From atop Cuyamaca Mountain in the solitude of a cold, moonlit mountain night, San Diego County stands out like a tidy little board game.
We see islands of light that define the places where three or four million of us live, the cities and towns of San Diego County, neighborhood clusters that help us understand how we chose to settle this region.
With a chill desert wind screaming over the coastal range, these islands of light spread in an 180-degree arc from Tijuana at our left to Oceanside at our right.
Off to the left, an island of lights stands alone against the darkness of sea and night beyond. Through binoculars, we spot an unmistakable landmark at the center of those lights: the turreted tower of Hotel del Coronado.
Farther south, central Tijuana is startling for its size and dazzle. Tonight it seems brighter even than the lights of downtown San Diego, perhaps because central Tijuana is settled more densely, or, perhaps, because Tijuana nightlife is brighter.
Straight west toward the Pacific, a snug trail of light sweeps inward toward us and out again, tracing the coastline from Point Loma to La Jolla. The lights of Del Mar stand out alone, and then Solana Beach and Encinitas.
Such town lights seem to create a giant's hopscotch path outlining the coast.
To the north we see only a sky glow. It's Los Angeles, a distant brightness like those that reach up to us when we fly westwarf across the dark desert and into the gaudy orbit of Southern California.
From this high vantage point nearby, dimmer lights twinkle across the rising littoral that separates mountains and coast - El Cajon, Ramona, Escondido.
Only blackness separates them. Automobile lights are dim amber streaks marking freeway routes.
I stand there wondering why Ramona is where Ramona is, and Encinitas is where Encinitas is.
The act of moving to California, in these relatively few years since the Gold Rush, has been impetuous. Restless, mobile and eager to discover the West, we moved away from traditional towns where our ancestors lived for generations.
And in that fact alone, we are separate and different, in accents and taste, in habits and faith.
With residents coming from everywhere, has San Diego assumed a worldly, cosmopolitan grace?
No, not really. We have brought along old traditions and habits. We cluster in neighborhoods, we huddle in 30 different towns and cities across our county. Until our land and water run out, San Diego will sprawl.
It is not the ideal land use, as we are often told, but in this way, we are like the squatters of earlier years.
San Diego has virtually discarded the role of city planning. For far too long, we have made too many concessions to land-hungry developers. Towns have popped up where land barons staked out lots.
We have built our cities in a first-come, first-served style. Lights across this county on this cold night sparkle with warmth, but they make very little sense