From my Mother’s grave you can see the golden Californian hills rising in the east – the coastal range. On a clear day you can see Mt. Hamilton Observatory. The road to the top is where mother learned to drive, and where I went camping with the Boy Scouts.
The cemetery dates from 1839 – one of the oldest in California. When I walk among the headstones, I remember sorrows, joys and people I once walked with. My grandparents are buried here and in the older sections other more distant relatives rest. Once set far out in the country, away from homes and businesses, the cemetery is now fenced in by condos, shopping malls, and busy roads.
My mother was a traveler. Give her a car and a little gas money and she’d be gone looking for the other side of the mountain. As a child, she often took me on her trips. Every summer I remember being packed in the car with camping gear, boxes of canned goods and an old beat up ice-chest and away we’d go seeking some speck on the map. Some place we had never been.
In the sixth grade, I studied California history at school and made a model of a California Spanish Mission out of sugar cubes. Well, not a whole mission – as I recall I only did one wall and part of fence made from Popsicle sticks. I wrote a long report and I received good marks. Mother always tried her best to reward good school work and decided that we do a special trip that summer.
I was twelve and it was only going to be mother and me traveling. My brothers had moved away from home and father’s alcoholism consumed his life. Mother decided that the trip to do was to take me to see a real California Spanish Mission.
Not one Mission, but all 21 missions.
The California Mission system was built by the Franciscan order starting in 1769. The missions were part of the Spanish colonization of the Alta California region – an area that now includes the coastal area from San Diego to Sonoma County just north of San Francisco. The missions were used to convert the native tribes to Catholicism, take control of the land and provide both religious and military control of Alta California.
It was built along the “El Camino Real.” If you visit California, you’re bound to see this street name and the signs for it along many parts of the coast. Roughly translated, El Camino Real, is “The Royal Road,” or “King’s Highway.” The missions are spaced out along this road roughly 30 miles apart – a long day’s ride on horse back or a three-day walk. The road provided travelers with accommodations along the route and allowed supplies and communications to flow between the outposts. It was possible to ride a horse from San Diego to San Francisco in about three weeks while staying in a nice comfortable mission each night.
This is what my mother decided I should see first hand so we loaded the car and headed south to San Diego. There we took our only detour from the mission of seeing the Missions and went to see both Sea World and the San Diego zoo. Then we located Mission San Diego and started north along the old route of El Camino Real.
It was a very long time ago and my memories of the trip are a bit vague. I can recall only bits and pieces. I remember the big coffee table book of California Missions that mother had and how it became our reference book. I remember the box of AAA maps that mother had gotten to navigate us. Mother was generally hopeless about finding her way and we spent a lot of time lost. I learned to read a map very well on that trip – mostly out of self-defense.
Most days we’d see two or three missions and then camp at a State Park for the night. Maybe two or three times we stayed at a motel when mother needed to do our laundry. Breakfast was most often cereal, lunch usually a sandwich and dinner came from a can.
The missions were varied – most were (and are today) working churches with the original buildings fully preserved or restored. Some missions had fallen into ruins. At some there were tours. At some just signs or a little pamphlet.
I learned a lot, but we had troubles too. Mother’s car was a piece of junk. I was one of the few twelve-year olds who knew how to check the oil, tire pressure and water level in the radiator. My older brother had drilled me on basic car repairs before the trip, gave me some basic tools and taught me to change a tire – including actually having me practice it. I never did find out if he was acting on his own or if mother put him up to it (he still refuses to say).
When we were coming over the Grapevine Pass on I-5, the right rear tire blew out. Mother managed to keep the car in control and got us to the shoulder. I got out and started to take out the camping gear so I could get to the spare tire. I don’t recall mother asking me to change the tire or me saying anything – I just got out and started to work.
Next to the freeway was frontage road and just as I was starting to set up the bumper jack a man in a pickup truck stopped and called out, “You need help there, son?”
“No Thanks,” I called back
Then he saw my mother, got out of his truck, jumped over the barbed-wire fence separating us and said, “Ma’am, this isn’t the best place to be changing a tire. You’re boy seems to know what he’s doing, but he seems a little small to be throwing tires around on the freeway. Let me change that tire for you.”
Mother thanked the man and agreed it would be better for him to do it. When he was done and the car repacked, mother offered to pay the man $5.00. He refused, but mother insisted he take something and he took a half a bag of stale cookies before driving off.
The trip ended at Fort Ross – the southern most Russian settlement in California. After all, reasoned mother, the Spanish weren’t the only ones trying to colonize California at the time.
This was one of the last road trips mother and I took together. Our return home bought a return to the problems of life and too soon I was growing up. School, career, life overtook the simple joys of the road, looking for the other side of the mountain …
Then one day, I am standing in a cemetery, next to her headstone watching clouds roll past the hills and – wondering when the road ended.
Till next week,
Note: Taking this week out to do a little Mother’s Day post. Will return to Route 66 next week.