Mountain Stories: So the Sun Rises in the West Up Here?

We’re on mountain time up here. But we are also so off the grid, and maybe also off the map. People who live in Los Angeles give you a blank look if you say you are going to the San Jacinto Mountains, or to Idyllwild. I just say “the mountains above Palm Springs” and then they seem to have a slot into their minds to slip in the words.

So where are we anyway? Two and a half hours from L.A. That’s the perennial scale of travel in Southern California. Never mind where or distance, just how long.

But there’s not an easy answer as to where. And even once you are here, there’s no easy way to orient yourself. The sun seems to come up in the wrong place. And even if you have lived here for thirty-five years, as Bruce Edward Watts has, it’s possible  you might become momentarily disoriented.

For most of the seven years I have been coming to these San Jacinto Mountains I have stayed in the same part of Idyllwild, Calif., which is called Fern Valley. Fern Valley (a bit more than 6,000′ in elevation) is the blunt end of Strawberry Valley, and above the center of town. Strawberry Valley is the bottom of a bowl, says Bruce Watts, and is formed by three ridges. “We’re a miniature Yosemite,” he says, “in that we are surrounded by mountain peaks.” But which ones? I took this photo from a high point in Fern Valley; I’m always just guessing at what I’m seeing, except for the stunning beauty.

But why oh why does the sun in Fern Valley look like it rises in the west and not the east? It takes it a good while to lift itself up (if you’ll forgive me for thinking this way) over South Ridge, that’s why. In the meantime, it, the sun, is shooting light over to Marion Ridge, which is really to the north, and the light pours into Fern Valley as if tipped from a pitcher. Pouring in — from the north. (And of course it’s not rising from due east anyway since we are in the Northern Hemisphere. And since California curves along the Pacific west is not exactly west and . . .)

But if you look at my previous post, there is a panoramic shot of what we see from this end of the Valley, snapped by Bruce Watts, and you can move the photo laterally to see, from the left: Marion Mountain, Tahquitz Rock, Tahquitz Peak, and South Ridge.

And herein lies other complications for the mountain newcomer: language. Place names. In the San Jacinto Mountains and below in the Palm Springs desert is Tahquitz Peak, Rock, and Canyon. Also Lodge, Meadows, Mining District, Pines, and Valley. San Jacinto is a town, Forest Reserve, Federal Wilderness, Peak, Valley, Tunnel, Rancho, Fault, and box factory. Also a State Park and a State Wilderness. They aren’t next door to each other, I can assure you. By the way, from the valley we can’t see Mount San Jacinto, at 10,804 feet, unless you make the trek to the high country. It’s the second-highest mountain in Southern California.

The San Jacinto Wilderness is part of the San Bernardino National Forest. San Bernardino (town) is well west of here, but at close to sea level, on the desert.  The San Bernardino Mountains are across Interstate 10 from the San Jacinto Mountains. The I-10 here sits on top of the San Andreas Fault. There’s the San Jacinto Fault too, but it is at the bottom (mostly) of the south side of the Hill, as it is called up here, around the towns of Hemet and San Jacinto.

So how does even a seasoned mountain man have a moment of directional doubt? “There are no straight roads up here,” says Bruce,”no nice perpendicular lines going in one direction. Your direction changes at every turn. North-ish and then meandering. Riverside County sheriff’s deputies come up here from Hemet and get lost every time.” Bruce recently turned right as headed north on Highway 243 onto Jameson Road to visit a friend. As he wound his way up and stopped, he saw some lights and was expecting to see the village of Pine Cove — he thought he was looking north, but was actually looking south, to Idyllwild.

“We’re in a time and space warp up here,” Bruce says, laughing at himself.

As for me, I’m still wrestling with that puzzling sunrise.

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This is the eighth in a series called Mountain Stories. Text and copyright, Paula Panich, 2013. If you would like to use any part of it for non-commercial purposes, please see the Creative Commons section on the opening page of