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21 Days on the California Mission Trail

April 27, 2021

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!

From → Writing Fiction

One Comment
  1. Joanna Andros permalink

    Thanks for sharing this story. Definitely more urban, but you made it happen!

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