Sam McManis

Idyllwild: A mountain town that’s gone to the dogs

Idyllwild’s mayor, Max the golden retriever, takes a break from his bureaucratic duties.
Idyllwild’s mayor, Max the golden retriever, takes a break from his bureaucratic duties. smcmanis@sacbee.com

The mayor of this town, duly elected for life, is a total mouth-breather. Barely monosyllabic, too, and given to fits of slobbering all over himself and his constituents, which townsfolk don’t seem to mind and, in fact, find quite adorable in a public servant.

He also seems inordinately proud of his flowing, blond, Trumpian mane, which he shakes with practiced nonchalance before photo-ops. Fond of plaid neckties and always wearing a tan coat, he positively salivates over the attention he’s afforded on “The Hill,” never meets a baby’s cheek he didn’t want to buss or a fellow party member he didn’t want to sniff.

Maximus Mighty-Dog Mueller II, legacy of a golden retriever political dynasty every bit as dominant here as any Bushes or Clintons, is in his second year presiding over the funky, laid-back, dog-loving town of Idyllwild, an unincorporated alpine mountain getaway between Los Angeles and San Diego that is surrounded on all sides by desert. Puppyhood behind him, Mayor Max II has made a seamless transition in replacing his beloved progenitor, Mayor Max I, elected in 2012 (yes, ballots were actually cast) as a fundraising stunt funded by Idyllwild’s version of a super-PAC, the Animal Rescue Friends.

Let’s not delve into all the messy political machinations behind Max’s ascension to office. Better just to accept that, as his chief of staff and owner Phyllis Mueller proudly says, he is the big dog in a town that absolutely loves its canine companions.

About 3,000 people reside in Idyllwild – the closest large city is Palm Springs, a 45-minute drive to the east – but it’s believed dogs nearly triple that number. At least, that’s the estimate put forth by longtime residents Preston and Cathy Sparks, sipping coffee with their Shepherd mix, Gracie May, one recent morning on the wooden deck at Higher Grounds, where customers weave around the furry supine bodies of sacked-out pooches.

“This is a dog town, absolutely,” Cathy said. “Restaurants let you bring your dogs on the patio and bring them bowls of water before they serve you.”

Service-animal designation be damned, dogs pretty much have free rein (with, literally, few reins) to trot into the passel of boutiques and antiques shops that line the four-block downtown framed by the pine-studded San Jacinto Mountains and the stark, jagged, granite outcropping of Tahquitz Rock.

One store that gets considerable foot (and paw) traffic is Mountain Paws, which features designer canine clothing, a vast, glittering wall of collars, and soy-free, gluten-free, grain-free pet treats made by Mrs. Pickles Pantry, a local chef who occasionally also bakes pastries for human consumption. And, in an arts-centric area – home to a large summer jazz festival and youth arts academy – one of the 11 galleries downtown is Oh My Dog, featuring the canine portrait photography of Frank Bruynbroek, said to possess an “Ansel Adams-like ability (to) capture a landscape of emotions from man’s best friend.”

And then there’s Mayor Max, who rumbled into downtown late one afternoon in the back of a white Ford pickup truck driven by Mueller. The mayor, with his argyle-patterned tie fluttering in the breeze, doesn’t just pull into town; he emerges. He came with an entourage. Vice mayor (and First Lady) Mitzi and shadowy political operative Mike, golden retrievers both, travel in a separate white SUV with “Mayor Max” stenciled on each side and a neon sign – reconstituted from a Domino’s Pizza delivery car roof ornament – announcing their arrival.

Even before Max could hop out the back, the citizenry descended. Resident Cheryl Vladika, who looked as if she had just finished working out in tank top and ball cap, veered off the sidewalk and started chucking Max under the chin, then gave his ears a good going over. The mayor, consummate professional, did not break eye contact. It was obvious he had Vladika’s vote. Not that there’s going to be a re-election campaign anytime soon. After the untimely death of Max I in 2013, ARF and community members gave Max II an open-ended, Kim Jong-un style term in office.

“People have loved their dogs here long before we came along, but people have really taken to Max, haven’t they, Mr. Mayor?” said Mueller, smoothing Max’s wind-blown coat. “We’ve done over 400 public service events in the past few years. We do meet-and-greets just about –”

She turned abruptly and spoke to Max, who had lost focus and was, well, attending to some personal grooming in his nether regions.

“Max! None of that in public, young man!” Mueller scolded. “Especially with the press here!”

She continued: “He does store openings, holiday events, visits the school. If we get a call from a parent and there’s a sick kid, Max will go visit them. Ninety-eight percent of what he does is in Idyllwild, but he’ll occasionally go down the hill for fundraisers. It originally was just going to be some fun, but it’s turned into an actual mayor’s office.”

Every few minutes, a car with canine visages protruding out the windows passed the corner of Highway 243 and North Circle Drive, and Max gave an acknowledging woof, tail wagging metronomically. When smartphone wielding paparazzi arrived, Mueller brought out the dog treats and Max dutifully put his front paws on the back bed of the truck, lifted his head and flashed some Biden-esque pearly white teeth.

“Look at how mayoral he looks,” Mueller cooed.

Chainsaw artistry

Dog-crazy as this quirky place may be, it apparently embraces all forms of critters. Though black bears have long since moved on to more lush forests, and though there have been tenfold more mountain lion sightings in Santa Monica than Idyllwild, the town venerates animals, wild or domestic.

A decade ago, business owners commissioned a local chainsaw carving artist, David Roy, to sculpt a work depicting Idyllwild’s harmony with nature. It took nearly 10 years, but the sculpture, 25 feet tall and hewn from four trees, depicts a bear, an eagle, a mountain lion, two bobcats, a howling coyote, a squirrel, a rabbit, a snake and, yes, a dog. Roy has since moved to Taos, N.M., but a steady stream of tourists pose in front of his masterpiece, said local Wayne Sleme.

“Do I like it?” Sleme asked, repeating a question. “Let’s just say, it’s part of the charm of Idyllwild. We depend a lot on tourists, and they seem to like it.”

True, Idyllwild is not a bad place for visiting bipeds, either.

In summer, Idyllwild (elevation: 5,413 feet) is an escape from the heat for desert-dwellers and Angelenos. In fall, well into October and November, the clime assumes a brisk chill and leaves of the non-evergreen trees (a small but hearty minority to the omnipresent pines) turn festive colors – yellow and orange for the maples, burnished red for the oaks. In winter, the area averages about 50 inches of snowfall, which draws Southern Californians eager to experience the oddity known as a change in seasons. And in spring? That’s when the rock climbers return, like swallows to Capistrano, to scale the sheer cliffs of Tahquitz Rock (a.k.a. Lily Rock) and neighboring Suicide Rock, two of the premier sites in North America for adrenaline-seeking “dirtbaggers.”

Actually, given the drought, rock climbing and bouldering have pretty much become year-round in Idyllwild. Those hard-core types who used to go down the hill to Joshua Tree come November for their winter-climbing fixes now stay put.

“Probably the best time of year for climbing, in my opinion, is right now (October),” said Ryan Strickland, a local climber hanging out at Nomad Ventures, go-to store for climbing gear, back-country adventure passes and information on rock climbing and bouldering. “It’s cooler weather, but not cold, and the least amount of people. In summer, it can get a little (crowded), with the bulk of the climbers weekenders from L.A. and San Diego. But it’s not, like, overcrowded or anything.”

That’s because Tahquitz Rock has even more routes to scale than “Tahquitz” itself has pronunciations. Which is saying a lot.

“The most popular way to pronounce it in town is ‘Taw-keets,’ ” said Robert Alexander, manager of Nomad Ventures. “Sometimes, it’s ‘Talk-wits’ or even ‘Talk-wish.’ That’s supposedly the Native American way of saying it.”

Anyway …

“There’s more than a dozen lines to the top (of Tahquitz Rock),” Alexander said. “Every line has a route and every face does, too. What makes this a great (climbing) area is that there are everything from extremely easy to extremely difficult routes. The history goes back to the 1930s. People who are new to the area, I like to tell them that, whatever climb they do, they’re probably following in the footsteps of somebody famous.”

Some argument remains, but it’s generally agreed among climbers that the decimal rating system for routes was devised decades ago on Tahquitz Rock by noted climber Chuck Wilts. His framed photo is among the gallery of climbing greats gracing Nomad Venture’s walls. There is everyone from Yvon Chouinard, founder of retail giant Patagonia; to Royal Robbins, who learned climbing in Idyllwild and made a name for himself scaling rocks at Yosemite in the early 1970s; to local legend Bob Gaines, captured defying the laws of gravity while scaling the sheer face of Tahquitz Rock.

Even for those not versed in wielding steel pitons and using quickdraw carbiners, the San Jacinto Mountains offer miles of hiking, running and mountain biking trails. Not all are open to dogs, by the way, though try telling that to Idyllwildians.

The most popular path is and 8.4-mile out-and-back to Tahquitz Peak, a winding, switchback-laden ascent (2,312-foot gain in 4 miles) through Jeffrey pine, fir and oak, and more than a little manzanita via the Devil’s Slide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. Along the way, you’ll see Tahquitz Rock, a ridge over, from eye level and, near the top, actually look down upon it. Depending on time of day, you might be able to spy climbers looking like human flies as they inch up the rock.

You also can see climbers, though the view is often obscured, along the 7-mile trail (round-trip, 1,648 feet in elevation gain) to the base of Suicide Rock, via the Deer Springs Trail.

Both trails are best attempted in the morning, since late afternoons in the fall often mean thunderstorms in the San Jacintos. The storms can roll in fast, sound as startling as massive bowling pins falling, and sometimes result in flash floods. Best to go early, then, especially if you want to beat the heat and get the best views from atop Tahquitz Peak (elevation 8,828 feet).

On a clear day, locals say, you can see Catalina Island from its fire lookout tower. In fall, given the cloud cover, all you get are gorgeous views of a sublime mountain range that’s alpine on one side and more scrub-brush on the other.

“Have you ever heard the term, ‘Sky Island’?” said Preston Sparks, the Idyllwild resident. “It’s a high-altitude mountain, an alpine community, surrounded on all sides by desert. That’s what we are. It’s pretty rare, and we like it. It makes you feel different.”

A breed apart, perhaps.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Idyllwild

Directions from Sacramento (driving mileage: 505 miles): Take Interstate 5 over the Grapevine to the 210 Freeway. In San Bernardino, merge onto Interstate 10 and exit at Highway 243 in Banning. Go south east on Highway 243 for 21 miles to reach Idyllwild.

Lodging: Idyllwild features more than a dozen lodges and bed-and-breakfast establishments, as well as vacation rentals. Go to idyllwild.com/lodging.html.

Dining: Cafe Aroma, cafearoma.org; Gastrognome, gastrognome.com; La Casita, idyllwildlacasita.com; Higher Grounds Coffee, highergroundscoffee.com

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