Ah, the lure of cold-weather culture.
Where is it written that autumn comes clothed in brilliant reds and golds, chilly nights and brisk days? That children bundle up to pick out their pumpkins while grown-ups sip hot apple cider?
Lots of books, that's where.
It is the Official View of Autumn. It says right here in one of those books--published back East--that autumn is when Jack Frost softly glazes that land with icy dew, and kids get to jump into huge piles of gaudily colored leaves.
Well, not in Orange County. At least, not to any great extent. Here, we measure fall by the empty beaches, less-crowded restaurants, school activities, elections and a stray deciduous tree here and there doing its exhibitionist best to shed its coat like its cousins in colder climes.
But those hankering for a taste of the Real Autumn are not entirely out of luck. They have only to hop into their cars and head for Oak Glen.
There, a 1 1/2- to 2-hour drive from most of Orange County, is a picturesque mountain community of apple and cherry orchards and enough oaks to make Chip 'n' Dale think they died and went to Acorn Central. It is as if the Starship Enterprise beamed you into New England, except for the drier air and occasional lizard.
And while you are ogling the fall colors, you can reacquaint yourself with perhaps the most American of foods.
In Oak Glen, the apple is king, all the oaks notwithstanding.
At nearly a mile high, Oak Glen and neighboring Cherry Valley have the brisk climate to produce 26 varieties of apples, from the popular Red Delicious to the more exotic Arkansas Black. Also grown there, in lesser numbers, are pears, cherries, raspberries, chestnuts, gourds, Indian corn, pumpkins, quinces and winter squash.
Depending on the weather, the leaves change in late October, and the apple season, which began in September, extends to early December. This year, warm weather has delayed the process, so the leaves should be changing through November. Only fools and strangers bet on the exact week.
But visitors in the next few weeks will experience all the trappings of fall: majestic, leafy oaks, piles o' pumpkins, scarecrows, weathered fences, acorns underfoot, hot apple cider and enough other apple products to keep the doctor away at least until spring. These include apple fritters, apple dumplings, apple tarts, caramel apples, apple candy, candied apples, apple cake and, of course, apple pies. Most of the orchards are situated along Oak Glen Road's "loop." There are outlets about every mile or every few hundred yards, depending on where you are on the loop, which can be approached either from Yucaipa to the west or Beaumont to the south.
Another attraction, at least to those of geological bent, is the presence of the huge Banning Fault, which runs through the valley and intersects with the southern leg of the San Andreas. Although the folks in Oak Glen are happy to answer any questions about oaks or apples, they are decidedly quiet when it comes to the geological strata. They acknowledge it, but reluctantly, as you would own up to having a weird relative. It's as if the townspeople would like to say, all at once: "It's not our fault! How do you like them apples!"
Can you blame them? This is darn near paradise up here.
Settled in 1866, the glen is spread over rolling hills 5,000 feet up along the Riverside and San Bernardino county border in the shadow of 11,485-foot Mt. San Gorgonio. Fifteen ranches grow a total of more than 360 acres of apples. Several orchards offer "U-pick" outings (most of which are now closed, due to the warmer-than-usual weather), and some have quite elaborate stores.
One such operation has two locations: Snow-line Orchards in Oak Glen and Four Oaks Ranch in Cherry Valley, about a 15-minute drive from Oak Glen.
The apples grown at Four Oaks are sold at both places and are pressed into cider at Snow-line in a 100-year-old cider mill. Four Oaks has an open, mountaintop feel to it, with scenic vistas; a small zoo with ponies, hogs, goats, ducks and guinea hens; a U-pick orchard, and a U-squeeze cider shack. The U-pick orchard is nearly picked out, but the cart rides out to the orchards will continue in any case. The apple store and cider shack at Four Oaks will remain open through this weekend, and operations will then move to the Snow-Line store.
Snow-line is nestled in a tree-lined hollow and has a shaded picnic area under what the owners say is the oldest chestnut tree in California. There is no U-pick operation here, except for the chestnuts, which are usually scarfed up by curious picnickers before the farm workers can get to them.
Owners Mert and Shirley Hudson have been leasing and running Snow-line for 15 years, ever since Mert, 56, retired after 22 years in the Army. For the past 8 years they have been assisted by Mert's parents, Mason and Irene Simpson, who are known around the valley as Ma and Pa Apple.