Pilgrimage: a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion
In 2012 I was looking for something to do for my 60th birthday, something special, of a contemplative nature as well as a physical challenge. I had read of the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage in Spain, but did not have the time or money do this. So, as a Third Order or Secular Franciscan, being aware of the 21 Franciscan Missions from San Diego to Sonoma, I thought of walking from mission to mission. I ordered maps and began looking at a route. I became a little overwhelmed at the logistical planning so I put away the maps and plans. Then Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church and chose the name Francis after the little poor man of Assisi, St. Francis. There was also a movement to Canonize Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan missionary from Spain who founded many of the California Missions. It was then I renewed my plan to walk the California Camino Real Mission Trail as a mendicant, or beggar, relying of the generosity of others, in a Franciscan robe, in honor of Pope Francis, Saint Francis, Father Serra and as a third Order Franciscan.
In the early 1979 a Jesuit Priest, Richard Roos did this walk and wrote a book called, Christwalk. To understand this concept of Franciscan Poverty, you must know a bit about St. Francis and his mystical dance with ‘lady poverty.” Francis believed that every place he stood was holy ground, everything in creation is a fingerprint of the creator and every human encounter, an encounter with the divine. The best way to be present to this prescience was to understand the gospel teaching of humility; by embracing failure, suffering, embarrassment and even pain, to fully experience our powerlessness, and therefore our total dependence on Grace, in the real world, the compassion of others. This led Francis to a life of great freedom by abiding as a branch of the great vine of the divine. Francis was a fanatic of the teachings of Christ; to live one day at a time, give away all possessions, not worry about what to eat, drink or wear, but that God would provide. To Francis, the world was his cloister, he preached the gospel at all times, primarily by living a life of humble service. This is a lofty example to follow and I failed miserably, but here is my story.
It was in doing research for the walk I found Butch Briery’s guidebook and discovered other people who had the same idea of walking the Camino Real. I began in San Diego in May of 2014, the day after my son’s graduation from San Diego State University. He dropped me off at the Mission in San Diego and, after purchasing a mission commemorative coin, I began my journey following both Butch’s guidebook and the GPS on my phone. The first night I had an offer to spend the night as a guest of the Catholic Newman Center at the University of California San Diego in La Jolla. I slept on a couch in one of their meeting rooms, a great start. The second night, I walked as far as Encinitas and had no plans or offers. I remembered my son Alec had a friend whose family lived nearby so I called him and asked if he could see if they would give me a bed for the night. He asked, “are you wearing your robe?’ to which I replied, “yes”, but he overcame his embarrassment of his father and called anyway and they put me up in a beautiful oceanfront home with a memory foam mattress, gourmet meal and fine wine. Interestingly enough, both husband and wife were cradle Catholics who went to Catholic schools and the wife’s father was a Secular Franciscan, and 2 uncles had been Franciscan missionaries in Japan and China. She mended the burlap bag I was using for my few possessions, basically a change of underwear and water, and gave me twenty dollars to donate to my church.
On the third day, while walking up the coast, much of it on the beach, a young woman came running up to me and asked in a Spanish accent if I was a Franciscan. I explained I was and she asked me to pray with her and her flight instructor for his wife who was just diagnosed with cancer. What an honor and blessing. I ended the day in Oceanside, but I was hot, dehydrated, tired and hungry and I gave in to the credit card in my bag and got a room at a hotel and took myself to the bar and grill to have a nice meal and a few beers before a nice rest. The next day I walked to the second mission, San Luis Rey and back where I was picked up by my wife and we returned to Monterey.
My next bit of walking was close to home. I did not do the walk in any semblance of order and only walked long weekends and an occasional week of vacation. I walked one short day from the San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey near my house to the Carmel Mission. I then walked from the Cathedral to San Juan Bautista Mission stopping first at a friend’s house for a night in Toro Park and the next night with a former Capuchin Franciscan in Salinas. The third day I walked from Salinas over Old Stagecoach Road and a trail through the pass to San Juan Bautista. I underestimated the distance and heat and reached the little town exhausted, overheated, dehydrated and hungry. I resorted to going to what initially appeared as a mirage, a Mexican restaurant, and ordered water, a coke, a beer and a combination plate. Franciscan poverty be damned. As I was eating, two couples entered and began talking with me about the robe, the walk and the Catholic Church. I joined their table and they bought me my dinner. I went to the mission about closing time but the clerk at the mission gift shop and museum gave me a commemorative coin, and let me into the Mission so I could pray a while. Shortly after, a man came into the chapel and asked me to pray with him. He had come to America twenty years before and made a life for himself, raised his children and returned here to give thanks to God for the blessing of the gift of his life, as this was the first mass he attended upon coming to America. Another blessing for me as well. The end of another segment as my wife picked me up and I returned home to Monterey.
The next stretch I had the good fortune of walking with Maggie from San Diego, along with her 2 nephews and Jim Lutz, the following month with Maggie and her girlfriend and with Jim again. I tried to stay at the Catholic Church in Watsonville but was turned away and told to go to the homeless shelter. I might have if Jim had not become my best benefactor, letting me share his room as long as they could provide two beds. On to mission Santa Cruz, over the pass to Los Gatos, over to Mission Santa Clara, a beautiful mission on the Santa Clara University Campus. The priest there gave us a behind the scenes tour and he gave me a special coin not available to the “general public.” Then one last push to Mission San Jose which is actually in the city of Fremont. You can read about those travels in Maggie Espinosa’s book, On a Mission.
Another stretch came some months later when I did a rather long walk from Mission San Jose to San Rafael. The first day, my wife dropped me off at the mission and it was raining. It rained nearly the whole day. It was the fastest I ever walked because if I slowed down at all I would begin to get chilled, so I really powered on. Toward the end of the day, a woman who had seen me in the morning on her way to work saw me again and stopped to ask what I was doing. We talked a while about faith and religion and she was on her way. I must add here that in my travels lots of people would stop to ask if I wanted a ride or needed food or water. Usually poorer people, immigrants from Mexico, where Franciscans in habits are more prevalent. In all my walking, I only had one bad experience, when two young men in a big four wheel truck acted like they were going to run me off the road and yelled an obscenity at me. I would say out of the nearly 100 days of walking and 800 miles over three years, that is pretty darn good. I walked next through Oakland and took the ferry to San Francisco. I have to admit after walking parallel to the metro for hours, I did jump on for a couple stops in order to be able to make the ferry so I could get to San Francisco in time for Dim Sum. Bad Franciscan, but hey, another part of the Franciscan Charism is that everything belongs and Grace is huge. I can talk myself into just about anything, the great rationalizer. A stop at the San Francisco Mission and then over to San Rafael on another Ferry. I left my cell phone there in the book store so it gave me a good excuse to get the new iPhone. See what I mean about rationalization. I picked up my old phone a couple days later and use it as a spare.
The walk to the furthest mission San Francisco de Solano in Sonoma took three days. San Rafael to Novato, Novato to Petaluma, Petaluma to Sonoma. I stayed in a really bad hotel in Novato, caught a ride across a river to a nice hotel in Petaluma where I met my wife for dinner, and then I walked to the last mission and met my wife there for the ride back to Monterey. Northernmost portion finished. Those days were very nice, mostly rural, not much to write about.
About this time, there was an organized walk from Sonoma to Carmel timed to end there for the canonization ceremony for Saint Junipero Serra. Teresa and I hosted the first annual California Mission Walkers convention with a salmon dinner at our house attended by about 35 Mission Walkers, family and friends.
My next stretch included some weekend trips down the Salinas Valley. I walked first to Gonzales then on to Mission Soledad, getting delivered each morning and then picked up by my wife in the evening. The next stretch was from Soledad to Greenfield, Greenfield to King City. That was the limit of my wife’s willingness to travel to get me daily. My next stint was a long one, over a long holiday weekend, when I walked from King City to Mission San Antonio, Mission San Antonio to San Lucas, San Lucas to Mission San Miguel. It was a good thing it was a holiday weekend because I walked through Fort Hunter Liggett and took a shortcut through a live fire range and through some training sites. After I reported my shortcut to some fellow walkers, I was informed that previous walkers were handcuffed in the back of an Army police car and escorted back off the base for such a maneuver. These were long days of hot country roads but quite serene for the most part. I also was able to stay at the San Antonio Mission, one of my favorites. You can almost imagine what it was like back in the day, minus being in the middle of an active Army base.
My next jaunt was a trip from San Miguel to Paso Robles, to Atascadero to Mission San Luis Obispo. Here I took a shortcut, what looked to be a shorter route than Butch suggested and ended up 5 miles down a dead-end road with nowhere to go. As luck would have it, or was it a miracle from St. Serra, some guy was just finishing up surveying at the end of the road and gave me a ride 5 miles back to the start of the road and to make it fair, another five miles down the road closer to my finish.
My next trek was a bit of an adventure. I asked the good folks at Mission San Gabriel if I could leave my car parked there for a week. They said yes, to pull it into the church lot. When I arrived, I saw some religious sisters leaving in a car and asked if I could park in front of the convent. They said yes. I left it there and my wife took me to Oceanside. The next morning I walked through the Marine Base to San Clemente where I stayed with a priest at the Catholic Church there. The next day it was off to Mission San Juan Capistrano and then I continued on to Huntington Harbor where I met three friends for a nice Mexican dinner and way too much to drink. I spent the night on my friend Rob’s boat. I got a real late start the next day but made it up the river trail to somewhere deep into not such a good area of Orange County or LA county. I got off the trail and found a cheap motel. The owner was Sikh and asked about my robe. He gave me an even better deal, the priestly special I think. My room was barely okay but you could tell the door had been kicked in a few times so I moved the dresser, desk and chair in front of the door.
Up early and on to San Gabriel. When I got there, my car was gone! I called the police and reported that either my car was stolen or they towed it from in front of the convent. I was informed that there is no overnight parking on the streets of San Gabriel and that in fact my car had been towed. I would have to come to the Police station to get a release. When I arrived, they wanted $125.00 in order to be allowed to go pay the tow charges and storage fees. I asked to speak to the watch commander and he agreed to let me have the car without paying the fee. I think the Franciscan habit helped. I then walked to the tow yard and begged the clerk there to forgive me the $250.00 tow charge and the $50.00 a day storage fee. She talked to the owner who agreed to forgive those charges as well. When I got my car, I found three parking tickets for the three days my car stayed on the street before they towed it. When I got home, I wrote a letter to the City of San Gabriel and they also forgave me the three $75.00 parking tickets. Okay, escaping the payment of any one of those three would have been a miracle, but getting out of paying $750.00 particularly to a tow yard, proof positive that Junipero Serra is still doing miracles on the Camino.
I took two days to walk from San Gabriel to San Fernando, walking one day with my daughter Janie, a student at UCLA and staying two nights with my good friends, Dr. Jerry and Deborah Newmark in Tarzana.
The final tour was amazing. I walked with a whole group from Mission San Buenaventura to Mission Santa Barbara, on to Mission Santa Inez in Solvang, then finished at Mission La Purisma in Lompoc. This was a great time and I spent a night with Kurt and his wife in their home, what a wonderful evening, and then he and I bunked it in hotels and a couple nights at the Mission Santa Inez. One of the days presented one of the toughest climbs, but we finally finished at the State Park at La Purisma. The docents at La Purisma were dressed in period costumes, made a wonderful lunch from the mission era, and rang the bell 21 times in honor of me getting to all 21 missions. The night before we even had a dinner where I was presented with my certificate. What a wonderful way to end the pilgrimage. I was truly amazed by the kindness, compassion and generosity of any number of people and fellow walkers I met along the way.
By Bob B.