Friday, February 03, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant

Consider the innocent sidewalk outside of your front door. In an old-timey gridded neighborhoods like mine, cement plates wrinkled by years of rain, renovation and slowly expanding tree roots draw a giant tic-tac-toe field over the urban landscape – a beautifully decaying, green-and-gray portrait of nature versus rationality.

In most parts of San Diego, the concrete – having far outgrown sidewalk status – is newer, harder, more successful. It doesn’t submit to the trees; it erases them. This land – the infinity of indefatigable gray expanse of the urban – is where we spend most of our lives. Even if you don’t live in the city, chances are you work in it (and where do you think most of your hours go?)

So when the weekend hours hit, nature beckons alone. Forget surfing: the routine of the week demands more than a dip when a window of freedom opens. The wonderful part about California – and especially about San Diego – is that a two-hour drive can get you to a place that looks and feels entirely different.

So go past Ramona, with its cowtown feel and curious crannies, and Highway 78 takes you up, over and down into a long valley where it meets Highway 79 at a place called Santa Ysabel. The town consists solely of a few old-looking buildings and a gas station arranged around the intersection.

Outside of Sherrill Orchards, a red barn of an antique shop next to the truly ancient Santa Ysabel General Store, sits a McCormick-Deering tractor that hasn’t been used in what looks like a long while. The rubber that remains of its tires sags down to the ground, having probably been flat since I was born. Whatever color the machine may once have been painted, its hue today is decidedly rust – but really the artifact is a testament to the insufficiency of that description. On the hood the oxidation is especially dark, almost black; along the sides it’s a usual light orange. The tractor’s quite a steal at only $2,250 – “as is,” the price tag absurdly specifies.

That’s the kind of rural charm you get in the mountain villages east of San Diego.

Santa Ysabel, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it mix of food outposts (including the ineffable Dudley’s Bakery) and antique sellers, makes up a charmingly mellow stone in this gorgeous higher-elevation setting. Towns that consist of merely a single intersection are not uncommon in other parts of the county, but forty minutes from San Diego, they appear impossibly optimistic – and oddly endowed. After a week in our asphalt fray, a little emptiness goes a long way.

In the valley surrounding the town lays a vast pasture of natural grass, where traffic jams of wild turkeys squabble and dart awkwardly under fences and around scrubby bushes. The locals must not look twice, but for this city slicker, any genuine herd of beasts deserves a few gasps, and probably even a digital snapshot. Set against the lucid bright of a crisp January Saturday, it’s enough to make you want to move to the country.

Up Highway 78 a little farther sits the centerpiece of the hill country retreats. Only a cluster of buildings perched on a rugged hillside, the village of Julian is a quaint antithesis of urbanity. Well, OK: the main drag does have sidewalks.

You get the point of the place about 10 seconds after surveying the selection of curiously similar businesses that occupy most of the Old West storefronts: restaurants. Food and candy shops. Saloons. Restaurants. Jewelers. Random gift shops. And – restaurants. Any and all of which may have a sign advertising the best apple pie in town. (You can’t blame them: apples are the chief export, Julian’s claim to fame.)

Although the vitality of Julian depends almost by definition on tourism, you can get a pretty good feel for the place without even yanking on your billfold. The Julian Cider Mill has free samples of their cider concoctions and a bunch of other yummy munchies they sell under their own label. And what makes the area such an attractive day trip is that once you’re there, it’s hard to believe you woke up in an environment so radically different. The only reminders of your proximity to a vast metropolis are the boisterous Porsches and Audis careening around the tight corners of Highway 78, happily breathing in the empty roads and mountain air. Even those are rare: it’s pickups – bomb or busted – that rule these roads, if only by the might of their grille.

But best of all, that passport o’ pavement doesn’t get you very far up here. The vast troughs, plains and mountains of cement, concrete and blacktop that seal off living nature from the theater of daily life are nowhere to be found, replaced instead by living, breathing troughs, plains and mountains. When they wind blows, they move with it. When the seasons change, they change with it.

Somehow, not all the world is yet paved. Of this we San Diegans are lucky to have such a nearby reminder.

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