Photo by Robert Burroughs
Jacumba Hotel. The thing that changed Jacumba was the construction of Interstate 8. It just missed Jacumba by two miles, leaving it stranded in the desert.
“Jacumba Hotel, Ida here.”
“Hello, I’d like a reservation for this weekend."
“Sorry, honey, we’re filled up. We’ve got two groups coming in — the glider club and the A.A. — plus all the regulars.”
“Not even room for one?”
Ida. Everyone ate together in a big dining room, summoned by a cowbell which Ida rang up and down the halls of the hotel.
(Fumbling of the receiver, thrashing of papers.) “Well, maybe I can make room for you, honey. Rates are twelve dollars a night including three meals a day. If you can’t be at the table at meal time, you better plan on eating someplace else.”
“I’ll be there.”
Jacumba is a kind of living ghost town out in southeast San Diego County, on the Mexican border, in what’s called, the Mountain Empire district. It has come through all the typical Western growing pains — a gold and silver rush, the slaughter of local Indians by cattle ranchers, the turmoil of the Mexican Insurrection of 1912. Legend has it that the Spanish made a mineral survey of the area in the 1820s, did a considerable amount of mining, and then, for some unexplained reason, buried several mule loads of gold nearby. Of course, in the manner of these legends, the gold has never been found.
Henry LaZare, right. He massaged my neck gently for a moment, then quickly snapped it to the left. It cracked so loudly that I was sure something had broken.
Since then they say quite a bit of gold and silver has been taken out of the area, along with less exotic minerals like lead, manganese, and tungsten. But perhaps the least exotic mineral of all was mined by an old hardrock veteran named Ed Carson who came to Jacumba in 1932 to look for gold. He staked a claim, but didn't find any gold. Instead he discovered that the tiny pebbles which covered his place were valuable as a base for chicken feed, and eventually the chicken feed companies bought his product.
Today Jacumba exists because of its hot sulfur spring. The town is built on a fault that runs up out of Mexico and into the north. All the hot spring spas of eastern San Diego County — Jacumba, Agua Caliente, Warners. Temecula, Murrieta, Elsinore, and more—are on the same fault.
The hotel, which dominates Jacumba, was built in 1923 by a man named Bert Vaughn, who planned to make the place a big resort. And it was a big resort, a very popular and stylish place for wealthy Southern Californians to go They say that as many as 5000 people crowded into town for a single weekend, which is fairly amazing when you consider that the hotel only has forty-four rooms.
The hotel changed hands several times, acquiring a swimming pool, a gym, a physical therapy center across the street, a laundromat, a jacuzzi, and a string of bungalows down the road. Finally, in 1954 it was purchased by an electrical contractor from Los Angeles named Henry LaZare, who is the present owner, not only of the hotel, but of just about all of Jacumba. The price was in the neighborhood of $750,000.
And as the town evolved, so did its owner. He went from “the wealthy contractor from LA" to, mysteriously, "Dr. LaZare, physical therapist" to, simply, “Henry." I’ve even heard people in the hotel refer to him as “the bonecrusher. ”
In 1963 Henry LaZare explained the benefits of Jacumba’s hot springs in an article in the San Diego Union: "You take a bath in the sulfur water and it seals all your pores. Then you lay down and cover up and all the bad elements are sweated out. Take a big smoker. When he’s through, the blanket is full of nicotine smells.”
But the thing that really changed Jacumba dramatically, other than time, was the construction of Interstate 8. It just missed Jacumba by two miles, leaving it, and a string of other small towns along Old Highway 80, stranded in the desert. The new freeway is close enough that the people of Jacumba can hear its constant whine, but distant enough that very few of the tourist dollars flutter their way. Today, Mr. LaZare is looking for a buyer; the town of Jacumba is for sale once again.
The first thing I noticed in Jacumba, after the hotel of course, was a wooden sign in front of the physical therapy building which reads, “JACUMBA HOT SPRINGS MIRACLE HEALING WATERS. A HAVEN FOR ARTHRITICS. Closed Wed. & Thurs” The town consists of scores of dilapidated old shacks (at least half of them abandoned), a couple of general stores, a gas station, a post office, a modem-style motel, a half-dozen abandoned businesses, a rock shop, an abandoned railroad terminal, and a library. The glow of Jacumba’s Mexican sister city, Jacumé, can be seen to the south.
“I think I have a reservation,” I said, stepping up to the desk. The hotel lobby smelled of sulfur — like rotten eggs — and a gas fire hissed cozily in the fireplace.
“Are you with the glider club?” asked the red-haired, energetic woman behind the desk.
I knew instantly she had to be Ida.
“Not the A.A.?” she frowned.
“No, I’m alone.”
She looked confused as she searched the reservation list. “Oh yes! I talked to you on the phone. Forgive me, but things are always so hectic here on the weekend.”
I looked around to see what she could possibly mean. An elderly woman in a white terry-cloth robe padded slowly down the stairway and across the lobby to the jacuzzi room. Another elderly couple sat expressionlessly, perhaps even asleep, in front of the blue glow of the TV.
Ida handed me my key, and I went up to my room on the second floor. (The top two floors, I discovered, had been condemned.) All the way down the hall, the floor squeaked, giving me the uneasy feeling that somebody was following about six inches behind me.
The room was small, with plastic curtains, an electrical coil heater, a good firm bed, a recent paint job. The bathtub was an old lion-paw model.
I made sure I was at dinner at six p.m. sharp, lest Ida’s wrath come down upon me. The meals were served American-style, with everyone eating together in a big dining room, summoned by a cowbell which Ida rang up and down the halls of the hotel with unflagging vigor so that no one could say they hadn’t heard. The food was simple, but well balanced and nutritious. Many of the people were on diets of one kind or another.
The mealtime conversation was casual and pleasant. With very few exceptions (mostly the glider club), all the people were over sixty-five. Everyone acted very jovial, smothering each other in gregarious good cheer, and by the time I’d finished my meatloaf I felt almost adopted.
Ida would ring her cowbell when she had an announcement to make. “Please, can I have your cooperation? The ice-tea glasses are not for water! Let’s use the paper cups for water! Thank you.”
After dinner I took a walk down the main street of Jacumba. The air was so clean and dry it almost hurt to breathe. I met a couple of teenagers on the starlit street. “You staying here?” they asked, almost frantically friendly. “Yeah, over at the hotel.”
“Whaddya think of Jacumba?”
“It’s quiet. You live here?”
“Yeah,” one of them answered. “I’m really from San Diego. My father was in construction, but he fell off too many roofs so we moved to Jacumba.”
Further down the street I could hear music, old-time western music.
I stopped in front of the Highlands Senior Citizens’ Group and looked in the window. Everybody inside was square dancing. I watched for a minute, then started toward the hotel.
“Yoo-hoo,” someone called. “Oh, yoo-hoo.”
Turning around, I saw a woman who’d been at my table at dinner stick her head out the door and call, “Come dance with us.”
“I can’t square dance.”
“That doesn’t matter, none of us can. Besides, there’s always a shortage of men at these things.”
I went in and looked around.
The place looked like a cafe that had gone under. The walls were raspberry pink. The senior citizens had pushed the tables back, sprinkled soap flakes on the floor, and made a dance hall out of it. It wasn't bad. There was a red-hot stove in the corner with a dog sleeping next to it; a pot of coffee was brewing in the back.
I was dragged into the center of the room, matched up with a partner, and taught the rudiments of square dancing by a stout and enthusiastic little woman with very thick glasses. She called the dances (“Now take her on home and I don’t care where, ’cause that’s all there is to this ol’ square”), while we staggered around in circles trying to finish the dance before the record quit. Some of them could dance; others were worse than me. I felt like a six-year-old who’s been allowed to stay up past his bedtime to see what the grownups really do at parties. We did some basic crawls, the Texas Star (“Don’t anybody go yet, you’ll miss the Texas Star’’), and a complicated figure-eight thing in which I was the tail-end of a string, getting whiplashed and thrashed around until I finally slipped and went down like an ice skater.
“Are you all right? Nothing broken?”
I was fine, but it was time to retire. Let the old folks rip it up till midnight.
Back at the hotel people were playing bridge in the lobby. Some, still in their bathrobes, were waiting to use the Jacuzzi, or else had just gotten out. I went upstairs to my room and got in bed, wondering about what it meant to get old. Just about everything in Jacumba was old.
This old hotel would be torn down if it was anyplace else.
As I fell asleep I was thinking. “People have probably died in this room. ”
“How are you this morning?” a guest said to another man in the lobby before breakfast.
“Just a minute.” He stepped outside the door, bought the morning paper, and stepped back inside. “If my obituary isn’t in here, then I guess I’m okay. ” At breakfast the woman next to me whispered. “I took the physical therapy yesterday.”
“Oh yeah, how was it?”
“Henry’s too rough. He said that was what I needed, but I told him he was only hurting me.”
“And so how do you feel today?” (The most commonly asked question in Jacumba is, “How do you feel today?”)
“I feel terrible."
After breakfast I caught Ida out in the street. She was running the list of people signed up for physical therapy over to Hank. “Can I get on the list, Ida?”
“Ah!” she cried in exasperation. “I can only do one thing at a time! Everything’s so busy this weekend!”
I looked around to see if I wasn’t missing something. The only thing moving in the street was a dog scratching himself behind the ear.
“But I love it,” she said, brightening up, in fact winking at me as she searched for an opening on the list. “What was your name again, honey?”
At three o’clock the owner, mayor, proprietor, leading citizen, and physical therapist of Jacumba gave me a massage and treatment.
The physical therapy building, like the hotel and almost everything else in Jacumba, is a bit run-down. It needs paint, yardwork, roofing. Outside the door there’s a sign that reads. “Complete Treatment — 56,” except the “6” has been crudely reworked into an “8.”
I told the receptionist I wanted the complete treatment.
She led me into a plywood cubicle with a bare mattress, gave me a towel and some funny little paper shoes, and said, “All the clothes come off, the towel goes around the waist, and the paper shoes go on the feet.”
I did as I was told, then waited.
She came back in a minute and led me into the therapy room. She said, “Up on the table and lie down.” Then she left.
The room was a drab green, cluttered with all sorts of strange machines, ancient books, charts showing what men without skin looked like putting the shot or throwing the javelin. From the ceiling hung pulleys and springs and other torturous-looking paraphernalia. The license on the wall said Mr. LaZare had graduated from the Sierra College of physical therapy.
Then he entered the room. He was short and rotund, and had curly hair swept back and a faint smile. He moved very slowly, very carefully, and gave the appearance of being quite peaceful, quite at ease with himself. “What’s your problem, buddy?”
“No real problem.” I said, “I just wanted to try the treatment.*‘
He rolled his eyes and gave me a look which said, “Oh.”
His assistant, Nina, in a white dress with a little insignia, came into the room, looked at my legs, and cringed. I craned for a look, too, but could see nothing unusual about them. She was horrified.
Henry, following her lead, inspected them with a glance. “Y’know y’got one leg shorter’n the other?”
I sat up for a better look, but he gently shoved me back down. “I wonder how that happened?” I said.
“Ah, it can happen lotsa ways. Walkin’ down the street y’step in a chuckhole.” Instantly I remembered falling on the dance floor the night before. ‘‘Is it a permanent problem?”
Suddenly and without warning, Henry yanked on my left leg. Something popped in my knee. “There, that looks a little better.”
“My father had that problem, too.” I said “He always told me it was from standing on a hillside herding sheep when he was young. I never believed him.”
“Well, you’re a young fella. You still got time to work it out. If you was as old as I am, you’d be in trouble.”
“How old are you?”
“Was seventy-one in February.” He smeared my whole body and face with mineral oil and began rubbing it around with a machine that whined and felt warm. A cord led from his hand over to one of the big black machines against the wall. An indicator needle jumped back and forth when he touched different parts of my body. The sign on the machine said it was an “Ultra Sonar.” I recognized this to be what some of the other guests at the hotel described as “Henry’s jackhammer.” Personally, I thought it was soothing, not unpleasant at all.
“Got any neck problems?” he broke in. “Uh, now that I think of it, I do get kinks in my neck every now and then.”
“Okay, sit up.” He strapped my chin in some kind of sling, fastened the sling to a spring dangling from the ceiling, then cranked the whole thing up until I felt like I was bobbing in the air. ‘‘How’s ‘at?”
“Arrgh.” I said.
“Good.” He massaged my neck gently for a moment, then quickly snapped it to the left. It cracked so loudly that I was sure something had broken and that as soon as the sling was removed I would collapse in a paralyzed heap.
Then he snapped it again to the right, and it cracked again. “Gee, you’re a real mess, buddy,” he said. “I bet y’got back problems too, don't you?”
He undid the neck brace so I could talk. I seemed to be in one piece. “Yeah, I do get pains in my lower back. ” I showed him where they were.
“Okay.” he said decisively, “lean over.”
I tightened up in anticipation of some surprise tug or twist, but instead he went to work again with the Ultra Sonar. “Nina, come in here and look at this,” Henry called.
Nina, who had wandered off, came back in the room, took one look at my back and said. “Oh my goodness!” She clucked her tongue a bit. “Well, he’s young, at least he has that going for him.”
“Gee, you’re really a mess, buddy. Y’know, Nina, it’s always the guys who come in here sayin’ they’re all right who’re the worst.” He kept kneading my lower back with the Sonar.
“What exactly is the problem?” I mumbled. I felt like I was melting into a ball of oil.
“Oh look!” Nina cried. “On the other side too!”
“Okay,” Henry said. “I guess I’m gonnna have t’show this guy, Nina. He thinks I’m pulling his leg.” He shut off the Sonar, gave me a little hand mirror, then took a larger mirror off the wall and held it up so I could look at my back. “See that?” he said.
“Where?” I just saw a bunch of red spots where he’d been working on me with the Sonar.
“See all those red spots? Each one of those red spots is a pain.”
I looked at them, not sure what to say.
“Okay, that’s it for today. If you’re gonna be here tomorrow, y’better come back again. If not, well, y’better take a jacuzzi.”
Henry looked to Nina, and she gave me a merciful-angel look. “You’re just lucky you came when you did,” she said.
As I tightened the towel around my waist and stepped across the hall to a dingy old shower with brown walls and a naked light bulb overhead, I heard Nina say to Henry, “Now I understand why they come from so far away.”
Afterwards I was determined to climb Jacumba Peak, elevation 3,219 feet, just across the street. I crossed the railroad tracks, made my way through an unofficial junkyard full of old cars shot through with bullet holes, old weathered magazines ripped and fading, a nest of broken U-joints, a few twisted shoe soles.
A little farther on, up in the yucca, mesquite. and juniper, I found a green 1941 penny, a huge white and bleached-out beetle carcass, a tiny jawbone that crumbled between my fingers, and a few Indian pottery shards that fit back together like a puzzle. I hurried on, sure I was on the right trail.
Then, on top of Jacumba Peak, I rediscovered a time-worn gesture directed from one human being to all his fellows: There on a rock, painted in red, courtesy of the class of ‘79, was the ubiquitous finger, telling the whole world where they could stick it. I sat down to enjoy the view.
To the north were endless stretches of mountains — the Lagunas and the Superstition Mountains. To the south was Mexico, with a glimpse of the church spire of Jacumé glistening in the sun. To the east, and below me, a couple of gliders were slowly circling the valley. Jacumba is a very beautiful place.