“Remember the big barbecue after the Laguna Fire?”
I took my children on a trip to my past. Friday after Thanksgiving, I herded Rebecca, Angela, Johnny, and Ben into our van. Lucy, who had awakened with a fever, stayed at home with my husband Jack. As we drove away from our home in San Marcos a little after 10, Rebecca asked from the far backseat, “Where exactly is Pine Valley?”
“It’s on the other side of the mountains,” I answered over the country music playing on the radio.
“Is it as far as Mammoth?” Angela continued the interrogation.
“No. We should be there in a couple hours. Remember, it took us all day to drive to Mammoth last summer.”
“Are we going to Mammoth?” Johnny, who is four, piped up from the middle seat he shares with Ben
“No, we’re going to Pine Valley,” I said. “Is it far away?” Johnny asked.
“Not too far.”
I lived in Pine Valley from the time I was three months old until the month after my 12th birthday. From 1962 to 1974, I lived with my parents, my two brothers, and one sister in a little brown house on Pine Boulevard. No one in Pine Valley had a street address, just a PO box. If someone were coming over to our house, my mother would tell the person, “Turn left off Highway 8 at Pine Boulevard. We’re the second house on the left just past the big dip in the road beyond the Tondros place.”
Friday after Thanksgiving, I followed the 78 up out of the San Pasqual Valley into Ramona. “Is this Pine Valley?” Angela asked as we headed east on 79 past feed stores and rustic cafés.
“No. We still have a ways to go.”
After another hour and a half driving through Julian and Cuyamaca and Descanso, we dropped down into Pine Valley on Old Highway 8. As the van’s wheels beat out a ka-thunk, ka-thunk on the patched concrete, the valley opened up on our left. An uneven line of cottonwoods, their leaves gone golden in the late November chill, marked the creek that runs through the meadow. “You can almost see my old house,” I told the kids and pointed past an equestrian center that has sprung up where only open grass used to be.
“Will we get to see your old house?” Rebecca asked.
“Yes. But first we’re going to have lunch with Aunt Anita.” My sister Anita, visiting from Mammoth, had suggested we meet in Pine Valley.
I drove past the Pine Valley Park, past the old Dairy Queen and Cecil Proffer’s store, and steered the van left into the parking lot of Major’s Café. Anita waved to us and pointed to an empty spot. The kids jumped out and hugged Anita. “I’m starving,” Angela said.
“Me, too,” Anita agreed.
We lunched on burgers and fries. Johnny had a pancake. Ben splashed me with root beer and kept pointing to the gumball machine and asking, “Have a gumball?”
“After lunch, buddy,” I told him again and again, “you can have a gumball.”
After lunch and gumballs, we walked to the park. Great gray and white clouds scudded over the Laguna Mountains to the east. A cool wind blew off the meadow. In between the clouds, big patches of blue showed through. When I tousled Johnny’s chestnut brown hair, it felt warm from the sun. Rebecca and Angela chose swings and pumped back and forth against the wind. Johnny and Ben ran to the high, metal slide and took turns climbing up and swooshing down.
Anita and I watched the kids and remembered picnics in the park when we were young. “Remember the big barbecue after the Laguna Fire?” Anita asked.
“Yep,” I told her. “They cooked all the meat that had thawed in the freezer in Cecil’s store while the power was out.”
We remembered Easter egg hunts and favorite park rangers and watching my dad play tennis with my grandfather on the park’s courts. Walking to the chain-link fence, I reached through. I picked some silver sage growing wild in the meadow and held the leaves close to my nose. They smelled like rain and wind and long ago.
When the kids grew tired, we went back to the van and drove around the valley. Anita and I played “Who lived there?” Turning a corner on a tiny, winding road, Anita would point to a house. “I baby-sat for someone there.”
“Yes, the Sturmans. I haven’t thought about them for a while.”
“Is that your old house?” Rebecca and Angela asked
“No. I’ll tell you when we get to our old house.” Finally, after detours up Rocky Pass and down Cedar Lane, I drove past the Tondros’, down through the dip, and slowed in front of a blue house. “There it is,” I told the girls.
“It was brown,” Anita said. “And it didn’t look so junky. Do you see those big manzanita bushes in the front? Your grandpa planted those from tiny shoots small enough to fit in coffee cans.”
I remembered pictures of Anita and my older brother Mark standing beside the tiny manzanitas. In the pictures, Anita is younger than my Angela is now.
An hour later, after a short hike and many hugs good-bye, we drove away from Pine Valley. I touched my finger to my nose and breathed deep the lingering scent of sage.