On Harmony Grove Road in Escondido, past the cows lounging languidly in open meadows, and beyond the rock quarries, lies a tiny community called Elfin Forest. Yosemite it's not, but, with the squirrels darting across the road, the coastal chaparral ground cover and the patches of tall skinny trees covering the rolling hillside, Elfin Forest is aptly named.
A quick blink of the eye and the rural community could easily be bypassed on the narrow road that also leads to the San Marcos landfill. But, within its 12 square miles--situated west of Escondido, east of Carlsbad, north of Rancho Santa Fe and south of San Marcos--Elfin Forest does have most of the usual trappings of civilized life, including a grocery store, a volunteer fire company, a spiritual retreat and, of course, the obligatory llama crossing.
What Elfin Forest doesn't have could fill a book. There are no sidewalks, no traffic signals, no cable television, and, until last year, no regular San Diego newspaper delivery. The only thing that glaringly smacks of urban life is a pay telephone near the Elfin Forest Grocery, which bills itself as the smallest store in the country.
The inhabitants of Elfin Forest--mostly retired or moderate- to upper-income business people, doctors and lawyers who live on a minimum of 2.5 acres--don't seem to mind. Their attitude towards the conveniences of urban life is succinctly expressed by their Town Council letterhead that reads, "Dedicated to a Continuing Rural Atmosphere."
Most of the 500 citizens obey a tacit law to turn off all outdoor lights after 11 p.m. This way, there is nothing to detract from the brilliant twinkle of the stars against a black midnight sky.
"It's one of the few places where you can still see the stars without going to the deserts or the mountains," said Bill Barker, the 54-year-old fire chief for the Elfin Forest-Harmony Grove Volunteer Fire Co.
Crime is practically non-existent in this community. A rash of daytime burglaries a couple years ago prompted the citizens of Elfin Forest to reinstitute a Neighborhood Watch program, and it has been working well ever since, Barker said.
The rural serenity is ideal for the Questhaven Retreat, a nondenominational spiritual retreat that occupies 640 acres in the northern valley of Elfin Forest. Each year, hundreds of visitors from around the world come to Questhaven to commune with nature and study the teachings of the Rev. Flower Newhouse, which deal with the angelic kingdom and the role of angels in human life.
Newhouse founded Questhaven in 1940 when she bought the land and is still director of the retreat. Christward Ministry, a nondenominational group, now owns Questhaven and holds services for the locals every Sunday in a church on the property.
Another important community institution is the Elfin Forest-Harmony Grove Volunteer Fire Co. Formed in 1972, it now has 28 volunteer firefighters who wear beepers and are on call 24 hours a day.
Bill Barker said 14 fires in 1989 blackened more than 2,000 acres of Elfin Forest. The fire risk in is exceptionally high because of the number of trees and the dense coastal chaparral everywhere, he said.
The community's history starts with Elfin Forest Vacation Ranch. Now a mobile home park for 62 people, the ranch once was a park owned by San Diego dentist Harvey Urban, who in 1958 charged people $2 a night to camp there. He also dammed Escondido Creek to create Elfin Forest Lake, which was destroyed in 1979 by heavy rains.
Originally called Tooth Acres, after Urban's profession, the camp derived its present name from the 1923 book by Francis Marion Fultz titled, "The Elfin Forest of California." In the book on Southern California flora and fauna, Fultz described many backcountry areas as appearing to be an "elfin forest."
Urban's children adopted the name for the campgrounds, and soon after, the whole community followed suit.
But the area's residents now are fighting to make sure the name remains descriptive of their town. There is a constant battle to keep the nearby San Marcos landfill from expanding, and now residents are fighting annexation by the city of San Marcos.
The citizens of Elfin Forest have to be political or get mowed down, said Nona Barker, an Elfin Forest resident and owner of Llama Luggage, a business that designs backpacks and outdoor gear for the animals.
There is a sign posted on a road in front of Barker's three-acre property that proclaims, "Llama Crossing." It calls attention to the seven llamas Barker owns that sometimes cross the road on their way to a community parade at Elfin Forest Vacation Ranch.
Barker (no relation to Bill, the fire chief) believes that the residents are going to have to prepare for even harder battles than the landfill expansion or the trash-to-energy plant.
"We just got a letter in the mail from the city of San Marcos saying they want to annex into Elfin Forest," Barker said. "Ninety percent of us don't want to be annexed, we like being part of the county, but they don't care."
Monthly Town Council meetings at the fire station are always well attended and often heated, especially when the topic is proposed housing developments or a trash incineration plant, said Patricia Mack Newton.