A few years back, from the tops of several hills in Valley Center, one could see the Pacific Ocean some 20 miles away in the west. If it were clear, Mt. Palomar would be visible to the northeast, each ridge looking like the finger of a giant’s hand buried under the mountain. The surrounding hills in this high-chaparral ecosystem were a dusty green color much of the year. The coloring was a subtle combination of sage, oaks, manzanita, some less prominent plants, and gray, lichen-covered boulders. Eventually the rains would come, washing the flora on the hills into a darker green, making the brush look deceptively plush and soft.
As I looked out on this scene as a child almost two decades ago, I looked hard among the hills, hoping to see Indians or wild animals. At that time, deer moved throughout the area in herds numbering as many as 15, bobcats menaced ranchers, and golden eagles would glide over valleys to their aeries on a remote ridge.
Today, climbing these hills to a valley some 1300 feet above sea level reveals few of these sights. The hills around Valley Center are either the dark green of well-watered avocados or are striped with rows of new trees terraced up the hillside. A home in one of these groves has a private feeling. Being hidden from the eyes of the world, but still having the room to expose one’s self to the earth and sky — that’s the attractive feature of the homes in this “unspoiled” area. Although the orchestration of plants into rows isn’t nature’s way, growing food is compatible with the countryside in a way housing developments aren’t.
But even this tenuous connection to nature is being threatened, ironically, by nature herself. Weather changes have brought increased rainfall to Southern California. This has been great for the trees, which vividly respond to rain, but bad for the Metropolitan Water District, which can’t sell as much water as it had anticipated. The result will be an increase in pumping costs that will make its way to the Valley Center Municipal Water District. As it is, increasing water bills have forced some landowners to stop growing fruit and start trying to turn their land into mobile home estates, a fancy term for trailer parks. Unless a grower has a well, he’s in for a rough time. As one local citrus grower says, “Next year we’ll be growing houses instead of avocados.”
I’ve wanted to make acorn mush since Mrs. Johnson took her kindergarten class over to some boulders in an area now known as Adams Park. Underneath some large oaks lie the boulders with holes worn into them. According to Mrs. Johnson, these holes were made by Indians as they ground acorns into meal for their mush.
The park is a quarter mile or so from the intersection of Valley Center Road and Cole Grade Road, the center of activity in Valley Center, but the Indians have since disappeared into a canyon along the northeastern edge of town. Through this canyon runs what’s left of the San Luis Rey River, where most of the Luiseño Indians lived. Those who weren’t already settled there were moved into the area shortly after California was opened up to claim-staking after the Mexican-American war.
The Euro-Americans took the Indians and the land by surprise. Being somewhat nomadic, these Indians found the idea of land ownership frivolous: “We don’t own the land, the land owns us.” Well, I guess we showed them. The Indian now, like the white man, has his own land, but it certainly isn’t his land by choice.
Spaniards came to what is known as Pala, five miles north of Valley Center, with plans for building a mission to introduce the gospel to the Indians. Whatever else the two cultures shared, the mission appears to be one of the most enduring contributions. Since 1816 the mission has held a fiesta, which has brought people together for one of the biggest events in North County. The music, brightly dressed dancers, aromas of food cooking, flowing wine, bullfights, and horse races created a scene of old California that would live in the memory of Abel Davis with Governor Pio Pico himself as the main character. As Davis mentions in his memoirs (entitled Valley Center), one day around 1883 he was admiring Pico’s horse at the fiesta at the Pala mission. He was stroking the bay’s shoulder when the governor himself walked up and complimented the young Davis on his “fine hand for horses.” At this time, a local gentleman named Louis Wolfe proposed a race between the bay and a gray he had brought back from Kentucky just to race Pico, who suggested a wager of ten head of cattle. Wolfe agreed and Davis took a place right beside the finish line, where a crowd was gathering. As the horses started, it looked as if the gray had the jump, but the bay was soon running side by side with the gray down the stretch. It was a good match, and by the time they crossed the finish line, Davis was sure the race had ended in a dead heat. The judge had a different opinion, though, and decided in favor of Wolfe. At this, Pico just laughed, congratulated the victor, and told him to come pick up his winnings any time and they’d have a fiesta of their own.
Although Pio Pico attempted to ensure that the Mexican land grants would be honored in the peace treaty negotiations in the 1840s, few of the many Mexican descendants living in California today own land. Most of them are laborers. The conditions in which these men and women live is something less than lower class by U.S. standards. Many of the workers live in shacks or little more than a windbreak. No electricity, no trash service, no septic tanks, but they are usually able to get access to a faucet at the end of a row of trees in the grove. The last week of November, the body of an illegal alien was found near the Valley Center grade. The sheriff’s blotter in a local paper reported that the cause of death was probably a drug overdose; the word in the grove is that the Mexican died of exposure.