Santa Ana

It's early morning on Palomar Mountain and a dry cool Santa Ana breeze sweeps up from the desert and slips through the needles of the Coulter Pines.  Long shadows stretch across the meadow of tall fiddlehead ferns reaching out to the edge of the mountain.  A grey squirrel, the size of a poodle, chitters angrily at a Stellar Jay perched a little too close to the nest.  Something is moving out in the field and as I wander out to get a better look, a Black-tailed doe and her little bambi pop out of the ferns and land with sharp clicking sounds on my asphalt driveway.  We all freeze, surprised and starring, then the two deer slowly and elegantly glide away leaping like Springboks

Beyond the meadow and over the mountain's rim is a band of dark blue sky that still has a hint of nighttime in it.  Below the blue is a thick puffy cloud bank covering the San Diego megalopolis.  Looking down on the clouds reminds me of the view you'd see from an airplane or satellite. You wouldn't even know the city was there today. And, buried in the "June Gloom," they wouldn't know that it's going to be a beautiful day up here either.

"As though the city wasn't there," may well be a good metaphor for Palomar.  In many respects it is the little community that time forgot, a place that, for a variety of reasons has thus far been bypassed by the relentless flood of development surging through southern California.  Of course Palomar has all the accoutrements of civilization — after all, the city of Escondido is only half an hour away by car — but in some more essential way the borg hasn't touched this place yet.  The urban sprawl has spread its sticky tentacles over the city below Palomar the coastal plain stretching north to Los Angeles is ablaze with neon.  But, so far, the madness hasn't made it up to the 5000 foot level.  This quirky little place sits perched on the edge of civilization today, just as it always has.

Palomar Past and Present

The Stone Age

Back to the beginning.  Five million years ago the one hundred and fifty square mile lens-shaped block of igneous rock known as Palomar Mountain began to be pushed up above the surrounding plains.  The relatively unfractured Palomar was jostled and jolted geologically by the unimaginable forces of the San Andreas Fault as well as the Temecula, and Elsinore faults.  As Palomar rose above the granitic batholith, a fertile floodplain was created to the east at the base of the mountain.  That alluvial basin is now the site of Lake Henshaw, the headwaters of the San Luis Rey river which flows to the west along the south face of the mountain and exits into the Pacific Ocean near Oceanside.  

The fractured, granite block comprising  Palomar rose relentlessly on the scale of geologic time.  As of 2003, the High Point of Palomar Mountain, close to the Palomar Observatory, is a little over 6100 feet above sea level.  Geologically, the mountain is composed of a crystalline rock known as granite diorite.  The rock massif is interlaced with two types of fracture systemsIgneous dikes  were formed as a result of hot mineral-laden water being forced through the cooling rock at the time of the original volcanic eruptions. The dikes tend to run north-south and perpendicular  to predominant fault system.  The Elsinore Fault traverses the length of Palomar Mountain  along the east-west axis forming a complex and branching fracture zone.  The resulting central valley runs roughly up the center of Palomar Mountain and provides most of the habitable land.  Palomar is a mountain range, rather than a specific peak and there is no Mount Palomar.

Palomar, at a mile high, is the first tall barrier that the moisture-laden clouds coming in from the ocean must pass over. The mountain normally gets an unusual amount of rainfall relative to the desert climate that surrounds it.  I emphasize "normally" because the recent El Niño weather pattern has triggered a hundred year drought that has ravaged the local ecosystems.  In the 1970's, the historical average rainfall was generally agreed to be around 30 inches per year.  Recently the annual precipitation has been less than 10 inches.  Much of the annual rainfall collects in the mountain's many valleys and meadows, filtering into the geologic fracture zones and recharging Palomar's water supply. The intersection of the water filled fractures of the Elsinore Fault, with the mountain's igneous dikes often results in artesian springs providing exceptionally pure water. 

Cultural Anthropology

Palomar Mountain today is a bustling but tiny community of under a thousand property owners and inhabitants.  The demographics of the mountain are roughly:

Where's the action?

Palomar is not exactly a lively place to live.  I believe the little posse of  local teenagers call it the "Rock of Death"   That's partially because it caters to an older crowd, and partly because it is, usually, kind of boring.  Things happen a little slower than most people are used to. Long time Palomareños consider this to be a virtue.  But if you are young and/or single, it's a pretty small pond.

The major hubs of Palomar life would have to be: 

As the telescope turns

Sociologically, Palomar is like a fun but mildly dysfunctional family.  It has that very personal brand of politics that is common in small towns.  People come and go, but the cultural institutions and petty feuds seem to endure.  As of 2003, there are four or five generations of Palomar folk represented, from newborns to great-great-great grandparents.  The old people are treated like national treasures for the most part.  Many of them are utterly priceless characters whose lives have ranged over the entire globe.  Some of the families are descended from the original pioneer families who settled the mountain back in the mid 1850's.  Stories for another node maybe... 

A million stars

So, what's it all add up to?  Here's this little place, filled with a bunch of interesting people who know way more about each other's business than they should, perched, like a sky island, on a mile-high slab of rock above a huge, gnarly city. Is life on Palomar Mountain a balm for the aching soul?  Is living in a post-millennial urban tribal village a solution to the pressures of modern life? or is it just suburbia with pine trees and a great view?

Dunno, you decide:

Midsummer night's dream, literally.  The Summer Solstice party down in Bailey's Meadow is still in full swing, but a group of us have broken off to march up the hill into Black's Meadow for some serious stargazing.  The group includes kids, parents and a few intrepid grannies.  Stargazing has a completely different tone of voice on Palomar, since we often have a few professional astronomers in the crowd, courtesy of the visiting scientists at the Palomar Observatory.  Tonight there are a half dozen random amateurs setting up their ungainly telescopes along the road.  The nominal imperative for this evening's adventure is a Meteor Shower. The stargazers have told us that this pass through the debris-filled tail of the meteor is reaching a 100 year peak tonight and may produce hundreds or even thousands of falling stars.  

The meadow has tarps spread out so that we can all lay flat on our backs with the springy ferns to provide a mattress.  As soon as we lay down, we begin to see the falling stars.  At first it's only a little more intense than you might expect, thin white trails, a few more than usual is all. Then the streaks through the sky get larger and last longer.  You can actually get a pretty good bead on the angle that they have entered the Earth's atmosphere, and it's almost scary to see them coming at us like that.    

Someone has brought a boom box along and Keith Jarrett's ethereal piano soliloquy is wafting across the meadow.  A playful susurrus lofted up to meet the oncoming star showers.


1  Palomar Mountain Past and Present, by Marion F. Beckler, 1958.  Permission to use this material granted by the heirs of Mrs. Beckler.
2 I'm also tapping into twenty years of personal participation in the Palomar pageant.
3 Santa Anna winds: 

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Many thanks to Albert Herring, olmanrvr and trybonun for editing assistance.