Monday, February 16, 2015

Artsy, fartsy beautiful Idyllwild is my latest place-obsession

On the way to the desert that is Palm Springs, up in the San Jacinto Mountains, there is a town called Idyllwild. Seems like a name you'd only hear in a movie, right? Well, there is a movie called Idlewild with Andre 3000, filmed in Atlanta but set in in a made-up town. Check the Wiki-world before quoting me on this. That place has nothing to do with this place. 

Before ever hearing about Idyllwild, I was at a restaurant in Beverly Hills and somehow got into a conversation with my server about New York. I told her I lived in Brooklyn for a little. I told her I love New York. "Did you ever make it to Woodstock?" she asked. I didn't, but I had wanted to. "If you want to get a feel for that Woodstocky-vibe, but you're staying in California, you have to check out Idyllwild." Since then, I began to research and found next to nothing written about the place, aside from one decade-old piece in the NYTimes, so I made an educated 50-50 guess: Either this place is amazing and undiscovered or it's horrible and there's nothing to see. Turns out, it's anything but horrible.

It's a little scary driving up, when you can actually see how high you are. One exaggerated movement and if unlucky, it's either into a rock or off a cliff you go. It was also dark and rainy on our trip up--my friend said something about it having to do with a marine layer (another term to Wiki). 

First stop: The Funky Bazaar. And what a magnificent first stop to make. Peter, the owner, moved from LA five or so years ago; he came to Idyllwild on a writing project, decided to stay and gives a welcome speech of sorts as soon as you step inside. There's a main level, an upstairs and a downstairs at the gallery/shop. Each floor features different stuff--pieces by local artists upstairs; records, a record player, antiques (all chosen by Peter) downstairs; and my personal favorite, the $5 Playboy grab bag: three '80s or '90s mystery issues, wrapped in plain paper and a discrete skinny ribbon. 

I asked Peter if he could suggest some places for us to visit, and things for us to eat. He said the bake shop, for sure (Idyllwild Bake Shop & Brew, where we had these amazing little bacon maple scone holes fresh out of the oven), the nature center (which we didn't have the chance to visit this time) and Bubba's Books (a tiny shop, owned by a delightful older man named Steve, where books of all sorts are piled up to the ceiling and each is sold at or around $3). I asked Peter to tell me more about the food in Idyllwild; what's good, what's not so good, what's absolutely life-changing and he said,  "All the food in Idyllwild is good. Nothing is bad. No one sits around and says 'You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to cook shitty food for the people that come to my restaurant.' People here try their best, and if they're having an off-day, so what? Everyone has off days." Peter's perspective, his honesty and enthusiasm are refreshing, almost enchanting. 

On a February Saturday we were hoping for snow, but at a steady 43 degrees for most of the day that wish didn't come true. Someone we crossed paths with in a shop told us to head up the mountain in the afternoon because it was dusting so we did, but there wasn't any "dust" to see on that particular day, or maybe just not at that particular moment. People in Idyllwild, and not just Peter and Steve, are nice. Trinkets are inexpensive and authentic. Locals have a Sunday ease about them, and more than once we stopped to chat with randoms, who told us about childhood winters and summers spent in Idyllwild and homes passed down from family members. There is no police department in the unincorporated municipality and the Mayor--who was legitimately voted into office by the people--is a dog named Max. Dolly Parton is more than rumored to have had a home there for years, and it's no one's claim to fame. 

You'd think a town so slight would lack culture, but this place overflows with it. We were greeted at Mountain Mike's by Mike, a rugged white guy who speaks perfect Spanish and does incredible leatherwork--everything in the store is handcrafted by him. We picked out some really cool Mexican prints and fat bundles of sage while Mike shared pictures and stories of his granddaughter with us. It's a cowboy's dream in there.

The trails in Idyllwild are abundant, though we didn't do any hiking this time. Suicide Rock is famous to people who do the hiking/rock climbing thing around these parts and really, it's a sight to see from the mini rock I'm pretending to scale above. I won't say I want to retire in Idyllwild, because I'm too young and still too poor to retire. But if one day soon I'm as fortunate as Peter, and someone (anyone!) sends me up the hill to write a story of some kind, I'll gladly pack up my things and go. As a girl who finds enjoyment in trips to almost anywhere, it's not quite as often that I declare a place magic. But Idyllwild is, without a doubt, one of the most magical places I've visited thus far.

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