Sunday, November 19, 2006

LOS ANGELES HISTORY, Part 1: The King's Highway

A few weeks ago, on the way out to California, we kept passing markers for legendary “Route 66.” At some point, it occurred to me that I had no idea why Route 66 is legendary…. I just remember the song: “Get your kicks on Route 66.” Wasn’t it on a Mountain Dew commercial or something???
Before the Interstate system was created, Route 66 was the major cross-country highway, stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles. It no longer appears on maps because the road no longer exists as such. For example: Between Pasadena and Santa Monica, following Route 66 means taking Colorado Boulevard to Fair Oaks Avenue to Huntington Drive to Mission Road to Sunset Boulevard to Santa Monica Boulevard. Not all of these roads are directly connected. In fact, one would have to do quite a bit of research in order to follow the old trail.


The same goes for “El Camino Real” – a path carved out by Spanish missionaries who settled California in the late 1700s. El Camino Real (Spanish for The Royal Road, or The King’s Highway) is also mentioned in a popular song… remember Jim Morrison beckoning “ride the King’s Highway” in The Doors’ song “The End”? He managed to make it sound like a path through the underworld… the stuff of myths and legends. Actually, the King's Highway was a dirt path stretching from present-day San Diego to Sonoma.

The first mission on the King’s Highway was built at San Diego in 1769. From there, Franciscan missionaries continued up the coast, building new missions on sites where the soil was fertile and the Native American population was large. The last mission was built in Sonoma in 1823.
Amazingly, all 21 missions still exist, in one form or another. There are two in greater Los Angeles – San Gabriel Archangel (1771) and San Fernando, Rey de Espana (1797). Since these missions seemed like a good starting place for a tour of California history (the Jamestown or Plymouth Rock of our new home) we decided to pay a visit to one of them.

 


An exact replica of the original San Fernando mission - named for the King of Spain - is on the north side of the valley, and it’s an unassuming little compound packed into the Mission Hills neighborhood. It’s an extremely popular location for weddings and, since 2003, has also drawn a lot of Bob Hope fans – the entertainer is buried in a mini-amphitheater in the middle of a lush garden behind the chapel.

  
For me, the most intriguing sight in the entire compound was a room filled with photos of the mission before it was restored, and the San Fernando Valley before it was densely populated. The realization that, until fairly recently, this was an untamed wilderness with a single dirt road through the deserts and mountains, really does make it seem like the stuff of myths and legends.



Like Route 66, El Camino Real doesn’t appear on most modern maps… but tourists traveling along the coast will probably notice at least one of the 158 cast-iron bells that exist to commemorate the first highway.

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