Welcome to the Shire

Palomar Mountain California,
by Brad Bailey

A Tourist’s Introduction
On the face of it, Palomar Mountain is one of the most striking natural environments in Southern California. Rising over a mile into the bright western sky; its steeply forested south face offers unparalleled vistas of the blue Pacific Ocean far below. It is a place of rich forests, dripping springs and the finest artesian waters on the planet.

The mountain is largely wilderness, and mostly under control of state and federal government agencies. Palomar is located about 30 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and 60 miles north of San Diego, California. The small population is dispersed along the southern summit and supports two private communities.

To the east the small enclave of Birch Hill is also known as Crestline for its single paved roadway. To the west is the tiny subdivision of Baileys. Northward is the Palomar Observatory compound which is a self sustaining community in its own right.

Just two paved roads service the area, running orthogonally north-south and east-west, and both terminate in dead-end.

The mountain supports a little store, post office and restaurant, plus a state park, various federal and county campgrounds, and a few private camp and resort facilities. Several ranchers work tracks of lush, sheltered valleys behind locked gates accessible only by rutted dirt roads.

One Youngster’s IntroductionYet to live on this remote mountaintop in southern California, along with a couple of hundred others in full time residence, is a singular experience within an equally rare environment.

Over a half century ago, my widowed grandmother lived here as the sole occupant of our family’s former resort hotel. She always referred to it as “the home place.” To an impressionable youth (me), the view of Palomar Mountain through that nimbus seemed indeed a rarefied vision, simultaneously the stuff of belonging and beguilement.

For decades Grandma Adalind lived within what seemed to me like an old ghost town – all but abandoned to the fates long ago. With her blessing we visiting kids would play “store” in the abandoned century mercantile, its shelves still stocked with canned goods and rolls of brown wrapping paper gone crisp with age.

In the drawer of the ornate brass cash register were little notes written on scrap paper; perhaps a promise quickly dashed off by a neighbor short on change long ago. From above the official Norman Rockwell Presidential portrait of “Ike” smiled down like a kindly grandfather figure. The picture still dutifully hung in the tiny cubby-hole post office once known as Nellie, California.


Palomar Mountain HistoryBonfire on Palomar Mountain

In the evening we would sit before a massive stone fireplace in Grandma’s overstuffed and faded chair, while our folks chatted in the tiny kitchen nearby. In the former lobby of this turn-of-the-century back country resort were the leather-bound, heavy black paper pages of our family albums. She had always kept them just there next to the ancient stone hearth, under back issues of The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s magazines.

Inside those pages, peering out from within tidy triangle boarders, were the old folks from days long past; one on horseback clothed in overalls, another behind the wheel of an open top touring car sporting a fedora, bow tie, and broad smile. At one time they had been a part of our mountain and had created the amazing world that remained decades later.

As documented in these black on white pictures, our mountain place dated back to the late 1800s, and now seemed to be quietly sleeping off oblivion within our forested mountaintop backwater; the terminus of three dead-end roads. From these albums a family of our hardy ancestors stands proudly before their newly completed adobe homestead, actually just a hovel of mud and hand split cedar shakes. The hundred foot cedar trees towering out front today were mire saplings back then.

Here was a snap shot of six children who help paddy-cake these walls of plaster-coated soil, thus literally making Palomar Mountain their new home. Turn the page again, and the kids have grown to adulthood. One of the brood has created a delightful destination resort from those humble beginnings, eventually marring a beautiful and demure hotel guest. Turn the pages again and the glowing Victorian bride-come-hostess is now pictured gray-haired with age next to the same family hearth we now enjoyed.

Education of this sort was not taught to us formally on the mountain. Local, stories, traditions and legends were picked up piecemeal, usually through short, often funny anecdotes and snippets of information told over Grandma’s kitchen counter or from a her front porch rocking chair. What few collections survied were just a hodgepodge of stories, photos, maps, postcards and all manner of bric-a-brac; packed away in sagging cardboard boxes for a time and purpose still undefined. Some material was copied from our widow neighbor up the road, others we discovered in boxes of pictures half buried in the old community dump; perhaps the last vestiges of an old-timer’s life on the mountain, no longer of value as the realtor prepared the a little cabin for sale.

Yet the true color of Palomar Mountain is more subtle and intriguing then mere collectables. It can best be found in the fabric of the lives and stories woven by those who have peopled this unique community in the past, and by those who carry on much the same traditions today.

In the series of articles to follow, I present a small collection of images and memorabilia mostly from our families modest archive. The content has been arranged to help convey a larger story which, due to the nature of the format, revolves around the images I have at hand. Nonetheless, the effort is intended to be a tribute to the mountain and its people, past and present, in appreciation of this truly unique, compelling and timeless oasis in the sky.

Brad Bailey
February 27, 2012