Ojai, California: "The Kingdom of Childhood Is Made Up of Smaller Kingdoms. Oz. Narnia. and, for Me, Ojai."

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Ojai, California: "The Kingdom of Childhood Is Made Up of Smaller Kingdoms. Oz. Narnia. and, for Me, Ojai."


Fish, Peter, Sunset


November mornings are chilly in the Ojai Valley. No frost yet--that won't come until December, when the orange groves' wind machines churn back the winter air before it harms the fruit. But chilly. Ojai's famous oaks seem to gather their limbs like old men huddling to stay warm, and high above town, the Topa Topa Mountains are frozen, deep blue, awaiting light. On these mornings, my grandmother and I played cards.

"Gin," she'd say, slapping her cards hard on the table, sweetly triumphant.

"You always win," I'd complain.

The complaint was valid--she was a canny gin player--and heartfelt as only a 10-year-old's outrage can be. But it never lasted. The sun was rising to warm the mountains and it was Saturday morning, time to explore. We'd walk down to Ojai Avenue, stopping at Bill Baker's Bakery for bread, at the drugstore for a candy bar for me and, for my grandmother, face powder in a shocking pink jar.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

We'd end up at Bart's Books, the onlyin-Ojai emporium where works of literature great and lousy were displayed in outdoor stalls beneath more oak trees. Here, on a leaf-strewn bench, I would sit for hours, days, reading, debating what to spend my allowance on. The Hardy Boys. The Wizard of Oz. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

For the kingdom of childhood is made up of smaller kingdoms. Oz. Narnia. And, for me, Ojai.

Decades later, the Ojai Valley remains a kingdom removed from the ruder outside world. Drive in from the east, over Dennison Grade on State 150. There the Ojai Valley rests: a sea of shining green orange trees, darker green patches of oaks, and the exclamation of the post office's Castilian bell tower. And, rising behind it all, the Topa Topas, sheer as castle walls.

The origin of the name Ojai is uncertain: One possibility is the Chumash word for "nest," and that seems reasonable, given the mountain-sheltered setting. Ojai is cocooned, Ojai is protected, Ojai's residents struggle to keep it that way. They circulate petitions against highways, in favor of oaks. "Anything new in town?" I asked an acquaintance the last time I visited. …

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