El Camino Real

By Rudy VanderLans

In 1769, an expedition consisting of Spanish commanders, soldiers, local Indians and Franciscan priests blazed a trail from San Diego all the way to Northern California under direct orders from God and the King of Spain. Their immediate goal was to establish Spain’s presence on the Northern Pacific Coast before the Russians, British, or French would do so. Their long term goals were to colonize the land and convert the inhabitants to Christianity.

By 1823, a chain of 21 missions had been built along the approximately 650 mile trail, allowing a person to travel from one mission to the next within a day for a total traveling time of roughly three to four weeks depending on the weather. The trail was called the “El Camino Real” - the Royal Road or King’s Highway - although that designation may have been attributed long after the missions had started to crumble and perhaps not until after California as a Union state came to grips with its Spanish and Mexican past and realized its commercial potential. That route is now U.S. Highway 101, and today it takes roughly ten hours to drive it from one end to the other.

Much of what we know about the original trail is from written accounts by the men who made the early expeditions into Alta California. They kept diaries, drew maps and made illustrations. The crude tools they used, their limited abilities, and the severe circumstances in which these men operated and traveled both restricted and colored their depictions.

When I saw a selection of these artifacts from the Bancroft Library on exhibit at the University Art Museum in Berkeley in 2006, I became fascinated by these early impressions of California put to paper. The handwritten diaries, letters, and drawings give us a tantalizing glimpse of the landscape and the trail circa late 18th Century, while the methods and materials that were used reveal additional information about the world in which they were created.

Seeing these old documents, and how they exude their era, inspired me to create a contemporary visual account of this historical route that would be similarly genuine and personal but decidedly early 21st Century in terms of execution, materials, and equipment used.

The resulting photographs in this portfolio were taken on El Camino Real during a four day round trip by car from San Francisco to Los Angeles in mid January of 2007. All photographs were taken with a digital camera while driving.

El Camino Real Prints