What is now the shoe department at Bloomingdale’s in Mission Valley was, in the 1950s, the site of the riding ring of Palomar Stables. Next to the ring sat a long red barn which housed about twenty horses. And today, trolley passengers riding the east-west Green Line in Mission Valley are gliding over the route of an old horseback-riding trail.
In the mid-fifties, when I was a preteen, my dad dropped me off every Saturday morning at Palomar Stables. As soon as I got out of the car, the smells told me I was home: horses, hay, dry dirt, horse manure. This was a place without pretensions. It was about one thing: horses.
When the wrangler brought out Trinidad, my favorite, and I patted his shoulder, I loved the scent that arose of horsehair, dust and sweat. (I had come to like Trinidad after he and I straightened out his bad habits: nipping, bolting through the low-ceiled stable, “accidentally” falling on his knees on the trail to scare his rider into going back to the barn.)
I could also smell the leather of the saddle, which creaked when I put my left foot in the near stirrup and swung myself over, settling into the seat and fitting my other foot in the right stirrup. As soon as I was up, I wasn’t in Mission Valley anymore. The dry smell in the air and being on horseback put me in Wyoming, ready to canter out into the hills to scout lost dogies. I probably had a dog along, and a rifle for shooting the coyotes who loped through the herd, hoping to pick off a calf.
The riding trail ran westward from the stables through the valley center. I could smell the wild anise along the trail and the clipped grass at the upscale polo grounds to the south. A moist, swampy smell rose from the bed of the San Diego River nearby, which was really a creek, just as it is today. Sometimes a fresh breeze blew in the scent of the ocean, which brought me back from Wyoming to my hometown coastal city.
Although Palomar Stables and its distinctive scent are gone, the undeveloped places in Mission Valley probably smell today just like they did when I was trail riding there in the fifties: the wild greenery, the moist riverbed, the sea breeze.
- Anitra Carol Smith