Published: October 29th 2008October 11th 2008
My original intention was to hike and otherwise explore Santa Cruz Island, the largest and most diverse of seven Channel Islands just west of the coast of California and part of the Channel Islands National Park.
My 5:45 AM expedited departure from Los Angeles allowed me to reach Ventura Harbor in just over an hour, driving along Highway 101 North. I arrived there with plenty of time to catch the 8:00 AM boat that would take me to Santa Cruz.
Though the Channel Islands National Park concessionary had advised me to call their answering machine prior to driving to their boat’s departure point to verify that the trip had not been canceled (e.g. because of bad weather), my repeated attempts to get through resulted in consistent busy signals. Hence I allowed myself to believe that with such a nice and clear weather in the area, my chances of having a canceled trip were minimal.
My optimism quickly became just wishful thinking for as soon as the concessionary opened for business at 7:00 AM, their employees promptly notified all the would-be travelers who had been waiting outside that because of the ocean’s conditions in the area all trips to
the Channel Islands had been canceled.
That left me with a full free day in Southern California but with no concise plans about where to go or what to do there. Since I did not have my computer or even a map of California with me (I did have plenty of maps of Santa Cruz!), I figured that I needed some help from my trusty Atlanta home base to determine possibilities.
Indeed, Elizabeth was very kind to consult a California map and also the Internet for me. She suggested that I should spend the day in Santa Barbara… at just twenty or so miles from where I was in Ventura Harbor.
Because I did not really know where I was going once I reached Santa Barbara, I just targeted the area with the most prominent landmark that I could find. So it was that I stumbled upon the Stearns Wharf when only a few of its establishments had opened for business and just a few people were walking and jogging in it, or fishing from it.
My first impression of Santa Barbara was quite positive even before I had the opportunity to learn about specific places
Very close to the wharf, I found a tourist information office. A kind lady working there gave me a large map of the city and made a few recommendations concerning points of interest that I should visit while in town.
One of the recommendations was the “Red Tile Tour”, a walk around downtown Santa Barbara, which for me, began at the Santa Barbara County courthouse; a real jewel with obvious Spanish-Mexican architectural influences. The immaculate grounds complemented greatly the looks of the building itself.
I was encouraged by the guards at the entrance to come in and visit the courthouse’s tower, just above the fourth floor of the building, with its expansive views of the city and nearby mountains. They also recommended visiting a meeting room on the second floor that features large murals depicting various scenes in Santa Barbara’s historic record. I enjoyed reading the inscriptions in the murals describing the various time periods.
When I left the courthouse, I had a more “visual” understanding and amazement about how California evolved from a humble “frontier” land into the place with such an immense cultural influence on the rest of the World. But I
did not know that the best was to follow.
Suddenly, as I was following the suggested “Red Tile Tour” path, I was pulled 200 years back in time! I ran into the remains of the Santa Barbara Presidio, built by the Spanish Crown around 1782.
At the time, Spain was growing concerned about their colonial territories being claimed by other European powers or even the young American nation that at the time had wrapped up a war with England and was expanding westward. Something needed to be done to prevent it!
Spain quickly established three institutions to hold their claim to the land: presidios, missions and pueblos (or Spanish-style towns). The “presidios” or military fortifications served as the seat for a colonial administration with jurisdiction over the surrounding territories.
The missions, under the Catholic Church’s control were established to convert the locals to Christianity and “save them” from their evil and primitive ways. They made the conversion process more attractive to the locals by teaching them how to read and write, grow better crops, make better houses, clothes, etc., etc.
I do not believe that anyone would question the Church’s good intentions with its missions
but unfortunately, many native cultures from around the World were obliterated in the name of such good intentions.
Amazingly enough, I have recently flown to certain destinations in the World (e.g. Spain, Brazil, Honduras) along with large groups of fellow passengers from the U.S. who were traveling there to do to the locals exactly what the Spanish missionaries did in the 18th Century with theirs…
These new missionaries typically represent different, more proscriptive brands of various faiths, but they use exactly the same tactics and undoubtedly with equally good intentions.
The sections that remain of the Santa Barbara Presidio, the fourth and last presidio founded by Spain in North America, are simply spectacular! When you land in the middle of it by casually walking a couple of city blocks from the county courthouse, you are back in 18th Century Alta California (in those days, today’s state of California was Alta - or higher - California and Baja - or lower - California, now part of Mexico, formed the other half of the territory).
I followed the recommended tour visiting the sections that have been restored to the condition just after the presidio was built. A local
Outside Santa Barbara's County Courthouse
organization, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation
, is trying to get the city to restore the entire presidio.
Doing so, will require demolishing several modern buildings in the area and also closing two roads that currently intersect in the middle of the old plaza. It is still difficult to realize that in 1782, California was the middle of nowhere and only very brave (or desperate) people ventured that far from civilization.
Part of the presidio tour included visiting one of the oldest surviving adobe houses in the city. This one belonged to the presidio’s 5th military commander, José de la Guerra, a nobleman who came to the area in service to the Spanish Crown.
The same organization that is restoring the presidio is intending to restore this house to its original glory. The house contains a museum that showcases artifacts from the different periods and also a video documentary about the house’s history since its construction.
My other couple of incursions within Santa Barbara included a visit to the Botanical Gardens located high in the hills above Santa Barbara. These 65 acres of gardens contain many native plant species from various ecosystems in California, including
From the Santa Barbara County courthouse's observation tower
canyon, desert, island, and red wood. It was great to casually explore the gardens by following the various trails that crisscross the exhibit areas.
The last visited location was the Santa Barbara Mission, just below the Botanical Gardens. This “Queen of the Missions” is truly a very impressive and beautiful monument!
Considering how primitive the conditions were in the early days in 1786 when this mission was built, the Franciscan missionaries and their flock were eventually able to enjoy a few modern conveniences, including running water (transported to the mission via a primitive aqueduct that originated within the grounds of the now Botanical Gardens). There is a large “pila” or reservoir in front of the living quarters that was used by the locals to wash their clothes.
In spite of several restorations (after earthquake damages) the Santa Barbara Mission still transport the visitor to the time when Europeans were very recent newcomers in the Americas.
There are more photos below