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21 Days on the California Mission Trail

The Place

The trail runs from San Diego to San Francisco, about 800 miles. I experienced the southern section, from San Diego to Santa Barbara, which took 21 days. The southernmost part of the trail is most often along the busy coastal highway. It takes one along the tops of sea-side cliffs and sometimes across vast beaches of yellow sand. The towns along the way are busy with tourists and surfers, and were lively, beautiful, and expensive. We stayed in hotels, all four of us in one room, to make it affordable for all. The second week was in urban Los Angeles, where we spent 8 days on sidewalks, waiting for traffic lights, walking neighborhoods to get away from the traffic and noise. One city turns into the next, until, just in the nick of time, you walk up and over Old Susanna Pass into the Simi Valley. On day 19 we were back at the ocean just south of Ventura. The path north from there ran along a railroad line and sometimes there was relief from the traffic. Much of the way is on paved bike paths separated from the traffic by sturdy steel barriers; other sections are a bike path simply delineated by a white stripe on the pavement, and in less busy places we walked the shoulder along vast fields of lemon and avocado trees, greenhouses full of flowers, artichokes, and cilantro. Laura sought out and walked miles along beaches, while the rest of us spent more time on the cliff-top paths.

Pilgrims on a Journey: Kenton, Robert, Laura, Luis.

The People

Our group of four came together quickly – Laura invited Kenton, who she had met on the Portuguese Camino in 2018. He invited me; we had also met on the Portuguese Camino and again on the European Peace Walk in 2019. Camino walkers can be relied on to know what they are in for and have a positive attitude. Luis, also a Camino veteran, set out solo, only finding out about us at the last minute. California Mission Walkers have a great Facebook page and they have Brigid, who met us in San Diego. The FB page makes coordination easy, and when we reached the Los Angeles area we had the amazing experience of being hosted. We didn’t know what to expect, and Dawn and Steve set the bar pretty high. They picked us up at the end of our first LA day and took use to their home, filled us with food and beer and wine and made places for us to sleep. In the morning they took us back where we had finished the day before. We played pool and told stories and took naps and after four nights were picked up in the same fashion by Kenneth and Karen for more of the same, followed by Tim and Cristy, Kurt and Rose, and finally Debbie. These wonderful people treated us like honored guests.

Kenton walking the beach in Southern California

The Journey

The historic missions are beautiful, none more so than San Juan Capistrano with its old buildings framed by bright flowers and blue sky. They seem more museums than spiritual places to me, but that may be just my experience. If there had been no missions on the way I don’t think it would have mattered. Hour after hour of trudging on pavement and waiting for traffic lights and looking for available bathrooms (few and far between) in the LA area make the walking day hard. We walked between 12 and 16 miles each day and didn’t set a destination until one appeared. We had conversations about our widely varied spiritual beliefs and understandings. Luis, a native of Los Angeles, is not typical of its residents; he is all Basque and no Latino; a man of letters. He interpreted the vast city for us. When I needed distraction from the pavement, I could walk up beside him and say the title of a book or movie, and a long and detailed discussion would begin. Laura guided us with the Gaia mapping app and had more energy and enthusiasm than Kenton and I put together. Her younger son Julien, who overflows with enthusiasm and creative spirit, walked with us for a few days, and her husband Todd met up with the group in Santa Barbara for a week. She explores the edges of human consciousness and spirituality, and I regret not picking her brain more about her view of free will (it seems you will have all the time in the world until it’s over). Kenton marveled at the beauty of the setting, from houses to landscaping and seascapes, the fantastic food, always appearing on the verge of saying, “I’m moving here next week.” We felt like we knew Butch Briery as we used his guide and pored over every word, although we didn’t meet. We did meet Sandy Brown, whose guide will come to define the journey in a few years There is something heroic about through-hiking this trail, which not many have done, and I expect by the final mission near San Francisco the journey would provide its own unique enlightenment. .

Bike Paths beside a very busy highway

What clearly stands out on this trail are the people supporting pilgrims. This would be a difficult journey solo, as there is no pilgrim infrastructure and you will not meet other pilgrims. But the trail has Brigid and Pam and Linda and Dawn and Steve and Tim and Cristy and Kurt and Rose and Kenneth and Karon and Debbie, and they make the California Mission Trail the unique experience it is.

Mission San Luis Rey

My personal gear included a 38 liter Osprey pack, small enough for carry-on but large enough to hold everything I need for a long trip. I wore a new pair of Oboz Arete low hiking shoes, lightweight and comfortable, designed for pavement, and I never had a blister. I needed a jacket for cool April evenings, shorts for daytime and long pants for evenings, a raincoat just in case, and a broad brimmed hat. I took camping gear but when it became clear we wouldn’t find camping opportunities, I mailed it home. I carried no food and 1 quart of water.

Mission San Gabriel

Will I finish this trail? I suspect the trip north of Santa Barbara is different than what I experienced, and would like to see it. However, France looks to be a possibility for September, and I plan to finish the Camino from Moissac to St Jean Pied de Port next (2 weeks). Next spring, Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll walk Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome. Kenton is on the waiting list for John Muir Trail in August. Luis is taking the remainder in sections, beginning next weekend. Laura is always moving forward, relentlessly pursuing her goal of completing the entire trail.

The author near Carpenteria, CA
Sunset from the deck of a bar in Laguna Beach
Siempre adelante!

12 Days In

San Gabriel River

We have been inland since Newport Beach. We spent two days walking by an enormous concrete ditch. We just did a bit of this today. I was glad to see water and plant life . We have walked 20 miles of concrete.

Pico Rivera Golf Course

None of us are golfers but we all appreciated $5 pints of good beer here. All beer prior to this was $8. After 14.5 miles today, we needed it.

Steve shows Laura the trail

For 4 nights Steve and Dawn have picked us up at the end of our walk, fed us great food, and taken us back to our next starting point. Tomorrow we get a new host for the next section.

Dawn making dinner

The days of walking on concrete have but one redeeming value for me – the people I am walking with and the people who are supporting us. The first week of beaches was great, but the concrete canyons of the LA area- not inspiring. I might as well be walking through San Antonio.

Kenton, me, Laura, Luis.

Kenton is a business owner from Illinois. Laura an adventurer from Montana. Luis is a Gallego (a Spanish cultural people) from Los Angeles. We are as different as can be. That we are all walking this trail together is sublime serendipity.

California Mission Trail

Solana Beach

Five days seem like a month on this trail. The downside is that we are walking almost entirely on pavement, and most of the time belong to the city streets and highways. The upside is that the scenery can be quite fantastic! If Texas is about pick up trucks, Southern California is about shiny cars, and lots of them.

Mission San Luis Rey

The story of the missions is not always a comfortable one. As elsewhere in this country, the native peoples were dispossessed, abused, enslaved. The more recent story is kinder, and the churches left behind are beautiful and charming.

Inside the Mission Chapel
Kenton, me, Laura, Luis

There have been some shining moments, but the best part are the people I am walking with. We are all quite different from each other but all have walked Camino trails.

Mission San Luis Rey

This was our second mission, near Oceanside.

Hotel Fin, Oceanside

We spent two nights in Hotel Fin, taking a day to walk the 12 mile round trip to Mission San Luis Rey. Splitting the room rate 3-4 ways makes it affordable. Very nice boutique hotel!

Bike trail

We walked 12 miles of solitary road sandwiched between the huge traffic of I-5 and the railroad. Very hard day. Almost enough to make me go home. Redeemed by a great hotel with a hot tub. And a beer.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

We walked 10 miles to San Juan Capistrano, much of it on or near the beach. Easiest day yet, with great pizza at the end. We took the bus to the mission, not being able to walk another 10 miles. I as exhausted, perhaps the cumulative effect of the past 7 days. Tomorrow, Laguna Beach.

Camino, California Style?

Kenton called a few days ago to invite me to walk the California Missions Trail. Kenton got me onto the European Peace Walk in 2019 and had planned to walk with me in France on the Via Francigena. Walking in Europe is still out of reach for Americans; what do I do in the meantime? I met Kenton in Portugal and he was invited to this adventure by Laura, a pilgrim he also met in that lovely country. We are meeting at the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala in San Diego on April Fool’s Day.

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala (missionsandiego.org)

There are several notable differences between the Camino Real in California and any Camino trail in Europe – there is no pilgrim infrastructure: it’s not marked, it is primarily on roads, and there are no cheap places to stay. However, there are campgrounds, so we will be taking minimal camping gear. On the plus side, there will be Mexican food. So, I bought a plane ticket, the Kindle version of the only trail guide, and signed up on the Mission Walkers Facebook page. That’s when I found the other big difference: I got numerous responses from my post on that Facebook page offering rides and lodging and meals along the trail. Wow! This is different.

The total from San Diego to San Francisco is 800 miles and 21 missions. I have no expectations about how many days or far I will walk, I’ll walk until it is time to come home. I have headed out for distant trails both solo and with friends, and along the way have found that the fraternity of walkers is an open and welcoming group. I already have new friends on this walk.

Walking in France

Texas Hill Country Forts Road Trip

As settlers poured into Texas in the 1850’s and pushed the frontier west, and conflicts with the native peoples became more violent. Far earlier the Spanish had created a chain of presidios (forts), like Presidio de San Antonio de Bexar, established in 1718. The fort was closed in 1836 when Texas gained its independence, and is today managed as a National Historical Site by the National Park Service. The US Army built many forts in Texas, but many are now just piles of rocks.

Reconstructed Headquarters Building at Fort McKavett

Some historic forts, however, are partly reconstructed and well interpreted, and are popular historical sites, and it is quite likely you have been to one or more. Fort Davis in far west Texas is such an example, a well restored and interpreted National Historic Site in a spectacular canyon at the edge of the town. Another is Fort Concho in San Angelo, built in 1867.. Others, however, are out of the way and seen by few. One example is Fort Lancaster, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. While the fort itself is little more than a pile of rocks, the Texas State Historical Park has a fabulous museum and visitor center. Let’s take a road trip to visit four historic Texas Hill Country forts which are worth your time.

Officer’s Quarters at Fort McKavett were used as private homes for many years

Set on a lonely, windswept hill 22 miles west of Menard, 42 miles northwest of Junction, or 100 miles west of Fredericksburg, is one such fort.  It is a lonely place, but, oh, it is a beautiful place. Far removed from the frenetic activity of Texas’s cities, Fort McKavett, now called a ghost town by some, is a fort of which much remains.

The US Army built the First Federal Defense Line to protect against depredations from Mexico and Comanche and other tribes. The first forts established were Duncan, Inge, Lincoln, Martin Scott, Croghan, Gates, Graham, and Worth. In June of 1851 new forts were added: Belknap, Phantom Hill, Chadbourne, Mason, Terrett, Clark, and McKavett. Fort McKavett was at first just a camp on a hill along the San Saba River occupied by five companies of the 8th Regiment of the U S Infantry. The area was deemed unsuitable after six weeks, and the location re-established two miles away near a large spring on a limestone hill. The fort was named after a West Point graduate who had been killed by a cannonball in 1946 during the Battle of Monterrey. Some of the early construction was supervised by Fredericksburg stone mason Edmund Wiegle. Oak and stone and lime for mortar was locally obtained, while cypress for roof shingles came from Kerrville. At various times the fort was home to 250 to 600 soldiers. According to the park’s interpretative guide, “Frontier duty was monotonous, tiresome, and lonely. Soldiers had two main ways of escaping the daily grind: alcohol and desertion.” The men were paid quarterly, and irregularly at that, in silver Mexican Pesos. Charges at the camp store and laundress were paid by the quartermaster first, and what the soldiers received was often spent quickly at a local bar. The fort was abandoned in March, 1859.

The Civil War saw the fort occupied by the 1st Texas Mounted Rifles in 1861. During the winter of 1861-62, some 40 Federal prisoners were incarcerated at the fort, including some who had, ironically, helped build it. In 1866 a large group of perhaps 250 Comanche or Kickapoo raiders stole over 30,000 head of cattle in the area between the San Saba and Llano River. The fort was reopened and rebuilt in 1868.

During this time the fort was at one time or another home to all 4 regiments of black soldiers, called Buffalo Soldiers by the native people as their dark and curly hair reminded them of a buffalo. One such soldier was Emanuel Stance, who was born in Louisiana in 1843 (I presume he was born an enslaved person but did not find that recorded). On May 20, 1870, Sgt Stance was sent to recover Herman Lehmann and his brother Willie, who had been kidnapped by Apaches near their home in Loyal Valley (between Mason and Fredericksburg). They found the Apaches at Kickapoo Springs, 14 miles north of Fort McKavett. Young Willie was able to escape in the skirmish, but Herman was not; that is a great story for another time (see Nine Years Among the Indians). For his bravery in this skirmish, Sgt Stance was awarded the Medal of Honor, the first black regular soldier to be so honored. His long career included many disciplinary actions, and was found shot dead by a service revolver in Nebraska on Christmas morning, 1887, presumably by one of his Privates.

Fort McKavett was closed for the last time on June 30, 1883. During its life as a fort, 91 soldiers died while in service there. The day after closing, Fort Davis was incorporated as a town. The land was divided up and sold, and the homes were occupied by area residents. The community grew as large as 250 persons on a ranching economy, with sheep, goats, and some cattle, but the Great Depression began a serious decline in population. The Drouth of 1950-1957 was the final blow, and the town was taken over by the State in 1968 and transferred to the Texas Historical Commission in 2008. It now features a visitor center with a museum. There is a modest admission fee and tours can be arranged in advance.

The first known native peoples of the area were called the Jumano, who lived in villages like pueblos, and were traders who bridged the gap between the southwest and east. In the early half of the 18th century the Lipan Apache became dominant in the area, and then they were challenged by the Comanche moving in from the north. The Comanche were a branch of the Shoshone from Wyoming, and are thought to have been the first Plains tribe to fully incorporate horses into their way of life. They are considered to have been the finest mounted warriors in our history, comparable to any in the world.

Reconstructed Presidio San Saba Wall

The Spanish had entered the area a hundred years earlier, in April of 1757, when Fathers Alonzo de Terreros and Don Diego Ortiz de Parilla arrived in what is now Menard. The army built a fort along the San Saba River while the priests, not wanting to be directly associated with the army, built a mission 3 miles upriver. A year later a group of some 2,000 Comanche and Wichita warriors destroyed the mission and killed the priests. The fort was not attacked, and  eventually rebuilt of stone. It proved hard to support and was evacuated in 1768, then abandoned two years later. Until a few years ago the ruins were accessible by driving down the driving range of the municipal golf course. Now some of the fort’s walls have been reconstructed and there is excellent interpretation of the site, called Presidio San Saba. Signage to the fort is limited, but it can be found along the south side of US 190 two miles west of Menard. The town of Menard is quite small but also boasts a “Historic Ditch Walk” along an irrigation canal built in 1876 and fed by the San Saba River. The area has few services but I can recommend the lunch special ($10) at the Lazy Ladle Restaurant.

Reconstructed Officer’s Quarters at Fort Mason

All that remains of Fort Mason is a reconstructed officer’s quarters built of stone and wood. The fort was established on July 6, 1851 on Post Oak Hill near Centennial and Comanche Creeks. Albert Sidney Johnston, who fought in the Texas War of Independence, in the Indian Wars with the U.S. Army, and then with the Confederate States of America, was assigned to the fort in the 1850’s. He was killed during the Battle of Shiloh; Jefferson Davis said that the loss of Johnston was the “turning point of their fate.” General Robert E Lee served in the fort during the mid 1850’s, where history recorded that he kept a pet rattlesnake. The fort was closed in 1871. The existent building was rebuilt by local citizens in 1975. The covered porch commands a nice view of Mason, and is a peaceful and quiet place. Mason has a beautiful town square, several notable restaurants, and excellent BBQ served from the pit in the old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, the town’s beautiful courthouse was destroyed by fire in February 2021.

Fort Martin Scott

Finally, our tour ends at Fort Martin Scott on the east end of Fredericksburg along US 290. Thousands of people pass by daily; many are visitors excited about the bed and breakfasts, restaurants, and wineries the town has to offer them. Few of them will visit, or even notice this partly-rebuilt fort. The fort is owned by the City and offers a walking trail with interpretative paintings by the Casbeer brothers, some reconstructed buildings, and a taste of what life was like during its short existence. The fort was established in December of 1848 along Barons Creek and adjacent to the new town of Fredericksburg, itself only established in 1846. Construction of the fort brought needed income to residents, who helped in its construction. Its soldiers patrolled the Fredericksburg-San Antonio road. As the frontier moved quickly to the west, the fort was closed in December of 1853. When I visit these places, once bustling with activity and drama, but now solitary places, I take time to sit quietly and listen for voices from the past. I close my eyes and feel the breezes flowing over me, notice the smells and the sounds around, and wonder what stories lie untold in the grass and stones. I listen for ghosts, too; I’ve yet to hear from one, but perhaps, one day.

I thought I was in Europe, but

I thought I was in Europe for a moment, except the bicyclists were so courteous. I was on the River Trail in Kerrville, Texas, which resembled urban trails in Europe I’ve walked. My pre-pandemic plan was to be on my third day of walking Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, but here I was, walking from the Riverside Nature Center toward Louise Hays Park.

Guadalupe River trail crossing to Tranquility Island

The trail is 10 feet wide, enough for bicycles and people and strollers and social distancing. The total length is about 5 miles, and it has several entry points with good parking.

Tranquility Island interpretative signage

The Guadalupe River is lined with huge cypress trees, in some areas backed up by giant pecans. This is an altogether delightful walk; the perfect ending would be a beer and sandwich at the Pint & Plow Brewing Company, only 1/2 mile from our start but at this point drive through only. Austin has a great connected trail system, and San Antonio has the Missions Trail.  Fredericksburg has some short trails, one day I hope we connect them. My AirBnb guests very often walk into downtown, and it is one of the reasons they choose to say with me.

Walking for fun is getting popular again.

Kerrville River Trail

UPDATE: I walked the Kerrville Riverside Trail again, this time dropping a car at Riverside Nature Center and parking the other car at Kerrville-Schreiner Park. The trail guide didn’t mention this, but there is a free parking lot at the Kerrville-Schreiner Park accessed off of Veterans Highway (Loop 534) via Legion Crossing Road East. If you park inside the park there is a fee, although it is only $2 for seniors. There is a locked gate between the park and the free parking lot, and you are given a code for the gate when you get your entrance permit. It is much simpler to park in the free parking lot. The distance was 3.8 miles total, the first two miles were the same 10 foot wide paved trail; although the scenery wasn’t as spectacular as the western section, it was fine and lightly travelled.

Time Slowing Down

With the threat of Covid 19 the tourism business has come to a screeching halt. Until two weeks ago my B&B was full every night. I was cleaning and doing laundry and giving advice on wineries and restaurants and Enchanted Rock. So, what am I doing now?

Kayaking the South Llano River
Daisy taking me for a walk


Hiking Enchanted Rock
French lessons with Josette and Anne Marie

I have a fascinating young guest in the Canoe Barn who is quarantined, but we get to hang out on the back deck, 8 feet apart. Tonight we had nachos and IPAs.

I’m wiping down surfaces in my house daily, I even cleaned my oven (a first). I’m maintaining appropriate distances. And when we did the kayaking shuttle today …

Life is , in fact, better outside.

Pilgrim’s Progress: Delayed

The widespread effects of the corona virus have delayed my pilgrimage to Rome on Via Francigena until 2021. If travel to Europe is back to normal by September, I will go to France to finish Via Podensia, Le Puy en Velay to St Jean Pied-de-Port, about 2 weeks. This will be my third year of walking in Europe.

 

Dancing With Stars

I just returned from my 4th Mision de Candelilla-Fredericksburg United Methodist Church Christmas Trip to San Vicente, northern Mexico across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park. These trips begin and end in the dark. Big Bend National Park- Texas is across the river. We saw every sunrise. And, every sunset, and a gazillion stars. We spent time with the local people. We made new friends and spent time with old friends. Bruce held a baby. We pondered deep ideas. And not-so-deep ones! But the stars at night, are big and bright. . And it was another grand adventure. No electricity, running water, heat, Internet, phone, or showers for four days. It was fabulous!.

This family is one of about 33 who were given gifts by a Fredericksburg family who believe it is better to give than to receive.

A Pilgrim’s Progress

I have decided to walk the pilgrimage Via Francigena, from Canterbury in southeast England to Rome. This walk was pioneered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric the Serious, in 990 AD.

A few days ago I was talking with my friend Lorrie Hess about her Big Audacious Goal to walk the Pacific Crest Trail next year. She was the 300th woman over 50 to through-hike the Appalachian Trail in its history. She is a tough and resourceful woman and smart. I told Lorrie I was planning a 20 day walk io Rome with my trail friend Tyler, and somewhere in there I mumbled, “I’d walk the whole pilgrimage from Canterbury if I could, but I don’t know how I’d work that out.” Lorrie is a professional speaker and life coach; she told me that one of the reasons she is making videos about backpacking is to encourage other people to pursue their own big audacious goals.

I’ve been a backpacker since I was 19, when i hitch-hiked from Texas Tech in Lubbock to Wyoming and did a week of hiking in both Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. By the time I was 55 I had made at least 25 week long hikes, climbed big mountains, caught wild trout, and had high adventure in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. Then life intervened, and I quit. By the time I flew to southern France to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in May 2017, I had no idea what I was in for, but it was a major turning point in my life. Cheap airfares and improved income allowed me to keep going back to walk in Europe. I’ve since walked Camino trails in Portugal, France, Spain, and Italy, and part of the European Peace Walk in Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia. But a 12 week, 1200 mile pilgrimage trail? That is a big audacious goal. Lorrie talks about the pushback she has had from others about her plans, and I realized the pushback I felt was all coming from me.

It could be a solo walk, but I have friends from the trail, so it may or may not be solo. I would say that it is much easier to make friends with people who speak English, but my Belgian trail friend Josette speaks about as much English as I do French, yet we have become fast friends. I will meet Tyler in Lucca, Italy, for the final 20 days into Rome, and Michelle will likely be along for at least some of the walk, and perhaps Kenton too. I’m hoping my Swiss friend Anne-Marie will meet me for some time walking when we go through Switzerland. I’ve been asking questions on the Via Francigena Facebook page and have already heard from some walkers I am likely to meet along the way. The trail isn’t heavily traveled. I’ve learned that I’ll need a new ultra-light sleeping bag as France in April and May will be cold and rainy. I will probably wear out at least one pair of shoes. St Bernard Pass into Italy might be closed because of snow (there is a bus alternative).

The pushback I got from myself was “who will take care of my Daisy while I am gone?” and “Do I have enough money?” Daisy is a Border collie (they can be high maintenance,!) so I may have to find her a succession of homes. On the other hand, she is quite friendly and agreeable and beautiful to look at. Somehow these have both worked out in the past, so I assume they will again. Mid April: fly Austin-London, train to Canterbury, walk to Dover, take the ferry to Calais. Continue walking 83 more days to Rome.

If not now, when? What’s the alternative?

Via Podensia, France, September 2019