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San Juan Bautista, California

In San Juan Bautista, a few miles off Highway 101, California's many-layered past stands open to visitors.

San Juan Bautista mission interior
Photo caption
The interior of the restored mission church has special features, such as animal prints in the floor tiles.

Every now and then in the course of a life you may feel yourself standing at the edge of a precipice watching as forces of nature or culture collide. In San Juan Bautista, Calif., the precipice has been fitted with bleacher seats.

This sleepy-looking country town 20 miles northwest of Salinas straddles the San Andreas Fault, and the restless seismic rift makes a fitting backdrop. San Juan, as locals call it, is a living monument to colliding layers of California history. Technically, the crumbling concrete bleachers that angle down the fault scarp on the northeast edge of town were built for the annual rodeos held here until 1982. But take a seat and it's easy to imagine—especially when a magenta sunset fills the sky—that this ramshackle stadium was intended for a much larger show.

California's grandest mission church was founded and built here, brick by clay-and-straw brick, between 1803 and 1812 with Catholic resolve and with the sweat, tears, and talent of native workers. Members of the Mutsun, Tulare, Yokuts, and other tribes were recruited from as far away as the San Joaquin Valley and, after conversion, were forbidden to leave. Some 4,000 are buried in graves behind the church.

Along the cemetery's edge runs the king of Spain's dusty highway, El Camino Real, still an unpaved track. From its beginnings in the 18th century, this road was the central artery of ambition from San Diego to Sonoma for convert-hungry padres, gunslinging soldiers, and eager settlers. In 1846, on a peak above the road to San Juan, Kit Carson and John C. Frémont planted the first U.S. flag over California—only to be run off days later by the region's indignant Mexican comandante. During the 19th century, San Juan's plaza, now a grassy common, saw its share of military drills, fiestas, and cockfights, plus the occasional showdown between a bull and a tethered grizzly bear captured in the surrounding hills.

Today, tale-telling relics of the mission and rancho eras—sleek, fringed carriages, a hand-cranked organ on which priests played British dance tunes, a cat door carved into the chapel entrance—still thrill battalions of field-tripping fourth graders and others who come to tour the mission, hotel, blacksmith shop, saloon, jail, and other furnished buildings that seem frozen in time. Thick-walled adobes and rose-perfumed gardens kindle visions of ardent señores and señoritas holding breathless secret liaisons. No wonder Alfred Hitchcock came here in 1957 to film his spooky masterpiece Vertigo.

"There's really no other place in the state where you can stand in one spot and get this broad sweep of California his-tory from pre-European times to the Gold Rush days and beyond," says Sheryl Neufeld, a ranger at the park that maintains all the plaza's buildings except the Catholic mission. "Here, we've got it all."

Visitors who'd like to haul off their own little piece of history will find a dozen good antique stores in town. Tom's Vintage Lighting specializes in restored kerosene, gas, and electric lamps dating from 1840 to 1940. Halina Kleinsmith and her husband, Bruce—aka Futzie Nutzle, a onetime Rolling Stone cartoonist and satirist—run Fool's Gold Vintage Collectique. She loves antique clothing and jewelry; he's keen on hard-to-find jazz records and books. So they sell a mix.

All over town, San Juan celebrates its links to Mexican and other southwestern traditions. Casamedina's gallery and tasting room features jewelry and art from Guadalajara, as well as more than 20 up-and-coming San Benito County wines. Paintings, engravings, and etchings at the Mission Gallery offer museum-quality portraits of the western United States and beyond. Guatemala Exclusives sells vibrant, finely woven contemporary Maya textiles, garments, and accessories. And for 34 years, playwright Luis Valdez, the award-winning author of Zoot Suit, has based his El Teatro Campesino here.

For another taste of San Juan's culture, stop to have breakfast at the Mission Cafe. While waiting for your latte and eggs in this cheerful coffee shop, scan the walls for what looks a bit like a framed peace pipe. It's actually a Mutsun clapper stick, or sallik, a percussion instrument carved from cured blue elderberry wood.

Cafe owner Quirina Luna-Costillas is a member of the Mutsun tribal band whose village of Popelouchum predated the mission here. Today, she says, the area is home to some 600 "Amah Mutsun"—Mutsun people. She welcomes questions about the culture, which she's helping to preserve through studies of its nearly lost language. "We're still here," she says, and smiles. "I like visitors to know."

Photography by Maggie Hallahan

This article was first published in May 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.