Traveling along the Central Coast

While traveling along the Central Coast, Jennie and I took a trip down to Anzo Borrego Springs to see the wildflowers. Unfortunately, rainfall in the desert has been so sparse this year that we were mostly treated to cacti, dry shrubbery, and the occasional ocotillo bloom. We did hike up Palm Canyon and reached the oasis where a trickling stream brought cool water to our skin and pursed our chapped lips. The highlight of our hike was seeing a herd of bighorn sheep not more than fifty yards away.

We drove. It was a long trip—many hours spent in the car listening to a book on tape. On the way down, we traveled through the Salinas Valley and then crossed over to Highway 5 via Highway 46. On the return leg, we came up the coast by Morro Bay then turned east towards Paso Robles and again up the Salinas Valley. This route closely traced the passage of the 1769 Portola expedition.

The Rock at Morro Bay is the last in a line of a series of uplifted mounts that are found in the region. It held much significance to the native peoples. It was part of their mythology regarding the order of their world. Sacred ceremonies were held at certain times of the year when tribespeople were allowed to climb its summit. Singing and dancing always accompanied the spiritual celebrations.

Just north of the rock, near Cambria, is where the Portola expedition had to turn inland to avoid the steep coastal mountains that were virtually impassable. The Spanish entered the Salinas Valley near the site of San Miguel Mission. We stopped there many years ago.

Interior of San Miguel (Library of Congress image)

There are two things I remember about our visit:

1) There is a series of beautiful fresco paintings in the elongated chapel depicting the Passion of Christ. These paintings were done by the indigenous people under the supervision of the Franciscan padres.

2) There is a common gravesite on the grounds that entombs over 2200 native people.

Traveling up the Salinas Valley one rarely sees water flowing in the river, especially in a dry year. That’s because the Salinas River mostly travels below the surface of the riverbed. But the evidence of water is seen in the rich silty soil and the verdant fields of crops and vineyards that stretch out between the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west and the Gabilan Range to the east. I’ve always imagined myself as part of the Portola expedition when they first came across this valley. It must have looked so different. There would have been Indian villages scattered about, groves of mighty oaks, herds of antelope and elk, fish in the streams, and the lumberings of the great grizzly bear.

Mission bells, Benjamin C. Truman, 1903

Along the highway, there are still quite a few mission bells denoting the Camino de Real. Many bells, in cities such as Santa Cruz, have been removed out of respect for the suffering they represent to the native peoples. In other areas, mostly near the Gonzales and King City townships, the bells remain. I believe it is up to the local communities to decide what to do with their bells. I can see where they might be offensive to some, but they remain a symbol of history. If they are all removed then a teaching moment may be lost. I’m not a cancel-culture type, I guess.

Image sources:
Detroit Photographic Co. Mission San Miguel Arcangel. [Photochrom prints – color, c. 1898] Library of Congress Control Number 2008678180
Truman, Benjamin Cummings. Missions of California. [Los Angeles, M. Rieder, 1903] Pdf.

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