By Jeffery R. Werner
July 21, 1975 12:00 PM

Peter Ambrose was looking at an old encyclopedia picture when the idea struck him: it said, in effect, Peter, get your ass in gear. And so the 19-year-old Californian saddled up his pet mule, Holly, and began to walk the length of the state.

That was in May. His purpose was to duplicate the 900-mile expedition undertaken in 1769 by the historic Franciscan friar, Junipero Serra, to set up a network of missions.

Funds for the trip came from 19 merchants in Peter’s hometown of Santa Cruz. Along the way, he is soliciting funds for the Santa Cruz Association for the Retarded, for which he worked last summer.

“With the Bicentennial so near,” Ambrose explains, “I decided it was time to focus more attention on California. And,” he adds proudly, “I’m finally doing something on my own without my parents’ help.”

From the start, however, Ambrose’s sense of direction proved less clear than that of his inspired predecessor. Wearing an uncomfortably hot copy of the padre’s rough wool habit, Ambrose started his trek at San Diego Mission (the southernmost of the nine missions Serra founded). “The first day out we nearly died,” recalls Ambrose. Boasting that he would walk 25 miles a day, Ambrose did six. In the town of Whittier he made two wrong turns and trudged 15 miles out of the way before reaching San Gabriel nine miles outside of Los Angeles, his second mission stop. The mission’s associate pastor, Father Joe Anllim, observed, “If Serra had made that many wrong turns, Los Angeles would be located in the California desert.”

By law Ambrose and Holly must stay off freeways; by choice Ambrose refuses rides, money and motel rooms. He accepts handouts of food. “People are always stopping me and asking me if I need something,” says Ambrose. On the road Ambrose sleeps under the stars or at Catholic churches, stables and missions. In San Clemente, he bedded down one night in the jail—as a guest.

While Ambrose’s speed is increasing—one day he managed 38 miles—so are his vexations. He has taken to wearing pajamas to avoid chafing from the robe and is suffering from blistered hands and feet. Holly has embarrassed him on occasion by using parked cars and pedestrians’ legs as a bathroom.

Ambrose swears he will reach his final destination—the mission at Sonoma, 30 miles north of San Francisco—by the end of August, “if I have to carry Holly the last 100 miles.”

He may well have to. The over 100° July temperatures are melting the asphalt, causing his and Holly’s feet to sink into the pavement. Worse yet, Holly herself is now in heat. “It’s just terrible,” moans Ambrose. “If this keeps up, she’ll start running after Volkswagens.”