Pair takes a ride through the past with tour of California’s historic missions

slinn@thetribunenews.comSeptember 16, 2012 

More than two centuries after a group of Franciscan friars established the first California missions, a film crew is following their footsteps.

The California Mission Ride, a horseback expedition led by Santa Cruz filmmaker Gwyneth Horder-Payton and Cambridge, Mass., writer Leslie Dunton-Downer, plans to visit all 21 missions between Sonoma and San Diego.

The riders wrapped up the first leg of their more-than-600-mile journey Sunday at Mission San Miguel, arriving just in time for the mission’s 215th birthday celebration.

“We’re just so excited to be on this trip,” Dunton-Downer said.

According to the author, she and Horder-Payton first discussed a mission trek three years ago while riding horses through the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Standing on a hill overlooking the Santa Clarita Valley, the two friends marveled at how much the surrounding missions — including Mission San Fernando Rey de España in Mission Hills and Mission San Buenaventura in Ventura — had influenced the region.

“Wouldn’t it be cool to ride from mission to mission and look at the world through horses’ ears instead of a windshield?”

Dunton-Downer asked. “When you’re in a car, you don’t look at the land the same way.”

The California Mission Ride was born.

Dunton-Downer and Horder-Payton, whose directing credits include “Criminal Minds,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “The Shield,” eventually teamed up with two other riders: the filmmaker’s teenage daughter, Daisy Payton, and Rod Rondeaux, a Southern California horse trainer, actor and stuntman who has appeared in “3:10 to Yuma,” “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Wild Wild West.”

Their journey began Aug. 17 at Mission San Francisco de Solano at Sonoma State Park.

From there, the riders traveled south along the historic California Mission Trail — accompanied by a camera crew, support staff and countless guest riders, including American Indians, search-and-rescue personnel and champion equestrian Michael Muir, the great-grandson of Sierra Club founder John Muir.

“We love having locals around us,” Dunton-Downer said, praising the “hospitality and warmth” the expedition has encountered at locations as varied as a Sonoma winery, an Elks Lodge in San Rafael and a Dominican priory at Mission San Jose in Fremont. “It’s really heartwarming to know ... that old California spirit still exists.”

Although the first part of their journey is over, the riders plan to return to San Miguel in August 2013 for the second, southern leg of the trip, which will include stops at the missions in San Luis Obispo, Lompoc, Solvang and Santa Barbara.

The California Mission Ride will conclude at Mission San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego.

Dunton-Downer said the trip has transformed her understanding of California’s missions.

“(At first) I wanted to understand how much of life in California today was still influenced by the Spanish era ... to look for connections between the past and the present,” explained the author, whose most recent book is “The English Is Coming!: How One Language Is Sweeping the World.”

“(Now) my viewpoint on the missions has expanded.”

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