Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pie in the Sky: San Diego’s Four Season Wonderland

The daffodils were in bloom when I ascended 4,235 feet out of the Anza Borrego Desert into Julian, a historic mining town established in a fertile valley beneath Vulcan Mountain. It was founded by cousins Drue and Mike, two soldiers escaping fallout from post war Dixie, ex slaves, and gold diggers. Long after the decade long gold rush of the 1870’s had subsided and when the orchards then planted had been producing prize apples, the mountain village earned famed for its pies.

No less than seven pie shops and bakeries line the four block main street. Apple, peach, cherry, rhubarb, lemon, chocolate, pecan, pumpkin, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, boysenberry and bumbleberry (a combination of the previous three). Flakey topped, French crumble topped and lattice topped. The aroma of baking pies filled the alpine air as I wandered the streets lined with café’s, inns, gem shops, art galleries, a tea shop and many quaint boutiques with a surprising array of quality wares. I knew it would only be a matter of time until I succumbed.

A walkable Old West Victorian style town in a four season climate located a scenic hour and a half east of San Diego, the stores and inns appear to be doing well in these strained economic times.  When I did turn my purse to pie after doing most of my year’s gift shopping at Mountain Gypsy due to the excellent 25 year anniversary sale I fell upon, I found the infamous Mom’s Pie Shop. It had a line out the door and down the street. “GOOD pie,” everyone said. I guessed so but I don’t “do” lines—part of my whole freedom thing. I went back when everyone else had gone and honestly, having tried their strawberry-rhubarb, cherry lattice top and apple turnover from Mom’s (not, I might add, all in one sitting), it was the apple-raspberry crumble top pie from the Julian Pie Co. that rocked my Sloggers off.  A bit on the sweet side, but hands down the winner of the two.


Julian’s Apple Days Festival, attracting just shy of 50,000 visitors, has been held since 1907 when the town’s apples won the prestigious Wilder Medal, the highest pomological award. This year’s centennial celebration will begin on October 2nd and run through the 3rd. The original festivities included a rooster pull, a gruesome game introduced by Spanish missionaries that involves racing horsemen competing to grab a rooster from a field where it has been buried up to its neck. The terribly aggressive game conducted at top speed often leaves participants with broken bones. You can only imagine what the bird looks like by the end of the game, especially considering once unearthed it’s used as a mallet to whack opponents away while racing towards the finish line. I am hoping the festival’s planning board has omitted this traditional event from the current line-up.

Another event held annually in Julian is the Laguna Mountain Rendezvous, a recreation of a colonial fur traders’ camp. Sounds like loads of fun, no? With hundreds of skinners participating from around the country, the camp becomes a living museum for the weeklong event. Traders Row provides demonstrations of traditional campfire cooking, tool making and weaponry, (including muzzle-loading guns, knives, and oh yeah, tomahawks). The $25 fee includes camping accommodations and participation in all shooting events.

Photo by Emily Wetzel
The tiny town, remarkably, is also home to 13 wineries, some with names such as Hawk Watch, Eagles Nest, Shadow Mountain and Witch Creek. The $90 California Overland Wine Passport buys you a seat on a wine tasting tour into Julian’s hill country, affording stupendous mountain and pastoral views along the way. For those looking for a more interactive experience, there’s a European-style grape stomp held at Menghini Winery in September that draws thousands of participants.

Julian’s Country Christmas is a three week long festival beginning the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Tucked high in the Cuyamaca Mountains, December temperatures become cool and crisp. With apple cider fresh off the presses set to mulling at almost every hearth, the decorated picket fences, lit hedges and narrow streets provides a quaint old fashioned Yuletide experience for what the locals call Snow Bunnies, aka Beach Bums in search of snow within a stones’ throw from the surf.  Carolers wander the Victorian village at sundown throughout the festival season. What more could you want for an ideal holiday shopping experience?

Legends and Lore

Daffodils and sunshine aside, when I returned from the coast a week later in a t-shirt it was to land smack in the middle of a springtime blizzard. I had come back for the history. The Julian Doves and Desperados perform historic reenactments on Sunday afternoons with show times at 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00 PM. Main Street Horse and Carriage Company offers buggy rides to specific historic sites. Ahl’s Photography provides rides in buggies drawn by miniature ponies, which sounds chick-cute but I personally would feel horrible watching the little guys strain to haul me around at a speed I could easily walk. Know what I mean?

The self-guided historic Walking Tour takes you past the original town jail that housed the only indoor toilet for a time. Oddly, it reeks of urine as if that weren't the case. Enthusiasts can participate in the town’s interactive History Hunt while out walking. It involves walking to the sites indicated on the card that’s provided at the information kiosk on the porch of the Town Hall, reading the historic markers and answering questions. Although some of the questions are tricky, having done a few of these self guided walks in my travels, I’ve got to say  between the facts and legends I would think the Chamber could spice it up a bit. For starters, it would have been nice if details had been provided about each historic site on the map itself so that you could read the story of the place while walking towards it. It would have also been nice if restrooms, café’s, restaurants, pubs, ice-cream and pie shops had been highlighted there as well.

Up the hill is an abandoned gold mine that Enthrall Incorporated guides tourists through. Tickets include panning for gold with tap shoe-er host, Celia Lawley. There’s one of those wee trains there as well for the tots. And, every weekend in October, the audience participated comedy infused Melodrama begins, portraying an aspect of the town’s gold rush history.

Cop a Squat

Although well stocked with quaint inns and lodges all with rocker lined porches inviting folks to come on up and sit (read “set”) a while, I find the Pinecrest Retreat and the Observer’s Inn an intriguing option for those looking to stay in the vicinity a few days and who may be open to something eclectic.

Pinecrest houses more than 100 vintage travel trailers in a tree shaded canyon and the Observer’s Inn was obviously designed by serious astro-nerds. Guests are invited to tour the Walk of the Planets, a 600 foot replica of the Milky Way built to scale. It was their advertisement of a Hammock Heaven set beneath a grove of Oak trees, however, that earned them a double take from the likes of me.

I had eaten lunch at Jeremy’s On the Hill coming into town. His Lobster Bisque and Grilled Pineapple and Quinoa Salad were both excellent. Before leaving town that evening, I was drawn up a side street to Romano’s Italian Restaurant housed in the historic Dodge family homestead by the alluring aroma’s of tomatoes, garlic, basil and freshly baking bread. Led to a table in front of a toasty wood stove, I ordered a glass of Quercetto’s Chianti and watched Yellow Breasted Finches peck seeds from a netted stocking bird feeder hanging from the eaves of the porch outside the window. Owned by Stan and Paula, Romano’s offers the traditional dishes as well as some with a more local flare, such as the spicy apple cider sausage and pork loin baked in cinnamon, garlic and whiskey sauce. The butternut squash soup I had was lovely.

The sun was out completely by the time I was finished eating and the snow was beginning to melt off the resilient Daffodils and Lilac buds. It would be a gorgeous sunset coming down off the mountain. I had seen several viewing point turnouts coming up where I could safely pull over to shoot pictures of the vibrant green meadows, rolling hills, curving fence lines, meandering streams, ponds reflecting the snowcapped peaks in the distance, cattle grazing and rafters of wild turkeys roaming through the flowering orchards and vineyards.

Julian is one of those places where shop keepers remember your face. More than the ambiance of the small mountain village or the rich beauty of the surrounding valleys that is so drastically different than that seen throughout the rest of San Diego County; it’s the friendliness of the people who keep me coming back. 

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