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The Royal Road

Raise your hand if you’ve been on a road called El Camino Real. I’ve seen this road in different cities from Miami to the Bay Area. Last evening as we drove on El Camino Real in Carlsbad CA, I read about its significance.

The story of El Camino Real is part fact and part fiction.

Fact: El Camino Real, the Royal Road or the King's Way, on the west coast is possibly the oldest road in the area and has quite the story. El Camino Real played an integral part in the early days of trade and culture. It facilitated the sustained conversion to Christianity by providing a way for the padres to reach the indigenous people along the western shores of the country.

Fiction: The popular story is that the road was constructed by the Franciscans between 1683 and 1834, partly under the leadership of the famous Junipero Serra. The truth is that there were many El Camino Reals - many roads under the Spanish Crown's oversight - and these roads followed trails established by the Native Americans. The Franciscans wove these trails into a road and wrapped it in lore that outlasted them by centuries.

Fact: The El Camino Real connected 21 missions, 4 presidios and many pueblos between Mission San Diego de Alcala on the south to Mission San Francisco Solano in the north. It is 600 miles long. Today the road hops on and off a number of state and interstate routes including the famed Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) - aka Route 101 - and I-5. In concept, the El Camino Real still takes you from near the Mexican border all the way to San Francisco.

Fiction: Legend has it that the missions along El Camino Real were established with great care. That the mission settlements were about 30 miles apart which made for easy travel in a day. That the padres sprinkled mustard seeds to flank the trail and planted ash trees to mark the springs. While some of this is rooted in fact, the overall narrative is not true. The stories were used to romanticize Spanish California to help tourism take off.

Fact: Sprinkled on the part of PCH that is the original El Camino Real, you will find bells on posts. This is the Mission Bell Marker system and the bells are maintained by decree. Originally, the bells were placed every mile but many have been lost to theft and vandalism. The few that remain date back to 1906 and have a historic designation.

I will travel the stretch of El Camino Real near us with a mixture of emotions - awe for traveling the route that the ancients traveled, incredulity at the outsized vision of the original settlers and, and utter dismay at the forcible dismantling of the indigenous ways. That last part is such a contrast to how we, as immigrants, were expected to assimilate instead of imposing our culture on the majority. A stunning u-turn on the Royal Road is how I will think about it.


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