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Island in the Trees : The Gaudiest Light Around Wrightwood Is the Shell Station Sign

October 06, 1985|CHRIS HODENFIELD | Chris Hodenfield is a Los Angeles writer

When Irma V. Mason saw the first raindrops splattering down, she rushed to the front door and called out to the afternoon skies: "Come on, now! Keep raining a bucket-load!" The rain was like a long-lost friend to the high-desert town of Wrightwood, falling on the junipers and dusted pine needles and opening everything up. She pulled in a lungful of the suddenly fragrant air. She didn't even notice that the windows of her Cadillac were down.

Irma V. Mason first came to Wrightwood during World War II, when there was but a single cafe and gas pump to serve fewer than a thousand souls. A quiet village in the far northeastern corner of Los Angeles County, about 35 miles north of San Bernardino and 6,000 feet up, the town still has not grown all that enormously--not when you compare it to what locals call "the other mountain." Go east, down past the huge sandstone Mormon Rocks, across the Cajon Pass where I-15 roars through, and up into the humming towns of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear; there you find the results of unchecked growth. There you find a citified wilderness.

But Wrightwood is an island in a national forest. It consists of 4,000 acres, rambling across five miles of the Swarthout Valley, and 4,000 acres it will always be--two or three ski operations, a scattering of summer camps, a couple of taverns, a delicatessen and an art gallery. The brightest light in town is the sign on the Shell station. Some metropolis! Some growth! "I can't even get someone to build a good motel up here," Irma V. Mason complained.

One benefit, she figures, to this lack of bowling alleys and movie houses is that Wrightwood does not attract actors and other excitable kinds of people. Oh, the hamlet has its share of writers and artists, and there is a fellow here in town building a flying saucer, but the more common professions seem to be firefighters and sheriffs. People belong to clubs up here. The Mormon church is strong. This is no juke-joint crossroads town. And Irma V. Mason seems the model citizen, an example of a breed getting rarer in this state--the Founding Father generation that suffers gently the arrival of crass newcomers. She will proudly trace her lineage on one side back to Zebulon Vance, governor of North Carolina, and on the other side to a Cherokee chief. She has a rugged kind of class, and she can even get away with wearing a bright-pink pantsuit.

After closing up the Cadillac, she returned to her small, paneled office and looked at the rain. "Before the war, this was a nice, quiet village." She allowed herself a sigh of brief, cosmic irony. "But any place in California used to be nice. The war changed everything. That's when all the immigrants came in. You can go up to Tabletop viewpoint now and look at the desert and think that you're looking at Los Angeles. The lights stretch from Lancaster to Victorville; it's like one big city."

Identical sentiments were probably expressed by the Paiute Indians, who once hunted in these mountains. And those sentiments were probably shared by Sumner Wright, the man the town is named for, who ran cattle here in the early 1900s and planted the apple orchards that still bear. When Wright lost everything in the Depression and turned things over to the banks and the subdividers, he made it possible for immigrants such as the Masons to settle down in his village, which sits astride the San Andreas Fault.

But Irma V. Mason's recollections made the original town sound like some sort of long-gone, high-desert Tahiti. So how, I wanted to know, did villagers of the 1940s keep entertained up here?

"We knew how to entertain ourselves," she replied crisply. "Aldous Huxley lived next door to me, and he brought lots of interesting people. D. H. Lawrence's wife Frieda spent two weeks with us. Krishnamurti used to come to visit. Desi and Lucy spent a few days." Her smile was bright and sharp. "We were self-sufficient."

Krishnamurti mixing it up with Lucy and Ricky Ricardo? Brave New World, indeed.

Although the evidence points up Wrightwood as a stronghold of stable, earth-abiding folks, you can still find plenty of hazy footprints of dreamers who found refuge in high places. The town's most dominant physical presence is the mountain ridge that runs along the southern side--an imposing wall of gray earth and sage that, in pale afternoon light, hangs over the town like a curtain. The hills are studded with abandoned gold mines--"gopher holes" of hard hopes. I was once shown an abandoned mine, and my guide gave it the following history: "This old guy had a big fight with his wife, so he came way up the hill here and dug straight in for 90 feet. He didn't find anything, and he died."

It seemed a poignant plot summary for a life.

A more intriguing story was the one about a flying saucer being built within Wrightwood's city limits. They said it was going up in the yard of a rascal named Red.

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