Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Beginner's Guide To Pepper Drive Christmas Lights

I had initially intended to post this much earlier in the season, but here I am and it's already the wee hours of Christmas morning. So, while this write-up certainly comes too late to help out light seekers this year, I figure it is still a nice way to celebrate the season and extend my kudos to the residents who expend much energy to light up our neighborhood!

When I first moved to El Cajon over a decade ago, I remember people talking about going to see Christmas lights "on Pepper Drive." Curious to check out this local attraction, I drove down Pepper looking for a bunch of lights, but nothing stood out as extraordinary. It turns out that while you do enter the target area off of Pepper, the famous lights are not on that street itself. Being mindful of my past confusion, I figured I would try to offer some hints about enjoying the "Pepper Drive Christmas Lights." So, if you read on, you'll find a little basic advice, but then you'll also find my reflections about the lights and about life.


Pepper Drive is officially Christmas Headquarters! All throughout the year, I drive by the Family Christmas Tree Farm and find it amazing how--much like Santa's elves--its year revolves around preparing to shine during the month or so of the Christmas season. Many people come from all around town just to purchase a Christmas tree at this location at the corner of Pepper Drive and Graves Avenue. Perhaps while they're out here, they also make a quick jaunt over to see the Christmas lights nearby.

After all, from this intersection, you just have to take a short drive down Pepper Drive toward the east and you will encounter a sign warning: "TRAFFIC DELAYS POSSIBLE DECEMBER 1-31 5PM-MIDNIGHT." This official traffic sign is an alert that you are indeed in close proximity to the "Pepper Drive Christmas Lights." I always wonder who exactly is responsible for posting these signs each year. If anyone out there knows, let me know in a comment!


Check out this map to see the path from the Family Christmas Tree Farm to the decorated region, which in recent years has featured a tree farm of another sort! The map also outlines some recommended paths for viewing lights.


Although I'm sure that many people have different paths they are accustomed to following, I will share the one that has become my family's tradition. We always enter the area via Lindenwood Drive. (I suppose it's possible to enter via Rockview Drive, but then you'd be going against the main flow of traffic.)

In case you're heading to the area from the south, a hint is that Lindenwood is basically an extension of Mollison Avenue. If you follow Mollison all of the way north until it ends at Pepper Drive, you can continue straight ahead onto Lindenwood by just jogging over a little to the left. Another hint is to be careful at the four way stop since I have found that drivers are notoriously bad at this intersection when it comes to making a complete stop or properly taking turns.


If you turn onto Lindenwood during a peak evening viewing time, you will have no trouble figuring out where to head next since there will likely be a lot of cars already lined up. If you're not sure where exactly to go, though, you can refer to the path outlined on the map.


Although my family will occasionally join in the train of cars, we most often choose to park and walk instead. In order to avoid the traffic, we park on Arboldeda Road (also marked on the map). My only caution is that there is no sidewalk until you get onto Limon Lane. (There is also no sidewalk on most of Sheila Street, Brockway Street, and Rockview Drive). Luckily, most of the heavy traffic is not concentrated in the sidewalk-less areas and most of the drivers seem to be pretty cautious and courteous overall. All the same, stay aware and avoid wearing dark colors!


If you do happen to take the grand tour by car, you will find that most drivers follow the courtesy of driving without regular headlights. If you look at the picture below, you'll see the car in front with its regular lights on, but the car behind it is how most people drive, with just the fog lights. Occasionally, we will see cars with no lights on at all, but this is not safe, because then there are no tail lights as there are with "fog light mode." (I'm certain I'm using all of this car terminology incorrectly since I'm quite ignorant in this field. Feel free to clarify terminology in a comment!)


Once you've gotten your bearings, you can settle into enjoying the wonderful light show around you. On the night when I took these photos, my family and I passed by the house below twice, first as we started our walking loop and again as we finished. By the time we reached it the second time, it was a little past nine o'clock and all of the lights had been turned off, presumably for the night. It made me think that people are probably choosing to dim the lights earlier more often these days, perhaps due to the bad economy and/or to conserve energy. Whatever the case, it made me stop and reflect on how cool it is that this beautiful, free-for-us show is really a generous gift of the neighborhood, with residents willingly spending their own effort and money for the enjoyment of complete strangers.


The value of the gift that these residents provide should not be underestimated. After all, in addition to spending time and money decorating their homes, they also have to demonstrate patience in navigating and planning around the traffic jam that takes over their streets each December.


I always wonder how various residents handle the influx of outsiders. There must be some people who dread the season. Perhaps some people are even driven away! This year, we passed by a few "For Sale" and rental signs as we walked the neighborhood, and although the moves may be completely unrelated to the Christmas light traffic, I couldn't help but wonder if it is a factor.


While I imagine there are some residents who despise the holiday hoopla, I know that there are certainly a fair share who love living in their homes exactly because they enjoy partaking in the festivities. There are always, for example, people who take the opportunity to turn their homes into party central. Even on a weekday night, we will find at least a couple of houses with people hanging out around a fire pit in the driveway with family and friends.

It's hard to see, but there are people hanging out around a fire in a driveway here.
I love the fact that this is one of those rare opportunities (Halloween is another one), where we actually have an excuse to meet--or at least greet--the people in our neighborhood. On the night I took these pictures, a cute little boy greeted my kids with peppermint candies as we walked by. We've become so accustomed to teaching our children about "stranger danger" that it is nice to balance out those important safety lessons with learning to open our hearts as friendly members of a community. 



Now, back to the lights. You can enjoy lights up high! One of our favorite homes to see each year isn't even part of the route, but visible on the hill above. We always think it looks like a little gingerbread house.


You can enjoy lights down below! Again, some more great lights to enjoy aren't part of the actual route, but all of the lights in the distance. Oconnell Road and Soloman Avenue are both very steep, making for some great views. Just keep the steep grade in mind when thinking about traveling by foot. My husband and I usually enjoy the challenge since we undoubtedly have plenty of seasonal sweets to burn off, but on the years when I happened to be pregnant, walking was unbearable. And these days, walking with both of our kids in strollers, we always make sure to keep an extra tight grip on the walk downhill.


One fun game to play is "Spot the Santa." Here is a good ol' fashioned Santa in a traditional sleigh.


This impressive display spotlights Santa in a hot air balloon!




Can you find Santa below? He's peeking out the window! I always love when houses set up displays in their windows!


As a nod to East County, here's Santa on a motorcycle...


...and Frosty is by his side!



But again, back to the lights. Here are a few of our family favorites from this year. We really loved the Nightmare Before Christmas themed home. We have a bit of a soft spot for this movie since it was one of our son's favorites for a while. On top of that, though, the decorations looked completely magical when standing up close. I'm not sure that you could get the same effect when viewing it from a car, but standing right in front of the home, you were completely surrounded by twinkling lights.


My husband's hands down favorite house this year is shown below. He loved it based on its elegant simplicity and immaculate delivery. I'm not sure that I would have noticed the detail, but he was sure to point out how each light along the rooftop was perfectly placed pointing in the same direction. He also loved the elves, especially the one hanging upside down from the roof.


Now, as for my favorite photo of the lights, I love the snowman and the blue reindeer below. I took a ton of photos knowing that most would not come out well since I have a simple point-and-shoot camera and since I don't have any trained skill as a photographer. I'm not sure what caused the glow around the reindeer, but I like to imagine that perhaps it's some sort of spirit of Christmas past.


This year in particular, walking the Pepper Drive Christmas Lights was a reflective experience. We've walked this route for enough years now that we are able to mark the passage of time by the changes of the homes and their displays. In the past, for example, one of the attractions we always anticipated was a row of homes on the eastern side of Solomon Avenue. There used to be Santa's sleigh on the top of the first home that connected with a string of lights to a reindeer on the roof of the next home, and so forth until reaching Rudolph with a red nose on the final home in the row. It was memorable to say the least, and now it just a memory. 

These are some of the former "Reindeer Row" homes that seem so empty now.
Below is another home that we have distinct memories of. Years ago, before my husband and I had kids of our own, we walked by with our niece, who was about ten years old then. Outside of the house, there was a father with his super excited daughter about the same age as our niece. The girl greeted us, gleefully showing off all of her family's elaborate decorations that she had helped put up. There was even a wall-sized video projection set up with footage of the family's vacation to Disneyland! Just as our young niece was so excited to walk Pepper with us, we could tell that the girl we met was at the same magical age of being both grown up enough to help out and yet just young enough to really want to help.


Fast forward through the girl's teen years and we can only guess that she quickly outgrew her excitement of hanging up Christmas lights. Just as we would see our niece progress through years of preferring time with her friends or of being embarrassed by her family, we imagine the girl breaking her father's heart at some point when he asked for her help and she quietly or not so quietly declined. The decorations are much more simple now, with an angry looking Rudolph most prominently displayed. Although our imagined history about the girl growing up is conjecture on our part, Rudolph's glare seers into us, charging us to fully appreciate the time we have with our young kids.


This snowman family is another marker we have enjoyed each year, and yet, I wonder how big the little snowman is in real life today. Then again, I hear plenty of parents reassure me that no matter how old (and hopefully healthily independent) my kids get, they will always remain my "babies" at heart. Thus for me, as I see this this snowman family for yet another year, it reminds me that even as my children grow up, I can still hold them as dear and as precious as when they were so small.


As we finished our walking loop on the night I took these pictures, I noticed the star up in the distance above us. It's a star that is visible from not only the Pepper Drive area, but even far reaches of El Cajon and perhaps beyond. I'm not sure where the star is actually located or who puts it up, but if the person responsible should ever read this, I hope they know that someone out there does notice. For any residents of the Pepper Drive Christmas Lights area, I hope you know that someone out there notices--my family appreciates your neighborhood's gift each year. So, until next year...


Merry Christmas to all!