If you come to California one of the “must do” items, in my mind, is to visit the Missions. The Missions here have their own unique story and there are over 21 of these historic settlements scattered along the coastal trail that we now know as Hwy 101 (a great RV drive too, by the way). From the very first Europeans to inhabit California to the heady days of early frontier living the Missions were a transformative part of the State’s history. Many were lost and rebuilt, a very few were attacked (surprisingly few considering their purpose), but the gorgeous adobe buildings remain as a testament to a Spanish force that forever changed the way of life of Native Americans on the West Coast.
We were on a mission to a Mission to discover where it all started…..and we were going to meet some new friends too! Our chosen spot was California’s very first mission San Diego de Alcalá, and our new friends were RV folks (always the best!) who we’d met through our blog -> Lu and Terry of Paint Your Landscape. And BOTH were utterly fabulous!
When we met Lu and Terry we immediately hit it off (as we so often do with travelling folks like ourselves) and joked about the fact that since we both wrote a blog, it would easy to just say “see the other’s post” for what we did that day. Well Lu beat me to the punch and since she wrote such a great history of the place that’s exactly what I’m gonna do…so go see this post! She’s got all the juicy stuff so I’m just going to do my own very short version with impressions of the Mission from that day.
The Mission itself was started in July 16, 1769, when Franciscan Fathers Junipero Serra, Palou and Parron dug a hole eight feet into the beach-head near the mouth of the San Diego River, planted a large cross and held mass. A bell was suspended from the limb of a nearby tree and the site was dedicated to St. Didacus (San Diego). It was the very first Mission in California, the “Mother of the Alta California Missions”, it was completely isolated (there was literally NOTHING there) and it must have taken quite some guts to get it going.
For the next ~100 years the mission went through a bunch of transformations. In 1774 it was moved 6 miles inland, in 1775 it was attacked and burnt to the ground by the Native Americans (the event remains the single biggest attack on a Mission in California history), in 1833 repossesed through Mexican Secularization, in 1847 taken over by the American Military and then (finally) completely abandoned. It was a total wreck and barebones structure that was returned to the Catholic Church in 1862 and it took until 1930 to fully restore to its former glory.
That’s the short-version story of the place. The present-day impression is a beautiful, white-washed adobe structure that maintains an active church (and school), contains a wonderful little museum, several simple (but pretty) chapels and manicured, bloomingly wonderful gardens. It’s topped off by “The Capanario“, a gorgeous 46-foot tower of bells whose musical tolls were an integral part of early life at the Mission. The bells are one of the first things you notice when you arrive and put a real mark of distinction on the place.
We spent a good hour and a half walking around, enjoying the grounds and learning about the history. I tried to imagine the dedication (fervour?) it must have taken these early priests to come to a barren land and impose a foreign way of life on the locals. Quite predictably the early years were fraught with clashes with the Kumeyaay Indians and conditions must have been harsh with biting-cold winters, baking hot summers, limited supplies and struggling agriculture.
Yet the relationship did produce good too. The Spanish introduced livestock, fruit, flowers, grain and water-ways, the very first of which (Padre Dam) was built right here in San Diego and provided water to the Mission and surrounding lands.
All 4 of us thoroughly enjoyed both the visit to the Mission and the rest of the day hanging out in town. Lu and Terry are workamping up at San Elijo State Park so if you go there, drop on by and say “hi”. We’ve plans to meet again too, so if you didn’t make the first mission, be ready for our next one….
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