“We built our getaway up in a tree we found –
We felt so far away though we were still in town –
Now I remember watching that old tree burn down –
I took a picture that I don't like to look at.”
- Jack Johnson, “Do You Remember” (video after post)
This is what the Robles Del Rio Lodge in Carmel Valley looked like in the 1990s:
And this is what it looks like today:
When my wife returned from her usual Sunday morning run last weekend, the first thing she said to me was Robles Del Rio burned down last night. We walked around to the side of our deck, which looks across the valley directly towards the lodge, and watched the smoke rising from the remains of one of Carmel Valley’s most distinctive landmarks.
Although the 21st century had been cruel to the lodge even before the events of last weekend, “Robles” (as it’s called by locals) occupied a special place in the hearts of longtime residents. It was built in 1928, and grew into an exclusive resort setting – complete with golf course, heated pool, and restaurant with liquor license – that attracted celebrities and locals alike. For decades, it was the primary social hub in the otherwise remote outpost known as Carmel Valley. In the 1980s and 90s, ownership changed hands a few times, and the most recent owners drew up an expansion plan that caused the lodge to shut its doors in early 2000 for a proposed three-year, multimillion-dollar makeover.
Given the time frame, you can probably guess what happened: financing fell apart, the owners became entangled in county regulations and lawsuits about building permits and water use issues, and the project was ultimately abandoned. As prospects of anything profitable or manageable faded into oblivion, the lodge buildings spent the entire decade standing vacant, in various states of construction and disrepair.
So maybe it’s not so surprising that the place burned down. However, the shock value of such an icon going up in smoke overnight was compelling enough that I wanted to take one more look around – so on Monday morning, I packed my camera with me for a routine jog through the neighborhood.
The course was one I could do in my sleep; the road that passes in front of the lodge is part of the morning route I’ve done more frequently any other in all the time I’ve lived here. And if that didn’t work, I could have just followed the smell of smoke, which was still prominent in the air more than 24 hours after the blaze.
The destruction was pretty extensive: all that was left of the main building were a pair of stone fireplaces and piles of charred rubble - as well as a fire hose still sprawled on the ground from the day before.
After learning of the fire, some people expressed concern about any historic artifacts that might have remained on the premises over the past decade. If there were any such things here, it would certainly be hard to tell.
This is the view across the valley that restaurant patrons would enjoy while dining at Robles. Before I lived in Carmel Valley, I tagged along to a dinner party my future wife’s family held at the lodge; I remember it being one of the first glimpses I got of the subtle charm of this area (as well as the less-subtle appeal of my future relatives – but that’s another story).
If I’m remembering right, this was the main entrance to the restaurant, now overgrown with brush and grass. Knowing the surrounding vegetation, it’s borderline miraculous that this fire didn’t spread to consume the whole hillside.
In addition to the normal commendations and gratitude we send their way after events like this, our fire fighters deserve bonus points for protecting this amazing oak tree. I don’t know enough about trees to guess if this one will succumb to its injuries or proudly survive with extensive battle scars … but I’m clearly hoping for the latter.
As soon as word spread about the fire, everyone who knew the history of the building and its failed development plans believed that the blaze was no accident. Which is why it seemed especially curious to find a gasoline can sitting off in one corner of the ruins.
Leaving the scene to finish my run, it was evident that all of the surrounding structures escaped the fire that consumed the main building; however, what their fates have in store at this point is anyone’s guess. Undoubtedly, one chapter of Robles Del Rio’s long history has been emphatically closed; whether another chapter will ever be written remains to be seen.
Otherwise, I'm left with a set of pictures I don't really like to look at - and when my wife and I stare across the valley anymore, instead of looking at a piece of history, all we’ll see is a blank hole between the trees.
Jack Johnson, "Do You Remember" (click to play):