Wandering Around the San Juan Bautista Mission

The other day I found myself having completed all the work for the first two classes in my MFA, which had somehow resulted in a massive case of writer’s block. Instead of sitting and staring at the blinking cursor, I decided to do a little work on setting. In Trial Run, Rick Keller ends up at a Family compound where Calix and Karen have set up shop, working as independent security contractors for the Family. The building they live and work out of is an old Spanish mission that was built in the late 1700s … a little too close to a Family city. Funny enough, once construction was complete, all memory of the place disappeared–records, eyewitnesses, down to the last materiel purchase order.

When I wrote the book, I mostly drew on my memories of the La Purisima Mission in Lompoc, CA. The rectangular construction around an open courtyard, the chapel, the rooms where the inhabitants lived and worked, the garden and fountains on the ground–all were hanging out in my mind’s eye.

The view of San Juan Bautista from across the street at the historic Plaza Hotel.

We’re a solid four hours from Lompoc at the moment, but there is another of the 21 Spanish missions that were established in the region that became California–San Juan Bautista. I was feeling kind of down and blah, so a field trip was in order. I drove down on a gray, rainy Tuesday to check it out.

The first thing I noticed was that the mission, unlike La Purisima, sits in the middle of a town, surrounded by a state park. For three bucks (actually, more like 20, since I bought a book at the gift shop with my entrance fee), I got to walk around the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. The grounds include several historic buildings: a hotel, the Breen residence (survivors of the Donner Party), a stables and blacksmith shop, and another grand residence. Definitely worth the price of admission.

The mission itself was built in a giant L-shape, with the chapel at the corner. I

The outdoor hallway at San Juan Bautista Mission. From here, you can access the gift shop, chapel, or more of the property.

entered and walked down the long, outside hallway, which reminded me of the La Purisima architecture. My first stop was in the gift shop, where I picked up a couple of books (I really can’t help myself), a bracelet rosary, a Christmas present, and a candle to light in the chapel.

I also put my phone down while I was trying to juggle everything, and found a cluster of visiting schoolkids checking it out since I hadn’t locked it down. Oops.

Phone safely retrieved, I headed out the door into the inner yard of the mission. There is a garden, more elaborate than the one at La Purisima, with roses and lemon trees, and even a fountain or two. The air was cold, with a sharp chill, and it smelled sweet and wet.

Down the outdoor corridor, a large door with a wooden sign reading “Church” pointed the way.

 

The chapel was a rectangular space, with a baptismal font in a small room off the side. At the back of the church, a depiction of the Savior stood against the left side, and the Virgin Mary at the front. The floor was stone. In Trial Run, Rick stretches out on the floor of the mission’s chapel, enjoying the cool of the tile. It was a little too chilly to do that; also, there were more schoolkids running around, followed by chaperones exhibiting varying levels of enthusiasm, so I decided discretion was the better part of valor.

A view across the center/back of the chapel.

The altar was very much in a familiar style of the other missions. A series of alcoves held depictions of various saints. Unlike the La Purisima mission, San Juan Bautista holds weekly masses. According to their Web site, they have had an unbroken pastoral lineage since the mission was first consecrated. There was a definite sense of history around the place.

The view toward to the altar and its saints.

In Trial Run, Rick goes into the chapel, not knowing what he will find. The people who live and work there continue to use it as a space for meditation and worship, although not in any specific or formal way. Rick half expects to meet with the Green Man, whose manifestation has come to him in various places, but in this place of worship, he does not appear.

Chapels and churches are very familiar spaces to me, having grown up in a faith tradition. I brought my candle over to the space in front of the Virgin Mary. Feeling super self-conscious given the fact that kids were still milling around and, from their reactions, not really expecting to encounter someone worshiping, I lit the candle for my sister,

The devotional area to the Virgin Mary.

Jenn, and spent a few moments in meditation.  Afterwards, I snapped a few photos, and wandered around the garden for a bit.

By that time, I was ready for lunch. I grabbed a burger at a little diner a block down the street. While I ate, I started reading one of the books I bought, enjoying the chance to spend some more time doing introvert things.

After I paid the tab, I wandered in another circle around the grounds. By this time, most of the kids from the school trip had headed out. I got a few more pictures, but mostly just enjoyed the quiet that had descended on the place.

I took a few more notes and photos, stashing the experience away for a future story. Rick isn’t a big fan of California landscapes, but I kind of enjoy them. I find it fun to explore the history, especially on days when you almost have the place to yourself. I’m feeling a bit more energized to keep working on Winter Run, as well as a couple of other short projects whose deadlines are politely coughing over my shoulder.

In the future, I’d like to start doing more of this, finding a place once a week or so, to spend a few hours in. You never know when a place or time is going to pop up and demand a place in something you’re writing, so it would be a way to gather potential future settings in one blog. Looking forward to future mini-adventures.

A view of part of the inner garden at San Juan Bautista.

~ ~ ~

The Rick Keller Project can be found on Amazon:
Cold Run
Night Run
Vegas Run
Trial Run

Winter Run, the concluding novel to the series, is currently in progress!

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