By Cecil Scaglione
San Luis Obispo CA— The “real California,” that land of myth and movies, does exist. All you have to do is follow the California Mission trail down the 100-mile-long Salad Bowl of the World from Mission San Juan Bautista outside Salinas to the mission for which this city is named mid-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
We took the slower and more scenic River Road, which parallels the Salinas River and Highway 101 as far south as Mission Soledad, the quiet out-of-the-way 13th mission established by the Franciscan friars in the chain that forms the spine of the Golden State. It sits on a site that was served by native-built redwood aqueducts from hot springs eight miles away on the flanks of the Coastal Range.
Within a couple of hours’ drive north of “Obispo” are several other missions: Carmel, Santa Cruz, San Juan Bautista, San Miguel, and San Antonio. The last is the next one down the road from Soledad. Besides serving as centers for settlement, the 21 California missions also were military complexes during the early days in this part of the nation. They were built roughly a day’s horse-ride apart.
San Antonio, founded third after San Diego and Carmel, is on the Hunter Ligget Military Reservation, the only one on a military base.
It’s southern neighbor, San Miguel, was established in 1797 as the 16th mission on El Camino Real (The King’s Highway). The padres used stretched sheepskin for the windows as a substitute for glass.
We next ducked into Paso Robles, one of the best-kept secrets on this out-of-the-mainstream tourist trail. It anchors a rolling Tuscany-lookalike landscape that supports scores of wineries. It’s still a land where cowboys and charros share a glass of locally made wine after a hard day corralling cattle, manhandling trucks and tractors laden with produce of all kinds, or working the vineyards that quilt the undulating countryside.
Before taking the 30-minute drive to San Luis Obispo, we spent a couple of days in Paso Robles to soak in its restfulness and romance. A park in the heart of town is anchored by a fountain and lighted horseshoe pitch. It’s surrounded by restaurants, antique stores, a theater, and a library.
Its down-to-earth character surfaces easily: everyone says “hello” to locals and strangers alike as they pass on sidewalks. Snooty noses in these wine-tasting rooms are less common than wines with a good nose.
Vintners here are even known to down a cold beer after a hot day tending vines.
As we rolled up to the 241-year-old Mission San Luis Obispo the following morning, we strained to listen to the chants of Sunday Mass coming from the church while an electronic guitarist belted out Elvis Presley ballads to alfresco brunchers on the other side of the creek walk that meanders through downtown.
About Cecil Scaglione: Cecil is a former San Diego Union-Tribune writer and for a number of years has been a world traveler, writer and currently a syndicated columnist.