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Bucolic Bonita first bloomed in my experience during a 1965 visit to the shallow valley scooped out across millennia by the Sweetwater River on its run to the Pacific. Even in the mid-’60s the lemon groves, lima bean fields, and dairy farms east of Chula Vista were fading memories. Subdivisions of homes on half-acre lots had been built where migrant workers had picked fruit and vegetables while farmers tended herds of Guernsey and Holstein. Still, the heart of the valley remained largely untouched, stretching eastward from the future route of I-805 to the Sweetwater Dam — a six-mile expanse of mini-wilderness broken by two golf courses.

Even with the rough beast of development slouching ever east and south to be born, Bonita retained at least a semirural aspect: the half-acre lots had been zoned for two horses each; wide bridle paths coursed for miles between homes and through the brush, bamboo, palms, and weeping willows of the Sweetwater floodplain. Trails climbed high hills on both sides of the valley, untouched by bulldozer or backhoe.

The southern hills were first to go: Corky McMillin built large houses on lots decidedly not zoned for horses. Corky did retain bridle paths, but now where the paths crossed roadways, vehicles of a swelling population menaced horse and rider.

Except for a huge water tank, the northern hills were still unsullied when I finally found myself in San Diego long enough to buy a house and settle down with my family. I’ve gotten to know Bonita much better since I moved in 17 years ago.

Million-dollar homes now clutter the water-tank hill. The valley center remains undeveloped, however, despoiled only by the county’s misguided replacement of an enormous stand of tall bamboo with thin, runty bushes and trees “native to the area.” This ecologically correct move destroyed a lot of habitat. No more do I hear the high yapping of foxes at midnight or see them scrambling over my back-yard fence in the glow of a ghost moon to feast on the fallen fruit of a mulberry tree. But as luck would have it, I still endure — as we all do who live in the valley — the god-awful stench of skunk, which is especially distressing for those of us with dogs.

A more pleasant Bonita odor is the light camphor smell of rainwashed eucalyptus along Sweetwater Road as it passes Rohr Park, where families congregate most weekends to grill carne asada, celebrate birthdays with piñatas, and just generally have one hell of a good time. The families often come from National City, Chula Vista, and points south.

Sweetwater Road also skirts the northern boundary of a three-mile jogging path that loops around the Chula Vista Golf Course to link up with the southern boundary along Bonita Road. Men and women, boys and girls, babies in strollers, Chicanos, gringos white and black, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Lord knows what other ethnicities ply the route, some faster than others. Dogs and horses join the mix to add excitement.

Less appealing images sometimes intrude: a shrieking horse, its forelegs shattered by an inattentive or perhaps malicious driver; an occasional jogger struck down by an inattentive or perhaps malicious driver; a corpse dumped in a woodsy patch after a drug deal gone bad; stables and paddocks in the lee of Mount Miguel soon to be buried beneath tons of concrete as SR-125 moves inexorably toward the border; the chilling chatter (especially for a Vietnam vet) of a Border Patrol helo beating its midnight way over the valley with searchlight blazing.

But what the hell? Where else can you live with at least the illusion of leafy open space just 25 minutes from Horton Plaza? And you could be living in a Coronado Billy Box.

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