Serendipitous journey
One woman's trek to see the big telescope at Palomar Mountain brought big changes to her life
By Cheryl Walker |

Friday, October 13, 2006
A visit to Palomar Mountain's telescope put stars in Shirley Thompson's eyes. That venture more than 50 years ago turned into a romance.

It was where Shirley, a native of Minnesota, met her husband after a trek up Palomar Mountain by bike and car. "It's a great story," said Shirley's 50-year-old son, Mark, who has heard it many times.
In summer 1953, Shirley, an electronics technician in the Navy, was stationed at Coronado. She chose to spend her three-day liberty at Palomar Mountain.
"I really wanted to see the telescope," she said. "I had seen it on newsreels and it was just something I wanted to do."
Shirley didn't know how to drive but was determined to see the telescope with its 200-inch mirror -- the world's largest effective telescope for 45 years, until 1993. She borrowed $50 from a bank and bought a bicycle.
"I rode my bike from Coronado to Kearney Mesa," she said. "People said I was crazy, and I guess I was."
"I don't think she calculated the mileage," Mark said. "It was a pretty ambitious venture."
She then hitched a ride with a traveling salesman who took her to Escondido.

Shirley Thompson stands near her Palomar Mountain home and holds a portrait of herself from when she was in the Navy. The portrait was drawn a year before Thompson's 1953 trek to the mountain, during which she met her future husband. Charlie Neuman | Union-Tribune

"I guess you didn't worry about things as much in those days," Shirley said. "I saw he had kids' toys in the backseat, so I figured he was safe."
At the top of the mountain, she stopped at Thompson's Summit Grove, a service station/snack bar. She asked Wayne Thompson where a motel was and, much to her chagrin, he told her there was none.
"He said that he sometimes rented out a bedroom to people who were staying on the mountain," she said. "So that's where I stayed."
Shirley continued her journey, walking and biking all the way to the telescope -- about 5 miles.
"It was absolutely beautiful," she said. "I was thankful to see the telescope, and it was well worth the trip."
Since Shirley wasn't used to the altitude, she decided to walk her bike down the mountain the next day. When she made it to Escondido, she spent the night in a motel.
"Wayne decided to come into town (from Palomar Mountain) and he took me to a movie. We got along really well, and we started seeing each other whenever we could." Six months later they were married.
"In those days they would discharge you when you got married," Shirley said. "So after I was discharged, I moved to Palomar Mountain."
They made a life running the service station and raising two girls and one boy. Their youngest child, Denise, died of cancer when she was 3.
"I loved living on the mountain and it was a great place to raise a family," she said. "We lived there until 1977, and then we moved near the Oregon border."
Their son, Mark, left the mountain for a short time, moving to Palm Desert and Temecula but returned to work at the Palomar Observatory.
"It was great growing up on Palomar Mountain," he said. "It was rural then and it still is."
Shirley, who has been widowed for two years, recently moved back to the mountain -- living next door to Mark and his wife and daughter.
"I really missed the mountain and it was great coming home again," she said.
"It's been a great life up here and if ours wasn't a marriage made in heaven, then there's no such thing."

Reach reporter Cheryl Walker at (760) 752-6761.

When you see Shirley out and about, you might enjoy hearing more of her wonderful stories of early days at the Summit. In 1947 Wayne started Thompson's Summit Grove with a small restaurant, post office, shelves of groceries, souvenirs and gas station. Folks on the Mountain referred to it as "The Little Everything on the Corner".   Shirley has many fun stories tucked away and will also be featured in the next historical book that we have in the works! Stay tuned!  ~Bonnie, Editor