California Diary (I): El Camino Real

In November I spent just under two weeks in California, meeting alumni in San Francisco and Los Angeles and attending the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego. My own contribution to the SBL meeting is covered in my other blog, Andrew’s Version.

This trip took me the length of what was historically known as El Camino Real – the Royal Highway – that ran between the various Franciscan mission stations from San Diego north to San Francisco. Dotted along the way – every thirty miles or so, representing an achievable day’s journey – were missions, often now towns with names familiar even to Australians from references in popular culture, derived from saints important to the Franciscan friars who blazed the trail. Three times in four days I rode the rails between LA and San Diego, seeing familiar names like San Juan Capistrano fly past on one side, and familiar-looking beaches on the other.

Los Angeles itself is shortened from El Pueblo de Nuestra Se├▒ora de los Angeles de la Porci├║ncula – the town of our Lady of the Angels of the Little Portion. The “Little Portion” refers to the famous Church at Assisi where Francis worked and died, where a fresco depicted an apparition of the Virgin with angels. The eighteenth century Spanish expedition that mapped the Los Angeles River did so on a feast day connected with Francis and this Church.

In both San Francisco and Los Angeles I met with alumni, from the 60s through to the 90s; they included Americans who had visited Trinity, and Australians currently “seeking their fortune” in the US. The attraction for Australians of the concentrated resources in human, social and economic terms in the US is increasingly clear. The West has particular attractions for those engaged in the Arts and Media, as well as the other strengths related to academic research familiar in the Northeast.

In Los Angeles I was welcomed by the Australian Consul-General, Innes Willox, and his wife Ms Jennifer Conley, current Trinity parents. Their pleasant villa backs onto the property of extraordinary Getty Center, where I spent a couple of hours looking at medieval and early modern art and generally feeling as though on Parnassus, wandering around this marvellous hilltop monument to culture. A few days later I was back in LA and went to its sister pilgrimage site, the Getty Villa, a partial replica of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, and an extraordinary collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. Both of these are free to the public – testimony to the strength and importance of philanthropy in that country.

As a former resident in the United States I am well aware of the extraordinary richness and diversity – and the striking contrasts – that characterize that country. California itself is a sort of microcosm, distinctive in its history and geography, massive in its own scope, and full of its own contrasts. LA is yet a further concentration of contrasts, more a sprawling zone than a community, with pockets of brilliance (and tawdriness) set in a maze of freeways and suburbs. It is no Australian dream, but plays host to the dreams of many, from close by and far away.

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