Our journey to the bloom appeared doomed.
A portent of this looming disaster occurred 20 minutes earlier in a semi-derelict mini-mall parking lot in Lake Elsinore when we pulled up to a drive-thru coffee shack. We suspected we were the first customers the sleepy barista had seen in months. She must have run out of actual coffee; the brew she served us was steamed, watery milk with coffee coloring.
The Viking, who was doing double duty as driver and photographer, was not pleased. He likes his cap as dark and viscous as 30 weight. “This is not good,” he pronounced, with a gravity that made the Terminator look like Jerry Lewis.
A few minutes later we confronted a chaotic, stalled mass of traffic on the west side of Interstate 15 trying to edge as close as possible to the psychedelic hillsides of the superbloom. The blockade of California Highway Patrol vehicles at every strategic access point said that wasn’t going to happen.
This is even worse,” the Viking said. It was bad enough to thwart him in his desire for caffeine. We couldn’t let anything stand in the way of our mission. And our mission was a Highway 74 road trip, from the ocean to the desert, as holy a pilgrimage as the Camino de Santiago or a trek to Mecca.
“Quick, take a hard left and get on the freeway on-ramp!”
The Viking had been a driver in the Swedish Army. He could handle a 10-ton armored vehicle. He could even handle our sub-sub economy rental. The “toaster” was about as durable as a wet shoebox. We never left anything of value in it when we were out of sight. You could open the trunk with a bobby pin and a well-aimed fart. If the police had caught us driving it in Newport Beach, they would have loaded it onto a flatbed and dumped it in Downey or Tujunga.
“What are we doing?” he asked.
“We’re looking for an exit and a frontage road.”
“And then what?” The Viking grinned evilly, anticipating my ill intent.
“And then we’re going to be bad citizens.”
The grounds of San Juan Capistrano feel like another time.
The old basilica collapsed in 1812 when parishioners were at services. It is considered a holy site by the Catholic Church and will never be rebuilt.
Let’s begin this with Sergeant Ortega.
Born in New Spain in 1734, José Francisco Ortega was probably a mestizo who joined the army to escape poverty. He rose through the ranks while stationed in Baja California and was eventually promoted and induced to join Portolà’s expedition to Alta California. He was with the party that found the site for Mission San Juan Capistrano. When he retired, he was given a land grant that included Santa Barbara, and that, had he lived another 200 years, would have made him exceedingly rich. Unfortunately, a year after settling on his rancho, he fell off his horse and died. Which must have really pissed him off.
At least, I assumed it did, and that’s why he cursed the stretch of Highway 74 between its starting line at Interstate 5 in San Juan and the traffic light that prevents you from driving into Lake Elsinore. It is, by most accounts, one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the United States. Though specific statistics are not available, HG.org, a legal website, says that drivers are more likely to get in an accident here than on any other road in California. That’s José Francisco making sure people fall off their horses, or in this case, Camrys with tinted windows or jacked-up F-150s emblazoned with MAGA decals.
“The whole stretch of road is extremely dangerous,” says Officer Nelson of the California High Patrol Border Division. “Generally, the problem is unsafe speed, distraction, or DUI. But you also have a lot of motorcyclists who like to get out there on the weekend and push the envelope.” Faced with this daunting drive, the Viking and I decided to first make peace with God.
If you grew up in Southern California, the chances are your fourth-grade class took a field trip to Mission San Juan Capistrano, the most famous of the 21 California missions founded by (now) Saint Junipero Serra and his Franciscan brothers. And you were probably too busy trying to give someone a noogie to completely absorb the astounding architectural beauty. The lovely and loquacious executive director, Mechelle Adams, escorted the Viking (who I suspected felt a genetic pull to plunder and chase monks around with an axe) and me around the 10-acre grounds.
“Leon René, the composer who later wrote ‘Rockin’ Robin,’ was listening to the radio with his wife one morning and heard about the swallows coming back to Capistrano. So he got on his piano and came up with, ‘When the Swallows Come back to Capistrano,’ ” Adams told us as we walked among an extraordinary bloom of poppies that she had the prescience to plant around the ruins of the old basilica.
René’s 1940 song became one of the many anthems that soldiers took overseas with them, and when the war ended and the era of car vacations began in earnest, everyone wanted to visit Capistrano. (The mission was built on cliff swallow nesting grounds, and for the many years when the mission was in ruins, it was perfect fall sanctuary.) “The song ended up making the community more aware of the mission. The birds became our avian ambassadors.”
El Adobe Restaurant in San Juan Capistrano.
Memorabilia from the Ramona Bowl in Hemet.
After the secularization of mission lands by the Mexican government in 1833, the California missions became ruins. San Juan Capistrano was part of a cattle ranch when Abraham Lincoln returned them to the Catholic Church. The mission underwent a long period of slow renovations, gradually evolving from a small parish church to a world-class destination with art exhibits, a huge mariachi festival, weddings, and weekend musical acts during the summer that sell out months in advance. Thousands of visitors roam the grounds each year, and Adams notes that there is no “typical” missions visitor. Some are pious and come to pray in the Serra chapel while some visit with no expectations and are left speechless by the property’s beauty.
The Viking was especially taken with the ruins of the basilica, the site of an earthquake one Sunday morning in 1812 that buried many parishioners. “It’s like standing in ancient Rome,” he remarked. “I’ve never experienced anything like it in the States.”
Spiritually fortified, we got on the Ortega Highway, passing infamous sites such as Dead Man’s Curve and Blood Alley. Local legend also has it that ghosts, particularly a malevolent clown, are sometimes seen at night, along with inexplicable lights and even a skeleton said to climb telephone poles. We were much more terrified by Donny Deathwish, who passed us in his souped-up Nissan on a double-blind curve. The Viking hit the brakes hard and muttered something in Swedish about Donny, a reindeer, and sharp, barbed horns. A car came from the other direction a few seconds later — Donny had been very close to becoming hamburger on the highway. When we reached the traffic light at Lake Elsinore, he was only one car length in front of us.
The high country outside is as beautiful and majestic as anything in the Sierras.
The lake is the largest natural freshwater body in Southern California. Though largely forgotten the last 70 years (before its dubious resurgence as a comparatively affordable bedroom community for Orange County), the town was once fashionable in 1920s and ’30s Hollywood for its spa waters and bungalow hideaways. Many celebrities had second homes here, though the one that intrigued us the most was Bela Lugosi’s house. It was only a couple hundred yards from where we sat at the light with Donny Deathwish, so we turned right, hung a U-turn, and looked it over. It’s wonderfully benign and, in fact, looked like the guest cottage at the house my grandmother owned in Pasadena from 1940 to the early ’60s. There’s absolutely nothing blood-curdling and horrifying about it — which, of course, is the super creepy part.
For those who slept through March, the Oregonian rainforest that was Southern California this year produced one of the most vivid and pervasive blooms in decades. Satellites in space could see the profuse flora. It exploded in the desert, marched toward the coast, and then headed north. The hillsides of Lake Elsinore had become celebrities, and the Viking and I would not be denied an autograph.
We took the first exit a couple miles north on the interstate, found a frontage road, and doubled back. As I suspected, a few other renegades were as determined as we were to avoid the estimated 150,000 people who, over the next few days, swarmed the hillsides. I have had my fair share of psilocybin mushrooms and can attest to their sensory-heightening effects, but there was no need for an extra buzz that afternoon. The Viking was led away by his camera.
Although heavy rains produce impressive blooms once or twice per decade, this year’s was the most spectacular in a generation. The vivid colors of the superbloom could be seen from space.
I found a rock, sat, and stared. It’s as close as I’ll ever come to being in a van Gogh painting.
We snapped out of the hypnotic effects of the superbloom as the light waned and the freeway behind us filled with impatient commuters. Our vision of finding a cozy little ’50s-era motel on the highway faded on the outskirts of Hemet when we found ourselves surrounded by the kind of chain food/motel/store junk that fills you with a nauseating dread that you took a wrong turn and ended up in Phoenix. Wordlessly, the Viking guided us north, back to my digs in Redlands. My wife and daughter adore the Viking and were thrilled to see him. My toddler clung to his leg like a swamp leech.
“I am glad you’re back, too,” my wife said, leaning in to deliver a personal endearment. “The sink’s clogged.”
At 10 a.m. the next day, we were in Hemet at the Ramona Bowl. Helen Hunt Jackson, a novelist and activist for Native American rights, wrote the book Ramona in 1884, and in 1923 British theater director Garnet Holme staged the first adaptation in a natural amphitheater a mile from downtown Hemet. A Romeo and Juliet tragedy of the Old West, the 3 ½-hour production is the longest-running outdoor play in the United States.
“In terms of atmosphere, we need as many people as we can get,” director Dennis Anderson told us as we strolled the Ramona set. The audience section is concrete with stationary benches that seat 3,000, but the set is an entire hillside with trails, a road, encampments, and a little adobe hacienda. There are 380 cast members in the play. The only two professionals are the leads — Ramona and Alessandro — but, as Anderson points out, “There are some people who have held their roles for 20, 30 years. The lady who plays Senora is my wife. She’s a trained stage actress, and she has held the role for 12 years. The lady who played the role before her had it for 22 years.” The cast is mostly from Hemet, but some come from as far as Rancho Cucamonga. “The cowboys,” he says, “have to be real cowboys. They come from ranches all over the area and bring their own horses.”
The role of Ramona launched careers for actors such as Raquel Welch (born Jo Racquel Tejada), a San Diegan who had the title role in 1959, and Anne Archer, who was a local college girl. Anderson, who has directed the play since 1995 and was head of the drama department at Mt. San Jacinto College, started as a cast member before moving up to play Alessandro in the early ’70s.
Attending a performance of Ramona is one of the most quintessential California experiences, a perfect bookend to a day of contemplation among the swallows at Capistrano.
The road took us next to The Sugarloaf in Mountain Center. A weekend brunch destination for motorcyclists and desert and mountain dwellers for decades, the café closed in 2013 but reopened last year under the guidance of Gabbi Rose, a Palm Springs entrepreneur who has made it the busiest spot around Pinyon Pines. We were hoping to run into her at the restaurant. We were also hoping to stave off imminent starvation. Editor's Note: The Sugarloaf has since closed permanently.
Unfortunately, a CHP cruiser and a CalTrans truck had blocked the road east of downtown Hemet on Highway 74. Winter rains had caused some landslides, and the highway was closed up to Mountain Center. An officer suggested we detour south through Anza and then veer north.
The less said about Anza, the better. I’m sure it has its charming side, though we encountered no one who wasn’t exhibiting the telltale meth jaw click. We fled in the toaster. It was too late in the day to visit The Sugarloaf, so we headed into Idyllwild, stashed our gear, and set out to explore. The Viking liked the retro look of Idyllwild Bunkhouse, where the young woman at the desk told us about a mysterious spaceship house down the road. The gleam in the Viking’s eyes was similar to that of his ancestors when they caught sight of the Northumbrian coast.
The next 90 minutes were spent chasing GPS coordinates and stopping pedestrians to ask directions. At one point, the Viking was sure we were within a few yards of it on a little cul-de-sac of mountain cabins in Pine Cove. We saw a man working on his four-wheeler in his driveway. He was potbellied, tattooed, and wore a camo shirt proclaiming his readiness to kill for God and country.
“Spaceship?” Camo-man asked incredulously. “You been sampling that loco weed?”
We assured him that whatever narcotics were in our systems had been legally prescribed and only served to enhance our reality. With suspicious ingenuousness, he equally assured us that the Big Rock Drive we were looking for was closer to Idyllwild. We followed his directions. We got lost.
Back at the Bunkhouse, we punished a few gin and tonics. The next morning, they fought back. The Viking was convinced Camo-man had conned us. We drove back to the cul-de-sac, and after some careful peering up the hillside, we found our ship. The round, yellow pod perches on a little rocky peak with forever views. Though no one was home to give us a glimpse inside, the Viking went snap happy on the exterior.
Finnish architect Matti Suuronen designed the Futuro houses in the late 1960s. Approximately 80 to 100 of these prefab pod homes were built, and according to the Futuro Home website, at least 64 still exist, scattered around the world. Pine Cove’s is the only known to exist in Southern California.
Now that we’d found our unicorn, we were in the mood for another. We headed down 74 to an extraordinary example of residential brutalist architecture near Mountain Center. The architect, who Palm Springs Life agreed not to name, reportedly designed it to be his personal dream home overlooking the Coachella Valley. Unfortunately, a busted marriage forced him to sell the unfinished property for pennies. The current owners plan to restore it.
We were road-tripped out and had lost all confidence that our little white toaster would ever make it back to the rental lot. We descended swiftly toward El Paseo, urged on by a maniac with pink hair who tailgated us in her Escalade at 75 miles per hour.
When we reached the terminus at Highway 74 and Highway 111, we faced a choice: There was El Paseo, block after block of retail stores offering the finest in luxury goods and services. We needed only to hide the toaster and then max out our credit cards on Hermès scarves, Gucci handbags, and Blahnik heels.
Or we could go to AC3 at Hotel Paseo and quench our road-weary thirst.
We chose wisely.
A sign in Idyllwild warns of Bigfoot crossing.
Construction is underway for a four-star boutique hotel, Plaza Banderas, next door to the old basilica; it should open next year. Meantime, start at
the edge of the Pacific at the Blue Lantern Inn in Dana Point. The views are spectacular, and it’s 15 minutes to the mission. bluelanterninn.com
Raj Panchal, the gregarious new owner of the Idyllwild Bunkhouse, had great instincts when he took over this 1946 mountain motel in 2017: He didn’t change a thing. idyllwildbunkhouse.com
At journey’s end, you need go no further from El Paseo than Hotel Paseo. The rooms are lovely, and the attached AC3 Restaurant + Bar pours a stiff drink. hotelpaseo.com
A five-minute walk from the mission, El Adobe de Capistrano is partially housed in a structure built in 1797. The restaurant dates to 1948 but didn’t serve Mexican food until then-President Nixon asked the chef to make his favorites. Try the blue crab enchiladas. 949-493-1163
The Sugarloaf is worth a trip up 74
on its own merits. It’s tough to get a table for brunch on the weekends, but bring The New York Times and be patient. The buttermilk biscuits and red pork belly bacon are worth the wait. 442-400-9674
For breakfast on the valley floor, you want the blueberry-custard French toast at Wilma & Frieda on El Paseo in Palm Desert. The always-bustling morning hub has a second location in Palm Springs. wilmafrieda.com
The Futuro House outside Idyllwild is hidden on a hilltop.
Mission San Juan Capistrano is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but it’s best to check the online calendar. (Sharing the grounds with 2,000 fourth-graders may not be your idea of tranquility.) Also check for upcoming exhibitions. missionsjc.com
The Futuro House is located on Big Rock Drive in Pine Cove — directly behind a three-story house, so it’s difficult to find at first. This is private property: If someoneis home, ask permission before you start snapping photos. thefuturohouse.com
The Ramona Bowl only runs a few weekends a year, from mid-April through the first weekend in May. Great seats are a bargain, and it’s less than an hour from downtown Palm Springs. ramonabowl.com