Everything was brown. The dirt. The grass. The tree trunks. The tarantulas. Our black boots after hiking one day in Hunter Liggett.
I grew up in San Francisco where we had buildings and sidewalks. I walked on the sidewalks from one building with a lot of books (our home) to another building with a lot of books (my school). Then when I was 13 I got a job at the library where there also were a lot of books. I’ll always remember my job at the end of the evening which was to sequence check all the books on all the shelves. Non-fiction was in order by the Dewey Decimal System. Fiction was alphabetical by author. That was my life for my first 17 years. Walking on sidewalks and reading and sequence-checking books.
Then in 1957 (when I was 17) I joined the US Army Reserves and spent two weeks every summer for the next six years at camp. The first year was basic training at Fort Ord. The last year was pretending to be a quartermaster at Fort Lee, Virginia. In the four years in-between we traveled to Camp Roberts in central California where for three days every year we were given the opportunity to camp out in Hunter Liggett Military Reservation. It was here that I learned the meanings of the terms “God-forsaken” and “hell-hole.” It was here that I first encountered tarantulas the size of dinner plates. And scorpions that liked to crawl into your boots while you were sleeping.
Hunter Liggett (its official name nowadays is Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation) was a part of the sprawling Hearst Ranch until 1940 when William Randolph Hearst sold the land to the US Army who built a fort and named it after a general who commanded the US First Army during World War I. There are a lot of oak trees in Hunter Liggett above the dirt and brown grass. But no sidewalks. And no books. There are a few buildings here and there, though. And some 20 years after my army experience I revisited Hunter Liggett to see one of them: Mission San Antonio de Padua, the third of the 21 California Missions. San Antonio was founded by Junipero Serra in 1771. In the middle of nowhere.
Actually, it really was in the middle of somewhere. Serra picked a site that was to be half-way between two other missions on the El Camino: Mission San Miguel to the south and Mission Soledad to the north. And so he built a church and then a settlement and then his soldiers rounded up the local Indians to teach them the Spanish ways and to convert them to the Catholic faith. Towns have sprouted up around most of the California Missions. But not San Antonio. Cars and trucks speed by Soledad and San Miguel on busy Highway 101 all day long. But not San Antonio. You have to exit 101 at King City and drive southwest on a winding county road for 29 miles in order to reach San Antonio.
The Mission was secularized in 1834 and in 1845 the Mexican governor of California offered the buildings and land for sale. But no one bid. I wonder why.
President Lincoln gave the Mission back to the Catholic Church in 1863 but the place languished until 1903 when restoration efforts were first attempted. Then the earthquake that leveled San Francisco in 1906 also heavily damaged Mission San Antonio. But more restoration projects began soon afterwards and continued for about 50 years. The Franciscans were invited back in 1928 and the Mission was used as a Franciscan training center for a few years in the 1950s (after a major restoration funded mostly by the Hearst Foundation). In 2005 the Franciscans turned the mission back over to the Diocese of Monterey and it is now used primarily as a retreat center.
We visited the Mission in 1983 when not too many people were too interested in driving to a desolate spot half-way between State Highway 1 on the coast and US 101 further inland. I understand that there has been a renaissance in the last ten years or so and the Mission has been spruced up and is functioning again as the heart of an active Catholic parish. They have a gift shop there now and a picnic area and and even a museum. There’s even a green lawn in the courtyard behind the church. Incredible. I guess we’ll have to take another drive someday and check it out!
The following photo from that trip in 1983 is my entry this week to Laura and Leanne’s Monochrome Madness Challenge over on Leanne’s website. Those are my two daughters in the foreground. They each have two kids of their own now.
Postscript: Well, I just checked out their website and apparently everything isn’t quite so rosy in San Antonio as I had thought. The state has decided to close the Mission next year unless enough enough funds are raised to retrofit the buildings to be earthquake-proof. See here for more information.