The Vanishing Canyons of My Youth

The smell of the sage and chaparral always takes me back. It was the Grand Canyon of my youth. It was deep, dark, and scary as hell. Like a game, it pulled me in: small and simple at the start but complex and mysterious at the end. One of its secrets was a crevice, scoured by the 1966 floods, that started a few feet deep surrounded by lizards and birds and ended hundreds of yards later in a 20-foot deep narrow crevasse with snakes. It took me and my 8-10-year old friends years to conquer our fear of that place, to fully discover the wilderness in our backyard. By then I was an experienced explorer, and it set me on a path in life that serves me to this day. They were the canyons of my youth but they are long gone.

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Pacific Beach, 1967, on my 10th birthday with my neighborhood buddies (me, far left). Amity street dead-ended in two amazing canyons seen behind us, but they were filled with homes and roads in 1970-71.

The suburbanization of rural lands is a familiar story for those growing up in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. It was a consequence of the post-WWII baby boom and the development of the suburbs across America. Prior to that time, most people lived in cities with farmland occupying flat, open space. But those involved in the war married and sought, and deserved, the American dream: owning a new home. The ensuing population boom and housing crisis was met by our country’s newly burgeoning industrial might and ingenuity and the suburbs arose as a solution. Through that process, mass-produced homes — the tract home — was developed as they could be built efficiently with minimal waste. It was a good solution for is its time, and continues today, but it had a cost that would only be realized later: significant impacts to the environment and the loss of open spaces.

As Adam Rome discusses in his seminal book The Bulldozer in the Countryside, poor planning led to new and undiscovered impacts on water, soils, and wildlife due to the construction of septic systems, destruction of wetlands, building on floodplains and earthquake faults, and the loss of virgin land. The synergy created by these issues helped build the 1960s environmental movement, culminating in Earth Day, and many of our existing environmental laws.  Truth is, many cities and counties still struggle with these issues today, a casualty of poor environmental planning in the past.

But to me, it was all about my playground, the canyons. I wasn’t alone. As Rome writes: “In new subdivisions, children were often able to play in undeveloped land nearby — then one day the bulldozers would come to turn those playgrounds into lots for new houses, and people of all ages reacted with shock and outrage. In 1962, for example, a seven-year-old boy from California made national news when he sought the help of President Kennedy after discovering that development was destroying his favorite place to hunt for lizards.

Dear Mr. President,
we Have no Place to go when we want to go out in the canyon Because they are going to Build houses So can you setaside some land where we can Play? thank you four listening love scott.”

That letter could have been written by my 10-year old self from my experiences in Pacific Beach.

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Pacific Beach (PB) in 1946. The rugged NE corner of PB on Soledad Mountain had yet to be developed. Our canyon is indicated by the yellow arrow. Photo: Whitehouse51.com

San Diego was at the forefront of urban development. Between the 1950s and 70s, the population doubled and then doubled again in the following three decades. Where I grew up, in Pacific Beach, most of the city was located on flat land near the beach which had been established in the late 1880s from railroad transportation. For almost a century after that, the rugged hills with sweeping views of Mission Bay sat empty. Then in the early 1960s, the Pacifica Drive area, despite steep inclines and a rugged landscape was rapidly developed. My former home on Amity Street, where I Iived from 1966-1968, was built in 1964, the first phase of several. Over a hundred homes were built in that area from 1961-64. Our canyon, as I was to discover later, was smake dab in the middle of the “straightening” of Soledad Mountain Road — a project to reduce the transit time from PB to La Jolla. Although I didn’t make the connection at the time the dozen dead-end roads leading into the canyons now seem ominous.

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NE Pacific Beach in 1966 showing the first phase of home development. Red dot = my former house; blue outline = my canyon playedground; yellow arrows = incomplete sections of Soledad Mountain Road

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NE Pacific Beach in 2004 showing final home development. Red dot = where my former childhood house was located; blue outline = my canyon playground, now graded and filled with homes; yellow arrows = former dead-end sections of Soledad Mountain Road.

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NE Pacific Beach in 1960 before home development. Red dot = where my childhood house will be built in 1964; blue outline = my canyon playground; yellow arrows = future sections of the “straightening” of Soledad Mountain Road

But for three years in the mid-1960s, my friends and I explored the amazing canyons at the end of our street. In those days my mom would kick me out of the house after breakfast (my father was in Vietnam at the time) and call me and my brother in at dinner time. So we had the whole day to explore, at least during the summer. I remember tree forts, rock fights, playing army, and walking around making discoveries.  As I wandered the rugged sage-chaparral landscape I saw hawks soaring in the canyon thermals, quail running with their young across the trail, and found lizards sunning themselves on rocks. I’ll never forget discovering fossil scallops which sparked a lifelong interest in paleontology. Our nemesis, the western rattlesnake, was mostly heard but unseen, a constant reminder of the dangers we faced. I remember them coming up onto the roads of our dead-end street in the evening and scaring the hell out of my mother. But now I understand they were probably just following their ancestral paths up the hills, now covered by asphalt.

Treasures of Pacific Beach canyons (clockwise from upper left): rattlesnakes, hawks, lizards, quail, and fossil scallops.

After conquering the canyons and the crevasse we moved on to the storm drain at the southern dead end of Soledad Mountain Road and explored underneath the streets of PB. Exploring the huge, dry pipes with a flashlight, I remember popping up in street drains and under manhole covers as our world grew with our newfound courage. By then my spirit of adventure was set.

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Me (left) and my friend and neighbor Donald Utley preparing to hike the Appalachian Trail in Virginia as a Boy Scout in 1969.

But my father was in the Navy so we moved away in 1968 to McLean, Virginia then Idaho Falls in 1969. As an experienced explorer, at 11 I hiked the Appalachian Trail and at 12 I snowshoed into the Grand Tetons as a Boy Scout. I returned to PB in 1970 and lived on Olney street near Kate Sessions Elementary, my former school in the 1960s. I recall riding my bike up to my old house and being disoriented by the roads, which I knew well from my newspaper routes, and was astounded to see that my canyon was gone. Somehow, the rugged landscape had been graded and filled with homes and roads. These days, Soledad Mountain Road, which runs right through my old proving grounds,  serves 10,000 vehicles a day and shortens their trip to La Jolla from PB by a few minutes. I hope the time saved is appreciated.

Thankfully, due to the efforts of others, part of that undeveloped area remains as Kate Session Park. The namesake for my elementary school, Kate Sessions (1857-1940), the founder of Balboa Park in San Diego, was a remarkable woman that appreciated open spaces and native plants.  She moved to Pacific Beach in 1912 and it made it her mission to preserve open space and restore native vegetation. Now, through her pioneering vision and efforts, many can still enjoy part of the area I used to explore as a child.

Looking back I realize I was part of the suburbanization of those hills and our canyons were a treasure to be enjoyed but not held. Now they are just a deep memory. But one where I often retreat to for solace as time marches on.

References:

  11 comments for “The Vanishing Canyons of My Youth

  1. Suzanne Charlton
    January 29, 2019 at 8:34 pm

    Great article…we did the same in Clairemont area…while my dad was flying F8s over Vietnam Suzanne Mc Daniel

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • January 29, 2019 at 8:54 pm

      Wow, interesting. I remember that area being developed (my family were farmers in Chino). Unfortunately, I guess it was a common experience.

  2. Suzanne
    January 30, 2019 at 9:47 am

    Say Hi to your dad from McDaniel Family

  3. Greg
    February 1, 2019 at 6:16 am

    Thank you for the articals on the vanishing canyons story.I like you grew up with the canyons.Grew up in Mission Bay during the same period,maybe a few years before you,I’m now 65 years old.I miss how Pacific Beach used to be.It’s nice to talk to some one that remembers it.Thank you a lot Greg Sousa

    ________________________________

    • February 15, 2019 at 10:49 am

      Thanks Greg, I miss the old PB too. It was a great place to grow up.

  4. Michael Silva
    February 2, 2019 at 2:25 pm

    Again another great article about the past. Thanks. Cousin Mike

    • February 15, 2019 at 10:50 am

      Thanks Mike! Appreciate the feedback.

  5. Greg Burgener
    February 10, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    Hea Brian, really nice writeup, I could totally identify with it growing up in San Diego. My canyon was Tecolote at the south end of Clairemont which separated my neighborhood from the hill that the University of San Diego is on. But some of it is still there and wild, the rest is a new neighborhood that covered up the south end of it, with parkland that extends to the east, then wraps around to the north to where there is the Tecolote Golf Course. We used to ride our Flexys down thru the big drain pipes from our street, down to the bottom of the canyon, our first tube rides. It was such a huge part of my life growing up, back when it was 100% wild, that I had long ago decided that if I ever had a son, I was going to name him Canyon, but that never happened.
    Anyway nice site, first time here, cool to read, and long time no see, hope all is well with you. GB (the Burg)

    • February 15, 2019 at 10:47 am

      Hey Greg, it’s great to know that we shared similar experiences. I’m hearing that from quite a few people in California. It least some wilderness remains and we have our memories of what it was like. Glad you like the site, it is fun to write and reminisce about the past. We got it good.

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