Next time you're sinking hopelessly in L.A. funk -- crawling glacier-like down the 405 or breathing hot, worn-out air while waiting for a bus -- think of a mountain village with no stoplights. Think of cellos and jazz and wildflowers. Think of silence.
Idyllwild, a few hours' drive from Los Angeles or Orange County, is something of an artists colony, with 15 galleries and dozens of resident artists, musicians and writers -- all of whom are outnumbered by the squirrels. Surrounding the village are campgrounds as well as hiking and mountain bike trails. Looking down upon it is Lily Rock (sometimes called Tahquitz Rock), which attracts climbers from around the world.
This time of year, the winter population of 3,000 begins to climb upward to its summer peak of about 6,000, as the heat sends desert dwellers fleeing to their second homes.
There are two ways to get there. There's the winding Highway 243, which runs between I-10 and Highway 74. (Take your time and enjoy the scenery, but use the pullouts, allowing the jerks behind you to be on their way.) Or you can take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and arrive on foot after an 8 1/2-mile hike, mostly downhill, to Humber Park, just outside town. Most people can make the journey in four to five hours, says Pat Boss of the U.S. Forest Service, which means it could take much longer if you are not "most people."
Artist Leslie van Nimwegen stumbled onto Idyllwild by accident while searching for a place to live in Lake Elsinore. A friend suggested that if he had time, he might drive up to Idyllwild. Van Nimwegen did and rented a place that day, 33 years ago.
He's the artist-in-residence at Two Babes in the Woods, a gallery that also sells rare books, antiques and autographed vintage records. People sometimes pause to watch him work, but he doesn't mind.
"I'll even throw in a free lesson here and there," he says. "That's the small kind of thing that puts Idyllwild apart from the rest."
For those who have settled in Idyllwild, life is suffused with the arts. Elementary school children are taught art by local painters. At the private Idyllwild Arts Academy, set among the pines and meadows, high school students choose from classes in the visual and performing arts, writing and film in addition to academics. The school has become increasingly involved with the community as well, sponsoring workshops and free performances. The next event, called Painting's Edge, is an artists residency program from June 26 to July 9.
The Art Alliance of Idyllwild takes a leading role as well, organizing open studio tours and events, often in conjunction with gallery openings the first Saturday of the month. Their next effort, the Incredible Edible Art Tour, in which local restaurants dish it up at the galleries, is June 5. And every Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., June through September, the Alliance hosts Sunday Morning Art Cafes -- a casual conversation with artists -- at a different gallery each week.
One of Van Nimwegen's most popular paintings, "High Country Paradise," hangs above the mantle of a stone fireplace at the Restaurant Gastrognome, which serves a creative assortment of steaks, poultry and seafood. There's plenty of ethnic food too -- Chinese, Mexican and Greek -- in addition to home-style meat and potatoes. At the center of town is Jo' An's, a restaurant and sports bar with live entertainment on weekends.
But if there's a restaurant that embodies the artistic spirit of Idyllwild, it's Cafe Aroma, which offers a blend of Italian and French cuisines. What comes on the side varies: On Tuesday nights it's jazz. On Saturday mornings, there's chess. Sunday mornings are for classical guitar music. Other events, including theater and readings, are scattered throughout the week. It's also an art gallery.
Owned by Hubert Halkin, former chairman of the mathematics department at UC San Diego, Cafe Aroma is a true hangout, a sunny place where locals and visitors gather to eat, drink and socialize. There was a visitor a few weeks ago, Halkin says, named Barry Somebody-or-other. Because of a musical performance that night, seating was tight. Barry -- it turns out his last name was Manilow -- took a table in the reading room, where Halkin keeps his own books as a free lending library.
During the Aug. 28-29 Jazz in the Pines festival at the academy, performers are likely to stop in, Halkin says, and there may even be some impromptu jam sessions. This year's jazz festival will feature David Benoit and Lee Ritenour. Other acts are still being booked, but among those confirmed are Hiroshima and Charles McPherson.
Idyllwild offers a sliding scale for outdoor activity, from sitting on a rock to climbing one. Trails are ready for hikers and mountain biking, and the alpine woods await backpackers and campers.