LOMPOC, Calif. -- I thought I'd seen everything.
Then I discovered a remarkable collection of the world's oldest pictorial art hiding out in Lompoc, a modest hamlet perched on the wave-dashed coast of California, north of Santa Barbara.
Murals are what I mean, 36 huge paintings on the walls in the Old Town district, an art whose origins reach back 35,000 years -- or more -- to figures drawn on cave walls in Europe and elsewhere.
The who and why of cave art remains a mystery. But not in Lompoc, where the now-famous mural project was launched with a purpose, to revitalize the historic center and attract more tourists.
According to Vicki Andersen, administrator of the Lompoc Mural Society and a painter in her own right, Lompoc needed a boost after 1989, when Vandenberg Air Force Base, the community's biggest employer and customer, shut down the shuttle launch program.
Murals were suggested. But the residents wanted more than a disjointed array of big pictures. Instead, they chose a single theme: the story of Lompoc, from its earliest inhabitants -- the Chumash Indians -- to the present.
Naysayers wondered if a town of 43,400 people, straddling a rocky shore on a lonely corner of the coastline, had much to tell. But Lompoc surprised them. Taken together -- think of them as a contemporary "book of hours" -- the murals are as fascinating as any medieval manuscript.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The solution was obvious. A weekend in town, where I met Ken Ostini, 6-foot-6 and rangy, and president of the Lompoc Tourism Council. A tireless local historian, he volunteered to show me around.
"I'm pretty good with a self-guided map, as long as it has street names and numbers," I assured him when we met in the hotel parking lot. "I can navigate this by myself."