, in Jacksonville. We've lived in Southern California since 1993 but had only a vague sense of the missions and their history.

And what a history it is -- framed by both the holy and the horrible, marked by moments of individual altruism and mass greed. The fourth-grade teachers filter out many of the harshest details and, at the missions themselves, the Roman Catholic Church emphasizes the good works and California achievements. (One mission was a major exception to that; more on that later.)

We came home with enough answers to get our daughter that good grade, but we also found out more about the place we call home and the intense, conflicted and compelling saga that is the history of the Golden State.

Our trip started with a plan. We knew we wanted to go north and combine our academic enterprise with a visit to Hearst Castle. So Tracy took on the task of finding a route and the options for missions. The California missions were built between 1769 and 1823 by the Spanish Franciscans, and they follow El Camino Real (the King's Road), the onetime mule-and-horse path that mirrors the coastline all the way up to Sonoma.

Many of Addie's classmates would be writing about one of the five missions between Ventura and Oceanside, so we decided to venture up toward the state's Central Coast and visit three missions in Santa Barbara County, as well as one in San Luis Obispo County.

Old Mission Santa Barbara

2201 Laguna St., Santa Barbara; (805) 682-4713,

Our first stop was the Queen of the Missions, as it is known. High on a rise between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the churning Pacific, its setting was the most regal of the missions we visited.

The mission was founded in 1786 (it was the 10th), but those original humble adobes are long gone. The chapel that stands today, which has doors that open toward the sea, was finished in 1820. The Franciscans introduced the Chumash to farming, and the mission was the center of a huge agricultural machine. Fields of wheat, barley, beans, peas and corn once stood here, and more than 11,000 head of sheep and 5,000 cattle grazed the land.

Our kids loved the graceful fountain out front. Amazed to hear that it was built 200 years ago, they re-examined it, noting the puckering goldfish in the murky water. We all agreed the fish was probably much younger. Inside the building, we walked on battered old tiles and beneath wood rafters during a short tour. Ben was fascinated by the swords, spurs and rifle on display in an ornate wood case, as well as the chess pieces and quill pen in another area. My daughter winced when she saw an especially bloody Jesus on the crucifix. "That," she said, "is very unpleasant."

The tour took us into the courtyard, with another fountain, six towering palms, rose bushes and lanterns complete with birds' nests. We couldn't hear any traffic in this hemmed-in space, just the mission's modern-day congregation singing "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" as Saturday services finished.

Our timing was perfect. We waited for the congregation to filter out and then strolled through the church, which is dotted with examples of 18th and 19th century Mexican art.

Outside, we met Father Richard McManus. "The most wonderful thing is not just all this history but that this is also a living church, a working parish," said the Irish-born McManus.

He directed us to the cemetery to take note of the mission's bit of celebrity: Juana María, the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island," the last surviving member of the Nicoleño tribe and the subject of the beloved children's book "Island of the Blue Dolphins."

Addison is a big fan of the book, and that got her to go past the skull carvings at the door of the graveyard. There was a grim, dark corridor lined with crypts -- some of them cracked open -- and we studied the names and dates and tried to imagine life here in this beautiful spot in those centuries when life was shorter and harsher and ghosts must have seemed much closer at hand.

"I'm getting a little creeped out," Ben said, and part of me agreed with him. We decided to call it a day, and we left happy and a bit haunted.

Old Mission Santa Inés

1760 Mission Drive, Solvang; (805) 688-4815,

Our next stop was Solvang, the little town that is famous as a hub of Danish culture -- even if it's taken that reputation to a touristy extreme. (It's also developed a secondary identity in pop culture after "Sideways" uncorked the local wine-tasting scene.)

We spent the night at Hadsten House Inn, recently remodeled and (with its sleek Euro-chic restaurant and heated indoor pool) a nice bargain and a bit cooler than its gingerbread-flavored name might indicate. We had a breakfast of cheese, bread and sweet Danish at Olsen's Danish Village Bakery and, after a bit of time in the local gift shops, headed to our primary mission (so to speak) in the center of town.

The physical setting as you approach can't compete with the majesty of Santa Barbara's mission: Here we approached from a hotel parking lot, passed some battered basketball hoops and found the tour started in the, ahem, gift shop.

As we got closer, though, and before we went inside, we saw the mission's Stations of the Cross, which follow a pebbled path at the top of a ridgeline. The hand-painted images hushed us with their portrayal of Christ's final ordeal. It was a Sunday, about 11 a.m., and we heard the congregation singing "Joy to the World" and applauding at the end of services.

This was the Sunday after Christmas, and inside the chapel we found a huge Nativity, a wildly elaborate hillside scene dotted with different people and creatures. It reminded me more of the intense detailing of a model-train spread. Ben was fascinated by it.

The chapel had a strange faux-marble wallpaper with flowered vases that made me think of a strip-mall Italian restaurant. I rolled my eyes over the contrived sense of history -- but a few minutes later I saw "real" history in striking fashion.

There are seven audio-tour spots within the rooms of the mission where you can get commentary on the artifacts within its walls. In one of these, the Vestment Room, our jaws dropped as we listened to the story of the dramatic collection of wool vestments that, a century ago, were saved from disintegration by a padre's niece and her meticulous labors.

One of them, a vivid purple cloak, was more than 400 years old; another bright red one showed thousands of stitches on close inspection. Maybe it was the dusty rock floors and the walls with bits of twig and earth still visible, but I had had the impression of a drab and muted past. These dramatic garments certainly changed that impression.

Equally amazing was a 1784 missal, a magnificent book that must have seemed delivered from heaven to the native tribes, and an indexed parchment of Gregorian chants. Inés has its own nickname -- "the Hidden Gem of California Missions," and it was clear to us why with this dramatic collection of treasures. However, Addie left leaning toward Mission Santa Barbara as her report choice.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo; (805) 781-8220,

If Santa Barbara feels rarefied and Santa Inés overlooked, this third mission was the most connected to a modern urban setting. Low slung and on a busy street, Mission San Luis Obispo is in the heart of the county seat. There's a statue out front of Friar Junípero Serra, with a rough-hewn staff in hand and a somewhat impassive expression on his face.

Serra is a major figure in mission history (he became "father presidente" in 1768), but his life was nowhere as calm as the statue. Famous for his zeal, he reportedly punctuated his pulpit messages by holding a torch to his skin or banging on his chest with a stone. He died in 1784 at age 70 after being bitten by a snake in Carmel.

Serra founded this mission in 1772, with the local Chumash people setting up poles and tree boughs to create its temporary buildings. It grew to include barracks, an infirmary and all the agricultural infrastructure.

It's difficult to imagine how the tribes came to view the missions. Invaders? Saviors? Miracle workers? Harsh taskmasters? The original goals of the mission system were to turn the tribes into Spanish subjects. That never happened; disease and politics interfered, and the winds of history blew in other directions.

This mission, which is also a working Catholic parish, offered fascinating glimpses into the Chumash ways. On display were stone fishing weights, chopping tools, arrowheads of obsidian and onyx, abalone shells, and the tar used to waterproof their effective canoes.

Each mission has some mysteries that remain. In this one, there was a window with bars: Was it to protect the padres from the bears or to protect the chastity of young Chumash girls, who were divided from males when the mission took hold?

Ben was excited to see that one of the artifacts was a detailed model of a sailing ship that reminded him of Jack Sparrow's Black Pearl from all those pirate films, and it's easy to imagine a young child in past centuries in similar awe.

There was a remarkable number of objects -- a complicated device used to crush olives was especially intriguing -- but it was hard to place all of them in time and context without better historical commentary. The kids got a bit bored at this one (the mission visits were starting to blur), so we headed out to get some air.

Nearby, we found a little babbling creek with a wooden bridge that was part of a cute shopping district. The kids played and marveled at a "Moon Tree" (its plaque told us it was planted in 1971 after its seeds had accompanied astronauts on a trip to the moon.)

One more mission to go, and Santa Barbara was still circled in Addie's mind.

La Purisima Mission State Historical Park

2295 Purisima Road, Lompoc; (805) 733-3713,

Our final mission took us into Lompoc, in San Luis Obispo County -- and to a different experience. Instead of a working Catholic church, this mission is one of three among the statewide 21 that are run by the state. That was immediately evident by the elaborate visitors center, where we met Anne Boggess, a state parks interpreter. Boggess told us that 20,000 fourth-graders come to her doorstep every year, as well as tourists from around the world. "Some visit all 21 missions in a week, which is crazy," she said. "I'm not sure you would get much out of that."

The visitors center, with its pristine dioramas, textured detail maps and carefully assembled histories, is already impressive and will be even more so in September after more enhancements are added, including touch bins and fiber-optic displays. We had seen some amazing artifacts (like those vestments back at Santa Inés), but I could see the kids perking up with this sleeker, more scholarly approach.

We were just in time for the free 1 p.m. tour (it takes about 1 1/2 hours; there is a $4 parking fee), and Boggess gave us and about 20 other visitors a detailed and nuanced explanation of the mission and its odyssey through the centuries.

She told us tales of earthquakes, political shifts, military intrigue and economic crises as well as, most interesting of all, the stories of people who lived and died on the land.

The kids were a bit more excited to see that this state park is home to some Texas longhorns named Brea and Rojo; at some point, no textbook is as compelling to kids as an animal that's bigger than they are.

The state tour has a detached sensibility that offered a less rosy view of the church than we had heard at the other sites.

The state took over this land in 1934, and today its structures are a mix of the restored and re-created, but all of it is done in a fashion that makes you feel as if you are walking through an effective document of the past. Nowhere else did we feel as great an understanding of the day-to-day life. Boggess did an excellent job too, getting youngsters in our tour group involved, letting Addie ring a bell-wheel and other youngsters climb up a goblet-shaped platform that gave the padres an elevated perch during services.

The tour of the living quarters, the workshops and the barracks gave us the sense that life could be tedious, bare-boned and arduous but also close to the earth and, for true believers, close to their faith.

This mission also had trails and wildlife that made it a more engaging visit for Ben, certainly, and more airy for all of us. Afterward, Addie decided that this was the mission that spoke to her most, the one that had the most learning aids and vitality. But she, and all of us, were glad it was only one of four we visited as we followed the old King's Road.

"When you go through the doors, it's like going back in time," Addie told me later. "And we know a lot more about California now. I want to see other missions too, even after the fourth grade."

Mission accomplished.