How long can Alpine stay rural?

Where the mountain meets the sky

Wright's Field could be turned into our Balboa Park.
  • Wright's Field could be turned into our Balboa Park.
  • Image by Frank Glaser

"My Get Up and Go Got Up and Went," says the legend carved into the seven-foot-tall, four-foot-wide white marble headstone of Kenneth James Amundson, born November 7, 1945, deceased February 6, 1975, "Beloved son of Ivan, Husband of Lisa, Daddy of Richie." At some point Richie used an indelible black marker to write across the headstone's base, "LOVE YOU, DAD! YOUR SON."

"There were 3000 homes when I came to town. There are now 5000 homes. That's 2000 homes in 30 years."

"There were 3000 homes when I came to town. There are now 5000 homes. That's 2000 homes in 30 years."

Amundson's headstone is perhaps the largest in Alpine Cemetery and is one example of how the place differs from the new "memorial parks" around the county, where displays of individualism are prohibited and where grave markers, placed level to vast green lawns, are almost hidden. Alpine Cemetery is a rough piece of hilly land where, among juniper, eucalyptus, and oak, graves are dug from red clay and where gravesites are often festive and where headstones tend to editorialize.

Only people living in Alpine are eligible to purchase plots in Alpine Cemetery.

Only people living in Alpine are eligible to purchase plots in Alpine Cemetery.

"Alpine's First Doctor," says the headstone above the grave of Sophronia Nichols, born on November 27, 1835, deceased on November 12, 1903. "I Am Alone No More," spell the big block letters on the simple headstone belonging to Jack P. Fox, 1918-1966. Charles "Butch" O'Connell, March 3, 1940 - April 12, 1969, has etched into the surface of his headstone a highly detailed rendering of a dune buggy. A number of other headstones are etched with images of recreational vehicles. Not far from O'Connell's headstone, a woman who died in her 30s has the image of a girl riding a dirt bike etched into hers. The Saye family, however, has surrounded five double plots with a small white picket fence and has landscaped between the graves with redwood bark and cement paving stones. A white bench faces the graves, and along its top are painted the words "Sit. Read. Reflect. Pray."

Joan MacQueen Middle School.  After middle school, said Superintendant Ryan, most Alpine kids move on to either Granite Hills High School in El Cajon or to Steele Canyon High School in Spring Valley.

Joan MacQueen Middle School. After middle school, said Superintendant Ryan, most Alpine kids move on to either Granite Hills High School in El Cajon or to Steele Canyon High School in Spring Valley.

Alpine Cemetery suggests a community not much interested in conformity and whose idea of a good time has centered on the desert and sand dunes 100 miles to the east and not so much on the beaches 37 miles to the west. The cemetery gives the impression of a community isolated not only from the urbanization of coastal San Diego but from the suburbanization of the county at large. On the day I visited Alpine Cemetery, this impression might have persisted if I hadn't glanced at the most recent edition of the Alpine Sun. The Alpine Cemetery Association had recently held its annual general meeting, the paper said. Only people living in Alpine are eligible to purchase plots in Alpine Cemetery, the paper explained. In other words, anyone who drops dead while passing through Alpine doesn't stand much of a chance of being buried there. Like everywhere else in Southern California, land is growing scarce. Twenty-eight miles east of downtown San Diego, even Alpine is feeling the pinch.

Alpine statistics (click to enlarge). "When I first got to Alpine in 1981, there were just two schools, a total district enrollment of 850 students. There were no traffic lights, no fast-food restaurants."

Alpine statistics (click to enlarge). "When I first got to Alpine in 1981, there were just two schools, a total district enrollment of 850 students. There were no traffic lights, no fast-food restaurants."

An unincorporated community, Alpine occupies the 13 miles between Flinn Springs and Descanso, a mile or two north and south of I-8. Alpine has no mayor or city council, and its self-governance is limited to the 15-member Alpine Community Planning Group that meets one night each month at the Alpine Community Center on Alpine Boulevard. The planning group's decisions on such issues as zoning and land use are purely advisory. The group's most proximate contact with county government is Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents the Second Supervisoral District, whose 535,000 constituents make it the largest of the county's five districts.

"I wanted to be in Alpine. I was free of the downtown problems. We only had 250 people or so when I came here. There was plenty of open space."

"I wanted to be in Alpine. I was free of the downtown problems. We only had 250 people or so when I came here. There was plenty of open space."

For city of San Diego residents familiar with city councilmembers and the relationships they maintain with the handful of respective communities they represent, county government can seem diffuse. Jacob's district, for example, covers about 36 miles by 54 miles, from Santa Ysabel south to the Mexican border and from Del Cerro east to the Imperial County line.

Residents of unincorporated communities like Alpine are used to government operating at a certain remove. In the absence of key political players and local elections, Alpine's sense of itself, of its distinctiveness and "community spirit," has been a volunteer effort largely fostered by personalities drawn to places where few rules apply.

"Alpine seems to have always attracted individualists," said Carol Morrison, president of the Alpine Historical Society, as she showed me a picture of Julian Eltinge, a.k.a. "Mr. Lillian Russell," who for more than 30 years was America's most famous female impersonator.

"Julian Eltinge, or Robert Dalton, which was his real name, was from Massachusetts and went to Harvard. He was in vaudeville and silent films and did a few talkies. In the films he played both male and female parts. He came to Alpine in 1923 and wanted to establish a hotel and a resort with little houses that could be rented. After the Depression, he lost his money and went back into films. He sold most of his other land holdings, but he did keep his house in Alpine. In 1941 he passed away but wasn't buried here.

"Alpine was the sort of place where he felt comfortable walking around in his overalls just like everyone else. The resort got as far as building an enormous swimming pool, but the Depression came along and wiped out Eltinge. He left. His house is still here and is registered as a historic landmark."

The Alpine Historical Society owns a small wooden house out on Tavern Road, just across the street from Joan MacQueen Middle School. On the morning I met Morrison, a sweet woman with an open, easy manner, we sat and talked in the small wooden house. Although the morning was warm, the house, built in the late 19th Century, was still chilly inside. After worrying if I felt cold and making sure I was comfortable, Morrison told me that she'd been the historical society's president for four years.

"The original residents of this area were of course the Kumeyaay Indians, and then the Spanish came through during the Mission period. When Mexico separated from Spain we had the Mexican period, and Alpine was part of a land grant that went from Harbison Canyon to the Cuyamaca foothills. And then the land grant was split, and Viejas Valley came under separate ownership, and what we consider upper Alpine, or Alpine Village, came under separate ownership and was owned by the Aguirre family. The stagecoach stop was moved from Viejas Valley to upper Alpine in about 1865. From there, the town started to develop. After the Civil War, people started heading west. People stayed in Alpine primarily for the farming. We had sufficient water. There are several creeks and streams. There are several natural springs. We had grapes, for example. Grapes were hauled from here to the railroad station in Lakeside. We had wheat, olives, citrus fruit, barley. Chickens and turkey ranches. Also, John Harbison was a beekeeper and had a big beekeeping operation at the far end of Harbison Canyon. One of our longtime resident families, the Foss family, they came to Alpine because they'd heard of John Harbison. With very little start-up money, you could make more money raising bees than raising cattle. Alpine was an excellent place for making honey. John Harbison made California the number-one honey-producing state in the nation. He shipped by rail all his honey to the East Coast.

"We also had the wonderful climate. People especially started coming after World War I. Men who had been gassed during the war and had damage to their lungs. There was a special sanatorium in Alpine just for treating those men. We were also on the route between San Diego and points east. Particularly Fort Yuma. So there were always people traveling east to west and west to east. Alpine became a stopping point. When the automobile became popular, we started having gas stations, motels, and restaurants. It just kept developing from there.

"The biggest population growth occurred between 1970 and 1990. This started after public water came to Alpine and Interstate 8 came through. I just saw a picture of the old fire station taken in the mid-1960s. There's a sign in the picture that gives Alpine's population as 2600. That was pre-water and pre-Interstate 8. We were connected to public water in 1962, and Interstate 8 came in 1969. Before that time, people had only well water to rely on.

"The house that we're sitting in, which now belongs to the historical society, first belonged to Dr. Sophronia Nichols, who came out to California in 1888 because her sister, Caroline Foss, lived here in Alpine. Nichols was a licensed medical doctor. She had California medical license number 26. She'd attended Boston Medical School. She lived and practiced medicine here in Alpine until her death in 1903. She practiced family medicine. Now, to give you an idea of how small and close-knit Alpine used to be, Dr. Nichols delivered Betty Noble's mother. Betty Noble is another of Alpine's interesting personalities. She was born in Alpine in 1923, and she was the granddaughter of B.F. Walker, who established the Willows, a resort and restaurant, in 1894. Alpine at that time was a resort town. People came here to get away from the hassle of downtown San Diego. There were about six different resorts up here. Asthma and tuberculosis, of course, played a role in this. Until the automobile, the air up here was considered particularly pure.

"Betty Noble joined the Marine Corps during WWII, and she remained a Marine until 1962. She returned to Alpine. She was a sergeant major. There were maybe only three or four women who ever reached that rank in the Marine Corps. She remained very active in the group for retired women Marines. She played golf with them. She never married. She was always a Marine until the end. She had that bearing. And she could still wear her uniform, fit into it, until the day she died. She died in South Carolina. She had gone to attend a women Marines' golf tournament and had a heart problem and died back there. But she is buried in our local cemetery. She always helped us when the historical society gave tours to grade-school children. Her memorial donations went to the Alpine Woman's Club and to the historical society. We've put the funds together, and we're having an engraved granite bench installed in Alpine Cemetery for her."

I asked Morrison how her own family had found its way to Alpine.

"We moved to Alpine in 1988 from Fletcher Hills in El Cajon. We wanted a house with more land that we could put our motor home and RVs on. We just kept looking in El Cajon. We didn't want to go to Alpine. That was too far. We kept looking in east El Cajon, but we couldn't find anything. So our realtor gave us Alpine listings, and when we came here we suddenly found houses that were what we wanted and that had land. We bought a new house that had been custom-built. It came with about one acre of land. The house is about 2200 square feet. We paid $250,000. At the time it seemed like a lot of money. The house we had in Fletcher Hills we paid only $72,000 for. Although we sold it for $235,000.

"When we got to Alpine in 1988, the main difference was that there was less traffic. No traffic lights. The only stop sign in town was at Alpine Boulevard and Victoria Drive. There was one grocery store. Two small shopping centers. There were fewer houses. Even where we live now on Victoria Drive, the land around us has been filled with houses. I think the population was around 11,000 when we moved here, and it's 17,000 now.

"One of the reasons that I definitely feel affection for this town is that my father was in the Navy, and we traveled around a lot. I attended five different elementary schools and three different high schools. I've lived longer in Alpine than in any other place in my life. Alpine is home. It has a strong sense of place because it still retains its rural atmosphere. My husband would say it's an escape from the congestion from downtown. Even now when I tell people that I live in Alpine, their reaction always is, 'Oh, that's a nice place!' So we have this sense of wanting to keep it nice. Wanting to keep it small and not have the problems that people have elsewhere. I don't think we have quite the problems that other places have with gangs and drugs. It's just more of a cohesive mixture of people."

What did Morrison see as the big problems facing Alpine in the next 20 years?

"Growth. Some people want to continue to build houses in an almost uncontrolled manner, and there are others who recognize the importance of growth but understand that it must be controlled. We want to keep the rural atmosphere. Controlled growth is possible, but there needs to be more cooperation between the slow-growth people and the developers. The Wright's Field issue is, I think, important because Wright's Field could be turned into our Balboa Park. Not that we're going to put a zoo in there, but it would attract people to Alpine. It has archeological sites on it. For example, there's a ten-acre area there that was walled in by the Indians. They were growing wheat inside the ten acres and wanted to keep the cows out. There are also some adobe ruins there. There's endangered species of different plants like the Engelmann oak and the chocolate lily. There are roads through Wright's Field that the stagecoach used to take. The Back Country Land Trust now owns most of Wright's Field and is now in negotiations to buy the rest of it, an additional 142 acres. That's one of the big issues facing the community."

The Back Country Land Trust is, according to its website, a nonprofit environmental organization founded in the early 1990s with the aim of conserving, from "Viejas Mountain to the Potrero Valley," farmland, biological and cultural landscapes, recreational trails and watersheds. In July, several months after Carol Morrison and I talked, the Back Country Land Trust ended negotiations with the group that owned the 142 acres of Wright's Field. Although unable to buy the 142 acres, appraised at $4.9 million, the trust does own 230 acres that it will continue to manage, improving trails, working with science classes, and exploring the archeology.

Sophronia Nichols's house, now the repository for Alpine's past, sits across Tavern Road from Wright's Field, which, as Morrison indicated, has become for many Alpine residents a symbol of Alpine's future. Compounding this geographic irony is the fact that Sophronia Nichols's house and the land on which it sits were donated to the Alpine Historical Society by Paul Gonya, a successful local developer. Gonya happens to own 40 acres of land abutting the Wright's Field acreage that the Back Country Land Trust was negotiating to buy. Gonya is of the opinion that the Wright's Field acreage that the Back Country Land Trust hoped to buy would better be used for building much-needed homes. The land is also being considered for a new high school.

A great deal of the griping and sniping regarding Wright's Field has, according to those interested in the issue, taken place before the Alpine Community Planning Group. At the late-February meeting I attended, however, the Wright's Field issue wasn't mentioned. The group instead concerned itself with less glamorous matters such as joint-driveway exceptions and the inability that some Alpine residents have experienced in trying to obtain building permits for enlarging their garages. As the meeting dragged on, it took on the numbing, hypnotic quality that I recognized as identical to that of neighborhood planning group meetings I'd attended in San Diego.

I'd hoped for something more dramatic. The Alpine Community Planning Group started in a way sharply different from how San Diego's neighborhood planning groups begin their meetings. The Alpine group's chairperson, Jim Mowry, kicked off the evening with an invocation in which he asked God to "continue blessing our community and the county we serve and, above all, this great nation in which we live." After Mowry's invocation, everyone stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

"People in Alpine and the people who serve on the community planning group take what the community planning group does very seriously," Jim Mowry told me when I met him after the Ash Wednesday service at Alpine Community Church, where he'd served as pastor for the past 15 years. (Pastor Mowry retired in September.)

Alpine Community Church, founded in 1884, belongs to the United Church of Christ. On the evening I visited, Alpine Community was holding its Ash Wednesday service, as it has for the past five years, in conjunction with Good Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation. About 30 people, mostly older couples, attended the service.

Pastor Mowry said that he suspects that Alpine won't be able to accommodate any more than 25,000 residents.

"I believe in planned growth, and I believe that things haven't been planned well in these outlying communities like Alpine. While I think it's a pretty conservative place, I think it's simplistic to view everything as coming down to just two points of view: no growth or uncontrolled growth. I think this simplistic view of things has made it difficult to discuss growth issues in a productive way. I've seen improvements in the planning group. Even if our role is purely advisory, I think it's important that we as a community are at least able to have some voice in how our community will grow."

Walking across the 400 acres of Wright's Field on a late afternoon, one could see why Paul Gonya and others feel strongly about the place. It's one of the few wide-open grassy areas of its type left in the county, and the land slopes gently from east to west, affording a panoramic view to the Pacific. Seen from Wright's Field, sunsets have the dreamy, romantic feel of 19th-century landscape paintings.

Engelmann oaks, outcroppings of rock, and clusters of boulders interrupt the field's gentle slope. Rabbits scamper through the brush. Hawks overhead keep tabs on the rabbits. Local teenagers illegally race their dirt bikes across the field. Deer leave tracks in the ruts left by the dirt bikes. Houses or housing developments border the field on the north, east, and south. Joan MacQueen Middle School forms the field's western border and uses the land as an "outdoor classroom" for studying biology.

Built in 2001, Joan MacQueen Middle School is a stark modernist concrete-and-glass structure that stands in such contrast to Wright Field's wildness that it made me wonder about the past, and future, of Alpine's educational system. I asked Greg Ryan, superintendent of the Alpine Union School District, how Alpine's schools had changed over the past 20 years. Ryan explained that in 1985, the district had only one middle school and one elementary school, served approximately 1100 students, and had a budget of around $4.9 million. Now, said Ryan, the district has one all-kindergarten school, three elementary schools, one middle school; serves 2300 students; and has an annual budget of $16.5 million. After middle school, said Ryan, most Alpine kids move on to either Granite Hills High School in El Cajon or to Steele Canyon High School in Spring Valley. I told Ryan that I'd heard from several Alpine residents that they very much wanted a high school in Alpine. These people had said they thought a high school, with its sports teams and school band, would add to Alpine's "community spirit." Ryan said that the county was in the process of looking for a piece of land in Alpine that might be suitable for a high school.

"But, as you know, even looking for a piece of suitable land is a process that can sometimes take several years. I don't think we're looking at a high school in the immediate future."

When I asked Ryan to direct me to someone who had the longest overall view of the district, he suggested I speak with Rick Miller, principal at Alpine Elementary.

"We're the oldest school in the district," Miller said when I finally got in touch with him. "The building we're in now was built in December 1953. We've got 480 students, first through fifth grade. I've been here for 16 years, and I was the principal of the middle school for 8 years.

"When I first got to Alpine in 1981, there were just two schools, a total district enrollment of 850 students. There were no traffic lights, no fast-food restaurants. At that time the community was very close. Parents were very involved with the school, and the children were very well behaved. There was a very close, small-town feel in the community.

"I would definitely say that we're more affluent now. The apartments have dwindled by half. Half of the apartments in Alpine have been turned into condos. The price of housing has definitely gone up. The community's definitely upgraded. But there's not been very much change in ethnic makeup of the district. Alpine Elementary is the most ethnically diverse in Alpine. About 10 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Native American, very limited other minorities. And this has remained rather consistent over the years. Our English-learner population is almost all Hispanic. Another thing that's remained consistent about the district is that we don't have a very transient population at all."

As a point of pride, Miller cited the March 2006 index released by the state Department of Education that ranked how well California schools had performed on a battery of standardized tests in 2005. On a 1 to 10 scale, with 1-2 being "well below average" and 9-10 being "well above average," one of Alpine's schools had scored 8, three had scored 9, and one had scored 10. Alpine's schools had scored considerably higher than those in nearby Lakeside and El Cajon.

"I think Alpine did so well because, as I said, we have a very stable population. Once kids start going to school here, because of our expectations for their behavior, the kids get into a good 'student habit.' Because we're just a little outside urban areas, families probably don't just find themselves here by accident. The families came here after making some definite decisions, and those decisions probably involved some good, quality, family-value types of decisions. Families here put a high value on education, and we, the educators and administrators, take that high value as an opportunity and do a good job with it.

"Twenty years down the line, I don't think Alpine can get much bigger, unless some areas are rezoned for denser housing. I think that over the next 20 years, the district's enrollment will go down, just because younger families will find it difficult to buy and live in Alpine. Actually, right now we're starting to experience a slight decline in enrollment. Up until three years ago we were growing. But this year, for the first time, we started to turn around. But I think the school district will continue to flourish over the long term. We'll be able to attract a good quality of educated professionals to the area. I think the district will go through a dramatic change in staffing. We've got a lot of baby-boomer employees who will retire. Maybe the overall tone of the district will grow younger, but I don't foresee any dramatic changes in the quality of education in Alpine."

Miller's school is a couple of blocks south on Tavern Road from Sophronia Nichols's house and Joan MacQueen Middle School and Wright's Field. Driving along the winding roads surrounding this area, one is struck by the tidiness. Like everywhere else in Alpine, people here are conscious of how their homes and land appear. They plant things like lavender, Jerusalem sage, and bush mallow where their land meets the road. Homes on very large lots often have small groves of orange, grapefruit, and lemon. And many homes, on large lots and small, have wide concrete slabs beside the garage for parking RVs and the trailers used for towing dirt bikes and three-wheelers to the desert.

Also while driving along those winding roads, one gets a sense of Alpine's development. The oldest homes, the ones built in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries are, like Sophronia Nichols's home, two-bedroom clapboard places that often sit on much less than a half-acre of land. Over successive decades, homes got larger, were set farther and farther back from the road, and were built on bigger parcels of land. What one sees, then, as one drives along winding roads bordered by oak, eucalyptus, and Chinaberry is that the ranch-style homes built in the 1950s and 1960s sit on smaller lots than do the rustic wooden A-frame-style homes built in the 1970s and 1980s. The big new pale-stucco three- and four-bedroom homes often sit on two or many more acres. One can see how "old Alpine" might feel crowded out by the new.

"We were living in Lemon Grove in a very nice development of new tract homes, but we started noticing how the graffiti in the neighborhood kept getting closer and closer to our house. We started thinking that it was time to move. And it was pretty much a decision we made for our kids," said Vicki Poole, who teaches third grade at Boulder Oaks Elementary, which is a "95-second" walk from the four-bedroom, three-bath home she shares with her three children and Floyd, her husband.

Vicki had invited me out to Alpine for a Sunday lunch, but at the last minute, her 20-year-old daughter, Rachelle, had returned early from a Palm Springs weekend, and that day was Rachelle's birthday, and for her birthday, Rachelle wanted a chocolate sheet cake for lunch and a late dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. When I walked into the Pooles' home, Vicki was stirring chocolate frosting in an aluminum pan on the stove, and Chica, the Pooles' Chihuahua, started racing around my ankles.

"Before we moved," Vicki explained, while she stirred the frosting, "I'd heard good things about the school system in Alpine. I taught school in Lemon Grove, and I thought the schools there were good. I really admired the teachers there. But they were having to deal with things like kids living in cars, kids in abusive families. It was tough.

"At first we thought about moving to Vista, but it just wasn't practical. One day I got a call from my best friend, and she said, 'My sister and I just bought houses next door to each other in Alpine. Why don't you guys come up and look?' So we ended up buying this lot, which was right next to theirs, and it's been really great for the kids. All our kids. We've sort of got our own little compound where all the kids have been able to run around and play and have someone keep an eye on them."

"We started construction in October 1992, and we were done by March 1993," said Floyd, Vicki's husband, as he ambled into the kitchen. Born and raised in Lakeside, Floyd owns a liquid-waste disposal company that services septic tanks throughout East County.

"What we found here in terms of raising kids," Floyd said, "is that in the schools, there's a lot more parental support. At an open house, for example, you don't get just Mom and Dad. You get Mom and Dad and grandparents and aunts and uncles."

"When my kids give some little performance," Vicki said, "I have to make sure to put out 40 or more chairs just to accommodate all the family members who show up. And when it comes to needing things for the classroom, if I ever need anything, the parents make sure I get it. They may not always be able to donate a lot of their time, but they're always willing to donate money."

"I think Alpine breeds kinda snobby people," said Rachelle, when we later settled around the kitchen table. "Alpine is obviously wealthy when you compare it to a lot of places in El Cajon. That's what makes living and growing up here different from living and growing up in El Cajon. Many people here are professionals, and they make a lot of money. People who make a lot of money tend to spend more time thinking about their kids' educations."

"There are some very affluent families here," Vicki added. "At the elementary school, you wouldn't believe it. Kids getting picked up in limos to go to birthday parties. You've got 11-year-old girls going to day spas for facials and manicures and getting their hair done."

Rachelle's 19-year-old friend Taylor, also an Alpine neighbor, joined us along with Rachelle's 11-year-old sister Victoria and 18-year-old brother Ryan.

"It is a little bit of culture shock when you go to El Cajon for high school," said Taylor. "I think the thing about Alpine is that it's such a small community, and if you grow up here you go to the same small schools with everyone. What happens is that you end up having a good foundation for long-lasting friendships. I don't think that would be the same in a larger community or in a big city."

"That's why I don't think Alpine should have a high school," said Rachelle. "Kids need to know that Alpine isn't your life. They need to know that there's a big world out there."

I asked if Alpine kids had any sort of reputation out in the big world.

"Yeah, for participating in student government," said Ryan, lounging in an armchair near the dining room table. "I'm attorney general in ASB at Granite Hills. Three out of the four major ASB officers are from Alpine."

"That's the way it was when I went to Granite Hills," said Taylor. "Four of the four major officers were from Alpine."

When I asked Rachelle, Taylor, and Ryan if they felt affluent, suburban Alpine life in any way shielded kids from the sexual mischief teenagers often get into, they all said no.

"Computers are everywhere now," said Rachelle. "And anywhere there's a computer, there's access to pornography. It doesn't matter where you are."

"As for premarital sex," said Taylor, "I don't think there's any difference between Alpine and the city."

"But there are a lot of lushes here," said Rachelle. "Definitely a lot of boozers. A lot of beer."

"The drug is mostly marijuana," said Ryan. "But it may be used a little less nowadays. I don't know."

"Soma," said Taylor, referring to carisoprodol, a by-prescription-only muscle relaxant. "Kids take it because it heightens the effect of getting drunk. And kids take it on its own because, unlike alcohol, no one can smell it on your breath."

When I asked if religion played an important role in their life, the kids said no.

"We're not churchgoers," said Vicki. "I don't mind if my kids go to church. It's their decision. I've just raised them to be good people."

Victoria, who'd been listening to the conversation while curled up against the dining room wall, said that she liked going to church.

"I have a Mormon friend," Victoria said. "I've been to church three times with her, and I thought it was a lot of fun."

Sixteen-year-old Loni Heavener goes to church more often than that. Born and raised in Alpine, Heavener, a cherubic blonde with long straight hair, is lead singer for Transparent, the youth band at Alpine Christian Fellowship. Her mom, she told me, works at Raytheon, and her dad's a truck driver. She said that the move from Alpine's middle school to Granite Hills High was an eye-opener.

"Parents in Alpine just tend to be more protective of their children," she said. "I didn't hear bad words until I was in the seventh grade. I've always had a taste for the city, but I'm pretty content that I grew up here. There's more space to run around for little kids, and there's more parental supervision.

"There is drug use among the teenagers because there's not a lot to do here. There are a lot of pot smokers, and they smoke it religiously. And there's always the media, things like television, forcing teens to conform to certain attitudes and behaviors. No matter where you live, you have that."

"Out here you've got parents who will buy beer for their kids just to make sure they'll stay on the property," said Nick Pruitt, a 19-year-old Granite Hills graduate who attends Alpine Christian Fellowship with Heavener.

"That's what changes the dynamics of how kids get into stuff out here, the amount of open space. There are a lot more places to hide than in the city -- ravines, trees hollowed out on the inside. Places where kids go to smoke marijuana. But the population isn't as dense as it is in the city, so it's harder to get into some kinds of trouble. In El Cajon, kids just go out on the street to get into trouble. In El Cajon, I've seen kids use drugs in the classroom. Out here, it's a little bit harder because there aren't as many people around. And that's one of the things that makes it a good place to grow up. You're able to go out and enjoy the outdoors. You've got a big back yard. You can stay at home and play, but you don't have to stay inside the house, playing on an Xbox."

Pruitt and Heavener said I should stop by Alpine Christian Fellowship on an early Tuesday evening for the church's weekly youth-ministry meeting. Alpine Christian Fellowship sits on several acres of graded land on Alpine's west. The church's youth-ministry building faces a big open field that has a broad, unobstructed view all the way to the ocean. On the early evening I visited, the day's gray sky was clearing, the sun was setting, and the recent rains had turned the field bright green. Against this idyllic background, a group of teenagers huddled around a barbecue, kindling a fire, preparing to roast marshmallows. One of them, 17-year-old Travis Veeder, who lives with his construction-worker dad, told me he loved growing up in Alpine.

"You get to have so much fun. There's so much to do outdoors. You get to do stuff that kids in the city really don't have much of a chance to do, like riding motorcycles. For kids, Alpine is like a big park. My dad and I live on 30 acres. There's no one near us."

"I felt pretty isolated when I was a little kid," said 19-year-old Morgan Tverberg. "But the nice thing was that you could go out and have picnics in your own back yard, or you could go hiking or exploring. I grew up here my whole life, and so I know it does have an effect on you. When you go to El Cajon to go to school, it can be kind of intimidating. I remember that I was very conscious of how physically distant I was from home, and I really didn't like the crowds at school. I'd never been around crowds like that before. There were 3000 kids at Granite Hills. It was a big change."

Tverberg told me that her mom works at the Pine Valley Water Company and that her dad works at the Wild Animal Park. I asked her if, given her parents' experience of raising kids in Alpine, she would want to do the same.

"Well, yeah, of course," she laughed and exchanged a look with Veeder. "But..."

"But by the time we're old enough to start thinking about having kids...," continued Veeder.

"Alpine's not going to be the same," said Tverberg. "It's already growing so fast."

"I'm young, and I can already tell that it's growing and getting more crowded," said Veeder. "It's a lot bigger now than it was when I was small."

"If I decided to raise kids here," said Tverberg, "they probably wouldn't have the same experience growing up that we did."

Out on Alpine Boulevard, in what old-timers refer to as "downtown," one gets a feel for the Alpine that many residents are reluctant to surrender. Behind the white clapboard Alpine Woman's Club, built in 1899, shaded by mature eucalyptus, a memorial garden -- rosemary and lilacs and white baby's breath -- honors Miriam Bennett, who served as Alpine's postmaster and was a longtime Alpine Woman's Club member. The club's name is itself a reminder of Alpine's particular character. Current members are quick to point out that, yes, it is in fact the Alpine Woman's Club, that it is an organization unto itself and has no relation whatsoever to the General Federation of Women's Clubs based in Washington, D.C.

"Years ago we used to belong to the national organization," said 85-year-old Pauline Silver, who joined the club in 1973. "That was long, long before I moved to Alpine. But from what I understand the national organization had too many requirements to meet, and the women of Alpine wanted to do their own local thing. Alpine's always been a little bit different that way.

"In the time that I've belonged, the membership really hasn't changed a great deal. We've made a lot of improvements to the building, but the club is still the same warm group of people who've always belonged. The same people who enjoy this sort of thing. We still have a good, strong membership and don't have problems finding new members.

"The changes we have experienced have been small. We stopped doing the rummage sales, for example, because they weren't so profitable. There are now more places for people to go for bargains, like the 99-cent store. We used to meet twice each month, but in the past five years people have gotten so busy that we switched to meeting once a month. We usually have interesting, educational programs, programs about health, about safety. We have a lot of fun things where people come and entertain, musical programs and things like that.

"We still have our annual Victorian tea in February. That's always been successful, and it's become so popular that we now have two sittings. Basically, we still do the same old good things that the club has always done. Giving scholarships to local kids. Helping the community in other ways. I don't think that will ever change."

Just around the corner from the Alpine Woman's Club, on West Victoria Drive, in a tidy white clapboard house with a huge asparagus fern on the porch, Alpine Realty does business.

When I first spoke to Dee Broughten over the phone, she was so self-effacing about her knowledge of Alpine real estate that I expected to meet an unassuming woman. But when I knocked on Alpine Realty's front door, I was greeted by a tall woman with high cheekbones who wore her thick, pale-blonde hair piled atop her head in a loose bun. She resembled Katharine Hepburn and also had something of the late actress's directness. I'd been told that she'd sold real estate longer than any other realtor in Alpine, that her more than 20 years of experience gave her a good vantage on the local market's ups and downs. Broughten's modesty, it turned out, was a kind of practical reserve.

"I stay out of politics," she told me, eyeing my tape recorder. "I just don't do it. I don't get involved. I don't take sides. You can't do that when you're a realtor."

She relaxed when she started talking about how her family came to Alpine in 1983.

"It was so quiet. That's what we loved. Rural living. No traffic. It was totally country. You drove around and you saw cattle, chickens, horses. I'd been living in Clairemont but had lived in a number of areas in San Diego, Point Loma, the beach areas. We wanted quiet.

"I remember it took us several months to find a place. We didn't have an agent, and Alpine is the sort of place where you really do need an agent. It's not laid out on a grid. There are lots of hills and valleys. Lots of hidden-away areas. Little nooks and crannies. You need someone who knows the place very well to help you. We finally found a place. Three bedrooms, two baths, 1700 square feet. We paid $135,000, if you can believe it. At that time, I don't think there was a house in all of Alpine that was valued, including land, at more than $300,000. We were delighted. After school, our boys could go out and play baseball on our land. And after we moved in, we immediately acquired three or four dogs.

"I got my real estate license in either 1984 or 1985. There were maybe only four or five other realtors here. Now, there are easily three times that number. I remember that this office, Alpine Realty, was on Alpine Boulevard in 1987, and I remember that I could leave the front door open. Maybe two or three cars a day would drive down the boulevard. It was so quiet that I could have the door open and still talk on the phone. I also remember that by 1996 or 1997, I had to keep the front door to the office closed. Fumes from cars driving down the boulevard starting wafting in, and the traffic noise was awful. That was when I definitely noticed that Alpine had changed."

Broughten has also noticed a few other ways that Alpine has changed. She glanced at a notepad open on the desk in front of her.

"After you called, I just sort of looked through the local listings. The least expensive right now is a two-bedroom, one-bath, 744-square-foot house that sits on less than one-quarter of an acre. This house is priced between $399,000 and $419,000. The most expensive is a 2600-square-foot home that sits on 80 acres that go right up to the national forest. This house is priced at $2,990,000." (Prices have adjusted downward since I talked with Broughten in February.)

I said that while driving around Alpine I had noticed that new homes seemed to have been built on larger and larger lots.

"Sewage," she said. "Sewage is the issue. Only very few homes in Alpine actually are connected to a sewage line. Out here, almost everyone has a septic tank. Over the years, state and county regulations have increased the amount of land you need in order to have a septic tank. It's something that people in cities don't really have to think about. But out here, sewage has played a big role in the community's development, and it's one of the reasons why Alpine will reach a limit to how big it can grow. It's not that septic tanks are difficult to maintain. Nowadays they're no problem at all. With minimum care, you need to have them pumped out only every two or three years. It's no big deal. The amount of land legally required for a septic tank is the real issue."

Historically, Alpine's civic life has played out downtown along that stretch of Alpine Boulevard that has access to public sewage. This has resulted in a kind of efficient coziness. For many years, the Alpine Woman's Club building served not only as town hall but also as Alpine's library. In October 1900, the Alpine Library Association took over part of the building to establish Alpine's first library and charged an annual one-dollar membership fee. In 1914, San Diego County started a library of its own in the same room. The two libraries lived together for 43 years until the county took over for good and the library association donated its 5000 books to the county. In March 1978, the library moved to its present location, a 3000-square-foot space housed in an innocuous pale-stucco building across the street.

"I'm not a librarian," said branch operations manager Connie McKeever, on the morning we sat down to talk. "I'm a librarian technician. We don't have a librarian."

McKeever, a trim woman with an aerobics instructor's pep, worked at four other county libraries before coming to the Alpine branch four years ago. She's worked at the branch longer than anyone else and oversees two full-time and two part-time employees, one student volunteer, and one library substitute. She's responsible for a collection of 23,737 books. Last year, said McKeever, her library circulated 71,961 items.

"Which means that, in relation to our size, we have a pretty high circulation."

This is why McKeever dreams of having more space.

"Now, this is just my personal dream for the library. I'm just speaking for myself and not the county library system. But in my personal dream for the library, I'd really like to have a full-time librarian and get out of this building and get into at least 10,000 square feet of space. I'd love to have a community room and a room for children. I'd love to have more Internet stations. I've got only four, and I know that the Campo branch, a new and smaller library, has eight Internet stations."

McKeever said that the Alpine residents who visit her library "seem to like mysteries, books about gardening, home improvement, landscaping, and horses.

"Another characteristic of this library is that we seem to get a lot of men, or at least a lot more men than what you see at other county libraries."

McKeever said that people in Alpine are particularly devoted to their library, that its Alpine Library Friends organization was very robust.

"We even have an anonymous donor, a woman, who's very generous with us. I don't feel comfortable giving out the exact amount, but every year she donates thousands of dollars to the library, which is very good for us because the county has a program that matches the donations we receive."

At McKeever's prompting, I drove down to the bookstore that Alpine Library Friends runs in a donated space at Alpine Creek Town Center. A number of things about the store surprised me. One was that the selection of used books for sale was very large and, to my taste, very good. I'd expected a much smaller space, and I'd expected to find the usual jumble of mysteries and cookbooks. But the Alpine Library Friends bookstore seemed almost as big as the Alpine Library. After browsing the store's shelves for only five minutes, I snapped up for a total of seven dollars The Letters of John Cheever, Doris Lessing's Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, and Memoirs of Madame de La Tour du Pin, a gossipy 450-page first-person account of life in France in the years immediately before and after the Revolution.

I was surprised to find that, in addition to its large and unusual selection of books, the store was also able to accommodate an exhibition called "Inside Anne Frank's House," which included a detailed recreation of two of the rooms in which Anne Frank and seven other people hid during the Nazi occupation. I happened to be at the store when a group of six older women were visiting the exhibit. Olga Worm, the woman responsible for bringing the exhibit to the bookstore, led us into the two rooms via a small door hidden behind a bookcase. The older women, grim-faced, followed Worm through the cramped, dim, airless rooms. Two of the women, who appeared to be in their late 70s, looked as though they were grinding their teeth. Tears welled in their eyes. I was relieved to leave the exhibit and talk with Worm.

"Of the Jews you know, how many have llamas?" she asked by way of explaining how Jewish life in Alpine differed from Jewish life in urban San Diego. "Right now we have 6 llamas. In the past, we had as many as 30. My son raised llamas as a 4-H project, and his llamas won first place at the Del Mar Fair. I don't think there are many Jewish boys whose llamas have won first place at the Del Mar Fair."

Although born in Brooklyn, New York, Worm grew up in Pocatello, Idaho, where her father, a professional musician, worked as a tailor in a men's clothing store. Worm said that the largest city near Pocatello was Salt Lake City, a three-hour drive away.

"There were only about 20 Jewish families in Pocatello. We were very accepted in the community, but it was there that I got used to being different, to standing out a little bit. So the move to Alpine hasn't been a very big deal. My husband Oscar and I lived in Del Cerro for about 20 years. He owned a restaurant. I owned and ran five discount women's shoe stores. We were very active at Tifereth Israel, the Conservative synagogue in San Carlos. My husband and I decided to retire, so we sold our businesses and moved out here to Alpine 7 years ago.

"What happened was that we knew four other families at Tifereth Israel who lived in Alpine. We'd always say 'hi' to each other and 'We really ought to get together someday.' We'd talk about it, and some would say, 'I bet there's a lot more Jews in Alpine than we think.' Others said, 'No, there are no Jews in Alpine.' We finally decided, 'Let's find out.' So last year, before Thanksgiving, we put up flyers around Alpine, at the library, at Alpine Community Center, at the grocery store. On November 24, Thanksgiving, we had our first event, and 25 people showed up. Since then we've had an event every month, and we now call ourselves Alpine Jewish Connection. There are now about 80 people on our mailing list, and we're getting new members all the time."

Alanna Light belongs to Alpine Jewish Connection, and her other local community involvements included vocal opposition to the development of Wright's Field. Light lives not only across the street from Wright's Field, but because Alpine's "small-town feel" makes this sort of thing inevitable, she also lives next door to the 38 acres on which Paul Gonya built a 5500-square-foot home. One late afternoon at the beginning of March, I sat in Light's home in what she describes as her "cluttered techie-room," where she's installed an entire video-editing suite. Light worked at Channel 10 for 15 years as "an operational engineer, which means I did everything from graphics to satellite feeds, from stage managing to camera operator. I was part of the crew."

Light responded to her hungry adolescent son's sudden craving for raw carrots and ranch dressing while she explained to me how she became a community activist.

"I moved to Alpine ten years ago from San Carlos. I wanted to have horses in my back yard. I wanted land. And at that time land in Alpine was cheap compared to anywhere else. I couldn't afford the usual horse properties in Del Mar or Rancho Santa Fe. It simply wasn't going to happen. So in 1996 in Alpine I was able to buy a 2400-square-foot ranch home with a barn and horse arena on two and a half acres for $262,000. At the time, I was terrified. It seemed like so much money. But I loved living in Alpine. I think it was a good move for my kids. The ethnic diversity wasn't there ten years ago, but it's gotten a lot better now. It's definitely improving.

"I live directly east, right across the road, from Wright's Field. We certainly used it all the time for walking, playing, riding horses. I wasn't that concerned about Wright's Field until last year when my son Steven was in seventh grade and was enrolled in an outdoor activity class at MacQueen Middle School. They were using Wright's Field as an 'outdoor classroom.' Normally, Steven is a computer guy, but he started coming home and pointing out native Californian plants to me. And I was impressed. At some point Steven's instructor explained that the Back Country Land Trust, which already owned 230 acres of Wright's Field, wanted to buy an additional 142 acres. So my son came home, and he decided that he really, really wanted to help the Back Country Land Trust buy that land.

"My background is in radio and television promotion. So Steven and I wanted to let the community know what was really going on in order to find out if this was what the community really wanted.

"Steven volunteered to spend $400 of his bar mitzvah money to buy buttons that said, 'I Love Wright's Field.' He wrote an editorial for the local paper about how much he loved Wright's Field. Steven asked if he could give the buttons away at school, but the vice principal said that in order to give away the buttons he had to give the other students a presentation about what the buttons meant. Steven's kind of shy. He was nervous about standing up in front of school, but he did it. Some of the kids were real jerks about it. They scratched out the word 'love' on the buttons and wrote 'hate.' One day Steven came home and asked me, 'Mom, what's a tree hugger?' The kids at school had been teasing him, and he didn't know what a 'tree hugger' was. We didn't walk around calling people 'tree huggers' in our house.

"That's all we were really going to do. But I ended up getting more interested. I put up a sign in my yard facing Wright's Field that said, 'Habitats or Homes? Keep Wright's Field Wild.' I made a website, and on the website I videostreamed a video that I and Stacy Taylor, the local liberal talk-show host, put together. We started getting lots of hits. What I was doing was completely unaffiliated with the Back Country Land Trust. They made it very clear that they weren't endorsing anything that I was doing. I've also been a sort of free spirit, so that was okay by me. I and a friend put together a rally. I found someone who had a plane to fly over the rally. We had 400 people show up, and they spelled out the words 'SAVE ME' by standing in formation. All sorts of people showed up. It was a good cross-section of Alpine. That was all last June [2005]."

Light's next-door neighbor, Paul Gonya, is a Rhode Island native who first came to San Diego, he says, "while on my way to Vietnam in the 1960s. Then I came back in the early 1970s and decided to stay. It was strictly for the weather. I first settled in Pacific Beach. I was there for five years, while I was going to San Diego State. I was studying business administration, and I took an M.A. in accounting. I came to Alpine because I saw an ad in the newspaper about Rancho Palo Verde, an upscale development out here. I came out and looked at some property on the small lake. I subsequently bought a house off Holly Road in the early 1970s. It was a really nice house that had been built by the guy who did the illustration of the little girl holding the umbrella on the Morton's salt box. The house was 3000 square feet. Sat on three acres. This was in 1972. We paid $62,000. It was a midrange home at the time. Back then, the most expensive homes in the area were, I think, in the $200,000 range."

Gonya is a trim man with a well-tended white beard and a precise, considered way of speaking. Dressed in an unostentatious dress shirt and pair of slacks, he had the vaguely ascetic presentation of a mathematics professor.

"The reason I came to Alpine was that you couldn't buy land near the ocean. You could buy only a postage-stamp-size lot near the ocean. I just traded the ocean for land. I was a traveling consultant working for banks. I commuted for about ten years to downtown. I worked for California First National Bank as a banker, commuting downtown every day. People at work thought of Alpine as a nice upscale community, which it's always been, but they thought it was too far away."

Gonya told me that he's built more than 400 homes in Alpine.

"The land behind where I lived on Holly Road was for sale. This was in 1978, 1979. Twenty-eight acres. The cost was $60,000. It was owned by a Texan company, Gulf States Toyota. Many people I talked to downtown at work wanted more land, because the lots in San Diego were so small. I went in with some other bankers, and we bought that land and split it up. Back then, you could get a lot-split done in a year or so. We offered acreage to people who didn't want to live on postage-stamp-size lots. At the time, Poway was offering a lot of the same things Alpine was in terms of lot size. But even back then, there were starting to be traffic problems, and it's only gotten worse. Here, you could take Interstate 8 and be downtown in 40 minutes. The same trip downtown would take an hour, an hour and a half from North County. In fact, Alpine is geographically closer to downtown than Poway. When I first started developing in the early 1980s, I put a sign up on Highway 15 that said, 'If You Lived in Alpine, You'd Be Home By Now.' Bigger lots, shorter commute time, and views to the ocean. Those are the things that Alpine had going for it.

"In the 1980s, I started doing 1 or 2 homes at a time. It started growing to building maybe 15 homes a year. Nobody does what we do. It was out of necessity. We determined that if you're going to come to Alpine, which is perceived as being 'too far away,' we had to do something different from what was being done in North County. We gave you a truly custom home on an acre-plus of land with landscaping. We didn't want to compete with the tract builders, so everything we do is higher than the county standards for building a quality home. Things like, for example, screwing in all the drywall instead of nailing it in so you don't get nail pops. More concrete in the foundations. More steel in the foundations. More wood in the house. Everything we do exceeds county standards. What we were saying was that, look, come to Alpine and you'll get more land, a better-quality home, plus we'll build the home according to your specifications. Our homes are, on average, close to 3000 square feet.

"We presell every house. No tract builder in the county does what we do. You're either a custom-builder, in which case the customer goes and gets the lot. They hire you and you build the house on their construction loan. We, on the other hand, develop the lots, but we build custom homes on those lots. We give our customers anything they want. We have 30 plans. We now have 31 plans because a customer just brought another in. The customers can use their own plan or one of ours. They can change it all around. They choose from 200-plus different options. Everything from the roof tile on down. From the color and shape of the roof, to the color of the stucco on the house, everything. We have an interior designer from Ethan Allen who works with us. We're truly a custom construction builder."

Over the years, had Gonya noticed any changes in the types of people buying his homes?

"When we first started we were pulling people out of El Cajon and Lakeside. Now, we're pulling people out of La Jolla, Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar, and Coronado. We're pulling people who want what's unique to Alpine. You can get some land and a really great house. And we've always been less expensive than those communities. But that's becoming a thing of the past because we can't find the land to build on anymore.

"If there's any other demographic that really stands out, it's that we have a lot of law enforcement people who now live out here. That's because we have the lowest crime rate in the county, and I think those people know those statistics. I think they want to raise their families where they don't have to 'work' on crime when they're at home. We have one community where almost one-third of the homeowners are cops. It's a 30-unit subdivision called Alpine Ranch Estates North. We call it 'Cop Land.'

"In terms of other trends, nowadays people want media and Internet accessibility. They also want a view from every room. That's our most popular home. We've built that home 50 times."

I asked Gonya about the septic-tank issue.

"If the soil is good, you can get a three-bedroom home on a half-acre. But if you want a four-bedroom or five-bedroom home, it drives you toward an acre very quickly. It takes a lot of room to have a septic tank work efficiently. You use up an acre pretty quickly. Even a three-bedroom home, it depends on the slope of the land. But these septic tanks nowadays almost never fail. Once every two or three years, you have it pumped out. That's it."

When did he notice that Alpine had started to grow?

"There were 3000 homes when I came to town. There are now 5000 homes. That's 2000 homes in 30 years. That's not exactly a boom. And, actually, there will probably be something less than 500 more homes that will ever be built in Alpine. There's no land left. It would be a miracle if you could build more than 500 more homes in this town. And that would be over the next 20 years. We know every piece of land in this town. With the current zoning laws, that's the number of homes you might get. We own 100 acres. And that's it. Ninety percent of the properties in Alpine don't have sewer, and it's not economically feasible to bring sewer in. That's why none of the big tract builders have come to Alpine.

"A builder could theoretically bring sewer in if the builder could get the density. But you can't get that density because the land isn't flat enough to give you that density. The environmental issues prohibit the density. The topography prohibits the density. And you're simply not going to bring sewer to a project that doesn't have density."

What does it mean when no more houses can be built in Alpine?

"It means that the housing will get more expensive. And it means that the properties here that aren't of that caliber will be torn down, and a more expensive home will be built on the land. Unfortunately, the average American doesn't get to live in that kind of place. It becomes a Santa Barbara or a Rancho Santa Fe or a Telluride or Aspen. In Aspen, the billionaires throw out the millionaires. Alpine will become an elite town of elitist people. And that's a shame, because the average person won't be able to buy here."

Is an elitist Alpine the sort of place where Gonya would want to live?

"I have a ranch here, 38 acres, and a ranch in Oklahoma, and land in Florida. I happen to love Alpine. But a while back I ran to be on the Alpine Community Planning Group. A lot of people wanted me to run. I got elected. This was from 2000 to 2004. And, unfortunately, that brought out some of the very few worst people in the world. And that makes it a little less desirable."

Gonya's memories about the Alpine Community Planning Group made him pause. I couldn't tell if he was angry or sad: Gonya doesn't seem the sort of man who's comfortable expressing strong emotions. As if to pull himself out of his funk, he started talking about the ranch he'd purchased in Oklahoma. "It's incredible." He said that at his house he had a brochure about the ranch. He wanted to show it to me.

Gonya's four-bedroom home is a white and buttery yellow Victorian with ceilings that range from 12 to 20 feet high. The decor is late 19th Century with an emphasis on equestrian touches -- paintings of horses, posters of quarter horses. Gonya owns 20 quarter horses, and both he and Christina, his wife, ride. On his 38 acres, in addition to a swimming pool fed by a man-made stream that meanders through the property immediately in back of his home, Gonya has constructed a horse-riding arena, a covered "round pen," a "mare motel" where his brood mares hang out until they foal, and a show barn that is more immaculate than most middle-class homes. (The garage attached to Gonya's home seemed larger, and certainly cleaner, than my 800-square-foot house.)

The brochure Gonya wanted to show me was a glossy, full-color 12-page paean to "Paws Up Quarter Horses: Birthplace of World Champions Offered at $3,295,000." Located 30 minutes north of Oklahoma City, this "Triple Crown of equestrian properties" that Gonya has purchased has five residences for ranch personnel, four ponds, a 52-stall mare barn with a "magnificently furnished conference room with a stunning wrought-iron chandelier," an 8-stall stud barn, a 105-foot by 225-foot riding arena with an 1800-square-foot, climate-controlled "viewing lounge," and 450 acres of pasture.

In the several hours I spent with Gonya, the only time he came close to expressing anything that seemed like happiness was when he was paging through the "Paws Up Quarter Horses" brochure.

"It's gorgeous, isn't it?" he said about the ranch. "That much land at that price. To people in Southern California, it seems unbelievable."

Elsewhere in Alpine, the comparative price of local land wasn't the only thing people had a difficult time believing. On a warm Sunday morning in midwinter, I stopped by the Episcopal Church of Christ the King in Alpine. I was a little early for the 10:00 a.m. service. Although the doors to the narthex were open, no one else seemed to be around. Lacking anything to do, I started to page through the parish's guest book. I noticed something odd.

The book contained the names, addresses, and religious affiliations of guests dating back to 1996. Most of the visitors were from San Diego and Alpine. Most identified themselves as Episcopal. A few said they were Presbyterian or Methodist or Baptist. Starting in March 2005, however, several visitors made a point of identifying themselves as "Anglican." I at first thought Christ the King had for some reason started to attract English tourists, since "Anglican" is the term that members of the Church of England often use to describe themselves. But the Anglicans in the parish guest book gave either San Diego or Alpine addresses. I was puzzled.

I'd last visited Christ the King on All Saints' Day in February 2002, when I was writing regularly about religion for the Reader. I'd interviewed Christ the King's rector, Father Keith Acker, who explained that his parish had traditionally been "high church," or "Anglo-Catholic," meaning that it was one of those Episcopal or Anglican parishes that felt a strong affinity for the Roman Catholic tradition.

But something had happened between February 2002 and March 2005. Nosing around the narthex on that midwinter morning when no one else seemed around, I came across a half-dozen copies of a two-page letter that someone named Stephanie Smith had, on February 8, 2006, addressed to Christ the King church. Smith, who identified herself as a San Diego resident, had entitled her letter "The Remnant Church."

"On Sunday a small group from St. Bartholomew's in Poway and one member of St. David's, San Diego, went up to support the remaining twenty-some members of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Alpine," Smith began. "The service was upbeat and the sermon excellent. We all felt that we were in the presence of the Holy. On leaving the church building, I made the comment to one of my friends that this was indeed a remnant church. Off the cuff, I responded by saying that a remnant church are those people who are left behind to bring that church into a new place and a new life. We then went on our way to mix with the congregation in their parish hall for refreshments and good talk...."

Christ the King is a handsome mission-style church that becomes visible from Interstate 8 a short distance after the big yellow Caltrans sign warns eastbound traffic, "Strong Winds Possible." The church overlooks a canyon, and on the midwinter morning that I was snooping through the parish guest book, the weather was damp and the wind blowing through the canyon smelled of sage. A little before ten o'clock, Christ the King's parishioners, or what remained of them, started to show up. As they entered the nave, they genuflected deeply before sitting in one of the long wooden pews. By the time interim rector Reverend Arnold Fenton started the service, there were 25 people, including me, in the nave. Without referring to notes, Father Fenton gave the sort of fluent, cogent sermon that I think of as typical of the Episcopal Church.

After the service, everyone met in the parish hall for punch, coffee, and lemon pound cake. Folks were friendly enough, but they didn't seem eager to discuss what had happened to their church. One woman, Lois Meisel, offered that "It's all a normal part of spiritual growth, of people living what they understand to be a Christian life." Barbara Smith, a British woman who serves as the parish secretary, described what had happened to her church as "unfortunate."

Later, I spoke with Father Keith Acker to get his side of the story.

"Christ the King had always been theologically conservative," he told me. "What eventually happened wasn't sudden. It had been building for some time."

Father Acker said that he and many Christ the King parishioners had long felt that the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, or ECUSA, the denomination to which the parish belonged, was becoming theologically too liberal. The August 2003 confirmation in New Hampshire of the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop seemed to justify their fears.

"The difficult change here locally was the election and consecration of the new bishop, James Mathes."

Father Acker and Christ the King's more conservative parishioners took the election and consecration of Bishop Mathes, whom they felt was theologically liberal, as their cue to exit the ECUSA.

"When the bishop visited on November 20, 2005, his sermon was basically a generic theistic sermon. To this day I don't think he comprehends the gap between his theology and that of most of the people who belonged to Christ the King. He doesn't see it as a radical difference of the Christian faith. His sermon just reflected his not being aware of this difference.

"In early December the vestry, or church board, voted to leave the [ECUSA], to reorganize outside the Episcopal diocese. No one voted to stay. We reorganized as Alpine Anglican Church of the Blessed Trinity. On Sundays we have an 8:00 a.m. service at Alpine Elementary School. We emphasize scripture, sacraments, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. We're at about 35 folks. We're part of the Anglican Province of America; our bishop is in Seattle. One of the reasons that I was confident in making the Anglican Province of America our church-home is that they've entered into full communion with the Church of Nigeria, which has its own archbishop and about 15 million members."

Father Acker's former parish is one of two landmarks people notice as they approach Alpine. The other is what appears to be a home sitting high atop an otherwise barren mountain on the north side of Interstate 8. What's remarkable about the structure isn't only its extreme elevation and isolation but the enormous American flag flying in front of it. On a Sunday afternoon when I drove out to look at the place, I found that it wasn't a home at all. A sign in its driveway announced that the building was a VFW hall and that the building and land surrounding it had been donated to the Veterans of Foreign Wars by Tom C. Dyke.

Dyke's contracting and blasting business sits 100 yards or so down the road from the VFW hall. Dyke has decorated his own small office with paintings and drawings of American eagles and Native American knickknacks. He is a massive man, well over six feet, with broad shoulders and big hands. Like many guys of his size and bearing, he comes off at first as a little shy. But like many guys of his size and bearing, he hasn't often needed to avoid confrontation. When Dyke talks about fights he's been in, he gets a definite gleam in his eye and it's easy to see the hell-raiser he was in his youth.

"I was born in Omaha, Nebraska. My family were Bohemian farmers. They grew everything. During the Dust Bowl, they came to San Diego. We ended up down there in Frontier Housing in the Rosecrans and Midway Drive area. That was housing built out of two-by-twos, just thrown up for all the migrants and cheap labor. All the Dust Bowl people ended up down here. We came here in 1939. I was two years old.

"I grew up there in Frontier Housing until the late 1940s, and then we came here. My father was a barber and a horse trainer. He had horses at Caliente. He had a friend named Barney who owned the Harbor House down where the Harbor House is today, at Seaport Village. That was where you caught the ferry over to North Island. Barney owned the Harbor House and was a ticket collector for the ferry. Barney and my dad were inseparable. They were what you'd call racehorse chums and drinking buddies. They caroused with the women in Tijuana and all that stuff.

"Barney developed asthma and heart problems, and the doctors basically told him that if he moved to Alpine, which at the time had the healthiest climate in the United States according to a government report, he'd probably live a couple more years. So Barney came up here to Alpine and started the Log Cabin Cafe, which isn't there now. My mother, having been a waitress for him down at the Harbor House, well, she and my dad decided they'd come up here so they could be with Barney. I was about nine or ten years old.

"They ended up throwing my ass in jail up here because I wanted to work. Ever since I was five years old, I'd worked. Odd jobs. But when it came time for me to go to high school, I didn't want to go. I wanted to work. Up here they had segregated high schools, a segregated school system. The schools I'd been to in San Diego weren't segregated. I didn't know what segregation or redneck was until I came to Alpine. Here, the white people were segregated from the Indians. At that time, there was only one black family allowed in Alpine. That was a guy named Lee Roper. He was a great guy. You couldn't use each other's bathrooms and all that stuff. You had real segregation here in Alpine just like you had down in the South, you know, against the blacks. So I didn't like that too well. For example, at school, if a white kid used the Indians' bathroom, which was basically an old outhouse, that'd get you a two-week suspension. So I'd do that and get suspended for two weeks and go to work. I did labor work, you name it. I hand-dug wells. I worked with carpenters. I dug ditches. Mixed concrete. You name it.

"I think my feelings about segregation at that time didn't have much to do with religion. My family tried to raise me Methodist. But my mother's side of the family was Bohemian. My father's side, English. But Bohemians, when they immigrated to Nebraska in the early 1800s, were looked down upon as blacks. They wouldn't let me speak Bohemian. In Nebraska, if I said I was Bohemian, my mother would just come unglued. And down in Frontier Housing, back then, it was just like what Logan Heights is today. You had all the races mixed up there. You had all kinds of poverty there. We were all looked down upon as the lowlife of San Diego. So basically, the schools down there weren't segregated. We had all the gang problems then that you have elsewhere in San Diego today. I didn't grow up in a segregated environment."

Dyke described an adolescence and young adulthood characterized by stints in jail and in the custody of California Youth Authority. During the 1950s, a religious experience, or conversion experience, at CYA led Dyke to pray for his release from custody.

"One day a Baptist minister who worked with us boys came up to me and said, 'I've got some good news for you and some bad news. The bad news is that your father passed away. The good news is that we're going to have to release you because you are now the sole breadwinner, the sole means of support for your family.' So my prayer had been answered. I didn't want a death, but the death made my release possible. I was probably about 14 years old at the time."

Later, Dyke used a forged birth certificate to join the Army. He took his basic training at Fort Ord. He returned briefly to San Diego before going to Fort Benning, where he was to become a paratrooper. However, before leaving for Fort Benning, Dyke got into a fight with a policeman.

"He turned out to be the chief of police in El Cajon. He grabbed me by my hair and slammed my head against the car. It pissed me off. I beat the shit out of him."

Dyke went back into California Youth Authority custody. Later, the Army discharged him. When his life settled down again, he went back to work. He saved money. He bought an air compressor and did drill and blasting jobs around Alpine. He saved more money. When he was 26 years old, he and a business partner bought 28 acres north of Alpine Boulevard for $2500 per acre.

"Which was an outrageous price at the time. I hated living in the center of Alpine. So I bought the land so I could live out there and people would leave me alone. That must have been about 1955. I wanted to be in Alpine. I was free of the downtown problems. We only had 250 people or so when I came here. There was plenty of open space. That's why I wanted to be here. Look, I basically came out of the ghetto, and when we came up here I saw beautiful mountains and beautiful trees, wide-open spaces, and land that you could buy. You could own a piece of the land for yourself. Also, I hated neighbors. I still do. And, so, I started buying up land whenever I could. Every time a piece of land became available north of Alpine Boulevard, I'd try to buy it. I ended up buying what I guess would be 90 percent of the available land on this side of the street. At the most I had more than 300 acres.

"I've also given away a lot of land over the years. There was a point in my life when I owned more than 1000 acres. I owned a small town in northern Nevada. Part of a mine in Iowa Hill, California. In Tennessee, 70 miles north of Knoxville, I owned a bunch of land. And all along, I've had this blasting business. I'm also a general contractor. All my work has been in the Lake Murray area. I've worked all of Fletcher Hills, Kearny Mesa. I don't think there's been a major project in San Diego that we haven't been involved in. Right now, for example, we're finishing up Rancho Alejo in San Marcos. You name it, we've been on it. Right now, we've got 40-odd employees. I used to have 135. That was back in the late 1970s.

"I've always been a pass-it-along kind of guy. I've always given things away. I gave Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, an entire subdivision of 66 lots. That's over 60 acres. I gave it to Lincoln Memorial University because they teach God and country and honor Lincoln's memory. They've got kids from 28 nations studying there, so that seemed worthwhile to me. I gave Father Joe Carroll 619 acres in Campo, which was about $4.5 million in property.

"The land for the VFW hall, I bought that land probably in 1980. The house had already been built on it. I went in and rebuilt everything. I never lived in it. The house sits on two acres of land. At the time I didn't plan on giving it away. I rented it. One of my sons lived in it for a while. I'd helped form the VFW up here years earlier. I wasn't a founder, but I helped. I'd promised the commander that when I found the right piece of land, I'd donate it to the VFW. And one day it just came to me. I thought, 'What site would be better for a VFW hall than that site?' So I gave it to them with a number of conditions. One was that they fly the largest American flag possible. I think the one they've got flying now is 15 feet by 20 feet.

"The reason I donated the land and house to the VFW was that, by that time, I knew who God was and I'd really learned the history of how this country was founded. On my dad's side of the family, the first white settler in New York was an ancestor of mine. George Washington's chief of staff was another relative of mine. I've started paying attention, as I've gotten older, to the fight for freedom. My family loved to fight for freedom. So I donated that land to the VFW out of my appreciation for what veterans have done for everybody in this country.

"One of the other conditions that I put on that land and house when I donated it to the VFW was that they teach children the Veterans of Foreign Wars constitution. And what the VFW constitution says is teach the children about God, teach the children about country, and teach the children not to war no more."

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