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My Summer Travel Story--El Camino Real

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La Jornada

 

"A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike."

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charlie

 

I leave the gray, wooly quiet of the fog-shrouded coastal uplands.  A cool ambivalence is in the air. Regrettably I clear my vision.  It is 55 degrees, early June; the fog blankets the coast for most of these months. Soon I am in the lowlands where the ocean roars on my left.  The sand blows across my path, as it has forever, whispering gritty secrets. I strain to hear.  If only I could understand.

 

Now I am among fields of special weeds, cultivated thistles, growing in neat rows along the continent’s edge.  Darker skinned men with large wicker baskets on their backs fan out through the fields, looking for the 16s or the 24s, the perfect globes that will be sliced by their knife-edged gloves and thrown over their heads to the baskets.  This is a silent manual harvest; there is no machine or truck to spoil the soft, plaintive voices of the men, singing songs that their grandmothers and grandfathers taught them in Mexico.  It is a reassuring sight; a song I wish I knew.

 

I make a right turn and come face to face with a wandering bull.  A peace officer is trying to coax El Toro back into the field from whence he strayed.  The owner patiently explains to the lawman that, “El Toro no entiende ingles.”  The bull understands only Spanish so he says a few words, hits the bull on the forehead with his open palm, and watches as the animal turns and sashays back behind the gate to his pasture.

 

I pass pink carpets of Ice Plant, but they yield to acres of Strawberries, all planted in deep rows.  The plants are in-between now, and only a few men and women tend them.  I can see that other fields where the sun shines most of the day are red and green with the fruit.  An army of people are bending over them, picking the best of the red treasure.

 

I turn to the northeast and I am immersed in the Pastures of Heaven, the land of golden hills and deep blue skies that John Steinbeck made real.  It is a landscape seasoned with livestock and horses, most walking along old paths at the top of the hills, or near a Live Oak tree growing by a dry stream bed.

 

There is a rolling hill and then a longer valley, so deep and lush, lined on both sides with towering Eucalyptus trees that light and sound do not penetrate. The smell is strong and lasts for miles.

 

 

At the crest of a hill I pass the first mission at San Juan Bautista, the one that was a day’s ride from Carmel, to the right.  I can’t stop, I am on a crusade. I long for the peacefulness and the sanctity of the plaza and the old adobe church.  Another day and another time perhaps--It is 86 degrees and clear now.

 

I move on to the side of the flat river bed, the lower end of the valley.  Farms and little houses with wooden water towers still cover the land; developers have not yet had their way here.

 

A few old signs point to cities far distant but they are weathered, sad, out of place.  This is raw land, dark chocolate when tilled, always ready to give with just a little water.

 

Cherries sold in red and white ramshackle sheds appear, the little pitted fruit is in season. Once a year signs for cherries seem to be everywhere along this path.

 

But this is the place where the stinking rose is king, and its odor is in the air every day of the year.  The path is straight, the road wide.  The hills bow and recede, and it signals a change in the weather: The temperature is 103 degrees, the hills shimmer and dance before my eyes.

 

I finally reach Santa Clara, the tree-lined place where I will spend the rest of the day.  The temperature at noon is a comfortable 79. Deep shadows pool from the sun overhead on the ground .

 

One hundred miles, one and a half hours, two of the string of Missions.  I've done a Jornada, a journey along the Camino Real, the Royal Road that takes me to the western edge of this country, through its agricultural heart to a land where silicon, sand, is the major crop.  No laborers here, except for men and women weeding the flower beds.  I think I hear them singing that song, the one that I heard in those coastal Artichoke fields. I still don’t know the words.

 

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