“I Want to See Mt. Palomar in Snow!”

When I was a kid in school in Nebraska, I was always excited when the Weekly Reader showed up. It left a big impression on me that lasted a long time, like until now long time. One of the great things I read about was Palomar Mountain where the Hale Telescope sat. Once the Good X and were living in San Diego, and I realized WHERE that was exactly, I was excited to go see the telescope. I loved space. We went soon after we found our apartment. It was great.

When our first San Diego winter(1984/85) rolled around, and I read that there were 12 inches of snow up there, I wanted to ski the trail from the campground to the observatory. It was one of our first back-country ski trips in Southern California. I learned a lot from it.

First, Southern California plants thrive in winter and die down in summer. Second, most of the 2.2 mile trail to the observatory was lined in brush meaning we had to stick our poles in the manzanita and sage scrub. It was ludicrous, hilarious.

At that point, I didn’t even know what those plants were except an enormous pain in the ass. As we neared the observatory, the trail was cleaner.

Higher ground, finally a decent trail to ski.

The ferns that grow along the upper trail were dormant and the pasture was wide. In the fullness of time (years) I would see the mortreros in the rock along the trail where the Indians ground acorns and I would know that the trees around me were mostly Coastal Live Oak and Jeffry Pine but I wasn’t there yet.

It took a long time to get up there, and though it was an insane caper, it was fun and the sight of that beautiful dome rising from a snowy landscape took my breath away.

We decided not to go back down on the trail. Parts were steep and narrow with almost no means of controlling a downhill ride, no room to turn, no place to plant poles. We took the road — which, up near the top had not been plowed.

As we careened down the mountain, whooping in exhilaration, we passed a family who, having heard there was snow up there, had brought their equipment for a fun California day. This consisted of a cooler, a couple beach chairs, a beach umbrella and a couple of boogie boards. This wasn’t irony; this was serious. As we whizzed by, one of the kids yelled out, “Hey mom, THAT’S what we should be doing!”

That was my first experience with the Southern California phenomenon of “going to the snow.” Many, many years later, when I was teaching Critical Thinking through Nature Writing and my students had to go “out” into nature and write about it in their journals, I read many sweet and funny stories about my students’ first encounters with the glorious white stuff. Most were surprised that it wasn’t softer to land in. Others were surprised it was so cold. On days when I took a dog or two up to the Lagunas to run through snow drifts on the Garnet Peak Trail, the Sunrise Highway was always lined by cars filled with people who went into the “wilderness” only about 50 feet for the experience of winter. Lots of people filled the back of their pick-up truck with snow and put small snowmen on the hood.

Today I took Bear and Teddy out to the Refuge. I’m still a little friable physically. The knee isn’t quite right and the groin muscle is tight and achy, still, but better. I was worried Teddy would pull too hard in one direction and Bear in the other, but no. Bear walked with me so I didn’t even feel her on the leash. Teddy is starting to understand what a leash walk is. It was perfect. All day showers have been coming over the San Juans in waves of air-brushed clouds of snow that obscure everything and go on their way. The three of us walked most of our walk in just such a miraculous shower.

Skis are not the only way to love snow.

Skiing Cuyamaca Peak — Cougar Tracks

A year or so after the Good-X and I moved to San Diego (1984) we bought a 1972 VW camper van with a pop top. It was an awesome vehicle (until the block cracked) and we had a lot of fun with it. We also had moved our skis with us from Colorado. We had heard — though we wondered how it could be true — that the mountains east of San Diego sometimes got enough snow to X-country ski.

Sure enough.

The first time we went up there was with a couple with whom we were friends and from whom we rented an apartment. We went to the Laguna Mountains. Of course I had no idea at that time that the valley in which we skied that day (on 8 measly inches of snow!) would someday become as familiar to me as my hand, or that I would learn to regard those 6000 foot “hills” as mountains. I was, I admit it, a Colorado snob. Now I know.

From my high valley even the highest 14er rises only 7000 feet from the valley floor, no greater gain in elevation than the top of Cuyamaca Peak from San Diego. In fact, it’s just the same. I learned that a mountain is a mountain in relation to the land from which it rises, regardless of how a mountain is defined by geologists or geological surveys or Alpinists. I’m not a mountain snob any more. The Colorado fetish with 14ers now seems a little silly. If you want oxygen deprivation hold your breath. 😉 I’m joking. I know there’s a lot more to it than that.

Today when I look at Windy Mountain or Pintada from the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge I see snowcapped hills that rise 5000 feet from where I stand. Mountains, but…

There are two ranges outside San Diego, separated by one of the innumerable fault lines that criss-cross California. Between the two is a narrow valley with a fissure and a spring that, in time, I got to know well. The ranges are the Cuyamacas — in which I lived for eleven years, and, just 10 miles further east, the Lagunas, in which I hiked and skied. The Cuyamacas have a leash law. The Lagunas do not.

Sometimes you see photos of San Diego looking east from Coronado Island. You see ocean, town, bay, city and, behind everything, a snowy mountain. That mountain is Cuyamaca Peak.

Cuyamaca Peak with snow on it

The second time the Good X and I skied in San Diego County we headed to a trail head at Green Valley Falls (fantastic falls in spring and in a wet summer, idyllic with pools and slides to play in, drop down, swim in, wade). We parked, paid our $5 day use fee, strapped on our skis, and headed up a trail we knew nothing about. It wound around the north side of the mountain to the west where it looked down on San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. We climbed, and climbed and climbed until we got to where we could see San Diego, but that wasn’t all we saw. We also saw fresh cougar tracks.

I didn’t know anything about mountain lions then except that they are dangerous. I had no knowledge of that world yet and little curiosity. We high-tailed it down and headed home, stopping on the way to watch a movie and have dinner.

Twenty years later, I would live at the base of that mountain and see it on fire. Later, I would see that far western slope with fire weed blooming. I would hike the trails in the Laguna Mountains in all weather, and ski to the top of Garnet Peak against all sanity and all odds. I would see a mountain lion.

Garnet Peak (a fun hike in the Laguna Mountains) in the winter of 2003/2004 after the Cedar Fire, oil on canvas.

The skis in the featured photo are just like the skis I took with me in 1984 from Denver to San Diego. They are — were — wonderful back country skis. They needed to be waxed which I liked because I could control the “slide” depending on my adventure. I found these old skis three years ago in a thrift store here in Monte Vista. They aren’t my very skis, but when I saw them they seemed to call out, “Get us OUT of here!” I had not had my hip replacement (second one, different hip) yet and I wasn’t moving very well. I was with my friends. We’d gone for lunch but weren’t ready to go home, so we visited a new thrift store in town. Without thinking, I reached for those old skis and cradled them in my arms. Elizabeth said in a soft voice “Are you going to ski, Martha?” There was so much pity in her eyes that I set the skis back where they were and went back to shopping. I returned to the store alone a few days later, forked over $30, and brought them home. They stand in my studio along with many other very personal treasures from my life. In a way, that room is my “medicine bundle,” my little trove of talismans.

Looking back on my first forays into the San Diego mountains, it’s funny to realize all the things I didn’t know yet. Makes me wonder what else I don’t know yet.


P.S. I’m writing my ski stories because writing the stories is how I figure things out. Now that it seems I’ve reached the end of this moment in my life, I want to see it more clearly and understand it better. I hope it’s not too tedious. ❤