Orange

We could all use more space or a better view, but there's no way Mike Lefebvre, the Sultan of Shellac, would leave Orange to get it.

"Sure, we could move somewhere else maybe larger or better situated, but it'd be more expensive," Lefebvre, owner of Pepperland Records, says. "Besides, if you live in an apartment you can always move into a house—but if you're somewhere you find comfortable, why leave?"

And if the city of Orange, population approximately 140,000, is anything, it is comfortable. Mayor Mark Murphy, who was born and raised here, says that fewer people leave this city than any other in the county—inadvertently raising the question: If he's never left, how would he know?

"I don't know of any other city in Orange County where people still live after growing up there," Murphy says. He just knows. "Every day I see someone I went to grade school with. You have multiple generations of families living here, and I think that's a slice of hometown America that speaks greatly about this city." And it says Mayberry with minorities, a decent hospital and maybe pho instead of pork chops on Tuesdays.

Orange has the requisite big-city amenities like diverse non-chain restaurants, monstrous shopping centers, a university (Chapman) and college, medical centers, and a county jail. But it lacks the institutional bulk of a Santa Ana (faceless warren of ominous governmental buildings) or the wan soullessness of an Anaheim (gross capitulation to all things Disney).

Orange's soul still lives in its time-capsule-quality, mile-square downtown—Orange Circle, actually an oval. It's in the traffic roundabout with the working fountain, the historical homes and buildings (second-largest concentration in the state), and the nearly five dozen antique and specialty stores. They're here because Olde Town homeowners wanted it that way—and wielded considerable political clout to preserve the past. So while the railroad that made Orange an important agricultural and business center in the late 19th century runs through the center of town the way it did a hundred years ago, the current economic powerhouses—the hospitals, high-tech offices and retail giants—are on its periphery. The outer ring is a bustling commercial hub, but the core preserves an eerie charm.

It isn't all white faces and picket fences, though. Drive east to where Chapman rises into Orange Park Acres, and you'll see weed-infested, graffiti-marred neighborhoods peering uneasily from beneath the multimillion-dollar mansions on the dry hillsides above. Traffic can be horrible at all the usual times. There's crime, scandal, a wonderful train wreck of a school district, and all the backbiting, backroom politics and civic shenanigans that make any city fun for reporters and gadflies.

And then you take a stroll through the city's plaza, with its clock, its fir trees, its soda fountain at Watson's, its 100-year-old brick buildings, and you see a place that time hasn't forgotten, but has been kinder to. For just a moment, you're standing not in one of the most densely populated parts of this country—you're standing in the heart of Middle America. And, for the first time in a very long time, that notion doesn't scare the living piss out of you.



Photo by Jeanne Rice

Best Rods Circle City Hot Rods. We remember Sinner man Jimmy White when he was a Shifter. Those were the days. Today, White builds some of the sharpest, shiniest—and most finished—rods around. And customs! His cars look like they rolled straight out of an old Car Craft or Honk!, and, unlike so many new-old-school roadsters, they usually end up with gallons of shiny paint and acres of chrome. Also? Man makes his own exhaust pipes by hand. He's got some skill. 2199 N. Batavia St., Unit R, Orange, (714) 279-0400; www.circlecityhotrods.com.

Best Strip Mall Ever El Dorado Plaza. In one sleepy strip mall, you can get guns, rare coins, hairpieces, custom-made bras, reams of yarn, hearing aids and mobile homes. Strippers come here from Vegas to buy their bras, and—possibly catering to a whole 'nother predilection—there are two stores selling prosthetic limbs. Tustin Avenue, Orange, just north of the Garden Grove (22) Freeway.

Best Record Store Mr. C's Rare Records. This place has been here a generation, which, for everyone here, means the day the music died was Dec. 31, 1974. On the other hand, if you're looking for virtually anything pressed after World War II and before punk, they probably have it. Mitigating factor: they know what stuff is worth: $15 for Hank Thompson live at the Golden Nugget. It burns! 148 N. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 532-3835.

Best Winter Hike Harding Truck Trail. This trail ascends to the Main Divide in a drainage south of Maple Springs Road—but unlike the lower section of Maple Springs, this trail is not shaded by a canopy of trees, making it a better hike during cooler months. From the trailhead, the trail climbs steeply up switchbacks and ridgelines until, near the seven-mile mark, it descends for 800 yards. From a small saddle, it then continues to climb to the Main Divide. At close to 4,000 feet and with a northern aspect, this section of trail can be cold in winter. Often rain puddles freeze and winter storms bring a dusting of snow. Take gloves, a jacket and a hat. While crunching through ice or braving the biting wind, one can almost forget the frenetic pace of everyday life only a few miles below. From the Divide, return the way you came, continue on to the peaks, or, if you arranged a car shuttle, descend via Maple Springs Road (see above). For strong mountain bikers, descending Maple Springs and then returning provides a great out-and-back workout. Park at the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary on Modjeska Canyon Road, two miles from the intersection with Santiago Canyon Road.

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