Up in the bighorn country of the Angeles National Forest, where snow-swirling winds warble in the pines, Frederick Rundall bought his dream for a song. Or at least it would seem.
The price was $545,000, the kind of money that a small-yard bungalow fetches in Pasadena, 5,340 feet below. It staked Rundall to 10 unique acres, the only private land on the main, 55-mile stretch of the Angeles Crest Highway, which twists through the San Gabriel Mountains like a fickle river.
A storied fixer-upper anchored the deal -- Newcomb's Ranch Inn, perhaps the most-remote roadhouse in Los Angeles County. The rambling restaurant and bar leans toward the Crest's two lanes like a stilled rockslide, halfway between La Canada Flintridge and Wrightwood.
"I couldn't believe it was for sale," said Rundall, 53, marveling at the view from Newcomb's front door. He could see bouldered peaks and cloud-pillowed canyons, and the pines that steepled every ridge. "I used to come up here as a kid.... I wouldn't sell this at any price."
A year after taking title, the La Canada Flintridge oncologist intends to add a gift shop and general store to the restaurant, perch a beer garden on its sagging roof, and build half a dozen or so vacation cabins. Such a project would be impossible just about anyplace else along the Crest, where the U.S. Forest Service holds the deeds and prohibits development.
"The Forest Service has absolutely no jurisdiction on this property," said Rundall, whose acreage is in unincorporated Los Angeles County. "This was a rare opportunity."
Newcomb's opened in 1939, three years after the Crest went through. In its early days, the inn was a discreet rendezvous for unmarried lovers, who had trouble booking lodgings in the flatlands. Newcomb's no longer rents rooms, but it retains a loyal, if sometimes sparse, clientele of trail-weary hikers, skiers from nearby Mt. Waterman and motorcyclists who cherish the Crest's switchbacks like surfers savor Malibu's swells.
Rundall hopes the $340,000 in improvements will broaden Newcomb's appeal. He expects county approval of his plans in time for a spring groundbreaking. His goal is to mine a steady profit from Newcomb's, something that the man who sold it to him, Lynn Newcomb Jr., had found tough going. At this elevation, customer traffic can be as thin as the air.
"It's a little farther out of town than it should be," said Newcomb, 82, who inherited the inn from his father.
Rundall conceded that he already has lost a "fair amount" on his investment -- and that there's a chance the purchase could prove to be less than a bargain. "Where is there not a risk?" he said.
Twilight gathered as he walked a mug of Newcomb's draft on a trail above the parking lot. Rundall, a square-framed man with a reddish beard, makes the 45-minute drive up from La Canada Flintridge three or four times a week. On this Sunday, he was fresh from hospital rounds, and his dress shoes crunched needles from the Jeffery pines along the path.
"We're going to put some cabins in here," he said, pointing the mug at a clearing beyond an ancient cedar. "We'd like to bring in families."
For decades, the Forest Service has been buying up private parcels in the Angeles. The remaining ones total about 38,000 acres -- roughly 6% of the forest -- and the agency has its eye on 22,000 of them. It doesn't want the rest because they are heavily developed or deemed best suited to private ownership. They include all of Wrightwood and the community of Green Valley, high above Santa Clarita.
Forest Service officials said the Crest needs a restaurant and they aren't interested in running Newcomb's.
The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that acquires property for resale to the Forest Service, stayed on the sidelines as Newcomb negotiated with Rundall.
Environmentalists also were silent as Newcomb's changed hands.
David Czamanske, a Pasadena vice chairman of the Sierra Club's Angeles chapter, said Newcomb's is a "worthwhile visitor service," although the organization will closely monitor Rundall's venture.
"The less the better," Czamanske said of development in the forest.
Rundall is keeping the Newcomb name on the restaurant because he considers it a draw. The Newcomb family began homesteading in the forest in the 1880s. In 1941, Lynn Newcomb Jr. founded the Mt. Waterman ski area on leased Forest Service land, six miles from the restaurant.
Mt. Waterman is a roadside operation that depends entirely on natural snow. Dry years can limit its season to a few weeks, or even days.
Newcomb sold the ski business in 1999. Its proprietors are seeking the Forest Service's permission to install snowmaking machines.
When the downhill crowd stays away, things are uphill for Newcomb's. Rundall recalled that on one snowless day last January, with Mt. Waterman closed, the restaurant grossed just $25.73. That pays for a couple of Big Pine Ortega Burgers and a round of Budweisers.
Newcomb's menu favors pub grub. Its decor is a clash of stone fireplaces and plastic picnic chairs. Overall, the restaurant is ramshackle. Most of the second floor burned in a 1976 fire and hasn't been rebuilt. The bathrooms are rusty and sour. "There have been years of neglect," Rundall said.
His renovations so far have lined the bar and a dining room with bright paneling. Outside, he's decorated a sugar pine with a green and purple neon sign that blinks "Open 7 Days a Week."
Devoted patrons are rooting for Rundall, though they have concerns.
"Cabins would be cool," said Glendora resident Brad Sheridan, 30, who has been stopping at Newcomb's for five years. He climbed onto his Triumph Daytona, one of six motorcycles parked at a giant log by the entrance, like horses at a hitching post. "Just as long as he keeps it biker-friendly."
Roger Gough, 45, sipped a beer in the bar, which was sharp with wood smoke. The Monrovia teacher and weekend hiker has been a regular since the 1980s.
"I wouldn't want to see it expand too much, but a little would be OK," he said. "Newcomb's is a treasure."
Rundall lifted his own glass to that. He stood out on the porch, drinking in a domed sky sequined by the night's first stars. "There's never going be anything else up here but Newcomb's," he said. "It would literally take an act of Congress to buy land up here now."
The winds had died, leaving a silence as deep as the trees.