Mis Ángeles: How A 2-Hour Road Trip For Some Julian Apple Pie Helped Me Heal

(Illustration By Chava Sanchez/Images Via Unsplash)

Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 is playing on the radio. My 13-year-old niece and nephew are playing video games in the back seat. Toby Bean Bryant, my Jack Russell Terrier mix, is licking my elbow. And there's nothing but an open road in front of me.

That's my little slice of heaven, my joyous moment of "everything is going to be alright." And still, as I sat there Tuesday starting my journey to this tiny mountain town called Julian in eastern San Diego County, I couldn't stop thinking about how difficult it's been experiencing hope and joy lately.

Sometimes I feel like I'm stuck in an escape room and every time I get closer to freedom, the world ends a little more.

If I could just read all the books, watch all the movies, listen to everything, I could be good enough to win. But it's rigged. There are all these locks that only money and power can open. But you can only get the power and money if you open them. It's maddening.

That's what systemic racism and poverty feel like to me. And living through that is like an entire lifetime of a crippling pandemic.

Like it did to millions of people, George Floyd's death broke me. And the way police and other institutional powers dealt with the subsequent protests was like reliving all the traumas and rage I hid away so that I could concentrate on winning this rigged game.

I watched several of my colleagues — all people of color — get shot with rubber bullets, tear-gassed, hit by batons, even detained just for doing their jobs. Before heading out to report on a protest, I had to write my editor's and company lawyer's phone numbers on my arm in case I got caught up while doing mine. I had to continue to meet deadlines in multiple mediums and help take care of my family. And do it all while dodging COVID-19 and trying not to break down.

I even cried on PBS.

After all that, I really needed some pie.

According to an article on self-care and anti-racism work from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, "Caring for ourselves helps to bring balance, focus, and mindfulness to our lives. In turn, this helps us to better navigate the challenging social and political issues related to our anti-racist work."

You have to read between the lines to get that pie is the answer. I don't know, maybe for you it's meditation or church or going for a run. But for me, jumping in the car with no particular place to go but for a meal is my balancing force.

More than pie, I needed to get away to recenter myself. Because as difficult as it feels sometimes and as tired as I am, I feel an obligation to highlight the beauty and strength of L.A.'s most invisible communities. And for some reason, I've been granted a platform to do it. But that's not something I can do if I'm broken.

As much as I love Los Angeles, I didn't want to be here. So I went to Julian, a historic town in the Volcan Mountains with about 600 residents and thousands of apples.

Walking around Julian on Tuesday felt a lot like walking around the Warner Bros. lot. For someone who grew up in Southeast Los Angeles, places with actual town halls are like movie sets. My niece Dynah kept calling it "this little Amish town" even though it's not.

Julian is an apple orchard town that was actually founded shortly after the Civil War thanks to a Black cattleman named Fred Coleman, who discovered some gold in a creek. "So began San Diego County's first and only gold rush," reads an article in the city's town hall. "By 1934, after over 60 years of mining, the total gold production for the Julian region was estimated at between $4,000,000 and $5,000,000."

Julian got its name from Mike Julian, a Confederate soldier who first settled the gold mining town before any gold was actually found. As I stood there reading, I wondered why they didn't name it Coleman after the Black man who actually made it viable instead of this guy who fought for the right to enslave Mr. Coleman.

I decided not to mention Mike Julian to the kids. I'd already spent two weeks lecturing them on the terrible history of racial inequality. So I just told them that we were here today thanks to Fred Coleman and I read them the short list of Julian's "African American Pioneers" that were also listed on the pamphlet.

Then I read them this, "Julian turned out to be a good place to grow apples. Julian apples took first prizes in competitions at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and The San Francisco World's Fair in 1915. Julian's apples also took top awards at the L.A. County Fair for 22 years."

The whole town square is walkable in minutes and almost every store and restaurant sells apple cider and apple pie. It's also very dog friendly and I was pleasantly surprised that most everyone was wearing masks. According to the San Diego County Health Department, Julian has just two confirmed coronavirus cases.

We walked over to the Julian Pie Company, which was set up so you can order pies from a window and walk around the cabin-like bakery and exit on the other side. They were also only selling whole pies, no slices. So we ordered three pies: apple, boysenberry and rhubarb.

I couldn't say for sure, but the woman helping us seemed to be Latina, which made me feel at ease, just as seeing Asian and Black families walking around as tourists did. The town is very nice and I doubt anyone could tell I was Mexican. But I'm always on high alert when I don't belong somewhere, so it was nice to see people of all kinds there.

On the recommendation of our pie vendor, we walked back up the tiny hill to a Romano's Restaurant, a small 100-year-old chain founded by Sicilian immigrants in Milwaukee.

Like most things in Julian, their Romano's is in a quaint little cabin that lets you sit outside and eat even if you have a dog with you. Toby had some fresh-baked bread rolls. Dynah had a superb lasagna. My nephew Angel had a Sicilian steak. And I had a calamari steak with some risotto.

As we ate, I could hear conversations going on around us by some of the locals — tall, Caucasian, gray-haired men who were calmly debating open carry laws. One of them came over to check out Toby and said some nice things about him. Then he turned around to walk away and farted loudly several times.

The kids laughed and Toby hid under my feet. "That's something grandpa would do," Angel said. Dynah defended my father. They argued and ate and laughed. Then they begged me to book a hotel room and stay the night. I lied and said the hotel was closed. Lying is so much easier sometimes.

We asked our waitress Suzy for some plastic utensils and walked back to the car. After two hours on the road and four hours exploring Julian, we finally ate our pie. Man, it was worth it. It tastes like I always imagined those pies Yogi Bear would cop from windowsills would taste.

BACK TO LA

I drove home while all three of my road trip buddies slept, and I started thinking about life again. Outside of the Volcan Mountains, reality was unavoidable.

Traffic coming back from San Diego was incredibly light even though it was rush hour. I wondered how long California had to be "reopened" before rush hour was an appropriate term again. No matter how many stories I help tell or pies I eat, more people are going to die from COVID-19, I thought.

Moments after I got home, an alert came across my phone about a march to City Hall to "Free our kids In cages." And another one about Sean Monterrosa, a Latino who was shot and killed by police in Vallejo.

Then I read an L.A. Times analysis of police killings in Los Angeles County that found, "Since 2000, there have been nearly 900 killings by local police that were ruled a homicide by county medical examiners. Almost all of the dead were men, nearly 80% were black or Latino. More than 98% were shot to death."

I couldn't help but laugh at the Sisyphean goal some of us have to end racial inequality.

I've been wondering lately who taught me to laugh when things get sad and scary.

Growing up in '90s-era Southeast Los Angeles was beautiful, but often things got real. And when the guns came out, I had to laugh at how ridiculous death is. Then there were these race wars, which were even more ludicrous. Imagine me, a redheaded freckled-faced ginger, having to fight the Black gangs on behalf of the Mexican gangs over land none of us owned.

We were all elementary-aged children and we were being used to sow the divisions that racists count on to stay in power.

It was stupid. Mayhem. Violence. Racism. Poverty. Just so stupid. But somehow I found ways to laugh and be happy, to appreciate the beauty in order to survive soul-crushing traumas.

And that's the L.A. that I know. The L.A. that survives itself over and over again, hopefully getting incrementally better and not much worse. Maybe that's the best victory I can hope for right now.

Lately, there've been so many reasons to be angry and sad and afraid that laughing it off has proven much more difficult. And I worry that in surviving all this, I will lose my joy, I will lose sight of the good, because I'm hardened enough to survive the bad.

And that's why I find it important to take whatever moments I can for self-care. Because perseverance takes both strength and joy.

So now tell me, Los Angeles, what are your favorite ways to cope and care for yourself? I would love nothing more than having some pie with you so that we can win together.

About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.

MORE FROM ERICK GALINDO: