In The Peaceful Valley

When we first moved to Santa Barbara County, we lived for a year or so in a little  apartment on a horse ranch on the outskirts of Solvang, and we used to enjoy wandering from there through miles of fields and vineyards, coming out at the gardens of the Mission Santa Inés, or the river, or the base of the mountains, or the town of Solvang, which seemed somehow more charming in those days. Anyway, yesterday I had reason to go to the Santa Ynez Valley, and it was a fine opportunity for a little stroll.

I’d forgotten how pleasant the area is…there’s a whole other world behind the streets and houses and businesses. My friend and I started along a narrow trail, passed a small thicket of trees, traversed a broad grassy field, and ascended a steep dirt path. Then we climbed over a wooden fence and stood before the Mission, a place of peace despite a painful history.

Here and there on the grounds were religious statues housed within flower-strewn shrines, and explanatory signs painted in handsome calligraphy. By the entrance to the church there was a table of photographs and offerings for Dia de los Muertos, and in the cool shadows of the sanctuary within, three women sat with heads bowed, murmuring prayer. A feeling of refuge and comfort prevailed, and no matter what one’s beliefs, a welcome sense of having stepped away from the world.

Founded in 1804, the Mission Santa Inés was the nineteenth of the twenty-one missions established by the Franciscan Padres in California. Here’s how the Mission website describes their intent: The Franciscan Padres established missions to teach the native population (the Chumash at this mission) the Spanish culture, Christianity and a trade. The military viewed the missions as a source of provisions and man-power. Only the zeal and protection of the Franciscan Padres kept the military from exploiting the population. At the end of ten to twenty years, the mission was to become a pueblo, the Chumash would receive lands, and the padres would become parish priests.

That was the plan, anyway. And of course it didn’t always go well. There was in fact a short-lived Indian revolt in 1824 that started at Santa Inés. About ten years later, in 1835, the Mission was secularized by the Mexican government, which meant that instead of management by Padres, there were government-appointed overseers, and Mexican Franciscans whose role was to provide only for the “spiritual needs” of the Chumash. The Chumash were increasingly subject to mistreatment, and began to leave if they could. It is believed that nearly 2,000 Chumash people were buried there, and ongoing searches have recently revealed new evidence of unmarked mass burials.

And so it was with mixed feelings that we wandered the cemetery grounds a bit, where wooden crosses and other humble markers offer mere hints of untold stories. Olives have dropped from the trees, and there are scents in the air of autumn, of dry leaves and herbs, and we walked respectfully and silently, acknowledging the sadness and the sacredness.

And it was admittedly a perfunctory and impromptu look at the Mission, but an interesting detour. It’s worth remembering that even the everyday places in our lives, the familiar scenes and structures that loom like backdrops, almost unnoticed, are layered with history and infused with meaning.

We climbed over the fence and descended the dirt path back to where we had started, and we were very soon at our cars and ready to resume whatever was our ordinary business. I turned on the radio and heard the day’s variation of the ongoing assault, and nothing was better, but nothing was worse. The sun was shining on the mountains in the distance, and there was a farmer’s market in progress.

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