Imagine a time when the San Luis Rey River ran freely, even in dry years. Imagine irrigated fields of corn and grain thriving in its valleys. Imagine small, self-sufficient villages along the valley slopes, scattered all the way from the ocean to Palomar Mountain and beyond.
In other words, imagine North County before European adventurers and missionaries claimed it for their own.
As development moves relentlessly up the valley, the evidence of this earlier era becomes ever harder to find. Nevertheless, glimpses remain. They remain in the landscape and in the efforts of Indians and academics to hold on to what is left.
It is possible to get a feel for the American Indian heritage of North County by taking a ride along California 76 from Oceanside. The first landmark encountered is Mission San Luis Rey. Established in 1798, it marks a turning point in the history of the American Indians of San Diego County--in many ways an end rather than a beginning.
The coming of the Spanish missionaries forever changed the Indian bands of the county, replacing centuries-old customs and beliefs with new Christian ways, and devastating many bands through conflict and exposure to new diseases.
Yet today, the mission's museum is one of the few places to see pottery, baskets and other artifacts of the earlier era. And the mission cemetery, where a large wooden cross marks the graves of what became known as the Luiseno mission Indians, testifies to the influence the church came to have over its new converts.
Still, notes Patricia Dixon, a Luiseno who is chairwoman of the American Indian Studies Department at Palomar College, "They are beautiful buildings and artifacts, but you don't go to the missions to see Indian culture. They treated the Indians as stupid and lazy." For other glimpses, travelers need to continue up the road.
As development begins to thin out past Bonsall and on toward Pala, it is possible to get some feel for the landscape of ancient days.
According to anthropologist Florence Shipek, one of the foremost experts on the Indians of San Diego County, numerous American Indian villages were located in the valleys along the San Luis Rey River. The Indians grew corn and a now-extinct grain similar to wheat in irrigated fields near the river.
Up on the slopes, at a level where a warm thermal belt rested atop the layer of cold air that settled into the valleys at night, they built their villages. Each extended family lived in a small cluster. Houses were made of reeds near the coast and bark that could be found farther up in the mountains, and the structures were generally surrounded by a "fence" of cactus for protection.
Each valley might contain 200 to 300 people--or as many as 2,000 to 3,000 in the largest valleys--with the chief and other tribal leaders living in a central cluster, and the others fanning out along the valley.
They knew how to use the land to sustain them without overtaxing the natural resources, Shipek said. They also had the surrounding mountains for hunting and spiritual communing and meditation. Although Indians today do not like to talk specifically about their sacred places, they still use the mountains above the valley for spiritual renewal.
Continuing up the road, the past converges with the present at the Pala Indian Reservation, where some of the Indians can trace their heritage to the original settlers.
It is one of eight North County reservations--the others are the Rincon, La Jolla, San Pasqual, Pauma, Mesa Grande, Los Coyotes and Santa Ysabel--that are home to about 4,000 American Indians.
Over time, the ties to the past have slowly been eroded, but at least some are retained at places such as the Cupa Cultural Center on the Pala Reservation.
Here a small museum of local and Southwestern Indian artifacts plus a library, work area for crafts, and classroom space help keep the heritage alive. Also on the reservation is the Mission San Antonio de Pala, the only one of the original Spanish California missions that continues its missionary purpose of serving Indians.
Continuing eastward, more glimpses of the past can be found in the landscape. Indian sites are scattered throughout the massive Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Pictographs, petroglyphs and grinding sites where Indians used rock mortars to process grain and acorns thousands of years ago testify to the long habitation of the region. More grinding sites and settlements can be found at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park south of Julian.
Still other glimpses of the past can be found throughout San Diego County at annual events that keep the American Indian heritage alive.
Yet glimpses are often all that is left. The forces of time, conquest and development have decimated the original Indian bands and erased most of their history.
In addition, according to archeologist and historian Richard Carrico, the history of American Indians living in San Diego County has virtually been ignored by historians.