Idyllwild is one of those mountaintop Elysiums that make city dwellers question every aspect of their urban existence. Located a mere 10 miles (as the crow flies) from the bright lights of Palm Springs, Idyllwild is a scenic alpine hamlet locked in a pine tree–stuffed cove deep within the San Jacinto Mountains.
We went for the thrift stores but we stayed for the profusion of fringe-trendy restaurants, affordable rental cabins, warm smiles and evenings spent stoking the flames in our fireplace to the bebop staccato of winter rain on a wood-shingled roof as it turns from sleet into midnight snow.
We are pickers: the miners of the New West, the hearty few who escape the cities to explore the worked-over terrain and half-hidden ghost towns where the true treasure of today’s West manifests itself in the form of bolo ties, belt buckles, snap-button shirts and pre-worn boots. Like the ’49ers of old, we are interested in discovering and extracting hidden seams of wealth — odd as they may be.
There are veins of discarded couture to be found just beneath the surface of small towns all across the West. Like so many walls of silver-bearing quartz, thrift shops in places like Livingston, Montana, and Durango, Colorado, invigorate the passions of pickers and feed the demands of retro-loving fashion plates in cities all over this green Earth.
The road to Idyllwild is no different. The vintage prospecting began for us in Beaumont, a small waystation off the 10 freeway beneath San Gorgonio Mountain. Beaumont lacks the kitschy dino flare of nearby Cabazon or the addict-enabling glow of Morongo. What it does have is an “antiques district.”
Two long blocks of Sixth Street (running north of and parallel to the 10) are stacked with furniture, knickknacks and consignment clothing belonging to a bygone era. Things that once were cherished are yours to peruse and purchase if the price is right. Further east, you’ll find the Oasis Thrift Store — an accurately titled hodgepodge of bedding, VHS tapes, odds, ends and shirts advertising long-passed RV rendezvous and mid-’90s literacy campaigns.
Beaumont feels like a pass-by for motorists yearning for the velocity rush of the highway beyond. Yet the antiques district has at least one excellent reason to stay a while: Tacos & Beer.
The woman at Oasis Thrift Store broke into a big smile and nodded vehemently in the affirmative when we asked her about it. The long line on a Saturday afternoon spoke volumes. This tiny haunt serves up dangerously good mariscos and superlative micheladas.
You have your choice of five varieties of beer and Tajin, ranging in toppings and potency from the standard $7.99 “OG” michelada to the double Modelo $14.99 El Jefe. Most options come with a robust selection of cacahuates, shrimp and Mexican candy that bears the unfortunate name “Chaca Chaca.”
If I told you Beaumont’s Tacos & Beer has the best shrimp burrito I’ve ever tasted, would you write me off as an ignorant gringo? Care not I. You’ll be one less person vying for the pork rinds and tortilla chips that come with every meal. After you’ve settled up, the parking lot is an excellent venue to take stock of the fresh chamoy stains on the front of your shirt before facing the reality of Hemet, a city Southern California seems dead set on forgetting.
Nowadays, around 80,000 people call the agricultural valley northeast of Temecula home. Mention Hemet in Los Angeles and even polite company will have a hard time stifling the unconscious grimace that city conjures on the faces of people who have been there and lived to tell the tale.
For all the tasteless jokes about lifted trucks, tribal tattoos and spiritual dead ends that Hemetites have endured over the years, the city remains an essential facet of a broader Southern California many Angelenos are not prepared to accept. It is a breadbasket town supplying manpower, agricultural know-how and productive land to the great produce machine that keeps our region prosperous.
Hemet is also ground zero for the Ramona Pageant, an annual spectacle of dubious historic authenticity, which helps perpetuate convenient ethnic myths, profitable aesthetic nostalgia and a slipshod sense of cultural identity that still pervades the Angeleno consciousness almost a century later.
Conspicuously, Hemet’s main drag is named after the union's most broken state: Florida. The lack of synchronized lights on Florida is another exhibit to the town’s reputation as a place that is hard to escape. Say what you will about the infrastructure, Hemet is a picker’s paradise.
It’s strewn with faith-based thrift stores packed to the gills with artifacts of material culture freshly primed for resurgence in L.A.’s booming pseudo-Americana scene. Winners include a $15 portrait of John Wayne at the big-box Salvation Army outlet, yards of ironic wildlife T-shirts at two ultra-clean Angel’s View thrift shops in town, strong Western wear and jacket selections at the Goodwill off of Sanderson, and a host of other tidbits of valuable esoterica to be found at mom-and-pop shops throughout town.
The road toward Idyllwild is a zen exercise facilitated by an unceasing profusion of red lights. It’s the sort of road where people find inventive ways to pass the time. We spotted one couple driving along in a rusted Toyota Camry while the vivacious passenger tugged at something in the driver’s lap in a suspiciously erotic rhythm accompanied by erratic driving. Draw your own conclusions.
Once you bust out of Hemet, Florida becomes a series of winding, multiradial turns and switchbacks leading up to Mountain Center, where the road forks toward livestock-oriented Anza and recreation-rich Idyllwild.
We motored into town just as gray matte skies broke to bring welcome rain. It started on a Friday evening and didn’t really stop until Tuesday morning. It was a deluge, the kind of weather event that would spell cataclysm in Los Angeles.
Up at 6,000 feet with little on the itinerary besides stoking the fire and eventually hitting the well-endowed Community Church Thrift Shop on North Circle, the monsoon was a welcome reminder that there are rhythms at work beyond our big-city self-interest.
Between microbursts, we hit the T-shirt–rich oddity shop and the antique store at the top of the hill with the vintage Richard Nixon buttons and the $100 eagle bolo tie. There were brief interludes spent at chic Italian restaurant Ferro and the mountainside honky-tonk Idyology, where Idyllwild does its best Escondite/Bigfoot Lodge impression.
Many hours were spent in front of the in-room boob tube watching crude reality TV while $50 worth of well-seasoned cordwood burned in the fireplace and an inadequate supply of Mexican beer dwindled in the fridge. After a few days of this, you begin to feel the urge to cut all ties and disappear into the wilderness with a cast-iron stove and a full set of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A few hours shy of surrendering my earthly possessions and Colonel Kurtz–ing my way into the Idyllwild backwoods, an intervention arrives from unlikely quarters.
Over dinner, we struck up conversation with a jovial young waiter with tender blue eyes and a Ward Cleaver haircut. As we gushed over his chosen home, he dished on reality: “It’s a great place to live … for a little bit.”
This is a guy who knows. He’s lived it. This is also a guy wearing a short-sleeved shirt so we could see the white nationalist Wolfsangel and valknut tattoos on his wrist. I would ordinarily discount the opinion of someone who lacked the tact to cover his racist ink, but anyone who has seen fit to tattoo his body with symbols of white supremacy despite all mounting evidence to its contrary is someone well versed in the disparity between idealism and reality.
Plans to flee to the wilderness atop the 951 were tabled in favor of reality. It’s nice to entertain the notion of giving everything up and drastically changing your life, but hastily quitting the city and moving to the country is about as wise a decision as getting an SS-inspired blot on your flesh.
Look at the world: Have extreme gestures really done much for us lately? No. What ails our time is a lack of balance and compromise. For those Angelenos inclined toward the middle path, I strongly recommend a jaunt to the Hemet Valley. It is a bevy of unexpected delights, from gangbuster micheladas and midroad handies to white power FOMO.
If you’re not yet ready to experience the full grandeur of an area code heretofore unchampioned in the annals of Los Angeles boosterism, pop on in to a certain vintage store in downtown L.A. where the fruits of those fertile vintage are yours to purchase.
Call it farm-to-table fashion. Call it a gold mine. Call it the 951.