Hot Springs and Cool Wine: November 7-14, 2011

Reminders: 1. Posts are in chronological order with most recent on top. 2. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them and then using the back button (not close) to return to the text.

Long ago, the area belonged to the Salinan Native Americans. Approximately 3000 of them lived along the Salinas River in parts of today’s San Luis Obispo, Monterey and San Benito Counties. When Spanish Missions were established in the area, they were divided into the San Antonio and San Miguel cohorts. Very little is known about them or their language. Their original name, before John Wesley Powell dubbed them Salinan, is unknown. They were thought to be extinct by 1930 but Salinans are still alive and well in the area.

Today, the city of El Paso de Robles, Paso Robles or simply Paso is even more alive and well. It originated in 1857 through the purchase of a land grant by James and Daniel Blackburn. It quickly became known for its mineral hot springs and was a regular rest stop along the Camino Real (now Rte 101). When the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1886, a boom began, and in 1889, the same year it incorporated, construction of its magnificent El Paso de Robles Hotel and mineral baths got under way. It burned to the ground in 1942, and its replacement –the current hostelry – has more than 30 rooms with mineral spas. The celebrity list of guests is long, and it includes members of two major league baseball teams who have held spring training nearby.

It has had several celebratory citizens, most notable of whom is Ignace Jan Paderweski, Polish piano virtuoso and composer. He first came to Paso in 1914 at age 64 to obtain the curative benefits of the mineral springs. He is reputed to have been so crippled that he was unable to play a concert but after three weeks in the spa was back at the keyboard in concert. He continued to visit the springs from then until 1939, two years before his death. In addition to his musical and political notoriety, he purchased 2800 acres in Paso and planted numerous crops, including zinfandel grapes, using agricultural techniques that vastly improved output all through the area.

The city founders donated two square blocks in the center of the city for a park, and it remains today, complete with the bandstand built in 1890. It is overviewed by the Carnegie Library, now the home of the Historical Society and archives. I spent an hour or so there, and was greeted by a musical trio that was using it to jam. The history of Paderweski was alive and well in photographs; there was a festival honoring him that weekend.

One of the main reasons for stopping there was its easy access to San Simeon and the Hearst Mansion. About 30 miles away on the coast, it is the epitome of opulence – and tastelessness. We found it difficult to not think about all the good works that could have been done with the millions squandered on it. William Randolph Hearst hired Julia Morgan as architect but never left her alone. The two managed to build what I consider to be the world’s best example of twentieth century mishmash. W.R. inherited the estate from his mother Phoebe in 1919; it is over a quarter million acres with 14 miles of prime Pacific coastline. He was passionate about the outdoors, ranching and camping on the property and collecting exotic animals. Although there was already a mansion elsewhere on the estate, W.R. decided he wanted something on the San Simeon Hill that was a “little more comfortable than camping in tents.” Thus the monster was born, and re-born, and re-born over and over again; as W.R. collected more antiquities, building components and ideas from around the world, Julia patiently incorporated them. As our guide described the front face, he pointed out Hearst’s room on one side of the second floor and Julia’s room on the other side. Then he pointed around the corner to the east and said, “Mrs. Hearst lived there – 3,000 miles away.”

The welcome center at the base of the hill is huge and, fortunately, less ostentatious. Buses up to the mansion through remnants of Hearst’s zoo are part of the tour. There’s a movie, a museum, a restaurant and, of course, a gift shop. A kiosk in the center sells beef that is still ranched on the property, for a mere $53 a pound.

Yes, the views are phenomenal.

Well, now you know how much we loved it. A sampling of images is below.

We took a second trip back to the coast, lured by the promise of a dog beach at the Morrow Strand State Beach at Yerba Buena. There was a rustic stairway down to the beach, part sand and berms and part real steps. We herded all three dogs down the slope and unleashed them. Dot threw Schip-Dude his ball; he chased it, picked it up and headed for the stairs, bent on getting it to the car. (Taking it home is his traditional practice at campground pet parks.) Dot screamed but he wasn’t to be deterred. Fortunately, a family had just arrived at the foot of the stairs, and when he stopped to greet them, they picked up the ball and threw it to Dot. No more free roaming that day. I go a few shots of the landscape — below.

On another day, we spent several hours exploring the local mission. Founded by Father Fermin Francisco de Lasuén in 1797, Mission San Miguel Archangel was built here for two reasons: to fill the gap between Missions San Luis Obispo and San Antonio, and to serve a large number of Salinan people living there. Its property extended all the way to the coast, 35 miles away, and covered a total of 3600 square miles (that’s 2.3 million acres, folks). The first, temporary, building was destroyed by fire in 1806, and it took ten years of preparation to lay the foundation of the permanent structure and six additional years to complete it. In 1834, with Mexico’s turn to independence, the Mission was secularized, and when the Franciscans were exiled, the Salinan disseminated back to their homesteads. For a time, it served as the home of William Reed, and when 11 members of his family and staff were murdered, it became a retail center, including a hotel and saloon. President Buchanan returned the mission and surrounding property to the Catholic Church in 1859; a parish was re-established in 1878, and in 1928, it was finally returned to the Franciscans.

On December 22, 2003, a 6.5 earthquake did extensive damage, requiring the complete closing of the property. Exactly three years later, the convento, housing the museum and gift shop, was re-opened. And on September 29, 2009 – the Feast Day of its patron saint — a grand public celebration heralded the reopening of the church and cemetery.

The church today is much as it was when first built. It has never been repainted. It is not large, but it reflects the glory of its purpose splendidly. In the museum was an array of large storyboards that traced in text and drawing the history of numerous generations of a Salinan family. Statues of St. Michael and St. Bonaventure share a room with a period lavabo (wash stand for the server).

A little further up the highway was Camp Roberts. In 1940, Congress authorized the lease of nearly 50,000 acres north of the Mission in 1940. The land was purchased and expanded over the next three years, and the property rose from a collection of scattered tents to a training facility for as many as 30,000 troops at one time. It was deactivated after WW II and reactivated twice more for Korea and Viet Nam and served as a training center for the National Guard and Reserve units. Between WW II and Korea, it output 736,000 troops. In 1971, it was turned over to the California National Guard and still provides training for the Reserve Components of the military, along with specialized units of all service branches and even troops of other nations. Other important events mark its history, including the construction of the Army’s first satellite network.

The Camp Roberts Historical Museum is housed in two buildings: the Red Cross headquarters and the Post Office. The former is the main museum, where all eras of the Camp’s influence are displayed in cases and settings. The first tableau represents the San Francisco home of the Roberts family. Corporal Harold W. Roberts was a WW I tank driver who, at age 22, was killed in the Argonne Offensive and was awarded the Medal of Honor. Camp Roberts is the only major Army installation named for an NCO.

The post office building houses larger exhibits both inside and out (including the artillery below) and also chronicles the entertainment experience at the Camp. Celebrities trained there included Robert Mitchum, Steve Allen, Steve “Hercules” Reeves Red Skelton, who headlined Camp Roberts’ entertainment troupe, which brought in the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny and Marlene Dietrich.

There are over 200 wineries in the area. I worked them down to one favorite: Robert Hall Vineyards. No, they don’t – nor never did – make men’s suits. But they make delicious wine, and one in particular swooned my taste buds. Their Viognier won the 2009 California Competition, but the sommelier who served me that newer is better in whites, so I bought a bunch of the 2010. Runner up was the Reserve Petite Sirah (not Syrah, which they also produce). Okay, I admit it; after a few glasses, I signed up for the two-case Club.

After that, we decided we’d better get out of the area while the getting was good!

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