Julius Caesar gave us the Julian Calendar. Christmas was not on it. So, this particular tale’s title is not remotely redundant. However, as you shall see, the title nearly undid us. This makes the title more “un-done-dant”, than redundant.
Christmas in San Diego, California conjures up visions of a warm paradise in the mind’s eye of folks in far away snow places. We don’t have skiing weather. Yet, if somebody desperately needs a schuss fix, they can drive the 3 hours up to the mountains above San Bernardino. I have cut my lawn in the a.m. and gone skiing in the p.m. San Diego’s tropical paradise is another of those clichés held by so many, that they have become stereotypes; e.g., all Norwegians are blond, all females do poorly in math, and all Christmases in San Diego are sunny and warm.
The media contributes to the myth. Does anyone remember those John Denver Holiday TV specials, which had him singing Christmas Carols on a beach in front of a roaring fire, while surfers plied their sport in the background? The nation watches San Diego golf tournaments on bright green grass under palm trees in shirt-sleeve, 75 degree weather on TV. The viewers peer out their living room windows overlooking the yard of snow covering their yards. Our palm trees confuse people. They are not native here. Like most everything else, they are transplants from elsewhere.
All that having been said, San Diego is full of folks who came here temporarily 40 years ago and are still here because of the climate. At its worst, the weather is benign and virtually not an issue in anybody’s life. However, it can be chilly. So much for myths.
That was the sublime part of my tale. Let me get to the ridiculous….
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My co-worker David and his wife and family had extended an invitation to Elke, my wife, and me to attend a festive, pre-Christmas gala at their home. They live in the east San Diego County town of Julian. Julian is about 60 miles from the beach, as the crow flies. The day was typically warm, but rain had been predicted for the evening, to be followed by a cold front. This would not pose a problem. We were in the rainy season and, anyway, we probably would be back home before the rains came. The party was to take place between 2 and 9 p.m. We would need that big window of time. Elke grew up in Mexico City and tends to get ready for any event using a Mexican timetable; i.e., running late. We left around 5:00 p.m. for the hour plus drive. It was a relatively easy drive all the way east, where we joined the final stretch of road into Julian. That was State Road 79. As we drove the winding road that traverses the Cuyamaca Mountain Range, it began to rain ever so slightly. I was quietly glad it was already dark. We wouldn’t have to contend with visually coping with the burned out hulk of the formerly extremely beautiful Green Valley Campgrounds area. The Cedar Fire had decimated the park’s magnificently dense trees and wildlife just three years prior and left the area looking like a moonscape. As we progressed, the rain came down harder. As 79 goes through its winding gyrations, it rises in elevation ever so slightly with every fraction of a mile. The incremental increase in elevation is not noticeable. About midway through our drive on 79, I began to see what appeared to be snowflakes on the windshield and remarked about it to Elke. I really wasn’t sure. I dismissed it as a quirky anomaly. We were, after all, in the land of palm trees, sunny beaches, and surfing. Then I observed snow was sticking to the road. That, too, was a surprise. Usually, tire traffic keeps a road clear of snow for a time because of the heat generated by tire friction. But, 79 is not a heavily traveled road and the snow was immediately sticking on it. I had to decrease my speed. David’s house is at nearly the highest elevation in its immediate region, or about 5,000 feet. As we neared his home, I had to further reduce my speed. The house's elevation is significant only because the snowline this evening was around 4800 ft. We had entered a winter wonderland. The road was becoming treacherous because the snow was rapidly accumulating. We had to drive up an access road to reach David’s driveway. The access road had two legs, both of which were close to 45 degree inclines. Each leg of the climb is connected by a 90 degree right turn. To the left of that turn lies a deep ravine with no guard rail. The ravine presented no problem on our ascent, since the car exhibited good traction as I made the requisite right hand turn. We continued up to a nearly level area at the top and parked. As we exited our car, we were nearly swept off our feet by extremely harsh wind gusts, which literally took away my breath. I was also without a jacket. It had been in the mid-70s when we started our drive. The gusts were bitterly cold and blowing at a guess-timated 35 m.p.h. It was now around 6:30 p.m. We were still “on time” under the Mexican clocking system.
As we entered David’s cozy abode, we were surprised to discover many folks had already left. David commented that most had rapidly exited, when the first snowflakes began falling. They obviously were more experienced than we were in San Diego’s “back-country” living. We began to partake of some of the delicious refreshments. The numbingly brisk, 75 foot walk in from our car to the house was just beginning to wear off when a guest, who lived locally, and who had left earlier telephoned back and admonished, “Anybody not leaving right away, would be well advised to either depart immediately or spend the night. The roads are very bad”. David and family kindly offered to put us up for the night, but we felt that would have been an imposition on our part. The topic of everyone’s conversation was now the growing storm and we decided to return back home. It was suggested that we drive back by continuing on to Julian. That would be an easier, albeit longer, drive. We said our farewells, embarrassingly exiting so soon after having so tardily arrived. Barely a half hour had transpired since our arrival. It was incredulous to believe that the road could have become so treacherous, so quickly. The road? Heck ! David’s driveway was treacherous. Elke cleverly walked down beside it in the already inch deep, snow-covered vegetation along its side. I slid down the last 12-14 feet of driveway on my shoe soles exhibiting my best, downhill racer, skiing technique. I had acquired that technique in the Alps, some years earlier. I recollected once skiing in Garmisch, Germany in a snowstorm already so severe in the morning, that the ski lift workers shut down all the lifts completely for the day. The lifts were in danger of being blown off their pulleys by the persistent cross winds. That long ago snowstorm in the Alps couldn’t match this storm in sunny San Diego. I have never seen a snowstorm come up so fast in my life.
First, we had to clean off the windshield. That was no fun using bare hands and no snow scraper. Recall also that I had no jacket. Some of the blanketed windshield had frozen in this Alpine-like storm. I couldn’t see well enough to do the scraping properly, since my eyeglasses fogged up. As we departed, we immediately had to renegotiate that 90 degree turn on the access road at the bottom of its first 45 degree downslope. If that was accomplished without plunging down the ravine, we were immediately faced with negotiating the downslope's second leg with its own steep downslope. At its bottom was a final, sharp, right hand turn. Oh, brother, what terror! The guard barrier-less ravine was waiting for us in a straight ahead direction. If I went down that first hill and started sliding, it was a dead ahead plunge down the ravine. Was I frightened? You bet. I would have been uncomfortable negotiating this hill with snow tires and chains. Rather, I was equipped with my semi-bald, California beach weather tires. I cautiously proceeded down the snow-covered incline barely moving and literally inching the vehicle down the two inclines. Amazingly, I completed both legs of the turn and made it down to good old 79. Whew, what a relief!
We did select the route on the 79 down into Julian. That drive wasn’t exactly a piece of cake either, since patches of dense fog obscured the way. Just as related to us, it was a gradually declining stretch of road. As we descended on it, the snow slowly turned to slush and then into welcome rain.
As we drove down to Julian, amongst my sighs of relief, I reflected back on Julian’s history. It is an old, gold-mining town. Gold was discovered in 1869, resulting in a gold rush. My thoughts flashed back to the miners who had come here during those days to stake their claims and get rich. Some probably had heard of balmy San Diego and lived, no doubt, in tents or "under the stars". Then they had to face their first, frigid winter ill-prepared for days like this, which in later years in the Alps would lead to an easy “off-day” for weather hardened, ski lift operators.
Copyright © 2007 by Frank Koerner