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The Core Of California

The Core Of California

High up in the San Bernardino Mountains, I found all the apples I needed to ring in the Jewish New Year.

In fact, in the mile-high town of Oak Glen, Calif., I was surrounded by more apples than I’d ever seen in my life. Plenty of honey, too.

Dozens of orchards dotted the winding mountain road; farm stores advertised local honey, jam and chutney. From either side, “Pick Your Own!” signs beckoned weekend fruit enthusiasts, and every eatery advertised apple pie.

Oggi and I had come to Oak Glen for the same reason everyone does: to escape California’s notorious fall heat, and to entertain the children. We were spending the holidays with family in Los Angeles, where the September afternoons soared well over 100 degrees, and the sun beat down until well past dinner. Our 6-month-old daughter, Zelda, was fussy in the air-conditioned house; the rest of us longed for crisp autumn air.

We found it in Oak Glen, about a two hours’ drive east of the city. The route seemed unpromising most of the way, a never-ending morass of exurban sprawl, until we finally started climbing and ours ears popped with the altitude. Behind us, the valleys disappeared into a smoggy mirage. Palms and cactus gave way to a lush forest of very tall, very green trees.

Stepping out of the car, I gasped: the air was a good 30 degrees cooler than where we’d started out. After the sun-baked Los Angeles desert, this landscape of rustic clapboard houses, maple groves and burbling brooks felt almost like New England. But Oak Glen is very much a Western town; it has no center or walkable district, and instead consists of a long strip of businesses strung out along a winding, vertiginous mountain road.

Most of these businesses are family farms, and most of the farms long ago retired from commercial agriculture. Once innovators in the cultivation of exotic apple varieties, Oak Glen orchards today exist to provide rustic weekend entertainment for nature-starved city slickers — the kind for whom it is novelty, not drudgery, to spend your afternoon picking fruit.

While that novelty wore off for me long ago, Oggi and I decided it might appeal to Zelda, who is passionate about apples (despite having no teeth to eat them with). Since apple picking is hardly enough to justify those hours in the car, Oak Glen farms also offer petting zoos, old-time farm machinery, and homespun diners and boutiques to keep the family occupied.

I decided that Zelda was too young to appreciate Oak Tree Village, a 14-acre theme park in the heart of Oak Glen that includes a trout pond, a petting zoo, pony rides, goat milking and a model train. During the fall tourist season, the Village also has a weekend arts and crafts fair and live entertainment. This explains why fall- weekend parking rivaled the gridlock in Santa Monica, and why virtually every party included young children (Oak Tree Village even hosts the odd bar and bat mitzvah).

Hungry for apples, we pulled over on a less-trafficked, woodsier stretch of road and headed for the orchards. It was Sunday afternoon, so many of the more popular trees — Fuji, Braeburn — were picked bare. I still managed to fill a bag with purplish Spartas, and anyhow, the pleasure was in strolling through groves of ripe-smelling trees.

I bought some freshly pressed cider while Oggi took Zelda to visit a grunting black pig, two miniature ponies and an enormous rabbit up close. If she had been older, she would have loved the do-it-yourself apple presses, where kids were lining up to crank out juice the old-fashioned way.

“Old-fashioned” is a shtick Oak Glen works hard to cultivate. At some of the farms, employees dress in aprons and bonnets, Sturbridge Village-style; at others, antique-looking wells, water wheels and donkey carts aim to evoke the Old West. Oak Glen doesn’t really need the hokum. The orchards feel timeless, and the majestic setting — yellowing fall leaves against blue sky and purple mountains — is draw enough.

Still, in a state where history is in short supply, you can’t blame Oak Glen for pulling out the stops. And while I could survive without the costumes, I refused to drive back without a slice of hot-out-of-the-oven apple pie à la mode. We shared it three ways, the steam escaping from under a six-inch-high golden crust, and it was a sweet New Year indeed.

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