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Ojai, California: "the kingdom of childhood is made up of smaller kingdoms. Oz. Narnia. and, for me, Ojai.".

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.

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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. "It's quiet," he answered. "Nobody's arguing over any trees."

For a town of 8,000, Ojai is a complicated place. In some ways, it is a Southern California Grover's Corners with bake sales and Methodist potlucks. And yet Ojai is so beautiful, it has always attracted the eccentric, the artistic, the celebrated rich. My grandmother and I would glimpse these famous people, when they came downtown from their horse ranches or from the posh precincts of the Arbolada, the shaded tangle of Spanish-named streets that only people with trust funds ever truly learn to pronounce.

In its complexity, this little town was a good match for my grandmother, who, I came to learn, had led a more unusual life than I imagined. Adolescence in Havana, where her father the sea captain had taken her, followed by an early marriage, unhappiness, then an escape without her husband but with my mother to the United States, and, eventually, to Ojai.

My grandmother has been gone awhile now, but I think of Ojai as her town, and I return every chance I get. My wife and son and I walk down Ojai Avenue to Bart's Books. Toward dusk, the setting sun paints the Topa Topas the fierce salmon of my grandmother's face-powder jar. I show the sunset-struck mountains to my son. I want him to possess this kingdom too.

PETER'S OJAI

I adore the lovely Emerald Iguana Cottages (from $150; www.emeraldiguana.com or 805/646-5277). Ojai's plushest hostelry remains the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa (from $195; www.ojairesort.com or 800/422-6524). This fall, the hotel is expanding.

East of town, Boccali's Pizza & Pasta (3277 E. Ojai Ave.; 805/646-6116) is good for Italian. More elegant is Suzanne's Cuisine (closed Tue; 502 W. Ojai Ave.; 805/640-1961). And with its garden setting, the Ranch House (500 S. Lomita Ave.; 805/646-2360) is an Ojai institution.

No one can visit Ojai without stopping at Bart's Books (closed Mon; 302 W. Matilija St.; 805/646-3755).

WHERE: Ojai is 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, 150 W. Ojai Ave.; www.the-ojai.org or (805) 646-8126
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Author:Fish, Peter
Publication:Sunset
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Words:717
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