These places! They all look right out of Davy Crockett!
Where we’re heading is this 1919 lodge 6000 feet up on Mount Laguna, 100 years old this year, actually serving nosh and hauling grog up to this mountain village since 1926.
I’ve wanted to find this ever since last April, when I came upon another Ancient Lodge, the Pine House Cafe, a third of a mile south down Sunrise Highway.
And thar she blows! This house, half-hidden in the trees, called “Blue Jay Lodge.” Chocolate-painted timber. Feels like we’re in, say, Minnesota’s Northwoods. Huge fir trees loom behind; jays flit and squawk, bossing each other about. You walk in between ancient wagon wheels and young pines.
10600 Sunrise Highway, Mount Laguna
And inside, black bears rampant, bison, deer, antlers, cowboy boots, horseshoes, stuffed partridges, pike, trout, walleye — all surrounding an remarkable collection of hand-carved tables and benches. I mean, huge, heavy wood, beautifully shaped and varnished. The tables are entire cross-sections of some kind of pine, highly-polished. Place feels like it escaped from a time of giants. You realize how much we’ve downsized our use of nature, I guess because we’ve chopped down all the big trees.
“Douglas Fir,” says this trim blonde lady on her way to the kitchen. Cathy.
She disappears, then comes back with loaded paper plates for two gals sitting in one of these bulging timber booths. Jojo has ordered brisket on a grilled muffin, with baked beans, French fries, and stripes of chocolate-colored BBQ sauce across the top ($11.75). Her friend Nikki gets the Blue Jay Burger, with fries, cheese, and grilled onions, also $11.75. Maybe not the cheapest prices, but I remind myself everything has to be transported up the hill from San Diego.
Jojo says they’re way hungry. Slept in the campgrounds last night. “We were going to spend another night,” says Jojo, “but we’re going home. I need my own soft bed.”
I ask how her brisket is. She has her mouth full. She gives two thumbs up. I like that you get baked beans and fries with your order. And BBQ sauce. What the heck. I order one for myself.
And Mama Mia, it is tenderlicious. The BBQ sauce is good and thick and sweet, not vinegary. The brisket meat is totally fall-apart. The baked beans are warm and sweet. The fries are crisp, not bendy.
What else can a chap ask for, other than, maybe, more? ’Cause up here, I swear, your hunger is sharpened. Hmm. I’m tempted by their hot dog. I get the feeling it’s nice and big. I go for that.
Here’s the thing about this food. It’s not Cordon-anything, but it is delicious. I swear, the sausage in my dawg is solid, not fatty, packed with flavor, not filler. And did I mention big? “Kielbasa?” I ask. Cathy shakes her head. “It’s a beef dog and I have to go down to Chula Vista in San Diego to get them from my sausage guy down there.”
Nice sauerkraut with it too, and a toasty bun. But the best is the pile of grilled onions, making it a little sweet.
I mean, I know being up here, after leaping about the hills, your hunger’s already a monster. Still it’s good nosh. It does the trick.
On the other hand, people ain’t exactly crowding in. Cathy says a lot depends on hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, a few hundred yards east of us. “The biggest crowds of hikers ever came after Wild was released. Five thousand of them,” she says. She means the Reese Witherspoon movie about an inexperienced woman who tries to hike the trail alone, from Mexico to Canada.
“Actually, this used to be a pretty wild scene,” she says, “open till two every night. The two dentists who bought this, back in 1968, were brothers from Minnesota, Dr. George Oates and Dr. Dwight Oates. Put down roots here because our pines reminded them of home.”
She says the brothers had a friend with a four-acre stand of old growth Douglas Fir up in Washington State. They bought it, he milled it and shipped it down. They turned it into this furniture. Then they imported the stuffed wildlife, like that timber wolf, out from Minnesota.
Back then, the USAF had about 500 personnel stationed up here, and, they say, even a ballistic missile ready to launch. “Hundreds of those servicemen would turn up here every night,” says Cathy. “Lots of bar fights. They had to protect the stage with chicken wire because so many patrons tossed beer cans at the performers.”
But no longer. Satellites came in. The Air Force moved out. “We’re only open Saturdays and Sundays now,” Cathy says. “Things are much quieter these days.”
How much quieter? Dr. George the dentist and co-owner here is now the cook. And when the work is done, he heads up to his ancient rocking chair on the stage where his band, the Reveliers, used to play, next to the stuffed Minnesota timber wolf. “I like rocking,” he tells everyone.
So, yes. These days it’s mostly hikers and bikers, not military trackers, who stumble in from the mountain.
“We’ll be starting to see the southbounders pretty soon,” says Cathy. She means the hikers who started from the Canadian end of the Pacific Crest Trail. “They’ll be pretty haggard, grizzled. You would be too if you had been hiking through deserts and mountains for five months. And remember, up here air’s thinner. They like to stay in our cabins, prepare for their last stretch down to the border.”
Dang. Now I see if I’d gotten here earlier (before eleven), I could have had breakfast too. Like, pancakes for $7.75, Spanish omelet, $11.75 with potatoes and toast, or a two-egg breakfast with ham, bacon, or sausage for $8.75.
I chomp, we talk, I chomp, kinda asking a zillion questions about all these stuffed animals snarling at me. Turns out those cabins the hikers sty in go for about $150. Hey hey! Good for a romantic weekend! As long as the mountain animals guarantee to stay stuffed.