Sierra and tree friend
  • Sierra and tree friend
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‘Bobcat!” says Mag.

This hairy-tailed thing pads across the Sunrise Highway and up into the trees. Bobcat? Fox? Raccoon? Or just someone’s big hairy pet kitty? Mag and I stare across the gravel lot outside this old log cabin ranch house.

“What was that?” asks Mag. She doesn’t undo her safety belt. “They say that above 6000 feet, Bigfoot…” `

My chili

My chili

Actually, we’re at 6271 feet. Okay, it had big feet. But Bigfoot? For sure, big’s the word up here: big old forest, big sky, big lungsful of air you feel you need to get your fill of oxygen. Above all, big hunger and need for comfort food. Here. Now.

Pine House Cafe

9849 Sunrise Highway, Mount Laguna

“Open,” says the wooden sign dangling from the main notice that reads “Pine House Cafe & Tavern.” We’re among stands of lofty Jeffrey Pine Trees sweeping across this mountain valley, a San Diego I have never seen before. Only regret: would love to have seen it a few weeks back when they had a foot or two of snow.

No chance of that today. It feels like 75 Fahrenheit. Still, the bluejays are chattering, red-tailed hawks cruise overhead, and the wind is sifting through trees that sprout skyward like square-riggers’ masts.

“I’m worried,” says Mag. “Not sure we have enough gas to get back down to civilization.”

Great. One more thing to worry about. But first things first. We walk into this, like, giant log cabin. And first thing you smell is not food, but timber. Rich. Pine. Varnished knotty boards cover the walls and the ceiling, with tree trunk pillars holding it all up. Even the tables are pine plank. One mighty trunk seems to grow right up through the ceiling.

Mike the cook - chili secret’s in the cocoa

Mike the cook - chili secret’s in the cocoa

“Knotty, but nice,” says Mag. “Ooh, look. Tree people!”

And hey, on one trunk a face emerges, like a garrulous wood spirit.

“I’ve never noticed that,” says Sierra, the gal who’s taking us to the table.

Huh. Sierra. Perfect name for up here.

“Maybe he’s just appeared,” says Mag.

We sit down beside a ginormous stone fireplace. I notice cards by the salt and pepper cellars on each table, “PCT.”

“Tables reserved for Pacific Crest Trail walkers,” says Nate, who’s sitting drinking a beer. “It’s what I’m doing. Mexico to Canada. Takes about six months.”

Six months? “How long have you been walking?”

“Two days.”

Man. A ways to go. Sierra puts a menu in front of us. “This is our regular cut-down menu, for the hikers. About 8 am, we always get a long line outside.”

Menu starts off with $3 fries, but its main thing is burgers. The Pine House 1/3lb burger goes for $10. Veggie patty’s 95 cents more. The Blackened Burger (“covered in blackening seasonings, seared on cast iron”) is $12, and the Garlic Parmesan Burger also goes for $12. Then “Pasta of Weekend or Mac & Cheese” (in “thick creamy” cheddar cheese béchamel sauce), $10.50 for a half, $14 for a full plate. A chicken sandwich in BBQ sauce on a toasted bun’s $10, and salad’s $5.50 and $7.50. That’s pretty much it.

Nate - Two days down on Pacific Crest Trail, six months to go

Nate - Two days down on Pacific Crest Trail, six months to go

Mag straightway goes for the Blackened Burger and fries. But I flip the page, and right at the top, I spot a “beef and bean” or “3-bean vegetarian” bowl of chili ($7.25, or $5.50 for a cup), and also a soup of the day, same prices. It’s a little, uh, chilly in here out of the sun, so chili and soup sound like good warmer-uppers. Mag agrees to share the veggie and bean soup. I order the bowl of chili.

But this fireplace! You can smell the ashes. Which is fine. Huge logs half-burned in its maws. It looks straight out of medieval days. Sierra says this used to be a ranger station, back in the day.

When the food comes, we’re both like winter-starved wolves. All fangs. Mag attacks the burger and fries. I steal a bite just to see what the blackened thing is all about. It gives a dark tang to the meat.

But I am definitely a happy camper. To look at, it’s hard to tell the soup from the chili. They’re both full of beans. The soup is like loaded veggie. But for me, the chili is the really interesting discovery. It has a rich, peppery, slightly sweet flavor to it. I load it up with flaked cheese and chopped onion, toss on a bit of Sriracha, palliate it all with the delish toast, and we have ourselves a luscious, filling, mountain man meal.

“What’s in that chili?” I ask Michael, one of the two cooks in the kitchen. “You got some secret ingredient?”

“Well Jonathan, the chef, just puts in red chili. And cocoa.”

Cocoa! So that’s it. That, yeah, dark chocolatey taste. Maybe everybody does it, but this is the first I’ve heard, and I’m already addicted.

By now a singer has come in. Robert Warren, the “King of Pain.” He’s singing “Pacing the Cage,” by Bruce Cockburn, Canadian. Painfully good song. Place is filling with cowpokes and trail walkers and a gentleman biker heading back to Poway the mountain way. They all have a beer in their hand and a dreamy look in their eye. I can see that none of us wants to leave.

But Mag is nervous about the gasoline situation. She asks Sierra. “Nearest gas is Pine Valley,” Sierra says. “Good news is all you have to do is coast your way down the mountain.”

Me, I’m thinking of Nate, who left a while back, facing months on the trail. He said he liked walking at night, because there’s less chance of stepping on a rattler. I didn’t even want to ask him about black bears or bobcats. Or mountain lions.

Or, now I think about it, Bigfoot.

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