On a Mission: Exploring California’s El Camino Real

For years, I’d been mulling over the idea of hiking the length of California, but I wasn’t sure how to route such a huge undertaking. Until, one day I read an article in Westways magazine written by a woman who walked and biked to a few of California’s historic missions. Ron Briery’s book, A Hiker’s Guide to California’s 21 Spanish Missions Along El Camino Real, was her compass. Bingo! I’d found my answer.Mission2

Growing up outside of Philadelphia, I was immersed in history. Tours of Independence Hall felt like I could reach out and touch 1776. But, a relocation to San Diego after college plopped me into a relatively young state in America with a completely different past. Walking 800 miles to visit California’s 21 missions was the perfect opportunity to tackle a long-distance walk and learn the history of my adopted home. The landmarks were established by Catholic priests and Franciscan friars between 1769 and 1833 as religious and military outposts. The objective was to spread Christianity and educate the Native Americans who inhabited the plots procured by the newcomers.

I divided my peregrination into 12 months, taking four days each month to cover approximately 75 miles, with Amtrak as my chauffeur to and fro. This allowed me to continue working between excursions. Prior to launch I sent an e-mail inviting friends and family to join me on any segment of the excursion, and a surprising number said yes.

Mission San Diego de Alcala was the starting point. Tracy, a longtime buddy, signed up for the first leg north to Mission San Juan Capistrano. During the exhausting 20-plus-mile days, life stories were regaled, jaw-dropping sunsets witnessed and thousands of laughs shared. This was the blueprint each month. My fellow pilgrims were from all walks of life, ages, professions and religious beliefs—a flight attendant, a medical writer, an architect, a Franciscan Friar, a symphony bass player, a pet groomer—all brought together by California’s Royal Road.

Hiking through farmland near Gonzales, California

Hiking through farmland near Gonzales, California

Along the way, my companions and I expected sore bodies and pep talks when fatigue commandeered our fervor. What we didn’t expect was the kindness of strangers. The California Mission Walkers (CMW), a group of El Camino Real enthusiasts, followed my escapades on Facebook. Having never met any members, I was astonished when affiliates asked to walk with me, and with nothing more than an email to acquaint us, graciously provided guest rooms and meals to my cadre.

I reached the final mission with my husband by my side. Tears streamed from my eyes as a year’s worth of emotions surfaced. I’d accomplished a daunting goal—the 11th person to complete this sojourn. I learned so much. Relationships are the heartbeat of life. There is a reserve deep inside everyone when called upon. Humanity is good.

Hiking through Fort Ord in Salinas, California

Hiking through Fort Ord in Salinas, California

I kept a journal and took lots of photos while I walked. As the journey progressed, my entries became more contemplative. I’ve complied everything into a book titled On A Mission, An 800-mile Walk to Discover California’s El Camino Real. It may be purchased on my website Travelwithmaggie.com.

On September 23rd, Pope Francis will be in Washington, D.C., where he will canonize Junipero Serra, the friar who started the mission project. A group of CMW mapped out a “Camino de Serra” in honor of this event. They will leave the Sonoma mission on Saturday, September 5, and arrive at the Carmel mission the day of Friar Serra’s canonization, having covered approximately 245 miles. The destination is especially poignant because Serra is buried there. If you’re up for any or all of the hike, the CMW will welcome you. Go onto their Facebook page for more information: https://www.facebook.com/groups/californiamissionwalkers/


Maggie BioPhotoMaggie Espinosa is an award-winning travel journalist and author whose coverage includes national and international publications, syndicated radio interviews, and reporting for ABC, NBC, and CW TV. Espinosa has journeyed to five continents, and has lived in Europe and the Caribbean. In 2007 she summited 14,500 foot Mt. Whitney, followed by a Grand Canyon National Park rim-to-rim hike a few years later. Home is San Diego, California, with her husband, Miguel, and pooch, Marcel.  www.travelwithmaggie.com.

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