El Palo Alto and Portola Expedition

El Palo Alto, seen from north side of creek

This morning I walked from Downtown North to Menlo Park, where I had left my car the night before. Along the way I scrutinized the various monuments and installations around El Palo Alto, the tree for which our fair city is named.

The tree was noted by Portola and his 63 men who traveled from San Diego to here and back, mostly I would think, on horseback. The plaque on the other side of the creek mentions they had 200 horses and mules. It says that they were initially going to recommend siting a mission here but after a subsequent visit during dry season they realized the creek might not have enough water for their purposes and Santa Clara was selected as a better Mission site. The creek became the division between the area administered by the Church and Spain via Mission Dolores of San Francisco and that of the Santa Clara Mission, just as eventually and currently it demarks the line between Palo Alto and Menlo Park, or between Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

The expedition was seeking to find via land the Monterrey Bay but somehow couldn’t accomplish that. Our eventual naming, as Palo Altans, was a serendipitous outcome of that flawed quest.

Although I recognize the name Portola I didn’t realize or hadn’t kept the facts straight in my head since having studied California history in grammar school that the expedition was 1769; the date resonates with me because that same year saw the founding of Dartmouth College, which, like the Missions, sought to convert Indians to Christianity.

Palo Alto as a City of course followed in 1892, after Leland Stanford, his farm and his university. I worked on the Centennial “21st Century Committee” in 1992 and also talk about preparations for our Sesquicentennial, which is creeping up on us, for 2042.

Closer in range, I am wondering what can be done to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Portola. I wonder if anyone is planning to walk or ride horses from here to San Diego, to honor the event. A couple years ago I walked about 15 miles with some Japanese monks who were ceremoniously returning the flame of Nagasaki to the Nevada nuclear testing grounds where it was created.

I noticed also one of the El Camino Bells is located near El Palo Alto thanks to the Pacifica City Council (huh?) and Camino Real California Council (?), as of 2010. I noticed in the basement of Santa Clara University Museum (de Saisset) information about the creation of these bell landmarks circa 1909 or so.

The El Palo Alto plaque was placed by Sons of the Golden West in the 1930s; the same lodge that also resided at 209 Hamilton downtown, a building I like to speak of as a former art studio that was utilized by painter Nathan Oliveira in the 1970s.

Visiting “the HP Garage- Birthplace of Silicon Valley” and El Palo Alto on consecutive days makes me realize, at the very least, that our stories, our histories are probably too complicated to try to explain on plaques.

I never realized until lately that El Palo Alto was a twin-trunked tree for many (800 plus?) years. Shouldn’t we be Los Palos Altos plural therefore? Poking around the vast redwood, I couldn’t quite place where the second trunk was, relative to the boulder, the trestle or the creek.

I caught Caltrain roaring by as I continued by walk.

Caltrain northbound near El Palo Alto

Continuing thru South Menlo Park, I wondered if people in the future will think of the concrete skateboard park as some important landmark. I entered the lobby of the Arrillaga Gym, for the first time, thanks to a clerk there who noticed my sniffing around.

Don’t take this as a pledge, but it would be great to train for a walk or ride from Palo Alto to San Diego, in 2019. Heck, it would be great to train enough to run fulls at Arrillaga.

I’ll try to do a little more reading on Portola and edita as necessary.

I can’t help but adding, perhaps gratuitously, although perhaps also lyrically, one of my favorite little factoids about our local history, and the Portola era; Alameda De Las Pulgas translates to “avenue of the fleas” because there was a resting spot between San Francisco and Santa Clara, a bit north of El Palo Alto that those travelers would frequent although it had an infestation of fleas. Myself not particularly fond of fleas but have nice memories of eating at Jesse Ziff Cool’s Flea Street Cafe before prom, with about five other couples, in spring, 1982.

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About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player; he also sang in local choir, and fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32
This entry was posted in history and legacy, influences and inspirations, media coverage, Public Art and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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