I'm in California this morning, on a visit for both business and personal reasons. Unlike my earlier trip to England and Iceland, I don’t need new sights and experiences to remind me of the daily presence of history all around us. This is where I grew up, and this is where I first learned to feel the past.
Actually, compared to most of the rest of the places I’ve traveled to or lived, California has a rather short historic period, starting in 1769 with the first Spanish settlers.
Oh, there was a very long pre-historic era here, of course, and the Native Californians are fascinating, but it was at Carmel Mission, one of the twenty-one established by the Franciscans, that I remember first experiencing history and knowing its presence in an almost tangible way. In other words, I was hooked.
I’m still hooked, even after all these years. Much of my work in recent years has been devoted to recapturing California’s past. I was at Santa Barbara earlier this week to talk about a new illustration for the Spanish presidio, or fort, showing a soldier and his family. The next day, I visited La Purisima Concepcion Mission State Historic Park.
I've loved this place for years and long ago designed the historical costumes for its staff of mostly volunteer guides and interpreters. I've done other work there as well, researching period vaquero saddles and having a replica made.
And, most recently, doing the illustrations for murals, banners and life-size cutout figures for its new exhibits.
After a good meeting with the head of interpretation at the park, I drove on, avoiding the main route to wander a bit along Coast Highway One. After the recent rains, this farming region appeared brilliantly green and soft.
The real gift of the day came some miles further up the road. I pulled off in the little town of San Miguel and found myself next to a Spanish mission that I couldn't remember ever visiting before.
With about fifteen minutes before closing, I paid my $3, hurried through the museum and then, as I rounded into the sanctuary, caught my breath. In the darkness, San Miguel - Saint Michael - glowed on the altar beneath the all-seeing eye of God.
I'd heard that the 18th century architecture and murals had been restored some years ago, but had forgotten it and in any case wasn't prepared for their effect on me. Though simple, even naïve, they are beautiful and the moment, for me, was very sweet.
As I left to drive north again, the hills beyond the town glowed with the sun's last light.
A. Santa Barbara Presidio State Historic Park, California
B. La Purisima Concepcion State Historic Park, California
C. Covered walkway, La Purisima
D. The reconstructed cuartel, or soldier sleeping room, La Purisima. The replica vaquero saddle on the left was a project that I researched, designed and oversaw.
E. Visitor center at La Purisima with my illustrations on the banners, walls and cutout figures
F. Visitor center exhibits, La Purisima
G. Closeup of the cutout figures I illustrated
H. The farmland north of Lompoc, California, on Coast Hwy. One
I. The sanctuary, Mission San Miguel, California
J. The altar, San Miguel
K. Sunset, San Miguel