If the apocalypse comes to California, I’ll be ready. I’ve been to San Juan Bautista.
I visited the San Benito County town again this summer, when Armageddon seems closer than ever. North Korean missiles can reach California. The American president has the nuclear codes and no impulse control. State-sized icebergs are breaking off Antarctica.
In California, this moment seems especially apocalyptic. Our governor thunders that climate change will make the planet uninhabitable soon. Fires from Yosemite to Modoc rage with scary power. Even if we somehow survive such apocalypses, Elon Musk says robots will just inherit the world anyway.
‘The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, / The sun forbear to shine; / But God, who called me here below, / Will be forever mine.’
In such times, tiny San Juan Bautista – with fewer than 2,000 people, off the 101 between Gilroy and Salinas – might seem like an escape. But no California place is more haunted by visions of apocalypse – historically, seismically, cinematically.
Armageddon and the town come together in the most famous local structure, the Mission San Juan Bautista, the 15th of California’s 21 missions. It was the largest mission and became a movie legend as the setting of the most terrifying scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
At the mission, I walked into the Guadalupe Chapel, where Father Alberto Cabrera was saying Mass and singing all the verses of “Amazing Grace,” including: “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow / The sun forbear to shine / But God, who called me here below / Will be forever mine.”
The hymn put me in mind of the apocalyptic story of California’s Indians. The mission period saw a decline in the state’s native population from 300,000 to 250,000; the population collapsed further after the U.S. conquest, from 150,000 in 1850 to 30,000 a quarter-century later.
This history feels alive in San Juan Bautista. Local tribes raised the topic so consistently that Monterey Bishop Richard Garcia gave a Mass at the mission in 2012, asking for forgiveness for the sins committed against Native Americans in California. Less than a half-mile from the mission, El Teatro Campesino has built a national reputation with diverse works, some of which look back at Mission Indians.
For all the weight of past apocalypses, looming destructions are plainly visible at San Juan Bautista. After walking through the mission cemetery, I encountered a U.S. Geological Survey marker noting what lies beneath the mission: the San Andreas Fault. For more than 200 years, the fault has damaged parts of the mission. A major retrofit is being planned for next year, but can the mission survive another 200 years?
From the fault, I walked across the grassy plaza, which Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak run across twice in “Vertigo.” Those scenes end with a different blond woman seemingly falling to her death from the mission tower.
The tower in the movie was a special effect (San Juan Bautista didn’t have one in 1957), but those cinematic falls made “Vertigo” a document for contemplating the fall of humanity. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, a French philosopher who teaches at Stanford and is close to Gov. Jerry Brown, has written that the movie inspired his own career as “an enlightened doomsayer” who developed “a metaphysics of the age of catastrophe.”
Dupuy devotes the epilogue of his masterful book, “The Mark of The Sacred,” to “Vertigo’s” plot, especially how Stewart’s character only realizes he’s deceiving himself after it’s too late. In this, Dupuy sees humanity’s failure to recognize how close we are to the apocalypse.
The apocalypse, Dupuy writes, is nothing like death. The apocalypse threatens the horror of nothingness. If humanity ends, it will be as if all the people who came before had never existed.
To save ourselves, Dupuy argues, we must embrace the apocalypse and stare into the abyss, until we recognize the danger and act.
So, please, visit the apocalypse as soon as possible. San Juan Bautista is nigh.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.