Tall tales in Lom­poc

His­tory meets the sea in this in­trigu­ing Cal­i­for­nia ham­let

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - By Anne Z. Cooke

LOM­POC, Calif. — I thought I’d seen ev­ery­thing.

Then I dis­cov­ered a re­mark­able col­lec­tion of the world’s old­est pic­to­rial art hid­ing out in Lom­poc, a mod­est ham­let perched on the wave-dashed coast of Cal­i­for­nia, north of Santa Bar­bara.

Mu­rals are what I mean, 36 huge paint­ings on the walls in the Old Town district, an art whose ori­gins reach back 35,000 years — or more — to fig­ures drawn on cave walls in Europe and else­where.

The who and why of cave art re­mains a mys­tery. But not in Lom­poc, where the now-fa­mous mu­ral project was launched with a pur­pose, to re­vi­tal­ize the his­toric cen­ter and at­tract more tourists.

Ac­cord­ing to Vicki An­der­sen, ad­min­is­tra­tor of the Lom­poc Mu­ral So­ci­ety and a painter in her own right, Lom­poc needed a boost af­ter 1989, when Van­den­berg Air Force Base, the com­mu­nity’s big­gest em­ployer and cus­tomer, shut down the shut­tle launch pro­gram.

Mu­rals were sug­gested. But the res­i­dents wanted more than a dis­jointed ar­ray of big pic­tures. In­stead, they chose a sin­gle theme: the story of Lom­poc, from its ear­li­est in­hab­i­tants — the Chu­mash In­di­ans — to the present.

Naysay­ers won­dered if a town of 43,400 peo­ple, straddling a rocky shore on a lonely cor­ner of the coast­line, had much to tell. But Lom­poc sur­prised them. Taken to­gether — think of them as a con­tem­po­rary “book of hours” — the mu­rals are as fas­ci­nat­ing as any me­dieval manuscript.

But I’m get­ting ahead of my­self.

On a week­end in town, I met Ken Os­tini, 6-foot-6 and rangy, and pres­i­dent of the Lom­poc Tourism Coun­cil. A tire­less lo­cal his­to­rian, he vol­un­teered to show me around.

“I’m pretty good with a selfguided map, as long as it has street names and num­bers,” I as­sured him when we met in the ho­tel park­ing lot. “I can nav­i­gate this by my­self.”

“No wor­ries, no wor­ries,” he replied, pump­ing my hand. “I al­ways learn some­thing from tour­ing peo­ple around. Lom­poc is home, so show­ing it off keeps me up to date.”

He pointed east, to­ward the val­ley.

“I was born on a farm right out there, next to that hill, so I know most of the folks here,” he said. “Ask all the ques­tions you want. And if there’s some­thing I can’t an­swer, I know who to call.”

I could pic­ture his par­ents’ farm. I’d come that way, north­west from Santa Bar­bara on U.S. High­way 101. Turn­ing off on

State Route 1 was the first sur­prise; no ur­ban sprawl, the bane of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. The high­way, cross­ing the val­ley, wound be­tween open mead­ows, flow­er­ing hedges, stands of white oaks, white farm­houses, neatly hoed veg­etable plots, vine­yards planted in geo­met­ric rows, and all of it framed by the gold-and­green Santa Rita Hills.

Twenty-odd miles later, ap­proach­ing the town, a rain­bow ap­peared over­head. Glit­ter­ing through a misty veil, it shed a glow on the empty lots and dinky re­pair shops that clut­ter the out­skirts of al­most ev­ery small town.

And there was Os­tini, in the Hil­ton Gar­den Inn’s park­ing lot, propos­ing that we start at the South Side Cof­fee Co., a funky Old Town hang­out at the cor­ner of Ocean Av­enue and South H Street. Find­ing a booth, we sat over a latte and stud­ied the mu­ral map, then walked south to the cen­ter of Old Town.

Since wall space be­comes avail­able at dif­fer­ent times, the mu­rals aren’t painted in se­quence. The “Flower In­dus­try,” for in­stance, by artist Art Mor­timer, cel­e­brat­ing the 1960s and ’70s, when Lom­poc’s flower seed busi­ness was the na­tion’s largest, is on one cor­ner, while the mu­ral “Chu­mash In­di­ans,” where the his­tory ac­tu­ally starts, is on an­other.

The La Purisima Mis­sion (“purisima” is one of sev­eral Chu­mash lan­guages), is de­picted twice, and the name of the town, founded in 1884, as a tem­per­ance com­mu­nity, also re­mem­bers its ori­gins: “Lom-poc” is a Chu­mash word for “la­goon,” or “still wa­ter.”

Other mu­rals il­lus­trate pi­o­neer fam­i­lies, the first mayor, first fire chief and first fam­ily to open a gen­eral store. Dis­as­ters are equally sto­ried. In 1909, a wooden barge sank on the rocks at Surf Beach, with two dead, and in 1923, seven U.S. Navy de­stroy­ers ran up on sub­merged rocks at Honda Point, sink­ing and drowning 23, the Navy’s worst peace­time ac­ci­dent.

Other mu­rals honor Lom­poc with vi­brant flow­ers, farms, the Amer­i­can flag, the one-room school­house, civic clubs, the men and women who died in WWII, eth­nic di­ver­sity, mi­grat­ing monarch but­ter­flies, the last Ti­tan rocket tests, and the emer­gence of the wine in­dus­try, in 2005.

“When a new mu­ral is planned, we re­quest bids and choose a painter through a ju­ry­ing process,” said An­der­sen, who man­ages each stage of the project along with a team of vol­un­teers.

“It’s won­der­ful, but it’s hard work, pre­par­ing the site, car­ry­ing lad­ders and scaf­folds, clean­ing and restor­ing older mu­rals, help­ing the painters and rais­ing money,” she said. “It’s ex­pen­sive, and with ev­ery­one so busy nowa­days, vol­un­teers are hard to find.”

End­ing the day at Sissy’s

“When a new mu­ral is planned, we re­quest bids and choose a painter through a ju­ry­ing process.”

Up­town Cafe, (don’t miss this place, the town’s top-rated restau­rant), no­table for Painter John Pugh’s ship, which seems to be crash­ing through the wall, we talked about other tourist at­trac­tions.

I’d no­ticed that Lom­poc has two golf cour­ses. The big­gest draw, said Os­tini, are the vine­yards, which of­fer wine tours and tast­ing rooms. Known for out­stand­ing pinot noirs and chardon­nays, the Rita Hill vine­yards have earned their own AVA wine ap­pel­la­tion.

The next most pop­u­lar is the par­tially re­stored and won­der­fully an­cient La Purisima Mis­sion, which I vis­ited the next morn­ing, join­ing a tour with guide Parker Grand, through the work­shops and the gar­den. Since the 2,000-acre state his­toric park next door has 25 miles of hik­ing trails, the place is al­ways busy.

I loved the back-to-grandma mem­o­ries on the Fabing-McKayS­panne house tour, a re­stored Vic­to­rian prop­erty and black­smith shop, but missed the Lom­poc Mu­seum, now lo­cated in the for­mer Carnegie Li­brary, a 1910 colo­nial re­vival gem.

Next time, I hope.

Though the ocean is right there, sub­merged rocks and fierce cur­rents make swim­ming dan­ger­ous. Ocean Park Beach ad­joins the shal­low, me­an­der­ing Santa Inez River es­tu­ary, and Surf Beach is one of the na­tion’s most dan­ger­ous shark sites. Read the warn­ing signs. Go there to get your feet wet, make sand cas­tles and walk along the shore.

To swim, try Jalama Beach County Park, a sandy beach 19 miles from Lom­poc, off Route 1. I checked out the camp­sites and no­ticed peo­ple surf­ing, sun­ning and beach­comb­ing. The wa­ter can be rough but life­guards are posted in sum­mer.

If I’d planned ahead I could have toured Van­den­berg, on 100,000 rough and rugged coastal acres. The West Coast’s an­swer to Cape Canaveral, Van­den­berg is the launch pad for SpaceX’s Fal­con 9 and sev­eral other com­mer­cial rock­ets. Hot stuff for space wonks, they ar­rive hours early and line up for a park­ing space in the “Hawk’s Nest,” a pub­lic park­ing-and-view­ing area with bath­rooms, five miles di­rectly across from the launch site.

“You wouldn’t think five miles is close enough, but th­ese rock­ets are so huge and loud that the ground rum­bles for miles around,” said Os­tini. “Some peo­ple here watch them from town. It’s a good way to end a week­end, I prom­ise.”

Eliseo Art Silva’s “The Price of Free­dom” pays trib­ute to the men and women who served, fought and died dur­ing the 20th cen­tury’s armed con­flicts. The mu­ral, cre­ated in 2000, is one of many in Lom­poc, Cal­i­for­nia.

Lom­poc is known for its art and a cul­ture that sup­ports cre­ative de­sign in ev­ery form, from mu­rals to cross­walks.

Need ad­vice on what to see? Ask the friendly staff at South Side Cof­fee Co., in Old Town, serv­ing break­fast, lunch and, of course, cof­fee.

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