I had five extra days, so I decided to walk down California's Salinas Valley from Carmel to Cambria. I started at the Soledad Mission, walked down the blazing summer valley, and spent the first night atop Pine Canyon in the crystal clear night air.

At the side of the road just behind a private gate high above King City, I laid out my sleeping equipment -- two emergency blankets that fold into three inch squares. It was the first night I had ever slept by myself, all alone, beneath the stars. It was a night of ecstatic pleasure in sights and sounds: the lights of the valley miles below me, the leaf rustlings of the slightest breeze, the noises of nocturnal animals, and the road was so hard, that I probably didn't sleep more than twenty minutes.

The owner of the private gate, who, wearing a ten gallon hat and cowboy boots, discovered me in the dark on his property, said: "You scared my wife!" Then, finding I was just a harmless grey-haired lady, he told me how to find the road that would lead me down to Mission San Antonio which lies in the middle of the Hunter-Liggett military base.

In the morning as I finished packing my sleeping gear, my "host" drove up again in his pickup with some water. I had asked him in the night where to find water in the morning and he gave me directions so complicated that I was sure I'd never find the spring.

Thankfully, I drank and drank from his huge canteen and filled my plastic water bottle. Then he pointed me down the road which led directly into Hunter-Liggett, along which, he cautioned, I would find a hundred unmarked dirt roads built for practice maneuvers, where the army could prepare for war.

"Stay to the right," he said, "every time you come to a main cross roads. Once down in the Valley, go left, the mission is south."

I thanked him profusely and walked away into the dawn.

The top of the road was flat and ran through thick pines, then it began a steep decline. It went down and down and down and down and down and down for, perhaps, ten miles. Having taken off my sandals, as I often do in India, what a joy it was to walk effortlessly down hill, alone, through the silk-soft dirt. The trees changed to sycamores; narrow dirt roads disappeared in all directions, over every mound and round many trees. There was not a single person or habitation to be seen. One huge commercial plane passed overhead, going north, so high I could barely hear its sound. Further along I came to an old corral with a wooden water tank, dry, cracked and askew on its high stilts. The vegetation became sparser as I approached the valley floor where the baked dust and rocks fairly shimmered with the heat. I drank more thirstily of my gift-given water.

At the main cross road on the valley floor, I turned left, but I had no idea how far away the mission lay. I walked for another hour. A single car came by on that dirt road, going north. The woman driving, who was not at all surprised to see me, assured me the mission was in the direction I was going -- she didn't know how far. It was as if she often saw straw-hatted women with small orange back-packs ambling along her route.

"Is there any water between here and there?"

"I don't know." As the car moved slowly up the road, puffs of dust rose behind her tires. "Good luck," she called.

Noon approached. The heat grew more intense. My water was almost gone. Men, I had already began to learn, weren't so insouciant about water. The next day I was to be repeatedly warned by men from passing cars that I was walking in the worst heat-wave the Salinas Valley had ever known, and several would insisted on transporting me from shade point to shade point. But that was later.

At the moment, how confident it made me feel not to be warned by that woman driver about the possible dire consequences of my walk. The Spanish had traversed the unmarked land in the seventeenth century, and she and I saw nothing odd about a walk along known roads in the twentieth.

As I continued, nothing but acres of sage and bits of chaparral met my gaze. The dazzle of the bone dry air made me squint and filled me with delight. Could I make my water last? I watched this interesting thought turn from a movie-like image of prospectors lost in the desert, to amusement, to wonder, to concern, to worry. Then I began to take deep breaths as it touched, ever so slightly, on uncivilized fear. For it seemed no matter what judiciously bird-like sips I took, the water disappeared as if I were boiling it on a high flame. Nor did my sparing efforts allow me even once to slake my thirst. The sun rose higher and turned white. I was wearing my sandals now, for the hard dirt was too hot to touch with my bare feet.

Then, as if in answer to my requirement for a miracle, taller and taller, almost bamboo-ish looking trees began to appear on my left. I saw a cow.

Trees? Cow? There must be water.

I quickened my pace. A little further on I stepped off the road. Within minutes I found a running stream. It not only supplied me with water to drink, but a cool bath and a gourmet lunch of fresh watercress. I rinsed my blue neckerchief blouse, and put it on dripping wet to set off again for the mission.

Another half hour down the road I met a man jogging in the noon day heat. How could anyone jog in such weather? He must, I guessed, be a soldier not far from home. God himself, I decided, must be keeping an eye on this particular sparrow, for already I'd drunk half my new bottle of stream water, and the heat had began to patina my legs with white powder. It was as if the water in my system was evaporating so fast that it left salt on my surface. The jogger assured me, without slacking his pace, that my goal was just ahead.

Across a bridge over a dry course, and beyond some platinum-colored grassy mounds lay one of California's most beautiful missions. I approached its dusty, creamy stucco exterior as if I had arrived at the gates of heaven. Huge carved doors opened into a high vaulted church which was dark, deserted and very cool. It was like plunging into a secret pool deep within the earth which seemed to hold only the darkness, the coolness, and the friendly, if ghostly flickering of votive candles.

Slowly my eyes adjusted. I gazed for a long time at the aged pigments of the altar, the designs along the walls that the Indians had painted. Though I had heard nothing but my own footsteps and the call of a bird or two most of the morning, still I was entranced by the utter silence the church offered, and grateful for shelter from the blazing sun. I speculated on how soon I would be able to walk on in the heat, how far I would get that day. After all, it was just past noon. Then I closed my eyes and allowed myself to dream.

Longingly I thought, O, if only these were the old days. If only I were a real pilgrim during the time the California missions had flourished. If only I were a traveler of two hundred years ago -- with news from Soledad or San Francisco, from the Presidio, maybe, with news from Spain -- how they would welcome me, how they would rejoice at my coming, as people still do in parts of Asia. For in many countries, to this day, the guest is considered to be God. Any guest or stranger's coming is looked upon as a rare and wonderful event. In the old days the missionaries would have offered me hospitality, a bed, food. They would have urged me to stay, urged me to talk. I would have told them such stories!

After awhile I stepped from the cool darkness of the sanctuary into the courtyard. The sun poured its white hot light down on a central rose garden enclosed by a columned and roofed arcade. A fountain, to which spoked paths led, plashed in the middle. I chose a shaded wooden bench and put down my pack. From it I took my needlepoint and began to stitch. I always carry a piece of needlepoint; it is my form of meditation. I use them as diaries, incorporating into their designs patterns I find along the way. The finished works, which resemble small Oriental rugs, remind me of my earthly and spiritual journeys.

In the shade it was just a little more than pleasantly warm. I stitched, working a blue and brown border around a central motif of the Tibetan Kundalini symbol. In the garden, a young man worked round the base of the roses, cultivating, weeding, snipping the withered blooms. His movement was the only movement in the breathless heat. After a while a woman came to sit on another wooden bench under the shade of the arcade some distance from me.

When the young man finished his work with the roses, he gathered the clippings, put away his tools and paused to speak to the other woman. Then he walked soundlessly toward me down the terra cotta tiles of the arcade. He was dressed in blue jeans and a blue shirt; his hair was blond. He stopped beside my bench and looked at me. His eyes were dark, yet reflected the blue of the sky and, even before he spoke, I was awed by the depth of their compassion. He said to me as if he were continuing a conversation, "And where have you come from?"

I said rather breathlessly, perhaps a little proudly, and certainly feeling like the impostor of a pilgrim: "I just walked over from the Soledad Mission." (In case you are not familiar with the terrain, there is a distance of about thirty miles between missions, they were one day's ride -- horse back ride -- from each other along El Camino Real. Years later, now, when I have more humor, I find myself smiling. I realize what an amazing statement that must have been from a middle-aged woman in the 100 degree heat in the courtyard of the remotest mission of them all, where, very probably, no one had walked in from a neighboring mission in the last hundred years.)

"Oh, you must be tired," this kind young man said with total, unquestioning belief and enormous sympathy. "Would you like a shower?"

"Oh yes?" I fairly gasped.

He smiled. "Would you like to stay the night?"

"Oh yes?"

My ability to believe in miracles took a quantum leap.

It turned out -- a fact I had not known -- that Mission San Antonio was a functioning mission run by the Franciscans. The young man in the blue jeans with the dark eyes bluer than the heavens, bluer than Michaelangelo's cerulean blue skies, was a Franciscan brother. He showed me to a small cell in the women's cloisters and invited me to supper in the refectory. The room held a narrow bed, a desk, a chair, a small old-fashioned wardrobe and a casement window embedded in the two-foot thick walls. This window looked out on the platinum and gold fields, studded here and there with live oaks, a landscape so beautiful one could not doubt it was designed by God for his padres. I washed the clothes I had been wearing, and showered in the women's bathroom. I rested, read a little, and put in a few more stitches.

At supper, the food was abundant, but not my kind of fare: boiled cabbage, ham, potatoes, with apple sauce for dessert. And I was not, as I never am when I walk, very hungry. I carried only dried figs and almonds, and ate along the road only what I could glean: wild berries, a tomato left in the harvested fields, one green pepper -- nothing I felt that anyone would begrudge me.

There were several brothers at the table, and the old priest -- Irish, I guessed -- who had a florid complexion, was gracious, and talked of all the worldly subjects on which I could not--living as I was that evening in the richness of the miraculous -- utter a single word. The young man with the loving eyes was dressed now, like the others, in a brown and cowled homespun robe. He asked me my story, how I happened to be walking from the Soledad Mission to San Antonio. I hesitantly spoke of my interest in pilgrimage, how it was my desire to walk around the world. I did not tell them my practice and religious interest at that time was mostly in Eastern meditation, the Hindu tradition. They invited me to attend early morning mass in the small chapel. I said I had to start walking very early in the morning because it would get too hot soon after sunrise, but I would come to mass if I could. They reminded me that San Miguel was the next stop down on the mission trail.

Looking out at the stars that gleamed beyond the window embedded in the deep, thick walls, I rested that night in the delight of a wish granted. Rising early, I packed and went, even before mass, to leave a little gift of some figs and almonds on the kitchen table. I attended mass and left as quickly as I could, but not quickly enough to avoid a kindly invitation to breakfast, which I declined. I stepped into the dark church, left a coin and lighted a votive candle. My heart was almost breaking with bliss for the sweetness of the miracle that had granted me my pilgrim's wish when I had first sat in the darkened church. Then I stepped out the great front doors.

There, to meet me on the steps, was the young brother in his brown robes, again inviting me to breakfast. Again I declined, saying, I must go because already it was getting hot. It was nearly nine o'clock. I could feel in the heat the promise of a blistering day.

Then, to my heart-stopping astonishment, the young Franciscan, who I had learned from the other woman was called Brother Joachim, knelt. Extending a tender and gentle hand, he touched my feet, saying, "But your feet are blistered."

Which was true. I was wearing rubber zoris and great pockets of fluid had formed on the insides of my big toes, probably because of the zoris' thin soles, the heat, and the continuous pounding as I walked. But the blisters did not hurt. I felt them not at all. However, I had, late in the afternoon, yesterday, mentioned them to the other woman. She must have mentioned them to the brother.

"But they do not hurt at all," I assured him, "and truly, I must be going or it will be too hot to walk."

He touched my feet again. I felt it as a blessing. As he stood up, he said: "What can I give you? I must give you something." Out of a few moments search of his habit, he found a St. Christopher medal of red plastic. "Take this," he said.

I did. I walked away as a pilgrim who had been blessed.

Nowhere in all my spiritual pilgrimage have I ever again seen eyes so full of grace and love as those of the young Franciscan, Brother Joachim.

Copyright © 2000 through 2015 Jan Haag

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail:

Other travel stories about America include CROSSING THE COUNTRY, SAN FRANCISCO, and CEMETERIES. Those highlighted are already available, the others will be in cyberspace soon. MISSION WALK was first published in "Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World."

Jan Haag is a writer, poet, painter, textile artist, and former Director of National Production Programs for the American Film Institute.




21st CENTURY ART, C.E. - B.C., A Context