As a kid growing up in sun-splashed San Diego, I savored family traditions, especially those that revolved around the holidays. For example, one Christmas tradition was piling the fam into the car for weekly jaunts around the neighborhood to view residential Christmas light displays. (This was before the days of three-dollar+-a-gallon gasoline.)
“All aboard!” Dad hollered, climbing behind the wheel of our 1973 Buick Le Sabre, aka: The Blue Bomb. Mom, my three siblings and I buckled up and prepared to “oo and ah” at the latest strands of multi-hued lights necklacing the neighborhood.
We often snaked up and around Mount Helix, a private, non-profit park that’s a San Diego landmark in East County. Named after a snail in the area, the helix aspersa, the park sits atop a noble hill and includes an outdoor amphitheatre. The view from the top, underneath a pristine white cross, is one of the best in the county. (“Mount Helix” was a “mountain” back then. This was pre-Washington/Real Mountain days.)
Right after “Balboa Park,” a re-visit to picturesque Mount Helix was high on my list of outdoor must-sees when visiting my sister a few years ago from our now-home state of Washington. (For more on Balboa Park, see: Beggaring Description: San Diego’s Balboa Park.)
It was maybe thirty years or so since my last visit to this lovely park and amphitheater perched atop a noble knoll in East San Diego. I remembered its stunning vistas and breathtaking panoramas from the mountains to the sea.
It’s not just me. I hear Mount Helix was recently voted “Best Place for a First Date” and “Prettiest Part of East San Diego.” So there!
As we exited the car in the teeny-tiny Mount Helix parking lot one Tuesday afternoon in 2016, memories bubbling up from some deep internal well. I spotted my old high school (“All hail blue and gold!”) from the summit. Recalled Sunrise Easter services. Outdoor musical productions. Friends and teachers from long-ago high school and college days (“Whatever happened to…?”). An entire valley glittering with dancing Christmas lights. Thirsty Santa Ana breezes teasing parched San Diego summers.
Rays of golden sunshine dance a tango with eucalyptus leaves in a tangle of light and shadow. Stucco and glass and red-tiled roofs pepper the valley below. The insect whine of traffic on Highway 8 sounds in my ears.
“Beautiful day!” quips an elderly passerby. He gestures heavenward.
“Sure is,” I reply. “I can’t get over that blue sky!”
White-haired and tweed-capped, the visitor explains that he lives in a part of the country famous for soaring evergreens and drooling gray skies. I cock my head, bird-like. “Where are you visiting from?”
“Washington,” he replies. “The Olympic Peninsula. It”s beautiful. Always green,” he smiles. “But it rains a lot.”
“It sure does!” I rejoin, explaining that I’m a native San Diegan transplanted to Washington about two decades back. “I’m here visiting the old homestead for a couple weeks,” I say. Turns out Mr. Tweed and I live within about 90 minutes of each other.
Sometimes the world seems as big as a golf ball.
Looking back, there was something bittersweet about that spring visit to Mount Helix. The “mountain” hadn’t changed. But I had. I surveyed the valley from atop its craggy brow, peered into yester-year and remembered how good it all was. And wondered if I’d ever be back.
The Mt. Helix Park Foundation is the non-profit organization responsible for preserving and enhancing the Park, amphitheater and cross memorial on top of the “mountain.” (This is southern California. Humor these folks on the “mountain” thing, okay?)
Mount Helix Park is located at 4901 Mt. Helix Dr. in La Mesa, California. It’s a lot closer in my heart.
Join us next time for more of 30 West Coast Ways: Celebrating Great Outdoors Month in Washington, Oregon and California!