The Mission Bell

For the month of May 2013, I commuted from Studio City in the San Fernando Valley to West Los Angeles, close to the Santa Monica Border.

It’s a trip of just 16 miles, and it took me an hour. For the first 40 minutes of my commute, I only go 8 miles, which means I’m traveling at an average of 5 miles an hour, bumper to bumper, west on the 101 freeway and then south on the 405 freeway. Then everything stops as I try to merge from the 101 West to the 405 South.

And that’s when I see it.

Every morning I pass a solitary bell, rusted brown on a green pole shaped like a shepherd’s staff, cemented in the narrow strip of dirt between the freeway and the on-ramp.

You catch glimpses of these bells along freeways everywhere in California, and they are there to remind you that you are supposedly driving along a route that was once the romantic and historic El Camino Real, the King’s Highway, the same road that the Franciscan Padres and Friars walked as they established the bucolic missions that later became the towns and cities of the picturesque Golden State.

As I pass this bell, inch by inch, I can’t help thinking that it’s for us, the poor saps stuck in traffic, taunting us on our morning commute. Who else could it be for? You can’t see this sad, rusted bell if you are driving the speed limit, because it just flashes by. The only time it actually catches your eye is when you are stuck staring at it, stationary in your car.

In 2013, the bell no longer evokes any romantic notion of California’s past. Did it ever? Maybe in 1955, driving along a new stretch of the 101 freeway, someone would look out their car window on their Sunday drive, coasting along and say, “Hey, look, there’s a bell marking El Camino Road!

This new highway follows exactly the same path that the missionaries took when they walked north from mission to mission! This ribbon of asphalt which we coast along, reminds of the loam of the earth beneath it, where brave Californians before me once walked!”

That may be what the original boosters who put in these bells hoped I would think when I see it, but this bell is now an unintended ironic joke on me and every other driver out there who idles past it every morning. The romance is gone.

When you grow up in California and go to public school, in fourth grade you do your “mission project.” There are 21 missions in California -- Mission Santa Barbara, Mission San Jose, Mission San Rafael, etc.,- and there were also two pueblos (one is Los Angeles) and four presidios.

Even with overcrowding in California schools, that means each kid in class is still assigned a mission to research and investigate. He or she then writes a paper and builds a paper mache diorama, and maybe even visits the actual mission with his or her parents on a weekend trip. Millions of school kids in California have done this for decades.

“Are we there yet?” a kid might ask on his family driving trip to his mission.

“I don’t know, we are getting close,” a parent might reply.

“Look for the bells, after all, we are on the El Camino Real.”

In between San Jose and San Francisco, and in between many towns, the El Camino Real is an actual boulevard, and you can drive it for miles from town to town, but in Los Angeles the El Camino Real is the freeway. A blazing hot, noisy freeway with fumes and trash by the side of the road.

I remember the romantic stories from school of conquistadors like Anza and Portola moving north through this Western paradise and blazing their way farther north, followed later by the Franciscan brothers who would walk the 26 miles between each mission in a day.

They would then rest a day at a mission, and then walk again the next day, and thus a brother could walk the entire length of El Norte California in two months.

When they walked the El Camino Real they would carry bags of mustard seeds that they tossed by the handful, so that the next year the bright yellow flowers of the mustard plant would mark the way they had traveled the year before.

Of course, most of this romantic story is bullshit, just like the romantic myth of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving.

We have evidence that the settlers at Jamestown, Virginia resorted to cannibalism to survive the first winters there, and there’s plenty of evidence that early California was just as brutal, and the true purpose of the missions was to secure political power.

I was taught that the missions were idyllic paradises where the natives learned agriculture and the crafts of civilization while the brothers tamed the wilderness. However, there are no native tribes left to confirm any of this. It may have been closer to enforced slave labor that became genocide.

Hey, Mom and Dad! There’s another bell! We’re almost to the mission!

So the bell celebrates a romantic myth of a past that wasn’t ever real, and I stare at it questioning the truth, but I also know that although it was brutal, the California they are trying to evoke was at least pristine for a time. And California becomes less pristine every day, and as I sit staring at the bell as I idle in my car, I think of the climate change my carbon exhaust is exacerbating.

There is:

A little less rainfall every year,

A little less snowfall,

A little less snowpack,

A little less snow melt and runoff,

A little less water in the rivers,

A little less water for plants and animals and crops and people,

A little less water for electricity,

A little higher cost to buy the energy from out of state, but Washington State has the same problems,

Or we have a flood year where we get all our water at once -- but it doesn’t stay long because it melts too fast, which means more erosion and mudslides because there are fewer plants to hold the soil against the flash floods.

Which means when it dries out, the fires will come, like they do every year now, burning away even more growth to expose even more soil that can be washed away next year.

So while Oklahoma suffers from killer tornadoes, and the East Coast suffers from hurricanes that rip through cities and neighborhoods, and while the northern states endure brutal winter storms and spring months with record snow fall...

...California slowly heats up. Like me, moving in traffic at five miles an hour, the weather and climate in California changes gradually.

Day by day we are becoming more of a desert, baking in the hot sun, tranquil -- until a brutal fire breaks out and destroys homes and forests and kills firefighters.

That’s what I think about when I’m stuck in traffic and I stare up this misplaced and misguided bell.

Maybe that’s its new purpose -- if it no longer can remind us of a California that never was, perhaps its point is to urge us to take notice of our slow, fiery decline so we can try to do something about it.

My job ends in eight days, and I am staying off the freeway.

I won’t take a job unless it’s closer than fives miles away from home on surface streets. 

For more information on these bells, check out:

Fore more on climate change :