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
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
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.
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
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
systems. Igneous 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
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.
Palomar Mountain today is a bustling but tiny community of under a thousand
property owners and inhabitants. The demographics of the mountain are
- 25% youngish couples who commute to the city for "real jobs,"
and live on the mountain as a conscious lifestyle choice. Young, smart and
- Another 25% of the residents are locals who live and work on
Palomar Mountain, either as owners or employees of the local businesses,
ranchers, State Park rangers etc.,
- 40% retired folks, these guys do most of the community service,
including comprising and running the local Planning Group, Volunteer Fire
Department, etc. Competent people with cool cabins.
- 9% are freaks and weirdos obsessed by one idiosyncrasy or
another. Generally this group consists of people who have drifted up
to the mountain in search of cheap, unsupervised housing. They stay
around until they get into trouble with the police then they disappear
- And the remaining percent is made up of cattle ranchers,
multi-millionaires, water barons and
others too eclectic to confidently categorize.
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:
- The Palomar Observatory, home of the 200 inch Hale Telescope
run by Cal Tech University. The Observatory is a scientific miracle
and if you can wrangle an "E-Ticket" tour, you'll never forget
it. Stand where Einstein stood when he visited!
- The Palomar School delivers Kindergarten through middle-school classes in a two
room schoolhouse located just down the road from the Observatory. The number
of students and teachers varies periodically as families come and go.
Teachers are a little hard to keep. When there's a good one, the
learning experience can be extraordinary. When there's a bad one, it
can be a nightmare.
- The Palomar "Mall": Very small mall, sort of
a petit mall. This tiny town center consists of Mother's
Kitchen, The Palomar Mountain Store
and 92060, the Palomar Mountain Post Office. Owned by a private
church group along with a retreat
facility and several other large properties on Palomar,
- Crestline, the largest and most dense housing area on Palomar.
- Bailey's Meadow. Campo Contento. Old people who have been partying together for thirty or
forty years, young kids growing up together, square dances, happy hours, Labor Day fundraising BBQ's, Fourth of July campouts.
Basically Norman Rockwell with SUV's, good wine and hot
- The Palomar Mountain State Park, a very nice, large, well maintained
campground, school camp and private religious camp.
- The Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department (PMVFD), and the Community
Sociologically, Palomar is like a fun but mildly dysfunctional family.
It has that very personal brand of politics that is common in small
People come and go, but the cultural institutions and petty
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
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
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
2 I'm also tapping into twenty years of personal participation in the Palomar
3 Santa Anna winds: http://newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/wea00/wea00001.htm
More? Palomar Mountain, California | Palomar Observatory | Palomar Past
Many thanks to Albert
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