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The Price Of Paradise


By James Utt
By James Utt

The summer has arrived and the much ballyhooed El Nino seems to have made about as much of an impression on us as Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. Think back several months to the sizzling October we endured when we longed for El Nino’s early arrival. I remember a day in that hot month that I will not soon forget. The air conditioning unit was fighting a valiant, but losing battle to keep the house temperature at a tolerable level. The many large glass windows that give such a beautiful view of the city below and the ocean beyond were giving me a practical lesson in the greenhouse effect.

Having retreated to a cooler back bedroom with whatever book I was reading at the time, there was suddenly a loud snap, or crackle, or pop. One of the aging cats must have knocked something over. Again. Going through the house, finding nothing broken, my puzzlement increased until I looked out and saw a shattered glass pane, one of several that enclosed my deck. Had someone fired a pullet gun in the direction of my home? Unlikely. Could a very large bird have become disoriented by the heat and flown into it? Again, unlikely, unless pterodactyls have made a comeback. A hurried call to my reliable contractor cleared things up. Heat causes things to expand. With the window anchored in stucco on the bottom and by a tube on the top, the glass simply could not help itself, it was forced to shatter.

I walked out on the deck and looked past the glass to the bone-dry landscape below. My house is in Mystic Hills on one of the streets so devastated by the 1993 fire. We did not live here then, but when we bought the rebuilt home in 2001 the previous owners left us a ghostly picture of them standing by the fireplace, pretty much all that remained after that horrific evening. We were assured that it was much safer to live in this area now: stricter building codes, more water available for the fire department, even a herd of goats to eat, well, practically anything that grew on the hillside.

My wife and I truly enjoyed the sights and sounds of the herd when they were below our home, even if the shepherd used the hose on our slope without asking, to provide water to his 100 or more goats. He had a dog, it must have been a border collie. This clever animal kept the herd disciplined when they had to be moved, just like a drill sergeant maneuvers new recruits in basic training. But I have not seen the heard below my home in a long time. Is it because the lack of rain has left them nothing to devour? When will it rain again? I miss the goats. I miss the dog. I even miss the shepherd who used my water and asked my next door neighbor if he could use his phone to make just one call. When my neighbor received his phone bill, he saw that the man had called someone in South America.

Gone also is my wife, who passed away three years ago, and my sons who have moved away. Living alone, has but a few perks: mixing colors with whites on laundry day, being able to watch too much football, not having to eat Brussels sprouts. But it also brings an emptiness that wraps itself around me like a blanket that gives no heat. There is no one to talk to when conversation is so necessary to combat loneliness. No one to rant to when I have just seen an idiot flip a cigarette out of the window of his car as he drove through the canyon with red fire warning flags all around. No one to soothe my fears when the winds of October and November come calling, when one spark could ignite our hillsides, forcing me to make the terrible decision: what things do I take with me as I evacuate?

Again, I look past the shattered glass and down my slope at the city below. I am reminded that Laguna Beach is a marvelous place to live, with its beauty, charm, sense of community- all make it like no other city in Orange County. But, because of its hilly topography and wild lands, it is subject to fires, floods, and landslides. I struggle to remind myself that every paradise has its price, and, in the end, I will gladly pay Laguna’s price.


James Utt is a retired social science teacher who has lived in Laguna Beach since 2001. He hates the Santa Ana winds.

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