In today’s installment I want to tell you about two very different men. My hope is that you will come to see in their lives a great contrast between two worlds. Both men came to call California home. Both are long since departed from this earth. On this leg of our journey I was blessed to learn more about these men and I would like to share with you my thoughts.
DAYS 45/One Man’s Castle
Leaving our motel this morning we headed back out toward the coast and California Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, for all its incredible vistas. Along this portion of the trip our average time spent in the car at any one stretch is about 30 minutes. That’s because we keep pulling over to get out, take pictures, explore, and in many cases say a prayer or two. We knew some of the stopping points ahead of time thanks to our planning. The rest we chose just on the fly because they looked or sounded interesting. THIS is the way we prefer to travel. Being open to diverting and stopping for a bit makes the whole journey worthwhile. Our first stop was a scenic “vista” (that’s what they call ’em here rather than “overlooks”) that did, in fact, overlook the Pacific near Garrapata State Park. Stunned by the waves crashing down below, we decided to walk down to the beach for a closer look. The dad in me followed closely after the kids to make sure they didn’t hurt themselves. The 8 year-old boy who is my son couldn’t help himself and climbed up every boulder on the beach. My 6 year-old daughter stuck closer to my side.
Next it was on to the Big Sur region. In order to stay so close to the coastline, Highway 1 utilizes a series of 1930’s-era concrete arch bridges. We stopped at the most famous of them, the Bixby Bridge, for pictures. Bixby was definitely featured on Modern Marvels and I was so eager to see it. Again, though, if you ever take this route keep your kids close by. The drop to the beach was a few hundred feet and there are no guardrails. Bixby was followed 20 minutes later by Big Sur where we stopped at a log cabin deli in the woods for lunch. The ambient temperature in this region fluctuated between high 50’s on the beaches and about 85 at Big Sur (a few miles inland). After we had eaten we drove yet another 40 minutes or so to the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park where we saw the most magnificent sight – McWay Falls, a streamlet that drains 80 feet over a cliff and onto the beach. After a few hours of driving up and down cliff-graded roads replete with switchbacks galore we stopped at Elephant Seal Vista Point. Remember that 8 year-old boy I have? Yeah, he had to relieve himself and this vista had no bathrooms. Gentlemen reading this, you don’t know how lucky we are to be men; and I’ll leave it at that.
One quick side note. Wilma, my mother-in-law, has been wearing a jacket on this trip. The jacket comes from a wayback machine set to 1985 and is a pattern of a map of the world. 1) World boundaries have changed dramatically since then. My son asked “What’s USSR?” 2) She apparently cares not who sees her in this jacket. While walking past the waterfall I heard a woman shout to Wilma “I LOVE your jacket!” I intervened by hurriedly running over and shouting back “Don’t encourage her!” The woman was kind enough to let us take her picture for the blog.
Finally, by about 3:30 we reached San Simeon and Hearst Castle. As its name implies Hearst Castle was the home of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. In his day Hearst had more money than God, amassed from his various publishing and entertainment endeavors. Vestiges of his empire can still be found. For instance, I grew up listening to all-news radio station WINS (1010) in New York. Hearst was that station’s original owner. I should say Hearst’s International News Service was the owner. WINS. Hearst died in 1951 at the age of 88. When he was in his early 50’s he had decided to build “a little something” on property his family had owned for decades. Much like Mrs. Winchester his building projects never ceased. His, at least, had some purpose and unifying design elements. What he built was one of America’s largest private homes and we were here today to explore what he left behind.
To access Hearst Castle one must park at a visitors center and take a shuttle bus several miles up the mountain. Once there you will be treated to a home so opulent it might make you blush. In his day Hearst entertained every celebrity and just about anyone else he felt like inviting. Guests would come, sometimes in large groups, sometimes only one at a time to dine, play pool, swim, and generally be in the presence of this great man. One celebrity never made it despite having been personally invited three times. Shirley Temple’s mother refused to let her daughter be a guest of Hearst. Perhaps the reason lies in Hearst’ reputation as a womanizer. You see, Hearst all but abandoned his wife Millicent in order to take up publicly cohabitation with actress Marion Davies at San Simeon. The “in” crowd all looked the other way. The children sided with their mother and more or less despised their dad. No matter though, as Hearst had all those famous guests to keep him company.
We had the greatest tour guide ever lead us through the maze of rooms. She was great with the kids, knew her stuff, was excited to be doing her job, and even posed for a picture with us afterward. The grounds in Hearst’s day had showcased his collection of safari animals. It is said that Hearst Castle was the largest private zoo in the world. Not surprisingly, zebras could still be seen on our shuttle ride.
Completely satiated with our curiosity of how the elite of Hollywood’s golden era lived we drove a bit further to stay in the little town of Morro Bay for the night. I wish we’d had a bit more time here. It was so beautiful. Dinner, then bed, then up early to pack and move on…
DAY 46/Another Man’s Castle
We drove on to the town of San Luis Obispo where we stopped at Mission San Luis Obispo. This mission church, much like Carmel, was established by the Franciscan friar St. Junipero Serra. Serra built the missions as part of a plan to evangelize the native peoples. Yesterday we had visited his most favorite mission church, Mission San Carlo (the Carmel Mission). These missions resembled, in their intact yet crumbling facades, the purpose for which they were built. There was no grandeur, you see, in the drying brick and clay structures. The opulence of Hearst Castle was and rightfully would have been lost here.
Serra’s “castles” were alive. Hearst Castle was dead.
Serra had come to “Alta California” as it was known from Spain by way of Mexico. Every one of the missions he established, he did so on a shoestring. At times he had to wait years for a ship to arrive carrying furniture. When the boats unloaded their cargo the pieces he acquired were often simply, functional tools – a desk, a chair. What money he had to spend he insisted be spent on truly beautiful objects for the liturgy. He spared nothing when it came to worship of the Triune God.
Serra’s guests were the thousands of Chumash Indians whom he befriended. Going among them without fear he spoke to them of the love of Christ crucified and of the need of all mankind to repent and be baptized. If it seems my contrasting paragraphs are shorter for Serra that’s because they are. There was no scandal, no mystique. His was a quiet, life for his was a life lived in service to another man.
Mission San Luis today very much resembles what it did in Serra’s day. In fact, at each of the missions there is a bronze statue of Serra to give the pilgrim a sense of this man’s presence which can still be felt. Let me tell you a story about what I saw at SLO. Today was my wedding anniversary. Nine years ago, in the National Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia in Philadelphia I vowed to love, honor, and cherish the woman God had so mercifully placed in my life. My goal from that moment on was to die to myself and live only for her and the children God would send us. I wrote in my first post about how Karla and I had met after I finished a novena to the saint of the impossible. On our wedding day I was conscious of the love of a God who provided me with the perfect helper on my path to eternal life. I know that I have been less than perfect and have not always returned to Karla the same help she has given me. I am a sinful man always seeking God’s forgiveness and mercy. But here we are nine years to the day later. I mentioned to her my amazement that in simply cooperating with God on that day we have come to do and to be so much than each of us could have been on our own. “I never imagined that we’d be doing this,” I said to her. “Never thought we’d be traveling the continent, seeing things we’ve only heard of, meeting so many wonderful people from our Christendom family, two beautiful kids in tow, showing them the world…”
We stood in the parking lot for a moment as Karla looked for something in the car. Just then a car pulled into the next stall, the one that was marked “Reserved: Visiting Priest”. An older man in street clothes got out of a pick up. “You must be the priest,” I said with a chuckle. In a thick Spanish accent he replied “Yes, mass in in ten minutes.” “Is there confession beforehand?” I asked him. I’ve been trying, even on the road, to go more frequently, always mindful of how poorly I have shown my love for Christ and my need for constant grace in the battle against sin. Apparently there was not confession scheduled. But Fr. did something amazing for me. “You want to confess?” he asked. “Come with me.” I followed him through a side door into the sacristy. He grabbed a stole and looked around. His eyes coming to rest on another door he said “This way…” We walked first through one door and then another. I felt like I was in Get Smart. We finally landed in what amounted to an alleyway. One of the walls was missing. “Interesting confessional,” I said to him. “This,” he replied, “is the oldest part of the mission,” as he pointed toward the exposed beams in the ceiling. He then heard my confession and, given this church’s status as a Holy Year site, I gained a plenary indulgence. Sorry, guys, I’m holding onto this one for myself.
I returned to my pew and prayed. Then I looked up and realized something.
Serra’s “castles” were alive. Hearst Castle was dead. Two men had come from far off lands to make the hills of California their home. One built in splendor to entertain people who praised him for his grandeur. The other built simply to entertain the Lord. One left a legacy of personal aggrandizement, the other is a saint. Walking through Hearst Castle I knew he had left nothing. His mark on the world was a place where millions come to gawk, to imagine what that one moment in time was like, and to know that most of us could never experience such wealth. Serra’s mark on the world converted a nation to the Truth. With almost nothing he claimed a people for Christ. Today, though far fewer in number, people come to what he left behind to continue to enter into his work. Hearst Castle housed people who are now dead. Serra’s castle houses the same living God it always did. That God just wiped my sins clean in a room where He did centuries ago through his priest Fr. Serra. That God waits quietly in simplicity waiting for us to invite Him into our hearts, our bodies, to dwell with us so that we might live forever in a kind of grandeur we cannot fathom. Serra built this abode for Him. Quiet. Simple. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
On this day, when Karla and I commemorate our vows and I marvel that this most magnificent woman once took pity on a very poor man from New Jersey with no promise of any grand future; when I celebrate that I can wake up in a different city every day and turn to my wife (I still love saying that) and ask “Where to next, dear?”; when I have hope that I can be with God in heaven one day because of her prayers and suffering for me and I pray for the grace to offer half as much to her… on this anniversary I walked through Serra’s castle. I was truly overwhelmed with emotion.
And then I looked up and saw another sign. This mission church houses three statues. They are all life-sized. There is the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. And then there is St. Rita. I secretly prayed that she was trying to tell me my prayers would be answered and we would have another baby, Christendom would offer me a job, and I’d win the Powerball – all things one might ask of a saint for impossible causes if that person was me, he said with a wink.
When all was said and done we – holy cow, I just noticed I’m at 2300 words! OK, I’ll wrap this up. We drove further down the coast, sought out Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch (only saw the gates), had lunch and shopped in the strangely quaint Danish town of Solvang, and arrived at our hotel in Santa Barbara. I’ll let you glance through the pictures and ask you to read the captions. It was all fun. Wilma watched the kids while Karla and I walked through Santa Barbara and enjoyed the beautiful evening. Our anniversary dinner must have been a blast (read: the drinks were really tasty) because we walked two miles back to our hotel.
Tomorrow promises another full day with just a touch of driving. We’re getting closer to Southern California. Therese Peters, ’02, has been eagerly awaiting our arrival for the Burbank event she’s hosting. I’m really excited to meet her. Her social media efforts are on a level with Andrew Antonio!
A very special thank you to anyone who read this far and didn’t gag at 1) my crummy theological reflection or 2) my sappy love story.