One day, when I was a little girl, my family traveled backwards. We piled into our car with my grandparents and drove into the mountains northeast of San Diego. We were going to visit old friends of my grandmother’s who lived on a ranch in the backcountry. Eventually, my dad turned off the narrow highway onto a dusty drive. It lead to an old building that looked more like a Western movie set than a real house.

A gray-haired couple came out onto the covered porch and welcomed us. We were herded into their generous kitchen where we ate sandwiches around a big table. As the grown-ups settled in for a long visit, they encouraged my brother and me to go outside and poke around.

Wagon wheels and rusting pieces of equipment lay about the farm yard. Battered corrals and fencing stitched together a ragged chain of barns and outbuildings. Down a faint dirt track, we discovered dozens of stone pestles and mortars covering the ground — manos y metates. Some of the manos were so long and heavy we couldn’t lift them. We looked up into the scrubby trees. Were they for grinding acorns?

When the adults met up with us, our hosts explained that generations of Indian* families had lived and worked at the ranch until recently. After they were gone, the couple collected all the manos y metates they came across and brought them back to the house.

It looked as if an entire village had vanished and these tools were all that remained. As the other folks wandered off, my mother stayed with us. She knelt down and began to touch the stones one by one. The way she did it — quietly and reverently — nestled deep inside me.

Whenever I think of that place, all I remember clearly are the manos y metates. I’ve tried several times to find the ranch, but my memory lacks details and the adults are long gone. Was it south of Agua Caliente, or north? Was it near the highway or set back a ways? The specifics elude me. I’m beginning to wonder if that ranch still exists as a physical place. Maybe it only survives in my mind’s eye.

*They were probably Kumeyaay or Cupeño people whose descendants are among the Pala Band of Mission Indians.