August 22, 2003

To L.A. in Time-Warp California Cruising with an 1850’s Road Map

by Albert Simonson

Every time I drive up to L.A., it seems like there are more houses, more cars, more maniacs, more everything. I wish it were the way it used to be. You know - just me and the road.

A friend of mine discovered a really neat old map in the National Archives. Nobody in San Diego had seen it before. It’s all handwritten and shows the Indian villages of southern California. It seems the U.S. Army had just invaded and they needed to know where everything was, especially with Indian wars going on.

So I decided to drive to L.A. using that map and ignoring everything modern through the use of transcendental meditation. I wondered if it was safe to drive like that on cruise control in an altered state of consciousness, but then I saw that everyone else on the road was eating bagels, doing eyeliner, talking on cell phones and flossing their teeth, sometimes simultaneously. I guess we have all learned to drive with our subconscious minds, which is why we sometimes can’t even remember driving home.

Scary, isn’t it? Especially when the houses all look alike with red tile roofs and you end up in a driveway in your subdivision and say to yourself, “Whoa, how did I get here and is this really my driveway?”

The first place on the map after San Diego City and the “military post” at San Diego Mission was the old San Dieguito Rancho, now known as Rancho Santa Fe. The Camino Real, or Royal Road, bypassed San Pasqual and went straight  to San Luis Rey Mission and Indian village, named for the French king.

In my altered state of consciousness, I could kind of see the Indian women and kids washing clothes in the gigantic brick laundromat in front of the quadrangle. But the open road beckoned.

Passing the ranchos of Santa Margarita and Las Flores, now Camp Pendleton, my nostalgia was droned out by hovering helicopters, but San Juan (Capistrano) put me back in the mood. I could see the Indians leading oxcarts full of cowhides toward a Boston ship standing offshore.

Beyond the Santa Ana River the landscape flattened out to a hazy emptiness all the way past the hide and tallow port of San Pedro to Los Angeles City. It was a pretty ostentatious name for a dusty, squat little clutch of adobe casas, bony mission cattle, braying donkeys and rooting pigs.

The whole Camino Real had seemed eerily empty and desolate in my altered state, so I decided to head back south on the main emigrant road where I could meet forty-niners on their way  north, or catch sight of the grand Butterfield stages with their mail sacks and fine folk and upholstery stained yellow with tobacco spittle, a mark of the times.

The road led me east to Mission San Gabriel, named for the archangel, and Chino, then down to Temescal, the laguna, and Temecula, where nature provided the easiest pass through the mountains.

There were Indian villages all along the inland trail - Aguanga, Tovan, La Puerta, Warner’s rancho near Agua Caliente, Lorenzo’s, Cajon, and San Felipe where the emigrant road drops into a dry valley. Beyond the sod Butterfield stage station at Vallecito, there is just a dotted line all the way to Fort Yuma on the Colorado at the “Southren” boundary. The spelling on this map is not much better than the penmanship. As you might expect, there are a century and a half’s worth of creases, tears, wrinkles and stains (spittle again?) which make the map a bit hard to read.

The old map is pretty empty out there with Cocopa Indians to the south and Yumas and Mohaves to the north. Way north are the Pah-u-Tahs (Paiutes) next to a place called “Las Vegas, last Mormon settlement lately withdrawn.” That does not sound promising.

There is no wagon road indicated on the map to get us back to San Diego City from Vallecito, just some triangular symbols indicating Diegueño Indian villages around Santa Ysabel, Cuya-Maca, Valle de las Viejas, and Capitan Grande. However, the mileage chart in the lower corner of the map promises a “new road” from Fort Yumah to San Diego which will reduce the distance from 220 miles to 180 miles. What the military wants, it gets.

There is a possible explanation for the lack of data around the well-populated Colorado River. In 1853, an express rider named Williams set out from Fort Yuma to San Diego with Major Heintzelman’s maps and

census figures for  his enemies, the rebel Indians. Williams never arrived, and the major’s papers probably ended up as tinder for some warrior’s campfire or maybe they just tumbled along in the wind until they snagged and tore on bristly bushes.

Poor Williams was probably just riding along, thinking about bygone days, or talking to himself, maybe picking his teeth, letting his subconscious mind do the driving, when it hit  him.

You never know what you’ll run into on California roads. Some people on the road seem to be in a kind of la-la land, so it’s best to stay alert.

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