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The Seven Seas : Southern California and beaches. Like Mom and apple pie, right? Well, sometimes they're not all Beach boys and babes, as we discovered during visits to seven waterfronts. (Consider the oceanless beach in San Bernardino County.) Sometimes they're havens for stars and starfish, the fishing set or bodyboarders. Or they can be a place where a longtime Angeleno hasn't take a dip for many years. : The Beach Is in the Eye of the Beholder : Mentone Beach

August 17, 1994|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behold! There, beneath a burned bush, in a charred swatch of scrubby landscape, lie an old towel and a partially melted zori.

Could these be signs of the elusive, possibly mythical Mentone Beach?

A trail marked with knobby motorcycle tracks leads through the skunk cabbage, yucca and rust-colored wild buckwheat to what may have been the shore--a rocky mound overlooking a patch of jigsaw-puzzle mud, with fissures still moist at finger depth.

Orange dragonflies patrol the receding pool at eye level, while their smaller, iridescent blue brethren skim the scummy surface. Sheets of beige muck drape scraggly brush like furniture covers in the home of a long-hospitalized old woman.

The heat pulses. Scan the horizon for other clues.

Beneath big thunderheads, San Bernardino Mountain pokes up over rolling hillsides so dry they look as if they'll combust if two golden grass stems rub together. A head-high, gray flood control wall slices down the vast wash for miles.

In the distance, Paul Bunyan, dressed in red shirt and blue cap, standing 30 feet high, surveys the hodgepodge of rock and Gunite-covered levees, his 12-foot-tall rooster friend perched on a nearby rooftop.

Beach, it might be said, is in the eye of the beholder, as much a languid state of mind as a swatch of sunny sand.

Even so, the search for Mentone Beach can be disorienting.

Head east on Highway 38, a few miles out of Redlands, and you begin to see equivocal indications: there's the Mentone Beach Christmas Tree Farm; there's the Mentone Beach Professional Building (a knickknack store and Jimbo's barbershop apparently its sole tenants).

Snapshots of locals preening with big tuna and bass cover the bulletin board at Green Spot Store, but the fish were all caught miles away, off better known California beaches.

On a post beside a case filled with slabs of beef jerky, faded fluorescent bumper stickers ask: "Where the Hell Is Mentone Beach?"

"If you have water and sand you have a beach," says Harvey Higgins, 46, from his bar stool at the town's cavernous Moose Lodge. "So what if Mentone's sand comes in boulder sizes?"

"A Brief History of Mentone" reports that the town, formed in 1886, "is just another gem that lends its luster to the thousands of others that make up the one and only California."

But, as Higgins tells the tale--"Shut up, Harvey" his pals interject from time to time--Mentone has always been "the other side of the tracks" to the snootier residents of Redlands.

*

When the surf craze hit in the early '60s, some Redlands High students started getting tubed at Huntington and Laguna. The Mentone kids flocked to the percolation ponds that trap runoff, letting it soak slowly into the water table.

Now, from March through May, folks from as far away as Yucaipa gather at the ponds to sunbathe, swim and drink beer. Jet Skis have even been spotted shredding the Olympic pool-sized ponds.

And the "beach" joke endures, finding its way onto refrigerator magnets and an entrepreneurial array of caps and T-shirts.

A few years back, Tom De Hart bought a joint called Dave's Place and turned it into the Mentone Beach Yacht Club, a friendly neighborhood bar with line dancing on the televisions, Van Morrison on the jukebox, and--for a nautical touch--an old oar over the door leading to the poolroom.

Every so often someone calls asking, "How much are your docking fees?" De Hart says. "I'll ask them, 'How big a boat do you have?' I'll lead them on for a while."

By midsummer, Mentone's percolation ponds vanish like mirages and beach-goers must quest farther up the massive wash.

Only the cops and cognoscenti know about the best beach spot now.

To get there, you hang a right at the old tractor, somewhere up near pro golfer Dave Stockton's spread, then wander a dirt road through orange groves watered from old concrete irrigation spigots. Down in the wash, a high dam of plastic sandbags holds back a deep pool, reached by an almost-elegant stairway of river rocks--the work of local teen-agers.

Overlooking the pool, a palm-frond covered, lattice cabana the size of a bus stop shelters an old couch. Two beach chairs, a green velour chair with footstool, and a stone coffee table are arranged outside.

*

The weather today is as surprising as this little oasis. One minute, cottonwood leaves frolic in swirling dust devils. Then the wind that has been holding the smog bank back around San Bernardino delivers the clouds.

Thunder booms. Raindrops the size of guppies pound down. The intoxicating scent of wet chaparral rises up and dominates the rest of the day.

Peter Van Horn is an enthusiastic supporter of the self-defined beach scene. A yacht skipper by trade, his primary residence is Newport Beach. But his spread just over the Green Spot bridge is a local landmark of sorts.

Beer can in hand, the ruddy-faced yachtsman offers a tour, moving past the fiberglass bucking bronco and deer in the front yard into a tangle of rusting cars, trucks, trailers draped with old carpet and mattresses, motor homes, corrugated metal sheds, and a wooden barn decorated with everything from nautical memorabilia to the door of a CHP car.

Along the driveway, he points to a multilevel purple-and-white metal-flake rocket ship that was used in a Japanese movie. Nearby, an eight-foot-high Statue of Liberty head stares off toward the distant percolation ponds.

The huge fiberglass rooster, he says, came from a topless-bottomless bar in Redlands.

As he stands on the leaky roof of his house, scanning the vast flood plain, Van Horn concedes that Newport is lovely. But Mentone Beach, he adds, is not without its advantages:

"Can you imagine putting a 30-foot Paul Bunyan in your front yard down in Newport?"

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