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A Visit to the Saint Francis Retreat Near San Juan Bautista>

Retreating to the Hills

Six and a half years ago a fast-moving fire ashed one of Clifornia's historic buildings. It was not far from Gilroy where I live. The beautiful ranch house of the St. Francis Retreat just outside San Juan Bautista had been completed 143 years earlier in 1863. The surrounding land, occupied originally by local Indians of course, became part of Mission San Juan Bautista with the coming of the Spanish in the late 1700's.

The banner photo across the top of this page is part of the brochure of the retreat. It documents what some locals regard as a miracle. The statue of the Virgin Mary was left unharmed despite the huge timbers crashing all around her. It was a short lived miracle, though, in that the statue was stolen two days later by culprits still unknown. Really? Stealing a statue of the Virgin Mary?

View of St Francis Chapel
A view of the chapel, St. Francis Retreat, San Juan Bautista, CA.

Since the fire, the retreat has been rebuilt and reopened. When my wife and I were there a few days ago, the new chapel was being filled by students from Archbishop Mitty High School. (I keep wanting to call it Walter Mitty High School, an image of Danny Kaye in my head.)

We were there to uplift our own spirits in our own kind of prayer by just walking along a few of the many hilly trails through the grass and oaks. The countryside really is exquisit, making me wish I new more about the plants and animals we see. Black earthen trails were still moist, almost muddy, from this winter's rain and were still littered with last fall's fallen oak leaves.

Overlook view
The overlook to the North from the lower loop trail. Beautiful stately oak trees all around look up the valley toward Holister.

I got down and smelled the earth and moss and leaves and I remembered parts of my childhood playing in the aromatic woods of Massachusetts. The smell stimulates memories unrecalled for years.

While we were there we chanced to run into an old freind of ours, Angel Uribe. He works as a maintenance worker for St. Francis and has for many years. He was the one who told us about this retreat and its many trails in the first place. Several of the trails are named after him and his wife. There's Angel's Ascent and Ofelia's Road.

pic of Lenore and Angel Uribe
Lenore and Angel. We're getting a tour of the grounds and workshops of the retreat from our friend. I guess I got Angel's face in a shodow here. Angels CD, "Mis Amores Pasion y Vida, is of his favorite Mexican songs.

I think of Angel as the best example I know of a proud, impeccably mannered Mexican gentleman. We first met him at Doña Esther's, a restaurant in San Juan Bautista. Angel is the entertainment at Doña Esther's, at least on Saturday nights these days. Accompanied by his own guitar, he sings, or in Mexican parlance interprets, Mexican and Spanish vintage ballads.

Angel's CD Cover

Angel has a CD out of some of his work. It's music to eat Mexican food by, for sure. So if you want to have an authentic evening with people who are autentic simply by the virtue of being who they are, go to Doña Esther's. Lots of people do. PS: You can buy Angel's CD there.

Lower Loop Trail

The Crucifix along the loop trail
The large crucifix, starting out on the loop trail.
The large crucifix, starting out on the loop trail.

The first thing one comes to along the lower loop trail is a large, almost life-size, crucifix. It's obviously well cared for and overlooks a peaceful ponded garden. The paint is fresh and the whole display is clean. I imagine it to be shining with reverence. This is such a peaceful place that the sight of a man bleeding on a cross seems incongruent , but I guess that's what the pensive have in mind when they come here to contemplate life's sins.

Further along the trail there is a grove of buckeye trees, evidently. I don't know what a buckeye tree looks like, but I recognize the fallen buckeye balls putting out a root into the soft soil. Wikipedia says I'm probably looking at Aesculus californicus, the california buckeye. (Not to be confused with, apparently, Aesculus glabra, the one from Ohio, you know, the Buckeye State and all that.)

Along the trail we noticed deer prints all over the trail surface. This is something you don't see in the summer. Only now when the trails are soft enough to retain them can you see the prints. And they do indicate that a heck of a lot of deer come around here.

Buckeye
A buckeye puts down a root in the moist trail soil.
pic of deer tracks
Lots of deer tracks, visible now in the soft earth.

Okay, so that's probably California mule deer, which cover most of the state of California. This is the same deer that we see all the time roaming around Monterey and especially Pacific Grove. After you've seen like your thousandth mule deer, they become somewhat less interesting. Except for maybe here, we're they live in their own home and take an obvious part in the system of life.

I'm going to let the following pictures tell a little of the rest of our short walk over the trails.

pic of sun through trees
The air is cool, and it feels wet. The groves of trees with the sun shafting through seem to signal the fertility of the whole scene. It's a garden tended by both animal and human gardeners.
pic of periwinkle
This is our first sighting af a periwinkle this year.
pic of meadow
These are the picnic grounds up in the hills along Ofelia's Road. In the distance, the tall brown grass from last year is still standing about twice as high as the new green grass.
pic of hermitage
A hermitage occupies the edge of the picnic grounds. This is one of two hermitages on the retreat grounds. This would be a good place to get some thinking done, if I were inclined to think.

Moving On

St Anthony Doorway
St Anthony's private door, I presume. This is pure California; thick adobe walls, with a very warm and dry feeling on the outside, create the anticipation of coolness inside over rough hewn and heavily worn floorboards.
Chowhall
If you were heading for breakfast after a night of contemplating the catholic universe, this might be your path. California looks dry even when it's wet - less vegitable, more silicate.
Garden
The garden looks up to the crucifix. You can't see it but there is a small, conservative, fountain and a pond.
Oak treea along the road
A lone oak tree stands along the road out from the St. Francis Retreat.