'Roughing it' at Ft. Hunter Liggett
"This is a unique destination where you are allowed on a military post, visit [one] of the 21 missions and stay overnight at Hearst's private lodge," says reader Lloyd van Horsen of Santa Barbara, in recommending Ft. Hunter Liggett.

THE SETTING

Ft. Hunter Liggett, the Army's main reserve training center in the West, occupies more than 165,000 acresof remote scrubland, oak-studded hills and mountains in Central California. King City, the nearest town, is about 20 miles away.

Besides military maneuvers, munitions, Humvees and other hardware, the post is home to the lovingly restored 1771 Mission San Antonio de Padua and an imposing hacienda designed in 1929 by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan for the late publishing baron.

THE VIBE

Decidedly eclectic: Mission-era California meets Desert Storm meets "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

When your head stops spinning, consider this: Where else can you overnight at a Spanish mission or a junior-sized Hearst Castle, hoist a glass with Army troops and soak up more than two centuries of California history?

Don't expect to be pampered. Bring a sense of adventure and a well-stocked cooler. (I'll explain later.)

"If you see a poisonous snake -- stay away -- and notify the gift shop clerk, please."

This genteel notice, posted outside the mission, said a lot about where my friend Wendy and I found ourselves after a 280-mile drive from Los Angeles.

So did this sign, posted a few miles up the road: "DANGER: Live firing area. Unexploded (dud) shells. KEEP OUT."

After flashing IDs and being waved through the checkpoint at the fort, 22 miles west of U.S. 101 on Jolon Road, we bid goodbye to the comforts and certainties of civilian life.

But we soon found helpful people and intriguing places.

OVERALL

Take the mission, six miles past the fort's entrance. Father Dominic Castro, resident priest of this small, still-active parish in the Diocese of Monterey, and Joan Steele, director of religious education, greeted us like old friends when we pulled up on a Friday night.

San Antonio, the third of 21 California missions founded by early Spanish padres, stands out for its remote location, extensively excavated grounds and vaulted-ceiling church, which retains its original 1813 burned-brick facade and bronze campanile bell. The courtyard is lovely.

Wandering the well-signed surroundings was a mini-course in mission life. Among the remains were an 1820s well; an aqueduct that once stretched for three miles; a mill house with grinding stone; and foundations of soldiers' quarters, a tannery and shops where local Salinan Indians fabricated roof tiles.

Just watch your step.

"We've killed a few rattlesnakes inside the Indian cemetery walls," Steele said.