Having lived in San Diego since 1980, one would think that I would have long ago gravitated to residence in the northern portion of the county. It seems, by consensus, to be more generally livable an area than other locations in a county (I have recently heard, but not confirmed this) that is roughly equal in size to the entire state of Connecticut. Surely this can’t be, and maybe it isn’t, but I do not reject the notion out of hand, especially when the phrase “North County” follows the idea.
The dreams North County inspires are not limited to novelists or even real estate developers but abide in the hearts of the residents of Carlsbad, Oceanside, Vista, Escondido, and San Marcos, to name some of what is included in the two-word phrase. “People who own horses gravitate here,” said one resident of San Marcos, “or people who think about owning horses.”
Not long after moving to this province from New York, I began research on a novel that would be published in 1987. The setting stretched from Tijuana to climactic scenes set in a fictional North County San Diego that, like Africa in the 19th Century, seemed a place so vast that anything might happen there and no one could say for sure it had not. The years and familiarity have rendered this fancy less realistic, though I’m glad it was not before I committed the fantasy, more or less convincingly, I believe, to the page.
Though I am more urban by nature, this northern part of the county struck me happily, back in 1983, as the Wild West if not darkest Africa. And so I set a contemporary and epically scaled gunfight at the O.K. Corral in an unnamed area the novel references only as being within view (from high ground) of the Lake Henshaw basin. Were I to set the same action (describing a small war) in the 21st Century, I wonder if it would fly unquestioned, for one of the accelerating (and more abiding by the day) bywords of this extreme southwestern corner of the country is development. The freeways, the condos, the malls. Everywhere, in fact, one looks, and from wherever one stands this is likely to be evident if not intrusive.
A phenomenon recently observed by the local press (out of Carlsbad), and the national press as well, says much about the durability of the dream in the northern reaches of San Diego’s territory. In a January 18, 2008 edition of Today’s Local News, a prominent regional paper, Steve Mihailovich writes, “Slow Moving: While People Continue to Leave California, North County Residents Stay Put.”
The article reads, “More residents are leaving California than moving in, according to a 2007 residential migration study by United Van Lines.
“…One local moving agent said outbound residential moves from the county in 2007 were down a full 20 percent from 2006. Of those who left, most were from the south and east parts of the county, while North County remained fairly stable…”
If anything, movers have noted, many of those who have moved out of North County San Diego to Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, or Tennessee (among the top destinations for those headed out) have, in fact, moved back. Mihailovich quotes real estate agent Annamarie Dawber: “I had a couple who returned after living in Memphis. They complained about the mosquitoes and the mugginess. They said, ‘Let’s be honest; once you see Graceland, there’s not much to do.”
Tourist destinations are likely far less of a priority in North San Diego County — though to north and south, both SeaWorld and the zoo or, say, Disneyland in Orange County, are within a painless drive. Legoland is right there, of course. Much of North County is, in fact, a long-term tourist destination. That is, an area of the continental U.S. where immigrants, largely having sampled other attempts at long-term residency, have set aside serial homesteading, ultimately a kind of tourism, in favor of a soberly considered “life destination.”
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Evelyn Crowell moved to Vista, California, in 1995 from the Mission Hills/Hillcrest area. Crowell looks back fondly at more urban days but not terribly often. She writes:
“Road kill count on the Creek Road this morning — one black-and-white spaniel, one possum, and one baby raccoon. The spaniel had just ate it, its blood was still bright red and oozing, I wonder if that really loud, really fast car that was squealing around the hairpin curves was the deus ex machina for the little guy’s soul. Last week, I was almost road kill myself when just as I was coming to the turn after the spanking-new, not graffitied yet, Sprinter station when a blue bullet came hurtling toward me, with a crazed man at the wheel, smoke and dirt rose after him, he nearly went into Buena Creek, laying rubber and careening back and forth, then he just avoided hitting me head-on and hit the gas right into a white pickup. Hit him head-on with a heartrending crash. The white pickup was fine.
“Think this is bad? This is nothing!
“Years ago I lived on Curlew Street, a canyon street right on the border between Hillcrest just a hair into Mission Hills. My 101-year-old house, really a Craftsman with asbestos shingles hiding its brown beauty, had a cement block right in front of it; I wondered why when I first moved in. But not for long. About once a week, one after another drunk missed the curve and took on the cement block, or a parked car or trash cans — these drunks were not discriminating.
“The most spectacular of the crashes wasn’t at night at all but in the middle of the day. An elderly lady in a big land-shark of a car lost control at the curve and air-planed right into the little front patch of grass and flowers, which was sunken from the road. She sat there until our tenants, two nurses, gave her first aid, while I called the cops. The car was totaled, she was fine; luckily, [considering] the sherry she had obviously drunk in excess at lunch, she didn’t have a scratch on her. The street gods were kind.