Steering the Bel Air into a tailspin, Liz bounded from the car and gazed at the smokestacks. “Gypsum, Roy. Hydrated sulfur of calcium."
“That’s the 12th mobile home we’ve passed since we left ’Diego,” said Roy DeLoux as Liz Lang guided her ’57 Bel Air convertible down the steep grade toward the Cleveland National Forest on Interstate 8.
“Looks like we got here about 30 years too late,” Roy grumbled.
Puffing Camel after Camel, Liz nervously eyed the runaway truck ramps punctuating the interstate’s descent into the Imperial Valley.
Roy belted out “Red River Valley.” Pictured long rows of crops ripening beneath winter sun. Summoned to mind the men of vision who dared challenge the sand dunes; men who made the Imperial Valley, acre per acre, the most productive soil in America.
“You know, Roy, long, long ago the Imperial Valley was a vast lake — an inland sea. When all that water, for one reason or another, receded, what was left behind was a fertile lake bottom, waiting to be cultivated.”
It was hot. Bugs smacked the windshield. Distant bands of green growing things wavered on the horizon. Liz and Roy had bumped along nearly ten miles of cracked and chalky S-80, the Evan Hewes Memorial Highway, when Liz remarked: “I smell... gypsum!”
No sooner had she said it than they saw, in the distance, a plume of white dust rising. With one voice they cried: “U.S. Gypsum.”
The mass of buildings rose suddenly from the flat shimmering plain. The highway cut directly through the complex. Cushman carts shuttled hard-hatted workers from railroad cars to warehouses. Steering the Bel Air into a tailspin, Liz bounded from the car and gazed at the smokestacks. “Gypsum, Roy. Hydrated sulfur of calcium. In the hills near here is the largest high-purity gypsum deposit in the United States!!”
“Mmmm,” noted Roy. “But we’d better hit the highway. We’ve got a lot to see today, and if I’m not mistaken, I hear a crop duster up ahead.” He pointed to a distant field.
Following the aircraft’s roar, they sped to the noise’s source. Skimming rows of cauliflower, a yellow one-seater spritzed a noxious spew.
“Do you think we’ll get cancer if we get too close?” asked Liz, ducking her head as the plane made another pass.
“Not a chance. Not with the stringent standards the FDA imposes!”
Liz wrapped her silk scarf tightly around her mouth and nose. “An ounce of prevention,” came her muffled response.
The crop-duster screamed across the cauliflower, passed inches beneath high-voltage power lines lining the road.
“I think we’d better go,” Liz hacked through her scarf. “I saw a sign indicating a Point of Historical Interest back the road a ways.”
In seconds they skidded to a stop beside a rock monument boasting a set of bronze plaques. Roy stumbled from the car and stared at the monolith.
Liz joined him. “Townsite of Silsbee. Named for Thomas H. Silsbee, a cattleman who shipped range cattle via the Southern Pacific Rail Station at Flowing Well to fatten on the grasses near Blue Lake. In 1901, the Blue Lake Town Company mapped the site into 97 blocks of business and residential lots. Blue Lake Boulevard inside the town was almost two miles in length and encircled Blue Lake. Silsbee was to be a winter resort with boating and fishing in the 12-ft.-deep lake. The Colorado River flooded in 1905, 6, and 7, drained the lake, and ended the dreams of the developers...”
“Geez!” Roy slapped his brown fedora against his thigh. “What a lousy break!” Staring out over fields that once were to be a watery wonderland, a source of respite for bone-weary ranchers and their wives, Liz and Roy contemplated the terror of history.
After several moments of silence had been observed, Roy cried out: “I think I see it!!”
“Do you mean,” Liz squinted into the distance, “the Jewel in the Crown of this Imperial Valley?”
After a brief drive, it lay before them:
Twenty-eight thousand fifty-eight hardworking souls — merchants, farmers, bankers, doctors, short-order cooks, plumbers, housewives, mechanics, lawyers, brick layers, cowpokes. The list is endless,” Liz rhapsodized.
At 939 Main Street stood a neoclassic edifice bordered by broad, frost-bleached lawns. The historic El Centro courthouse. Liz capered on the grass. “Get the Polaroid, Roy! Pronto!”
After stopping by the Chamber of Commerce for the run-down on El Centro high life, Liz and Roy breezed across bustling thoroughfares back to the city’s western edge. Destination: 1717 West Adams.
Just as the brochure promised, the two found Imperial Valley’s own Roll-A-Rama. Weeds sprouted from the parking lot. Plywood across the doors barred Liz and Roy’s entry.
“I think it’s maybe closed, or out of business, even,” Liz wailed, wiping a sleeve across a dusty window.
After several hours of fruitless waiting, they hit the road again. A city of silvery smokestacks and silos — one with a line marked “Sea Level” 87 feet up — loomed alongside Highway 86 northbound. Liz reined her vehicle into a ditch opposite.
“Holly Sugar!” Roy gasped. A huge neon sign confirmed his discovery.
“What with the 1,002,778 tons of sugar beets grown in this valley, is it any wonder?”
Liz opened the car door and trotted toward the massive sugar refinery. “How sweeeeet it is! ’ ’ she bellowed as Roy captured the moment on film. A curious highway patrolman stopped to chat.
Tooling north once more, they skirted the incomparable West Side Main Canal and wound through the city of Brawley — home of the annual October “Fun in the Sun Craft Show” and November’s “Cattle Call” rodeo, the Brawley Airport, and the Del Rio Country Club. Hooking up to Highway 111 northbound, Liz and Roy whizzed through tiny Calipatria to even tinier Niland, which bustled in preparation for a Tomato Festival — “It’s quite an event,” Liz shouted above the car engine’s roar. “Niland locals really show their stuff in a yearly blow-out celebrating the cultivation and packing of tomatoes. Much fun is had by all when professional packers vie for honors awarded for fastest packing times!”
Several miles outside Niland, Roy detected a subtle change in the air. “What’s that smell?” he asked.
“Lemme see,” Liz said, sniffing. “It’s not gypsum...”
Turning off Highway 111 into the Wister Waterfowl Management Area, Liz remarked that the odor had become more pronounced. They took a tip from the visitor registration booth and followed the salt-encrusted dirt road to what guideposts referred to as “Mud Pots.”
The swamp grew denser, as did the air. Finger-thick reeds towered above the car hood, herons exploded from mire toward the gray sky. Ruts in the road deepened to the point of impasse. In front of Roy and Liz a sign beckoned. “Mud Pots.” An arrow pointed to a broad brown plain, beyond which lapped the Salton Sea.
Liz exited the car, Roy in tow, and began to walk through the salty muck. She approached one of the enclosed mud pots. A nearby sign warned, “Danger.” “It’s ... it’s bubbling, Roy! The mud is bubbling! It’s as though we’ve stumbled centuries backward in time ... to when the earth was ruled by tyrannosaurus rex, the triceratops, the mastodon!”
Suddenly, an anvil crash of thunder rattled the sky. Liz yelped and tottered on one foot precariously near the edge of the mud pot. “Good grief, Roy! What in heaven’s name was that?”
Roy eyed curling masses of smoke rising above the mountains to the east. “That sound shouldn’t scare you, hon’. That’s the sound Uncle Whiskers makes to let you know his ace pilots are keeping one and all safe from foreign aggressors.
Those explosions are coming from the United States Navy Live Bombing Range in the nearby Chocolate Mountains.” Roy placed a protective arm around Liz’s shoulders as they strolled back to the car.
They had been en route northward only minutes when I Liz squinted through the windshield. “That sign! Roy, look. Do you see?”
“Mmmph?” he inquired, fishing an errant peanut shell from between his teeth.
“The FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH SPA!!!”
“Make like Ponce de Leon, and steer your craft accordingly,” Roy said, bolting upright.
Swinging into a gravel lot, Liz and Roy were approached by a leathery septuagenarian in form-fitting capris.
“Howdy, folks! Hazel’s m’name. What can I do you for?”
Roy doffed his hat. “Well, ma’am, we’re from down San Diego way. We’re just takin’ in the sights. We’re curious as to what exactly this establishment has to offer.”
Hazel grinned, gave Liz the once-over, and then linked her arm through Roy’s. “My, you’re a strong one, aren’t you?” Hazel giggled, squeezing Roy’s bicep. Hazel looked across Roy’s chest to Liz. “Perhaps you’d like to sit down in the shade and cool yer heels, dearie? You look a little peaked.”
Liz, flicking a match against her thumbnail, gave Hazel a sidelong glance. “Thanks, but I’m just aching to see what it is they put in this water. Whatever it is, it’s certainly kept you spry.”
“You said it, babe — I’m 79 years young and loving every minute of it!” Hazel tugged Roy along to the pool area.
“In 1938, Roy, these mineral springs were discovered by big, burly construction workers during the building of the All American Canal. The workers attributed restorative powers to the searing mineral springs, experiencing relief from tension and everyday aches and pains.” Hazel led them through a wrought-iron gate.
Tanned oldsters dressed in flowered prints padded about the concrete. On a sundeck adjoining the pool, a fiddle and banjo sawed through “Little Brown Jug.” Hazel tapped her foot in time to the tune’s quick rhythm and shot Roy a knowing look.
“We’d better go, Liz. Thank you, Hazel, for your time.” Roy clanked the gate behind him loudly.
“Next time, leave the invalid home!” Hazel called after his retreating back. “I’ll give you the grand tour!”
The tires squealed as Liz veered back onto Highway 111. The Salton Sea was a bright silver ellipse to the west. “Oh Roy, I don’t want the day to end. Let’s do something different. Let’s do something crazy. Let’s take Mexican Highway 2 from Mexicali to Tijuana.”
After passing at a snail’s pace in rush-hour traffic through the portals from Calexico to her more effervescent sister to the south, Mexicali, Liz began to hum “Tequila.” “Got any cigarettes, Roy? I’m out.” Liz gripped the wheel purposefully and leaned forward.
Roy handed her a fresh pack of Camels and a soiled paper cup filled with dregs from the Thermos.
It was a moonless night. Highway 2 began its ascent into the mountains. Outside, a cold wind howled. Blackness fell sharply away from the car’s sides. Roy lit a cigarette, breathed in the smoke deeply, then watched it whip out the half-open ventilator.
It was easily 40 degrees outside, but Liz had rolled her window down. Warm sweat glistened on her brow. She kept her thoughts to herself: the passenger busses leap-frogging semis on blind curves; the temperature gauge inching steadily upward on the dashboard before her; the tiny pinpricks of light — headlights — high, high above them that indicated where she, too, must climb.
“Liz, I... I think I should tell you ... that our friendship ... our friendship has always meant a great deal to me. And if I’ve ever said or done anything to hurt you, I’m truly sorry.” “Can it, Roy. I need a copilot, not a deathbed confession. Hand me your lighter; mine’s gone out.”
Dawn broke, revealing Tijuana spread over the surrounding hills. Liz relaxed her shoulders back into her seat. “I brought this.” She fished out a white, spiral-bound book from under the seat and held it out to Roy for his inspection.
With undisguised horror, he read its title: “Alternative Cancer Therapies — Tijuana Clinics: Where And How To Go. Have you flipped your lid??”
“Quite the contrary, Roy. I think it’s the sanest of choices. Some of the greatest physicians in the world have gathered in our border town. Mexico has welcomed them with open hearts and minds. One out of three of us will contract some form of cancer or another. If it’s not me, it’s either going to be you — or ... or ... someone else!”
They followed road signs west to “Las Playas.” As the map on the back of the book indicated, Hospital Ernesto Contreras sat kitty-comer from the bullring. The Pacific Ocean was gray and dirty-looking behind it.
“You see,” Liz lectured, climbing from the car, “this is probably the most famous cancer clinic in all of May-hee-co. Established by Dr. Ernesto R. Contreras, a pioneer in the use of laetrile and other non-toxic metabolic therapies to treat cancer.”
An annoyed-looking orderly wheeled a cart past Roy and Liz into the shiny maroon-walled clinic.
Roy, using the rolled cancer book as a crude megaphone, shouted into Liz’s ear. “Can you believe it? Treatment here is up to $7000 for a three-week stay!”
He was still fuming as the Bel Air carried them south along Paseo Playas.
At number 605, a plastic sunburst was emblazoned with the legend “Del Sol.” Beneath it, a square sign: Hospital de Baja California.
Liz recited, “Now this is the home of Gerson Therapy. The late Dr. Max Gerson’s treatment is perhaps best known to the public for its liberal doses of carrot juice and use of coffee enemas. Past patients claim to have experienced dramatic results for disorders ranging from migraines to cancer. His daughter now directs the clinic. The cost, if I’m correct, is $1750 a week.”
On the winding road back to downtown Tijuana, the Manner Clinic stood on a red clay bluff. Roy and Liz stepped through an open gate into a courtyard. Liz collapsed into a chaise. “You, Roy, may think this yet another laetrile clinic. It is. But Dr. Manner specializes in the use of enzymes that he says break down the protein shell which surrounds tumors. I quote: ‘It is then that the laetrile can do its work.’ ” She raised an eyebrow. Roy followed suit.
Threading their way past a cemetery and across downtown Tijuana, Liz turned the car right from Boulevard Agua Caliente and mounted a steep residential street in Colonia Juárez.
Near the summit of Calle General Ferreira, two metal gates stood at the driveway leading to the Bio-Medical Center. Liz, holding her cigarette close to her lips, recounted to Roy the history of John Hoxsey, who developed the herbal formulas the clinic prescribed. “One day Hoxsey found a cancerous sore growing on one of his horse’s legs. Later, he saw the horse chomping on some herbs and licking the mash onto its sore. Hoxsey examined those herbs and developed formulas based on them. He passed them on to his grandson Harry. The horse’s tumor, you see, had disappeared.”
In front of the Bio-Medical Center sat an aviary, wrapped in a blue plastic tarp. Beneath the tarp, birds chirped. A guard at the portals to the house in front of which they had parked peered at Liz and Roy suspiciously as the two left the clinic.
They rejoined an unmarked road in search of the Villa Floresta clinic in Rosarito Beach. There, Liz had learned, therapists were using a curious device known as the Ray Tube Machine to bombard cancer and AIDS sufferers with low-frequency sound.
“It’s the same principle others have used to rid homes and businesses of roaches and other vermin. Tests done in 1934 indicated that 16 out of 16 cancer patients were cured using this method. Others claim that it has produced skin like a baby’s when used on the face!” Liz said, massaging her cheeks as she steered through what was becoming a steady downpour.
Lost in the rain, they headed back to the international border. Liz scanned the asphalt of Interstate 5 — the great cement river running from Mexico to Canada. “I wonder where this baby’s gonna lead us. Orange County’s always been pretty much of an enigma to me.”
Liz drove on silently as Roy consulted an AAA map. A couple hours and several traffic jams later, they cut out from the herd and rolled off the El Toro Road exit into Laguna Hills.
Liz spun the wheel and aimed for a guard shack manning the gate marked “Leisure World.”
“A retirement community,” said Liz, “the largest gate-guarded senior community in the country. In fact, the largest place of its kind outside the City of the Dead near Cairo, Egypt. 21,000 residents. 12,736 dwelling units.
$25 million worth of recreational facilities. Six clubhouses. Five pools. Average age here is 76 years, Roy. This is where old money comes to die.”
“Aren’t you two a little young to be around here?” The frowzy blonde guard looked the pair over.
“We just wanna look around, sis. Any objections?” Roy gave her his best grin. All the teeth.
“You’ll have to talk to security, then. Back up the road. Make a right. Then another. Back building — you’ll see it.” The guard watched them carefully as they made their U-turn.
They found it. Liz jammed a pin into her black picture hat as Roy held the door open for her. “Let’s hope this works,” she whispered to him as all eyes — each pair having long since seen 60 — followed them to the security office. They could tell from the faces they weren’t popular.
Grandpa at the desk said he couldn’t help them. Said they’d have to talk to “Rhonda in public relations.”
She was an awesome spectacle. A mammoth jelly-roll with tight brown spitcurls framing her face. She shot a glance at the door as they entered.
Roy pressed his palm into the crook of Liz’s arm and said quietly, “Let me handle this.” He sidled up and parked a haunch on Rhonda’s desk.
Rhonda looked at him. She didn’t smile.
“You look sorta outta place here,” he offered, fingering the tired daisy in a vase.
“How can I assist you, sir? Would you have a seat?”
Roy looked earnest. “My partner and I were told by the guard we’d have to talk to you before we could get inside Leisure World.”
“I’d like to help you, but I can’t. It’s against company policy to allow uninvited visitors on the grounds. People come here for privacy, you know ...”
“I was thinking maybe you could invite us.” Roy snapped his suspenders in a thinly veiled promise of violence.
Rhonda licked her lips nervously and added, “There is a tour on the 17th, which of course you’d be most welcome to attend.”
Liz jumped in, all smiles and politeness. “Darling. Do leave the poor woman alone. I am sure she has plenty of others things to do. Grandmama in Boca Raton will be ever so disappointed to learn we didn’t tour. She did so want to buy... ”
“Gimme a break, miss. If you two don’t get out of here, I’m gonna call security.”
Liz kept an eye on the convertible’s rear-view mirror until they were safely back on the freeway. In minutes they had reached Garden Grove.
“After that fiasco, I think we need a little inspiration. Ever hear of the Crystal Cathedral?”
In front of them Roy’s eyes were blinded by light reflecting off the cathedral’s surface. Beside the cathedral rose the “Tower of Hope” erected in 1968. A green park, fountains. A gargantuan parking lot for drive-in sermons.
Ensconced in a reflecting pool on the cathedral’s north flank, a group of statues depicted the New Testament story of Jesus defending the prostitute from the crowd that wanted to stone her: four men with large, hooked noses glared in mute rage at the kneeling, button-nosed Man of the Cross. The thinly garbed wench had her back to them all. A plaque by the pool quoted the verse, “Let the innocent among you cast the first stone.”
Liz and Roy attached themselves to a group of tourists being lead into the cathedral itself.
The noise of buzz saws and hammers rattled the 15,000 plus windows of the building’s vast interior. A crew was readying the place for the annual “Glory of Easter Pageant” — boasting a cast of live animals, the tour guide explained.
The guide rattled off figures. The million-dollar pipe organ, with its 15,000 pipes, the largest in the nation. The marble beneath the pulpit — quarried in Spain and shipped to Italy to be cut and polished. The guide smiled. “Quite lovely, isn’t it?”
Roy and Liz settled back into the car. Northward on Beach Boulevard. Liz opened the engine all the way. Roy pulled pensively on a cup of coffee. Motels, electronics shops, fly-blown cafes whipped past.
“Looks like you could use some R and R, soldier.” Liz let it hang there. Her cohort didn’t respond. “Can’t make it to Honolulu in this heap, but I can take you to the next best thing. Say Aloha’ for me, Roy. I’m taking you to Hawaiian Gardens.”
As they turned onto Lincoln, palm trees played slender shadows across the car’s hood. Liz rolled down her window and sniffed for hints of jasmine, plumeria, ylang-ylang. The air gave nothing back. Miles passed. Liz grew more confused. She wrenched the wheel over and slammed to the curb. No hula girls, no tiki huts in sight. Not one of the pedestrians wore a lei.
“I can’t understand it,” she said. “It’s right there on the map — Hawaiian Gardens. West of Knott’s Berry Farm. Wedged between the communities of Cypress and Cerritos.” She threw the AAA Guide to Orange County at Roy’s slumbering form.
Roy’s eyes flew open and lit upon something Liz had not seen. A dismal testament to Hawaiian Gardens’ fragrant, sensual past. There, beside the busy street, behind a high chain-link fence stood a sign. The lot behind it — once, long ago, lush with papaya, mango, parrots, orchids, chattering monkeys, brightly hued snakes — looked desolate. “Hawaiian Gardens Redevelopment Agency,” the sign promised. But the gray, sterile soil, the foot-worn sidewalk, in no way betrayed their tropical past. Liz and Roy felt that they could have been anywhere.
“Looks like we got here about 30 years too late,” Roy grumbled.
The Bel Air swam smartly through the afternoon traffic. Five blocks later, an emerald lawn stretched along the . boulevard’s side. A white-steepled chapel, a fountain, a colonial mansion sat in the green expanse. Liz pulled into the sweeping drive.
“Miniature golf?” queried Roy.
“Think again.” Liz pointed to the large letters across the colonial edifice’s colonnade. “Forest Lawn Mortuary.”
Liz’s heels sunk inches into the verdant turf as she and Roy toured shady glens, oak-crested knolls, the Shrine of Love, the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather, the Temple of Santa Sabina, the Gardens of Memory.
“Which area would you choose as your final resting place, Roy?” Liz shot her companion a coy glance. “Slumberland? Rest Haven? The Vale of Memory?”
“I liked the duck pool by Kindly Light.... But I think it’s a little soon to start planning — ”
“— It’s never too soon! Like it says in the brochure, Roy, buying a family memorial before it’s necessary eliminates emotional over-spending at time of need!”
As they returned to the convertible,
Roy admitted he felt funny walking around a cemetery. Liz smirked. “It’s more than a cemetery, isn’t that obvious? There’s admission-free programs — high school band concerts, religious rallies, and a valentine-making contest.”
Roy chuckled sheepishly. “And I thought graveyards were just for dead people!”
As chimes began to peal out “Rock of Ages,” Liz and Roy aimlessly cruised Beach Boulevard. They spotted a giant yellow and black sign.
“Hobby City.” Roy’s laugh was short and hard. “Are you woman enough for this? Yam Cabin. Party Cake Shop. An official Cabbage Patch Adoption Center. Arts and Crafts Studio. And the Doll and Toy Museum.”
With 23 specialty shops, Hobby City was a mecca for collectibles — sea shells, driftwood, coins, teddy bears, wallpaper for dollhouses.
Liz dashed to the Doll and Toy Museum minutes before closing time. Bea DeArmond, the curator, stood brushing a doll’s hair. Liz asked for a brochure. Bea produced a full-color, ten-page pamphlet describing her exhibits.
“This,” DeArmond stated sadly, “was our dream — Jay’s and mine — to build a city where the entire family could come and spend an enjoyable day. You can just cross Jay’s name out of the brochure. He’s gone now. Poor little Jay.” She resumed her combing of the doll’s hair.
Liz felt her own hair rise on the back of her neck. “Poor little Jay,” she murmured to herself as she grasped the door jamb. “I’ll just find my own way around the, uh, hummmm, museum, thank you....”
Floorboards creaked as she passed Kewpies, Bylo baby dolls, “Lady Long Fingers” — an 18th-century wooden doll chosen to reign as “Queen of the Museum.”
“Find everything okay?” Bea was suddenly there beside her.
“Good golly!” Liz jumped straight into the air.
The laugh started deep from within Bea’s chest and ripped through her throat. “Heh heh. Startled ya, did I?”
“No. No. Not at all. 1 was admiring Lady Long Fingers here ...”
“Quite an unusual specimen, isn’t she? She’s pre-Georgian, you know.”
Liz was still jelly-kneed when she reached the convertible; Roy manned the helm for the bleak miles that led home.