A basketball hoop is overgrown with bushes in Laguna Canyon.

A basketball hoop is overgrown with bushes in Laguna Canyon. (Courtesy David Hansen)

There is an underbelly to Laguna Beach, disconnected from the glitz and grazing plates of Coast Highway. Unlike downtown, it's a place that doesn't pose or preen or gossip.

It's Laguna Canyon, filled with rusting trucks and welding tools; oil and grit and mountain bikes; bobcats, rattlesnakes and stray dogs.

It's an ancient, two-sided natural corridor: One side of the street is undeveloped with scrappy open space; the other is off-kilter, unbalanced, like a driver's side sunburn on one arm.

Speckled like an exotic fruit, you want to experience it because you consider yourself adventurous and cosmopolitan, but you're also a little afraid. You've seen "Deliverance."

Indeed, if there were a police bust on a meth lab, it would be in the canyon.

As it happens, there have been drug issues — going back to Timothy Leary — and perpetual mayhem: raids on homeless camps, protests and devastating fires and floods.

But it's also a tight-knit community of can-do craftsmen, artisans and laborers. If Coast Highway is San Francisco, then Laguna Canyon is Oakland.

Inexplicably, it starts with Santa's Workshop, the red-and-white shack that during Christmas sits proudly on Forest Avenue, but for the remainder of the year, sits plopped in the city parking lot at the foot of Laguna Canyon. It's stored in plain site like some unwanted, recycled gift.

There is little respect for the canyon, really. It's a planner's nightmare, pocked with grandfather zoning clauses and mixed uses. Prior to annexation in 1989, the area was left alone — literally.

County building inspectors rarely came to the canyon, so well into the 1960s residents built homes, additions, terraces and pot farms without consulting building or safety codes.

"The history of the canyon has been colorful and dramatic," according to city historical zoning documents. "Its residents and property owners accept its eclectic land use pattern and somewhat rural lifestyle. They appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of where they live and wish to preserve it."

The outcome now is a rich diversity of utilitarian shops and home-based businesses. If you can get beyond the dust and handmade signs, you'll find your way to more amazing shops in the canyon than the whole of Laguna.

Where else can you find exotic Japanese fish and rainbow peacocks; Alcoholics Anonymous and Jehovah's Witnesses; a winery and a mortuary?

These are the goods and services that make us whole: auto repair, cabinetry, smog checks, fitness center, towing, lumber, skimboards, equipment rentals.

It is Plectrum Dulcimer Co., the odd, single-man shop run by Jim Fyhrie. He makes Appalachian dulcimers. The fact that he lives in the canyon, and not in Tennessee, says something: same difference.

But it's not all dark woods and random mom-and-pop shops.

If you ever find yourself in prison, you may eat homemade food, courtesy of Langlois Fancy Frozen Foods Inc. Since 1951, the Laguna manufacturer has been producing frozen entrees for inmates, seniors and private institutions. For example, the "Complete Jail Holiday Meal" (I'm not making this up) comes with turkey breast and gravy, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables (carrots, green beans and peas) and turkey stuffing.

All made in Laguna Canyon.

There are many hidden gems, usually found by braving overgrown lanes and barely drivable paths — places where in other states you might want to carry a gun. Like Sorce Lane, Lewellyn Drive and Gunderson Drive.

There's a tiny, unlisted park near Milligan Drive that looks more like a backyard play area.

Anya Burnham was there recently with her young son. I asked her the name of the park.

"Him and his little friends call it 'Magic Park,'" Burham said, smiling. As if on cue, the boy started chanting, "Magic Park, Magic Park …"

Burham, 32, grew up in the canyon, and she agrees it's a unique place that's not easily understood.

"I think it's a different community. It has its own charm," she said.

She pointed out the beautiful wilderness area in everyone's backyard, the waterfalls in the rainy season, the neighbors who share their horseshoe pits.

"It's a sanctuary yet you're close to town. If I could live in one place in Laguna, it would be in the canyon. It's a whole different world."

Agreed, it is a different world, a fiercely rural, heavily traveled passage where few commuters stop. It's the arterial lifeblood of Laguna, supporting us like a crooked backbone, forever bending but never breaking.

We take it for granted but it doesn't care. It loves us anyway — like a kissing cousin.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.