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At Mentone Beach, Silt Gets Between the Toes

The joke's on the out-of-towners at Inland's oceanless beach, less a strip of sand than a state of mind.

July 06, 2006|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

At least 60 miles from the coast, where the San Bernardino Mountains shoot through clouds, a signpost painted on a weather-beaten water tower beckons like a desert oasis: Mentone Beach.

The same two words adorn a gas station, a liquor store and a car repair shop on the main drag, Highway 38, promising cool water in a place where stepping outside feels like stepping into a blast furnace.

Some locals titter when an out-of-towner begs for directions to the beach, and point not west to the Pacific but east toward the rocky shores of Mill Creek, which slithers out of the San Bernardino Mountains to the valley floor.

There unfurls Inland Southern California's oceanless beach, which can vanish if the creek dries up in the summer, a shore that's less a strip of sand than a state of mind.

Clamber down rocks from Highway 38 into clear, cool, ankle-deep water. The creek, as wide as two parking spots and bounded by rocks, not sand, ducks under a bridge scrawled with "I {heart} Larry." Kids laze on inner tubes their mom lugged from the car and stare through goggles at the national forest's fire-scarred ridges.

Is that a breeze?

The beach in many ways bolsters this nearly 8,000-person town, with so little to distinguish it from other blips that decades ago some liquor store owners plastered the local gag on bumper stickers: "Where the Hell Is Mentone Beach!"

The beach, with gray silt too loose to cobble together a sandcastle, is ensconced in a Redlands phone book map and on a Mentone post office mural, though the woman behind the counter said she'd never seen a letter addressed to Mentone Beach.

The wink-and-nod subculture also separates unincorporated Mentone, still dotted with more orange trees than tract homes, from more metropolitan Redlands and those, ahem, other beaches.

"People at the beach think they're hot stuff and wouldn't know where the heck Mentone is," said Dave Hess, 58, guzzling bottled water at Mentone Beach Liquor, whose new owner is still flummoxed as to the beach's exact location.

The Mentone Chamber of Commerce president, Alfred Chichester, had to drop "beach" from his firm's business cards after a client's secretary in Los Angeles County huffed that she couldn't find it along PCH.

"It sounds like a beach, you're expecting a beach, but it's really not a beach at all," said Phillip Lowell, 35, sipping a Coors Light while plopped on a rock alongside Mill Creek, the stream that parallels Highway 38.

Lowell's wife, Renee, dug her toes into silt and rubbed SPF 15 onto her shoulders, as Lowell's neck and back ripened to tomato-red. He sucked an off-brand cigarette and watched his three sons shake the water from their hair.

"The ocean has too much pull, too much people -- you can't trust it enough," said Renee Lowell, 35, who thought the couple had last battled traffic to San Diego in 2003. Maybe.

Mentone, named for a Mediterranean resort in southeast France, seemed destined for coastal status: Its founders noted that "the climate and vegetation were the same; only the sea was missing."

The hyperbole spread to postcards from town investors that showed boats bobbing on the Santa Ana River and ads for a resort, the since-closed Hotel Mentone, that boasted about a climate "cool in summer."

The beach's origins appear to bubble from ponds that a water district had created near Highway 38, the back road to Big Bear, where beachgoers kicked back on boulders and emptied wine coolers and the rare Jet Ski kicked up waves.

The water district drained the pools in 1979 after a "shooting incident," says the town history, a 20-page booklet that the local library sells for $3, but the creek wash already had been baptized Mentone Beach.

Meanwhile, Gary Jacinto and his kin, who ran a liquor store, decided to flood the town with beach kitsch, figuring Mentone might as well be known for something, even if it was their slogan, "Known for Absolutely Nothing!"

Residents picked up the punch line at the annual town parade, dolling up trucks with surfboards and gals in bathing suits. The parade got canned decades ago, but teenagers kept telling buddies to meet them at the beach.

Long ago, before the Inland Empire housing boom whisked in hundreds of thousands of new homeowners, beachgoers swung off Highway 38 and halted just before a street named Newport.

There's no lifeguard stand, just someone's stone home, its fence crowned with boat propellers and its roof topped with Lady Liberty's head. In the yard stands a red-shirted Paul Bunyan, an almost 30-foot-tall monument to lawn art.

When the lower leg of the creek evaporates in the summer sun, Mentone Beach becomes mobile. The beach crowds relocate upstream on a riverbank near the mountain hamlet Forest Falls.

"You can't take things in life too seriously, even the beach," explained Kim Grooms, 42, selling Lotto tickets at a Valero gas station whose blue awning welcomes drivers to, of course, Mentone Beach.

Down the road, Jacinto, 52, the beach's top promoter, has since bought the Greenspot Market, which shills firewood and snow chains under Christmas lights, shotguns, beer bottles and sleds.

Someday, he reasoned from behind the counter, booming Redlands would gobble the town, relegating Highway 38 to another city strip. Tourists headed for the mountains, however, would still snap up smokes and beef jerky and quiz the cashier: Mentone Beach?

The market's T-shirts swear it's "20 Miles From Water, 2 Feet From Hell," but that's tough to pinpoint on a Thomas Bros. grid.

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