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Around San Luis Obispo

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Picture of harbor and Morro Rock Picture of Islay Hill and vineyards

Morro Bay is a bay west of San Luis Obispo, and also a city on the bay. Both get their name from Morro Rock, a dome-shaped volcanic plug 177 meters high, just outside the city’s fishing harbor. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sighted the rock in 1542, and named it El Morro. One fanciful folk etymology claims that the shape of the rock resembles the turbans worn by Moors (Moros in Spanish), the North African Muslims who controlled various parts of Spain from the eighth through the fifteenth centuries. Another derivation relates it to the Spanish word for “pebble.” But morro is a Spanish term— also used by English-speaking geologists— for a round hill or rock outcrop. This morro is the remnant of an ancient volcano that oozed magma from an underground vent. The cooled magma turned into very hard rock that remained after the surrounding rock eroded over millions of years. Morro Rock is one of the “Nine Sisters,” a chain of volcanic hills stretching from Morro Bay to Islay Hill (right) near San Luis Obispo. Photo of Morro Rock with fishing boats

Morro Rock is frequently shrouded in the “low clouds and fog” that blanket the California coast more often than any chamber of commerce likes to admit. I have visited Morro Bay three times. The first time, the bay was completely fogged in. The second time was when I took these pictures. The third time was an overcast day, with fog just far enough off the coast to draw a white curtain over the rock. Visible or not, you can drive to the rock on a breakwater that also serves as a causeway. Since Morro Rock is a state sanctuary for for the formerly-endangered peregrine falcon, climbing it is illegal. Those who break the law may be subject to severe extrajudicial sanctions, since the rock tends to crumble under human weight. Picture of a fisherman repairing a net in Morro Bay

The City of Morro Bay has all the tourist-oriented shops and restaurants you’d expect in a seaside town. The harbor is also a working port for a fleet of fishing boats (and fishermen). But Morro Bay may be particularly noteworthy for what it lacks.

It’s an Indisputable Fact that beach towns (and any other places that attract motorized visitors) need parking meters and aggressive enforcement officers to ration their limited parking as fairly as possible— and (by pure coincidence) to provide the cities with reliable revenue from the inevitable violations. Nearby Pismo Beach and downtown San Luis Obispo have meters and enforcement officers. Morro Bay does not. How do they ever manage without them? Let me now indulge in a bit of the reflection that travel often encourages. Photo of Morro Rock and a fishing boat

I have long questioned whether meters, restrictions, and enforcement actually ensure the fairest access to limited parking. Living near Southern California’s beaches, I can’t avoid noticing that despite all the meters, convoluted restrictions, and ruthlessly aggressive enforcement, parking anywhere near the beach on a sunny weekend is all but impossible. A ticket may generate vital revenue for a cash-strapped city, but it doesn’t make an overstaying driver’s space available for someone else. And the parking enforcement officers’ forlorn patrols of their sparsely-occupied territories during the off-season can only serve their need to remain employed and in practice. Pic of fishing nets at Morro Bay

I mention all this because in June 2009 (a week after I took these pictures), the Morro Bay City Council rejected a proposal to install parking meters as a revenue source, along with a more modest proposal to charge for parking in one lot near the harbor. Maybe they realized that a ticket can have the same aversive effect on a visitor that an experimenter’s electric shock has on a laboratory rat. They may have also recognized that visitors are more likely to spend time (and money) in the city when they’re not under the pressure of a ticking clock. And for that matter, I can’t be the only one who decided not to stop for lunch in Pismo Beach because I didn’t have enough change to feed parking meters that clearly were hungrier than I was. But a few days later, when I was in the area at lunchtime, I made a small detour to Morro Bay because I knew I could take my time finding a place to eat.

Picture of old red truck in Harmony, California Photo of abandoned post office in Harmony, California Picture of the courtyard in Harmony, California

The semi-ghost town of Harmony— Population 18, according to the sign at the entrance to the town— is just off Highway 1, 7 kilometers south of Cambria on the way to or from Hearst Castle. It was founded in 1869 by Italian-speaking Swiss dairy farmers who, as the story goes, feuded over land ownership until someone got killed. That finally convinced everyone involved to settle their disputes and live henceforth in harmony. And so they renamed the town in 1907 to commemorate the accord. The creamery became locally famous, operating until the 1950s when relocating to more populous San Luis Obispo proved economically advantageous.

Nearly everyone in Harmony left the town after the creamery closed. Only the post office remained. In 1972, young “counter-culture” artists saw the town’s possibilities as a rural artist’s colony and began restoring it. After only a few years, most of the artists left town in search of better inspiration. What remains is a one-horse town with a pottery shop, a glass blowing studio, a winery, a small wedding chapel, and a few houses in which people still apparently live.

In 2008, the Postal Service closed what had become a part-time post office located in the former creamery building, citing inadequate volume and seismic safety concerns. Residents now receive their mail in a block of industrial mailboxes along the town’s one road. The abandoned post office now has a guest register that invites visitors to sign a petition to reopen the post office.

Picture of hills along SR46, looking toward Morro Bay Black and white detail of hills along SR46

State Route 46 leads from Highway 1 (2.5 kilometers north of Harmony) to Highway 101 near Paso Robles, then on to the high desert of the Antelope Valley. Heading east from the coast, it crosses the Santa Lucia Mountains. On a clear day, the view from several scenic turnouts extends all the way to Morro Bay. Picture of bucolic scene in the wine country near Paso Robles

As you near Highway 101 and Paso Robles, you’re entering wine country. Back roads lead from the 46 to vineyards and wineries with tasting rooms open to the public. Any hotel in Paso Robles or San Luis Obispo will probably have a rack filled with brochures and maps of the wineries. There are also wine-tasting tours that shuttle visitors between the wineries on a bus, providing a safe way to enjoy the various fermented grape products.

The climate, soil, and the rolling hills that add up to the right terroir for vineyards are also well suited to horses and cattle. If you’re not in a hurry, it’s well worth spending a day exploring the many small roads leading from the 46 and Vineyard Road that meander past ranches, pastures, and farm houses.

Picture of the old bell tower at Mission San Miguel

Mission San Miguel Arcángel is 60 kilometers north of San Luis Obispo. It’s right off of Highway 101, the freeway that follows much of the route of the Camino Real, the “royal road” the Franciscans established to link their chain of missions. Fermín de Lasuén founded the Mission on 25 July 1797, to bring the Salinan Indians into the Catholic and Spanish fold. It also provided the Franciscans a convenient overnight stop on the two-day trip between San Luis Obispo and Mission San Antonio de Padua in Monterey County. Lasuén named it for the Archangel Michael, whose numerous roles in both the Christian and Jewish traditions include guardian of the Catholic Church, Christian angel of death, and Supreme Enemy of Satan. Photo of new brick bell tower at Mission San Miguel Picture of the fountain and arches at Mission San Miguel

San Miguel suffered the same fate as the other 20 California missions. The Mexican government “secularized” the missions in 1834, sent the Franciscans back to Spain, and distributed the property to favored cronies. During the 1849 Gold Rush, the Mission again became a stopping place for travelers— in this case, gold miners on the way to San Francisco from Los Angeles. The Mission returned to the Catholic Church in 1859, and to the Franciscans in 1928. It’s now a monastery. The Franciscans carefully restored the Mission, making it one of the best preserved in California. The church interior, with its murals, looked just as it did in 1821.

An earthquake in 2003 severely damaged the Mission and closed it to the public. A repair and restoration project is proceeding slowly, hampered by the difficulty of raising the $15 million it’s expected to cost. When I visited in June 2009, a small museum, a gift shop, part of the courtyard, and a small section of the monastery garden were open. But most of the Mission was a fenced-off construction zone, with “No Trespassing” signs and buildings shrouded in scaffolding and plastic. By carefully working around the construction, I was able to take a few pictures that offer glimpses of a site that may eventually resume its place in California history. But for now, I call San Miguel the “No Ad-Mission.”

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