Get Out There! (November 2002)

While you’re in San Diego for the FFRF 2002 convention Nov. 22-24, plan to stay a few extra days and make a vacation of it. There’s so much to do and see, you’ll regret it if you don’t. Any local can recite the weather report: Night and morning low clouds, lows in the high 50s, highs in the low 70s. It does get cool in the evening, so bring some warm clothes if you’re going to be out at night.

We call it “America’s Finest City.” From the mountains around Alpine, to the deserts of Borrego, to the sandy beaches and rocky cliffs on the coastline, San Diego County is home to over 3 million. Covering 4200 square miles, it is the fourth largest county in the country and possibly the most diverse climatically, geographically, and ethnically.

The City of San Diego, seventh largest in the United States, has a population of about 1.2 million, and draws its name from San Diego de Alcala, a designation credited to Spaniard Don Sebastian Vizcaino, who sailed into what is now San Diego Bay on November 12, 1603. He renamed it in honor of his flagship and, it is said, his favorite saint. The site was actually discovered 61 years earlier by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who had named it San Miguel.

The area’s rich religious history is reflected in the missions. Father Junipero Serra, Father-Presidente of the Mission Chain, founded Mission San Diego de Alcala on July 16, 1769. It was the first mission in the 21-mission chain in Alta California and was known as the “Mother of the Alta California Missions.” Most of California’s mission chain was constructed with the slave labor of the indigenous peoples under the guise of “bringing unto them the teachings of Jesus.” It’s quite interesting to tour the missions and see for yourself the revisionist history that paints Native Americans as godless savages who welcomed the conquering padres and their “security forces,” willingly accepting the “gift” of Catholicism.

One of the finest missions, San Juan Capistrano, is actually not in San Diego, but only about a 90-minute train ride away, and only a few blocks from the train station. This mission, more fort than church, was also built largely with slave labor. However, about a year after its completion, it collapsed during a Sunday service killing about 60 worshippers. Score one for the Red Man! Currently the mission is being rebuilt and restored.

Today many of the tribes who were almost decimated by the end of the 1700s run casinos and are doing quite well. Indian gaming: Winning our land back one hand at a time.

For more local history, check out Old Town. The original San Diego settlement has been nicely restored featuring museums, shops and restaurants.

San Diego’s beachfront communities are as varied as the population. La Jolla (“the Jewel”) is one of the more affluent places in the country. Head down La Jolla Shores Drive for a look at the fabulous beaches and parks or stroll along Girard Avenue for a self-guided tour of the trendiest of the trendy. This is where the beautiful people hang out. Don’t be surprised to see cars costing more than your last three houses.

Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are serious party towns. Nightclubs, restaurants and dive bars line the streets and some open directly onto the beach. To enjoy this area you do need to know how to speak Southern Californian. It’s not hard really; a little Spanish so you can order a fish taco without embarrassing yourself, say “like” every few words, and understand the basic inflections of the word “dude.” A word of caution: In California, it is illegal to smoke in a bar, and in many parks and beaches alcohol is prohibited.

Take a trip back to the 60’s and visit Ocean Beach. This is a place where filing a permit to build a Starbucks is considered an incitement to riot and Harleys are staple transportation. It’s home to the longest public pier on the west coast, stretching a third of a mile out into the Pacific.

Whether you like bird-watching or jet-skiing, Mission Bay Park offers the largest natural tourist attraction in Southern California. The Park has six major hotels, many restaurants, eleven marinas, specialty shops, sportsfishing, and the world-famous aquatic park, Sea World. Consisting of 4,600 acres (approximately half land and half water) Mission Bay boasts 27 miles of shoreline, 19 of which are sandy beaches with eight locations designated as official swimming areas. In addition, Mission Bay Park provides areas for almost all types of water activities and park recreation including fishing, boating, water skiing, sailing, volleyball, softball, beach fires, horseshoes, kite-flying, and many more. Sea World is expensive, but well worth it. If you go plan to spend the whole day.

Balboa Park, covering 1,400 acres, once called simply City Park, has been host to one unofficial expo in 1915, one official world expo in 1935, houses 14 museums and art galleries, four theaters, a pipe organ and one spectacular zoo. The museums include Natural History, Botanical Gardens, The San Diego Historical Society, Aerospace and Aviation, Museum of Man, Art, Sports, Model Railroad, Automotive, and Photographic Arts. The Zoo is simply one of the best anywhere and just last year hosted the birth of a panda.

The Organ Pavilion was built and donated to the city in 1915 for the opening of the Panama-California Exposition. It is one of the largest pipe organs in the world with over 4500 pipes. Free public concerts are provided every Sunday afternoon year-round. The Park itself is a stunning array of natural canyons offset by meticulously maintained gardens and sculpted buildings with pools, fountains and all manner of street performers.

One of the best ways to see San Diego is from the water, so a harbor cruise is just the ticket. You’ll get a look at your tax dollars in the form of aircraft carriers and submarines; roughly twelve percent of San Diego’s population is active duty military. Sail under the Coronado Bay Bridge, which spans over two miles and is high enough to allow an empty aircraft carrier to pass.

The convention hotel is in the heart of downtown adjacent to one of the more entertaining shopping malls. Called Horton Plaza, locals believe it was jointly designed by M. C. Escher and Rod Serling. In addition to a distinct “you can’t get there from here” sensation in the mall, the parking garage is a double helix so you can literally find yourself in the unenviable position of being able to see your car but not get to it.

The hotel is also in the “Gaslamp Quarter,” which is an eight square block area of downtown with a mind-numbing assortment of nightclubs and restaurants. There’s only one to avoid, Roger’s On Fifth, which is owned by San Diego’s own rightwing radio talk show host who, if he had his way, might like to make failure to be Christian a capital offense. You may also want to stay out of Dobson’s. It’s a lawyer bar so if you’re not dressed for court, you’ll just feel very out of place.

We have two crosses on mountaintops; San Diego is also home to the Institute for Creation Research and white supremist Tom Metzger. The new Mormon Temple is such a gaudy piece of steeple architecture that non-Mormons call it “Rockets to God.” But by and large San Diego is a great place to live, work and play. It’s even more fun to visit, so come and play tourist before and after the convention. Space doesn’t permit more than just a hint of the sights, experiences and activities available, so you’ll have to show up and see for yourself. As the phrase that is rapidly becoming the California state motto implores, “Get Out There!”

Steve Trunk comes from a Southern Baptist and Anglican/Catholic background. Despite years of religious education in the US and Britain, Trunk became an atheist in his early teens. He served in Vietnam with the US Navy.

Freedom From Religion Foundation