I had not heard of Julian until it almost burned to the ground in late October. At the time, another wildfire was within a mile of my home in Crestline, and I wondered which would go first.
Fire seemed everywhere. You could see it in the sunset, smell it in the air. I was losing hope when the most miraculous thing happened. It started to rain. The Santa Ana winds faded to a whisper, and the mountains turned calm. Throughout Southern California, we lined up in our cars loaded with photographs and pets and began the somber procession home to see what was lost and what remained.
For those of us who still have homes this holiday season, it's impossible not to feel gratitude. It's equally impossible not to feel sorrow, knowing that lives and homes were lost. Since the fires, I have felt wedged somewhere in between.
My wife, Julia, and I arrived in Julian the day after Thanksgiving. Typically it's one of the busiest weekends of the year in the historic mining town about 60 miles east of San Diego. We saw the first scars of the fire just past Santa Ysabel, a community at the crossroads of California highways 78 and 79, about seven miles from Julian.
There were pockets of blackened soil, solemn remains of the largest wildfire in state history. An area more than two-thirds the size of Rhode Island burned in Southern California, 3,600 structures were destroyed, at least 22 people died. Much of that destruction was near Julian in what was known as the Cedar fire.
We arrived about 4 p.m. Although many in the community had lost their homes, the fire had spared the downtown area, and streets were crowded. Christmas decorations were going up, and the mood was festive.
My first impression of Julian was that it smelled good, the air sweetened by the apple pies for which it is well known.
I am not much of a traveler. If I were, I probably would have remembered to write down the name of the bed-and-breakfast where I had made reservations. Julia was not surprised that I had not. As we drove through town, I thought I would recognize the name if I saw it.
But I didn't see it.
After about 10 minutes, long enough to cover most of the town twice, Julia tactfully suggested we park and seek assistance and cappuccinos. Outside a gift shop, I picked up a local publication, fanned through it and, bingo: Villa de Valor Bed and Breakfast, on 3rd Street.
Town's bustle is back
We abandoned our plans for caffeine when we saw that the line at the Julian Coffee House was out the door. The town was abuzz with motorcycles, the sidewalks crowded with shoppers, equal numbers of them pushing strollers or walking dogs, some doing both.
We found 3rd Street, then Villa de Valor. The door was open, but no one was there. Valorie Ashley, dressed in a red San Diego Opera sweatshirt, sweatpants and fluffy moccasins, arrived about 10 minutes later. I was comforted by her appearance, because I dread formality, always a concern in a place filled with antiques.
She welcomed us, and as she showed us to our suite, she described how the house had been owned by Dr. Herman Lee Hildreth, assigned in 1918 by the Department of the Interior to serve residents of nearby Indian reservations. A newspaper article described him as a jolly man who often laughed and slapped his legs as he told stories. Old-timers still know the place as the Hildreth House.
Our suite, one of three, included a small bedroom in front, right off the porch that served as the doctor's office. The living area behind it was the library. Ashley's collection included "The Purpose of Your Life," "Conversations With God," "Closing Techniques (That Really Work!)."
Our room was filled with antiques and antique-like furnishings, a fireplace that burned gel candles, a mantel decorated with pine boughs and twinkling lights, a satellite television and a bedside CD player.
We made coffee and were drawn to the front porch by a sunset the color of ripe persimmons. It reminded me of fire.
It was Ashley's first full weekend back in business since the town was evacuated. There was a notable difference in the feeling of the place, she said. While people were smiling, many were hurting inside, and when they saw one another on the street, she said, they no longer asked, "How are you doing?"
"Now we ask each other, 'Are you all right?' "
Talk centers on wildfire
Our first meal was at the Julian Grille. Like many local businesses, the restaurant was a converted house. We arrived early and were seated without reservations at a corner table on what once was the front porch.
Julia ordered filet mignon broiled and topped with bordelaise sauce. I had scampi, sautéed in garlic and butter and served in a mushroom and wine sauce. We were pleased with our selections but bothered by the crowded feeling and a small table. The back of my chair was inches from another diner.
Talk of the fire was everywhere. We asked our hostess, owner of the restaurant, how the community was rebounding, and she said she and her husband had lost their home. They were staying more than 50 miles away in Temecula, she said, but it felt as though they were living in their car.
The couple that owned the nearby bookstore also lost their home, which contained about 50,000 books, wedding gifts, Turkish tapestries, musical instruments and dreams of early retirement. All suddenly gone.
By 7 p.m., few people remained on the streets, most stores were closed and it was quiet, my idea of perfect shopping conditions. We walked around a bit, looking in windows of gift shops and candy stores, then decided to take a drive.
Just as I prefer stores to be closed, I enjoy driving when it's dark. With fewer distractions, the world seems smaller, and I feel closer to my thoughts, one of which hit me about 10 miles outside of Julian. We hadn't eaten apple pie yet. We turned around immediately.
Western music was playing at the Julian Cafe. The wooden tabletops were decorated by brands — not the names of products but the kinds on the rumps of cattle. Barbed wire was part of the décor. The water glasses were shaped like boots.
It's the kind of place where in the old days one might have cinched up the horse to mosey inside for grub or, perhaps, vittles. (I think the difference between the two is that vittles involve food that isn't brown.)
Julia thought the pie could have been better. I didn't. It was, by appearance, understated and unpretentious, unlike those with gratuitous crowns rising like Frank Gehry buildings. It allowed taste to prevail.
I don't typically think of pie as being memorable, but I have a hunch that some night, even years from now, I'll be out driving around in the dark somewhere, and I will remember the pie at the Julian Cafe.
I witnessed a remarkable thing the next day after breakfast. Our innkeeper was standing in front of the porch holding a peanut in her palm when a scrub jay flew down and snatched it in mid-flight. I can't even get my dog to sit.
That moment defined for me the intimacy of Ashley's life in Julian after she fled corporate America three years ago. It can't be entirely easy to give up one life for another. It's one thing to start anew when it's the only choice you have, but Ashley had choices, and she chose this one.
I suspect she is not alone. Maybe it doesn't matter how difficult the struggles are or how many fires come. It seemed that the decision to stay and rebuild for many people was easy. The tough decisions were made long ago.
Julia and I took turns feeding the bird, then set out for a walk. We couldn't decide whether to tour the old mine, go hiking or horseback riding, or shop. Instead, we went to the cemetery. It's on an oak-topped hill at the edge of town overlooking Main Street. A sign described how in 1896 it took 16 men to drag a sled carrying the coffin of one Mary Clough through 3 feet of snow to the top of the hill. It took the good people of Julian until 1924 to figure out that a road might make death a bit easier, at least for the living.
From there we drove to Orfila Vineyards, about three miles outside of town, to sample its offerings and browse through antiques and art.
Lunch was at Margarita's, where I had a tostada and Julia had the seven- seas seafood soup, which she described as being among the best she has tasted. Of course, that was after an hour's worth of wine tastings and a wine margarita.
A carriage ride and carols
By 3:30 p.m., the air was turning cool. We repaired to our room. That night we took a horse-drawn carriage ride into the country on Farmer Road. It was right out of Currier & Ives. Stars were shining. Bells were jingling. The community Christmas tree had been lighted, and in the distance carols were being sung. Santa arrived on a firetruck.
Julia and I were warm with a blanket covering our laps.
"The town will be better than ever in a couple years," said the driver, Suzanne Porter, owner of Country Carriages. "It will take some time, but houses will be rebuilt, and this will be put behind us."
When we returned to town, we listened to carolers. Miss Julian was smiling and wearing her crown. Down at the hardware store, the staff had turned down the lights and was sweeping up. At Romano's Italian restaurant, a guy named Dan watched the town tree-lighting ceremony from the rear window next to the bar. A volunteer firefighter, he was out helping save the town when his own house burned to the ground.
And at the Julian Cafe, people were lined up outside the door for home-style cooking and understated, yet memorable, apple pie.
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Budget for two
Expenses for this trip:
Villa de Valor
Two nights, with tax $359.70
Julian Grille $72.90
Julian Cafe $20.00
Orfila Vineyards $4.00
Carriage ride $40.00
Final tab $645.78
Villa de Valor Bed and Breakfast, 2020 3rd St. (P.O. Box 2020), Julian, CA 92036; (877) 968-4552 or (760) 765-3865, fax (760) 765-3862.
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