Big Bear is a cool escape
The mountain lake is my longtime getaway
Big Bear was probably the first place I went on vacation, though I'll have to take my parents' word for it, since I wasn't walking or talking at the time. We lived in San Bernardino, at the foot of the mountains, and my parents had longtime ties to the place. Plus, when it hits triple digits in San Berdoo, it's easier to head to the mountains than to the beach.
That's part of the reason I picked Big Bear as my "critic's choice" for a weekend getaway in the Register's Best of Orange County that came out last month.
Register readers voting in the Best of Orange County poll tapped three good choices for weekends away: San Diego (sun and beach), Santa Barbara (sun and beach) and Palm Springs (lotsa sun, no beach).
To balance the list, I wanted someplace green, cool and a little lighter on the wallet than the other three. Big Bear was the easy choice.
A lot of the draw is personal nostalgia. My mom's father, Lex Brown, ran a hotel named Samarkand on the lake's north shore. During the Depression, the hotel burned down. My great-uncle, Coy Brown, was a longtime constable who was the one-man law in the area for several decades. Despite years of service, his one moment of national renown came when Big Bear's lone police car was stolen out from under his nose. The story was picked up by UPI and appeared in The New York Times.
Later, my father served as program director and camp director at Camp Tahquitz in nearby Barton Flats. It's operated by the Long Beach Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. When Dad was sent up the mountain for the summer, his family went along. My younger brother and I spent many summers from mid-June to the end of August running around "dad's office" among the pine trees, squirrels and blue jays.
Dad would go off to work each day in a green shirt and shorts of the Boy Scouts. The rest of the year he had an office in northwest Long Beach. Those summer months were when he was at his happiest. He still goes back for reunions.
Weekends at Camp Tahquitz meant a trip to town – Big Bear. There were penny arcades with skee ball and mechanical baseball games, which would pitch a steel ball as you flipped a handle to swing a wooden bat and try to drive it against the far wall for a home run. Not exactly Xbox, but we loved it.
There were candy shops, canoes to row and stands of pines to play hide-and-seek behind. It's the first place I ever played in snow or drove a powerboat. Same with my son, 30 years later.
Yes, we did visit Lake Arrowhead. Every Christmas for several years to see Santa come in on a firetruck. Sitting on Father Christmas' lap at Santa's Village. Sledding with our friends, the Wing family, who had a house by the lake. But Lake Arrowhead was always the place closer to the cities, the place for people who were richer than us.
A lot of the news out of Big Bear in recent years hasn't been good. The lake was low for a long stretch, to the point where the outboard motor on our rented boats would get clogged with lake grass. The bark beetles have damaged the trees (though not as badly as at Lake Arrowhead). There have been drought and fires and flooding and road closures.
But when I return each time, I'm always surprised how familiar it feels. Same funky motels, diners and curio shops. There's more development and a few more moderately expensive places to stay and dine, but you would expect that over four or five decades.
Yet, Big Bear has spurned the urge to go upscale in a way that has changed Lake Arrowhead. The penny arcade of my childhood is gone, but the laid-back Big Bear atmosphere that it represented is still there.
My suggestion is to do what my family has done for decades. Take the back road, through Redlands and Mentone. Along Highway 38, you can stop in Camp Angeles for a bowl of soup and a sandwich. Swing through Barton Flats or visit Jenks Lake. You'll still have time to make it to the Grey Squirrel Resort or one of the other inns.
My mom and dad just returned from a weekend, like the scores of weekends they've spent in Big Bear since the days before World War II. They stayed at the Marina Resort by the Lake. There was shopping along Village Drive and good meals just a stroll away (no breakfast at the Teddy Bear Cafe this visit). But mostly they liked to look across the water at the pine trees on the far side. My mom remembering when she was a little girl. My dad recalling when he was a young man.
"It recharges me," my mom explained. "The lake hasn't looked this good in a long time."
More information: www.bigbearinfo.com or 800-4-BIGBEAR.
To check out the Best of Orange County, go to www.ocregister.com/best
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