We ascended toward Julian through the Cuyamacas. It was spring, but the air was crisp and clouds hinted at possibilities. The scenery was lush and green, but soon the landscape changed. The burnt hillsides, the blackened trees, the birdless air appeared ravaged by war. Pines that had survived the fires were dead or dying from beetle infestation. There was not even the occasional wildlife until at last a single crow settled on a blackened bough. When Julian sprang into view, it was like an oasis. Locust trees on Main Street bloomed, and white petals perfumed the air and edged the road with snowlike drift. Gardens were radiant with flowers; in the parking lot by the lodge a mountain lilac wafted an intoxicating scent.
Is Julian a community or a Seaport Village that closes after the last tourist leaves? The façade idea rang true when we went out on Thursday night; Main Street was deserted except for a teenager whose appetite for the world was illuminated by the blue light of his cell phone. Friday morning was a different story. The Julian Coffee & Tea House was filled with teachers, administrators, apple farmers, service workers, retirees, and students. I asked Dana Horton and Hannie Horner, who were cramming for a physics exam, what it was like to live in a town with a population of 3500. Hannie said she had horses to occupy her, but for some kids there weren't enough things to do. When I asked what they do on a Friday night, Dana volunteered, "You get out of Julian. Many people go down the hill to the Mira Mesa theaters." They both claim that there are advantages to living in Julian, including the lack of crime and knowing everyone in town.
When fire chief Kevin Dubler came in for his croissant sandwich, I asked him if he thought there was more sense of community since the fires. He offered that the community was more fractionalized because of disputes over property lines and sprinkler systems. He said one-third of Julian's population had suffered property loss, which affected the community in a number of ways, including a loss by the fire district of property-tax benefit fees. People are encountering so many difficulties trying to rebuild, he fears they may end up relocating. Dubler said, "Julian will always be a fire hazard" -- a situation exacerbated by the drought and the pine bark beetle infestation.
At the north end of town in an antique store, Vinona scoffed at the question "Is Julian a real community?" A native of Julian, Vinona attended a one-room schoolhouse. When her family moved to Point Loma, she vowed she'd return to Julian when she retired. Vinona says she hates the winters and she goes "uptown" only to attend the Catholic church. Each morning Vinona greets the members of her family who are buried across the street in the Pioneer Cemetery.
Rick Campbell of the Birdwatcher said that it's not clear how the fire has affected the bird population, but feeders behind his store still attract red-winged blackbirds, acorn woodpeckers, white-crowned sparrows, lesser goldfinches, scrub jays, Steller's jays, nuthatches, and black-headed grosbeaks. When I commented that the pine beetle blight was encircling Julian, Campbell pointed out that photos from 1890 show a different Julian, one without pine trees. Everything changes, even in Julian. After the fire, Campbell felt that Julian was one contiguous community with San Diego because of the outpouring of help. "If we said we needed shovels, the next day hundreds would be delivered to the town hall."
In Lucia's Natural Sundries, I spoke with Lucia, who makes the fragrant candles in the shop, and Nadine, whose art is displayed in the coffee shop. Nadine said that the fire created worldwide empathy; the recovery center received handmade dolls from Japan. "Go down to the post office," she said. "The bulletin board is covered with offers like 'Come and dig up our trees if yours burned down.' "
Both women moved to Julian for the slower pace. Lucia was looking for the extended family she lacked. "Here," she said, "the community as a whole rears the children." The downside, they agreed, is that you can't hide much in this town.
Is Julian a community? When Nadine was deciding whether to move here she was told, "Julian is full of Mormons, Lutherans, Catholics, and devout heathens, and we all get along." Nadine says, "Returning from the city, the closer I get to home the more at peace I feel."