Backcountry memories

Julian The news on the home page of SignOn San Diego was grim this morning: “Julian Under Siege.”

I grew up charmed by Julian. We made nearly annual trips to the mountains. For a kid growing up in sun-drenched San Diego, a winter trip into the Laguna and Cuyamaca mountains was a Megellian adventure. There were big trees, interesting rocks and animals and funky old buildings scattered in the hills, and there was snow.

I grew up thinking Julian was a magical place. They once dug gold there. And it was the place to go to get apple pie that would make your tongue want to dance a jig. The old buildings clinging to that mountainside inspired dreams of how life was when there were no cars, only horses and a trip to San Diego took hours instead of minutes.

In the first year of our marriage, Billie and I stayed at a beautiful bed and breakfast called the Julian White House. There was snow on the ground, and our room was warm, cozy and an enclave against whatever troubles I left behind.

Not long after, we stayed at friends cabin on the other side of town. We had the place to ourselves. It was another weekend of romance and friendship, while we enjoyed the view over the tree tops into town. There is nothing like seeing the sun set over San Diego County from up in the mountains.

Both Billie and I covered what us East County reporters called the “backcountry.” The backcountry is filled with colorful people, as fiercely independent as they are devoted to the beauty around them. The backcountry is spotted with funky little restaurants and gift shops. I did a story for the Union-Tribune once about the backcountry eateries. The research for that story was one of the most entertaining jobs I’ve done.

I wonder how many of those restaurants have survived the fires?

There was Tom’s Chicken Shack. Best fried chicken in the county. And the building was haunted, too boot. Tom’s old partner, who survived World War II, was killed in a car accident around the time the restaurant opened (1945, I think). That’s one place I particular miss, and would hate to see destroyed.

Down the mountain a bit, and toward the border is a little place called Barrett Lake Junction, and there you’ll find the Barrett Lake Cafe. There isn’t (or wasn’t, maybe) a better fish fry in Southern California. The funky quonset hut, with it’s beer posters on every wall, and barrack-like seating, was a favorite of my grandfather’s. Me, too.

I know Cuyamaca is gone. Wiped off the map in a single night after more than a hundred years of ornery liberation from what urbanites might call civilization.

There was also a Boy Scout camp near Cuyamaca. I camped there twice. On another Boy Scout trip to Laguna, we rode the original snowboard — a surfboard with the tail removed. We were able to pack six pre-teens on that board. I’ve never slid down a mountain faster.

And there were also the school camping trips — sixth-grade camp, eighth-grade camp, and camping with the DeMolays.

It’s particularly bitter sweet to remember the DeMolay trip. Back then, I was sweet on a girl who was tender and gentle and as natural as the grass in the meadows. We spent a lot of time together on that trip. I let her wear my straw cowboy hat. We spent some time together after that trip, but never got past the phase of being sweet on each other. About 10 years ago, her estranged husband hunted her down at a Lucky Supermarket in Spring Valley and shot her dead. He killed her dad, as well. I didn’t even find out until my 20-year high school reunion. Her bother, who was in my class and in DeMolay also, told me.

So there’s a lot of memories wrapped up in San Diego’s backcountry.

I will go to bed tonight saddened by the loses in the backcountry, and I will pray for Julian, and the safety of all the people who call the backcountry home, and the people risking their lives to save what is left on San Diego’s backyard garden.

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