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By 1772, the Franciscan Father Junípero Serra had founded four missions in California. There would eventually be 21, in fulfillment of Serra’s own mission to convert California’s heathen Indians into loyal subjects of both the Pope and the Spanish Crown. (Those missions would earn Serra sainthood in 2015.) But that year, the missions were suffering from a shortage of food and supplies. In his headquarters at the Monterey mission, Serra remembered that three years earlier Gaspar de Portolá’s expedition had seen a lot of bears in a particular area between Santa Barbara and Monterey. Portolá even named it Llano de los Osos, the Plain of Bears. Bear meat might not be filet mignon, but it apparently is edible if you’re hungry. So Serra dispatched a hunting party to bring some of it back.
Along with enough grizzly jerky to save the Franciscans and their “neophytes” (newly converted Indians) from imminent starvation, the hunters brought back stories of friendly Indians who expressed great interest in the the Franciscans’ gifts of salvation and civilization. (But there seems to have been some miscommunication: The Chumash-speaking Indians actually were interested in the hunters’ guns, technology they immediately recognized as significantly better than arrows.) Serra thus decided that his next mission would be in the Plain of Bears. On 1 September 1772, Serra erected a cross on the bank of San Luis Creek across from the mission’s current site and celebrated Mass, the act that officially founded Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
The city of San Luis Obispo that grew up around the Mission is now a pleasant college town— the home of a California Polytechnic University campus— at roughly the half-way point of the drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A plaque outside a building that is now a restaurant marks the spot where Serra celebrated that first Mass; and a coastal suburb is called Los Osos.
Like all the Franciscan missions, this one was named for a saint: San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, Saint Louis Bishop of Toulouse. Louis was one of the sons of a 13th century French nobleman whose connections with Pope Clement IV got him appointed King of Naples. After Naples lost a war with the Spanish kingdom of Aragon, Louis and two of his brothers went to Barcelona as hostages under Franciscan tutelage. Louis had a predilection for the monastic life, and eventually renounced his royal inheritance to become a Franciscan friar. He was appointed Bishop of Toulouse, France at the age of 22, thanks to a politically valuable combination of spirituality and family connections: His uncle was King Louis IX of France, the Saint Louis for whom the city in Missouri and Mission San Luis Rey were named. Bishop Louis served for only six months, working himself to death (and to sainthood) in service to the poor and hungry. Louis’ feast day on the Catholic calendar is 19 August, which is when Serra arrived at the Plain of Bears.
The facade of the Mission church has the numbers 1772 emblazoned above its three bells to commemorate its official founding. But construction of the sturdy adobe building actually began in 1793, after the original wooden church burned down. Its history was typical of California missions. The population of “neophyte” Indians the Spanish called Obispeño— their original name has disappeared along with their Chumash language— peaked and then succumbed to European diseases, enslavement by the Spanish and Mexican armies, and desertion.
The Mission fell into disrepair after the newly-independent Mexican government “secularized” all the missions in 1834, appropriating the properties for the benefit of favored cronies and sending the Franciscans back to Spain. The first American bishop of California arranged for the return of some of the property to the Church, and rehabilitated what was left of the Mission. In the 1880s, someone ignorant of history decided to remodel the Mission as a New England-style church, complete with a wooden clapboard exterior and a steeple. A better-informed pastor in the 1930s led the restoration to an authentic Spanish Colonial style. It’s an active parish church, as well as the centerpiece of a pleasant downtown plaza made for walking. (Street parking downtown is metered, and vigilantly patrolled by a squadron of enforcement officers. Walk there from your hotel if possible, since exploration is far more enjoyable when you’re not under time pressure.)
The San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum is across the street from the mission. The building was San Luis Obispo’s public library from 1905 to 1955, and the carved lettering above the entryway still says FREE LIBRARY. Its Victorian “Romanesque” architectural style is commonly found in the Northeastern states, but it’s rather unusual in California. That might have been intended to complement the Mission’s New England styling. Local yellow sandstone decorates the red brick facade.
The building was one of some 2,500 libraries steel magnate Andrew Carnegie funded around the world during his second career as a philanthropist. The Carnegie Libraries introduced innovations that have become standard in public libraries, including open stacks, a separate children’s section, and placing the librarian’s desk in the center of the building.
The Madonna Inn probably is San Luis Obispo’s best-known tourist attraction. It’s the creation of Alex Madonna, who ran a successful construction business— which built the section of Highway 101 that runs through San Luis Obispo, now called the “Alex Madonna Memorial Highway”— and later branched out into timber and cattle ranching. On the outside the inn resembles a Flintstones version of a Swiss chalet, reflecting Madonna’s apparent passion for rocks. The pool and bridge between the parking lot and the the main entrance are made of large locally-quarried boulders.
Inside are more rocks, plus truly kitschy decor based on Mrs. Madonna’s favorite color. Booths, chairs, carpets, tablecloths, and ceiling decorations run the full gamut of pink, from “pastel” to “shocking” to “Pepto-Bismol.” The Inn might also qualify as the first “boutique hotel,” even though that term didn’t yet exist when it opened in 1960. Each room is decorated and furnished in its own distinctive theme, many of which, unsurprisingly, feature rocks.
The Madonna Inn also has a famous “facility.” The focal point of the basement men’s room is a unique urinal in the form of— guess what— a rock waterfall. I’ve read that during the busy summer travel season, this wondrous water closet attracts so many lookie-loos of both sexes that it’s all too frequently unavailable for its intended purpose. Since it wasn’t peak travel season when I visited, I had ample undisturbed time to change lenses and carefully compose several photographs before trying out the waterfall.
However kitschy or bizarre the Madonna Inn might appear, for sheer tackiness it has to take a distant second place to Bubblegum Alley. This is a narrow passageway between two buildings on the 700 block of Higuera Street, just north of Broad Street and across the creek from the Mission. The walls are completely covered with layers of colorful chewed gum, contributed by countless visitors over at least four decades. The air is redolent with an unidentifiable mixture of evaporating artificial flavors, seasoned with the metabolic products of innumerable microbes.
The gum wads reflect all manner of expression. Some are just single blobs stuck where convenient, perhaps to avoid the bad luck that reputedly will befall anyone who chews gum in the alley without leaving it on a wall. Some spell out words or numbers of purely private significance, while others are names preserved for posterity in crusted chicle. Visitors of artistic inclination have created elaborate multicolored designs, sometimes incorporating non-gummy items.
Local authorities send mixed messages about Bubblegum Alley. Law-and-order politicians periodically make Singapore-inspired pronouncements about getting rid of the unsanitary eyesore, while the Chamber of Commerce touts it as a unique attraction that draws customers to downtown businesses.
Exactly when and why the alley first acquired its distinctive wall covering is now lost to history. The only thing on which all the accounts agree is that gum has decorated the alley for a very long time— and also that the appeal of leaving a masticated legacy there has resolutely resisted all eradication attempts.