Wrightwood, CA: An All-Too Cozy Village
People who grew up in Los Angeles have a superiority complex matched only by their East Coast counterparts in New York. They are prisoners of their civic pride. Forget Delilah and Soho House—being born in L.A. is the most exclusive club to which you can belong. What this rare nativist breed won’t immediately tell you is this: the trick to living out your years in L.A. is to leave it every six months.
One Angeleno wanted to explore small-town life outside of her self-perpetuated city-girl purview (Los Angeles can do that to you come autumn.) She wanted gingerbread houses and pies cooling on windowsills and candle-and-fudge hybrid shops. Snowcapped mountains and un-ironic gazebos. Pine. But mostly, it was a scheme to spend a two-and-a-half hour road trip to a romantic village with the stranger she’s just started dating.
Once on Highway 138, Cajon Pass, the new couple felt anxious from the open land. No cars or animals, not even a common bird. She mentioned the Mormon rocks, named after a group of 19-century Mormon settlers who came before migrating to Salt Lake City, but he’s distracted by the graffiti on a passing cargo train. They were in the honeymoon stage where silence pricks and stings.
About one-and-a-half hours northeast of Los Angeles, they drove into the 16-mile-long village of Wrightwood, a small, unincorporated mountain community in San Bernardino County; it has no formal government, no city hall, fire or police station. Sumner and Buford Wright obtained two-thirds of the valley from the Mormons, and Wrightwood was developed out of Sumner’s cattle ranch and apple orchard.
They stepped out of the car with faces half-covered behind black designer sunglasses. Picture Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny.” They were fish out of water. Not in Kansas anymore. City mice. However you want to put it.
The 2010 U.S. census reported Wrightwood’s total population 4,525. About 16 percent are military veterans. About 91 percent are white. The major industry is educational services, and health care and social assistance.
The two performed as sweethearts as they held hands and walked up Park Drive, Wrightwood’s main street. They visited Beverly’s Books, where paperback Danielle Steel novels go to die. They didn’t understand how an art fair could be called an art fair if it measured two shops long. They judged the local zip lining naturalists’ neoprene toe-shoes. They shared a moment of telepathy while spotting a furtive drug deal among three teenagers.
Claustrophobic from the fresh air, they stepped into the biggest shop in town, Wrightwood Vintage Antiques and Oddities, and met the owner, Brian Houghton, who rode into town on his Harley-Davidson three years ago, looking for breakfast, and retired there on the spot. Wrightwood hasn’t had snow in two years, according to Houghton, and what the town needed now was a new epithet, other than “on the way to” the adjacent ski resort, Mountain High. The town needs a destination zone.
The two city-folk asked what to do for fun.
“You gotta come up for Thanksgiving. We have a Christmas parade. It’s almost like a doo-dah parade. It’s all the locals—we do up our cars, bicycles, whatever you got. And they go around the block twice. And then we light the Christmas tree,” Houghton said. “And every Friday night we have a farmers’ market.”
Houghton, a part-time auctioneer and born-and-bred Southern Californian, has a hyper-local enthusiasm for Wrightwood. He’ll be a director on the Chamber of Commerce next year, he told them.
His wife calls the store the barbershop, “because nobody ever wants to leave.”
He owns everything in it, from the costume jewelry to the John Wayne collectible plates to the World War II regalia.
“We all help each other out. When somebody moves, they’ll call me up to come buy their stuff,” Houghton said. “I have Wrightwood history here, so when somebody new moves in or somebody needs something, a lot of times the stuff never leaves Wrightwood.”
After the couple left Houghton, they did what any new couple does to pass the time—go out to eat. Idle Harley-Davidsons stood guard outside the green-and-red Evergreen Cafe, but inside, bikers sat beneath hundreds of kitschy Halloween decorations. A pimply waiter in a backwards snapback served a middle-aged couple in matching black-leather newsboy caps. Everyone ignored the animatronic witch, whose sensors activated anytime someone walked in or out. The overheard conversations are the stuff of John Mellencamp songs. Next door at the Racoon Saloon, people were having more fun.
At one of two Wrightwood watering holes, the couple chose the Racoon Saloon over The Yodeler, a divey sports bar, for its pool table. There, the couple met Ashley, the native single-mother bartender. They sat next to Bill, an octogenarian who drank a cranberry-vodka and owned the seat at the bar. And they played pool with Travis, who was drunk at 2 p.m. because he had just broken up with his girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend, he couldn’t decide). Each of them had lived in Wrightwood for more than 20 years and couldn’t imagine living in a city. Outside, over a requisite cigarette, Travis told the couple a slurred anecdote about him punching through the door his girlfriend (ex-girlfriend?) had slammed in his face the night before.
“You know how it is, right?” Travis asked rhetorically.
The couple nodded in tandem, though they hadn’t even had their first argument. After Travis had his catharsis, the couple couldn’t breathe in any more pine. On the way to the car, dog-walkers, preschoolers and grandmas waved hello. The couple said, “Hi” back, but really saying, “See you never again.”
They would have felt better with a stoplight or a mall or a homeless person, but Wrightwood had none. The town proved too cute and too safe for the jaded Angelenos. It was clear that Wrightwood was not a place for young lovers. Complaining about the traffic but not really annoyed by it, the two repeated one-liners from the day, forming the narrative of their trip in the kooky village-town filled with kooky characters. They drove to their city holding hands the whole ride back.