I think delivery drivers cut their teeth in Valley Center. What better way to test a newbie driver’s mettle than to drop him, unceremoniously, in the outback of the county, in an area with a road system that ties even the best GPS in knots?
The location of my house is one of the knots. Drivers that know us sail in and out just fine, but by the time the new guys finally slide into our driveway, they’re red-faced and fuming. They chuck our packages in the general direction of the front porch and burn rubber. Time is money, and they just flushed a bundle into the land of the lost.
I can’t blame them for their angst. In a place like Valley Center, if you don’t already know where something is, you probably won’t find it.
It’s not that the roads are curvy or hilly or too narrow — which they are — it’s that they are asphalt enigmas, taking you to neighborhoods you never knew were there. Addresses are often poorly marked (I’m being diplomatic). Street signs are obscured by sumac bushes and visible at night only if there’s a full moon and backup from an aerial searchlight.
Picturesque landscapes — the definition of Valley Center — don’t lend themselves to grid patterns and logical numbering systems. Canyons, a geographic staple of VC, are suitable for hiking or an illegal campsite or two, but they inhibit navigation. A number of VC streets terminate when the earth drops off into a hole.
Still, you can wave to someone on the other side of the canyon who’s saying, “Come on over! There’s a road on this side, too! And it has the same name as yours!” Hee haw, too bad you can’t get there from here.
On the other hand, some of the roads lead to nowhere, for no apparent reason and usually after an interminable length. Just when you think something — say, civilization — will meet you right around the bend, you instead come upon a dead end, a testament to the crude but accurate sign you passed a mile and a quarter back. And there, at the terminus, sits a lone house, its lawn (I’m being diplomatic again) overrun with a bunch of barn animals. They pause briefly from chewing, miffed at your rudeness. What? they communicate with a glare. Didn’t you read the sign?
VC has roads that follow no rules, the result of some easement or permission slip or hall pass that was not granted back in the day. There’s one street that simply splits into five directions. You can choose to travel south, north, west, east, or the other east. How the mail carriers around here haven’t gone postal, I don’t know. Valley Center streets criss and cross, chains of S-curves as nauseating as the teacups at Disneyland.
At least the scenery balances the vertigo. In early- or late-afternoon sun, especially after a good rain, Valley Center is beautiful. Hills like herds of giant, sleeping camels blanketed in military green. Lilac, poppies, oaks, and miscellaneous chaparral mix it up with patchwork squares of orchards. I used to take my colicky baby daughter for long, unhurried drives on these roads to rock her to sleep. Sequestered in my car, I could recapture my sanity and chuckle at the chumps turning onto streets I knew would end in the company of barn animals.
I think, in secret, that we are proud of our narrow, forlorn, two-lane cow paths, even as UPS, FedEx, Acme Appliance, and Jehovah’s Witnesses rue the day their route ended up in Valley Center. It’s not for everyone. I once had a hairdresser who, after I described living here, said in breathy amazement, “Oh, I could never live in a place with no sidewalks!”
That’s the crux of it. Unclearly marked roads that don’t have sidewalks (or curbs, and sometimes not even pavement) are part of the Valley Center package. Without the hill and dale, there would be no long and winding. There would only be predictable. Where’s the fun in that?