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A Trip Across the Tracks to the Los Rios District

"I have friends who have been coming to San Juan Capistrano forever, and they didn't know this neighborhood was here," Stacey Kitts says as she watches her daughter and a friend serve me another tart lemonade. I am standing in front their impromptu refreshment stand, a leaning card table set on the soft shoulder of Los Rios Street. My two quarters drop in the plastic dish and the kids say "thank you" in unison. Behind them are the pink rocks that support the train tracks. Scarlet trumpet vines climb the nearby picket fence and bougainvillea bushes shoot up in vermilion plumes all around us. It is flash-frozen in history, but its residents are strictly modern.

The beaten path for visitors to San Juan Capistrano takes them through the mission, and perhaps includes a stop for a hot one at the adjacent Diedrich Coffee. Some will poke around the train depot, built in 1897, and consider those quaint little cottages that peek through the lush greenery across the rail line. Few make the inquisitive trip, even though it takes just a few steps through the station, a stop-look-listen at the tracks set in brick, and a short meander to erase two centuries.

While statesmen were signing the Declaration of Independence and plunging our tiny nation into war, Spaniards were settling the West, using a collection of Christian missions as stepping stones up the coast. San Juan Capistrano was one of these colony towns, centered around the Franciscan mission, geographically and spiritually. The surrounding Capistrano Valley, with its ample fresh water and arable land, lent itself to prosperity, and soon the mission became a superstar of the network. Sixty years before Lewis and Clark Americanized this side of the country, Spanish and Shosane Indians worked in this successful little village. Farming, herding, candle and soap making, iron smelting, weaving and tanning operations were common. Many of the support crew for these endeavors lived in the same houses I was walking by now. According to a tour map I picked up back at the depot, in at least one case, the same family line has lived here for eleven generations.

Summer is hitting its peak when I visit, though a soothing breeze rustles the pepper trees and makes the stroll as comfortable as a Mediterranean swim. Strolling is the main event here. Perhaps not for the iron smelters during their time, but most certainly for the families and retired couples that smile at each other over their walking-tour maps.

The scale of this old district is well suited for street level drifting. Most of the remaining adobes were built in the 1800's, and since building materials were difficult to procure, they are small. Walkways are made from broken bricks, and planters are everywhere, seemingly random and bordered by rocks; each contains a different kind of blooming plant, yellow, white, silver, crimson, a million greens. They all appear native. Mexican sage purple and California poppy orange.

Latin mothers push their babies in strollers, and three brown-skinned boys ride their bikes, chatting in Spanish in a leisurely and friendly tone. This could be any pueblo in Mexico, and of course it was exactly that before the Mexican-American War.

Orange County Travel Guide
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