Can you imagine what life was like in California 200 years ago?
Indians had the place to themselves until Spain decided to take control and Christianize the natives. Under the protection of soldiers, Spanish padres established 21 missions that ranged the length of the state.
Today, as legacies of a bygone era, the missions attract visitors seeking a sense of the past. One of those outposts especially makes early California come alive again.
It's La Purisima Mission, now a state historic park near Lompoc. On certain days this summer, mission life is re-created by docents in costume. They portray characters of the early 1800s or demonstrate activities such as baking bread in an adobe oven, making soap and weaving.
The mission's pastoral surroundings of 980 acres buffer it from today's world and make the scene even more authentic. In a field, you'll see grazing longhorn cattle, horses, burros and sheep of a breed traced to the Spanish settlers; look for the ram with six horns.
Visitors also cross the original El Camino Real, a primitive roadway linking the missions that extended more than 600 miles from San Diego to Sonoma. Founded in 1787, Lompoc's mission was 11th in the chain and officially named La Purisima Concepcion de Maria Santisima.
Missions Fell to Ruins
La Purisima Mission was founded three miles south but was moved to its sheltered valley after earthquakes destroyed the original buildings in 1812. When Mexico took control of California from the Spanish, the missions were secularized and eventually fell into ruins.
In the 1930s La Purisima was rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corps and is the largest and most extensively restored mission in the state. Plan at least two hours to make a self-guided tour of the buildings and grounds. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Entry costs 50 cents, 25 cents for ages 6 to 17.
For the most enjoyment and insight, go today, July 19 or Aug. 16, each designated a Mission Life Day when costumed docents will give guided tours and demonstrations that include candle making and Indian crafts. Visit between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Or take a Living History Tour on July 12 or Aug. 9 to listen to costumed characters discuss their lives at the mission in the 1820s. At various locations, such as the church, herb garden and weaving room, you'll hear from a padre, nurse, soldier, Indian woman, sea captain, gravedigger and the major-domo's wife. The intriguing one-hour tour starts at 1, 1:15 and 1:30 p.m.
How to Get There
Get to La Purisima Mission Historic State Park from Los Angeles by driving north on U.S. 101. Exit west beyond Santa Barbara onto scenic California 1 toward Lompoc.
Bear right at the mission sign to go almost two miles on California 246, then turn left on Mission Gate Road, which crosses Purisima Road to the parking area.
Head to the visitor center to view mission artifacts and photos, and pay 25 cents for a tour brochure. Then take the path across a field and El Camino Real to long buildings arranged in a row instead of in the quadrangular design of other missions.
First is a walled cemetery with the graves of hundreds of Chumash Indians who succumbed to diseases brought by the Spanish. Adjacent is the narrow church, marked by a tower holding bells cast in Peru. They were rung not only to call the natives to Mass but to signal them when to wake up, eat and go to bed.
The Spanish imperial ensign flies from a pole near the barracks of the 5 to 10 soldiers who kept order at the mission and protected it from attack. The building also housed various craft shops.
Next door is the padres' residence, complete with library, wine cellar, guest quarters and chapel. Behind it, you'll find the pottery shop where the Indians made thousands of floor and roof tiles, and also a kitchen and a grist mill that was turned by a burro.
A side trail leads to a blacksmith shop and a springhouse where water was stored. That trail and the main path pass the mission garden and plants grown for food and medicine.
Shaded tables are provided for picnickers, but there are no food facilities at the mission. The park telephone is (805) 733-3713.
A wonderful reason for visiting the mission this time of year is that Lompoc Valley is in full bloom with dozens of varieties of flowers that have been planted commercially for their seeds. Lompoc's annual flower festival climaxes today, but the blossoms will be showing off their colors into August.
A 19-mile flower drive has been outlined in a free brochure available from the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce, 119 E. Cypress Ave., Lompoc 93436. Phone: (805) 736-4567.
The chamber can also provide lists of restaurants and lodgings. A number of new accommodations have appeared in the area, sparked by the role of neighboring Vandenberg AFB as the West Coast's aerospace center.
Embassy Suites held its grand opening this month, preceded by the Raffles Inn and Inn of Lompoc. Others are Porto Finale and Tally-Ho Motor Lodge. Or try Flagwaver Motor Hotel, Redwood Motor Lodge or the Village Inn.
The city also operates a 36-site campground at River Park. The fee is $5 a night on a first-come, first-served basis; no RV hookups. For information call (805) 736-6565.
At mealtime, two of the local favorites are the Jetty for seafood and Don Pepe's for Mexican fare. Also popular are the Soup Garden and Old Post Office Cafe.
Return to Los Angeles by rejoining U.S. 101 south.
Round trip from Los Angeles to relive early times at La Purisima Mission in Lompoc Valley is 290 miles.