People here will also tell you that life in the city — the San Diego-El Cajon grid — is scarcely worth living; they will extol the virtues of mountain life. But keep them talking long enough, and you’ll hear inklings of other things.
There was a time not long ago when you could kick your car into gear at the intersection of Park and El Cajon Boulevards in San Diego, head east, and drive all the way to Savannah, Georgia, without once having to turn, except to follow the road. Today, 30 years after Interstate 8 sluiced off most of the traffic, some remnants of that old Highway 80 remain in San Diego County. From Park Boulevard, you can drive El Cajon Boulevard into La Mesa, make a short detour on the freeway, rejoin the boulevard in El Cajon, continue on as it changes to Main Street, and follow Main Street east till it becomes the road now known as Old Highway 80.
Past La Mesa, the only freeway detour is a bit past Alpine, where you’re forced to travel on I-8 a few miles to the Route 79 exit, then loop back again to Old Highway 80 just south of Pine Valley.
Past La Mesa, the only freeway detour is a bit past Alpine, where you’re forced to travel on I-8 a few miles to the Route 79 exit, then loop back again to Old Highway 80 just south of Pine Valley. The road then winds on to Jacumba at the Imperial County line and a few miles beyond.
Desert house. Only the thinness of the air and the resulting slight shortness of breath would indicate to a visitor that the area is some 2000 to 3000 feet above sea level.
A drive along Old Highway 80 takes you through a string of towns — Guatay, Buckman Springs, La Posta, Live Oak Springs, Boulevard, Bankhead Springs, and Jacumba — past clusters of houses, ranches, gas stations, post offices, cafés, and trailer parks where people live because they've decided to absent themselves from urban infelicity and carve out a windblown existence in San Diego’s backcountry.
Helen, owner of Bankhead Springs, has only two of the houses rented out because, she says, she has a hard time finding “good renters."
From Guatay to Jacumba and beyond, residents call themselves mountain people. Though high desert is what it is. The landscape is brush and granite and rolling hills under a vast sky. Only the thinness of the air and the resulting slight shortness of breath would indicate to a visitor that the area is some 2000 to 3000 feet above sea level.
Pat, postmistress of Boulevard: ‘‘The local reservation Indians have something like 600 acres of land near Live Oak Springs going down toward the Mexican border, and they can get a good deal of money by converting it to a dump area."
And the people here will also tell you that life in the city — the San Diego-El Cajon grid — is scarcely worth living; they will extol the virtues of mountain life, of independence, self-reliance, community goodwill, and sound family values. But keep them talking long enough, and you’ll hear inklings of other things — social disintegration, poverty, paranoia, violence.
Guatay is a wide spot in the road east of Alpine and Descanso. It consists of ranch spreads where sleek horses graze under curved ceilings of spreading live oak. You’ll find partially dismantled Quonset huts, dismembered trucks, a few homes, a Christian center with a full parking lot, an antique store or two, and some kind of huge plein-air retail outlet where you can buy, according to the sign, “Stoves n' Stuff.’’ Like many of the other towns along Old Highway 80, there’s more to Guatay than what you see as you drive through town. Back from the road, at the ends of long drives fronted by gates and No Trespassing signs, are homes secreted in the foliage.
"None of the towns to the immediate east or west of Boulevard really exists — from Live Oak Springs to Bankhead Springs, everyone has a Boulevard address."
At Guatay's Hilltop Cate, from its nondescript exterior, you would expect to get nothing fancier than greasy fried eggs and hamburgers. But the restaurant’s handwritten menu lists Italian cuisine — dishes in white sauce, dishes in red sauce, antipasto, and insalata. Teenagers do the serving, and Linda, the café’s proprietor, can’t say enough good things about them.
Sooze: "I was working at a tavern in Boulevard, and I said to one of the other waitresses, ‘Why are all these people constantly going outside and then coming back in?’ She said, Just how dumb are you, anyway? They’re going out to have a little hit of speed, that’s all.'"
"Down in the city, you won’t find kids like these," she asserts. "One thing, in the city they know there's another job waiting for them right down the street if they mess up — at a Burger King or Shakey’s. Here it's different. I’m just about the only restaurant in Guatay; matter of fact. I’m just about the largest employer in town right now. Population around here is something like 523, I believe I heard someone say, and I employ, what, seven or eight of these kids. If they mess up with me. they can’t go down the street and bus someone else’s tables. And I’m doing right by ’em; I’m not just paying ’em a few dollars an hour to wash dishes, I’m teaching ’em the restaurant business — how to prepare food, how to set a place how to do right by the customer, take pride in their work."
La Posta is the exact opposite of a bedroom community — a workplace community, where people from elsewhere come to earn money providing roadside services to other passers-through.
Linda is thin, strong, and tough, about 40 years old. a fast talker, blonde, weathered. "These kids out here are brought up right," she explains. "They’re taught values. They don’t do drugs. You know what the saying is about El Cajon — every fifth house has a methedrine lab. Not here.
Bankhead Springs is a town only by a considerable stretch of the imagination.
“One of the boys that works for me. the other day the register came up $61 short at the close of business. You wouldn’t believe how upset he was. The next day when he came to work, he practically ran off the bus and rushed in here wanting to know if the money d been found. Turned out it was just a miscalculation. The kids you find down in the city wouldn’t have acted that way — they could care less, if it’d turned into a problem they just would have got another job down the street.
"What I’m trying to do here," she goes on, "is give the people some good food — Mafia food. I come from St. Louis originally, and people out here in California don’t know it, but out in the East — in cities like St. Louis and Chicago — there’s a kind of restaurant that serves Mafia food, and it’s the best food going.
"You ask me, we need to bring back the Mafia days. Now, I’ll bet your father grew up back in a time when a man stood by his handshake. That’s not the case anymore — it’s all bureaucracy, rules, lies. People aren’t honest and direct with one another. With the Mafia, it’s different — you stand by your word or they’ll break your legs."
The next stop east after Guatay is Pine Valley, which really doesn’t count as an Old Highway 80 town. When the interstate was put in during the years surrounding 1960, most of the highway towns bypassed by the high-speed road became only names on freeway exit signs. But Pine Valley, as the vagaries of freeway planning and the contours of the terrain would have it, was fortunate enough to find itself on the new interstate. As a result, today it is a burgeoning town with a beautiful park, busy motels, a big residential district, and a coffee shop where a person just passing through doesn’t draw a lot of stares.
Rolling east on Old 80, you watch in vain for Buckman Springs, the first town on the map east of Pine Valley. The mapmakers may dignify it with a black dot, but Buckman Springs, like many of the other towns on most maps of Old Highway 80, doesn’t really exist. Reconnoiter as you might along Buckman Springs Road and Old Buckman Springs Road, all you’ll find are Mountain Empire High School, attended by most of the teenagers in the area, and about a score of midsize horse ranches jostling each other beneath the live oak canopy. If there are stores, public space of any kind, they are stationed far down the road, south toward Campo.
One truth of Old Highway 80 is that the cartographic illusion of discrete townships is just that — an illusion. In fact the highway from Pine Valley to Jacumba constitutes an extreme form of elongated community, a kind of pipeline through which local people pass every day, stopping along the way to eat and gossip and conduct business. No one stays put at his or her little highway dot, and everyone knows everyone else.
“No one lives in La Posta." This is what the waitress on duty at Jan’s La Posta Cate says. This may not be strictly true; evidence suggests that the proprietors of La Posta Auto Repair, the "town's" other business, may live on-site. La Posta is, or easily could be the exact opposite of a bedroom community — a workplace community, where people from elsewhere come to earn money providing roadside services to other passers-through. The waitress herself lives in Campo; she says the café's proprietors, Jan and her husband, live on the Indian reservation outside Boulevard, farther east.
A man named Tom is seated at the counter — a fellow of about 60, with silver mustache and hair and a slender build. He is on a first-name basis with everyone on the premises. He lives in Jacumba, works in construction all over San Diego County.
"Jacumba s a nice place,” he says, lighting a cigarette. 'Or at least it used to be a nice place, and maybe it'll be a nice place again someday. You know, a fellow named Bert Vaughn practically built the whole town a long time back — built the hotel, the motel, the spa. Then he sold them all off to this other guy, who didn't do a damn thing with it except let it all deteriorate. Then it was sold to a group of buyers called the Jacumba Association, now some group from Chicago owns it. I get a little upset when I think about it. These people don’t do anything for the community; they put a few cosmetic repairs on the motel, they tear down a couple of shacks, and that’s about it.
“Contrary to what you read in the papers every few years, though, the town of Jacumba isn’t owned by any corporation. Most of the people own their own homes. But the media — every time someone comes in and buys up a row of old shacks, they run these headlines saying the whole town’s been bought by some corporation.”
Tom is originally from New Jersey, lived for a while in Montana, came to the San Diego area, and took up residence in Jacumba over 20 years ago. He remembers being flooded out by Hurricane Kathleen in 1966. “Things were different back then.” he says. "We didn’t have much, but everyone banded together in their hour of need. Still do, but now there's such an influx of welfare scum you don’t know where you stand. I guess the welfare department in San Diego sends these people out here where they can live cheaply.
"There’s only so much I'll do anymore. Back in the ‘70s I helped raise funds to build the fire station, which used to be nothing but a two-car garage where they put the engine. I helped organize a fundraising parade every year for six years, got as many as 20 or 30 entries sometimes. But now I don’t want to have anything to do with that fire department.”
"The thing now is this new park we want to build. We've already got a $25,000 grant, and we’re on the lookout for block federal grants. It’s going to be a beauty — trees everywhere, a soccer field, a horseshoe pit, the works. I’m pushing for a bandshell. When I was a boy my folks used to take me to hear the band play in the park on summer evenings. Nothing nicer than that.
“But I’ll tell you something — one of the main reasons I'm working on the project is so that when people come passing through and see this beautiful park in this dumpy little town, they’ll start to wonder just what’s going on."
“My cliché about Jacumba.” he says, “is that it’s a penal colony for priests and law-enforcement officers. These sheriffs they send out here are absolutely useless. Say you’ve got some trouble one night and you call the sheriff’s department; you’re more likely than not to be told, There are no deputies on duty in the mountains tonight.’ Well, what if someone’s being murdered? What if my house is being broken into?’ You’ll have to wait till morning.’
“I’ve never once seen one of these sheriffs solve a crime or resolve any kind of situation unless you bring him the perpetrator on a silver platter and say. Here he is.’ One time a burglar removed a plate glass window so he could break into one of the stores in Jacumba. Next day, the deputy sheriff came around to investigate; he saw where the glass was missing, said. 'Apparently this is where the perpetrator gained entrance.’ turned right around and stepped on the plate glass where the burglar left it lying on the ground. Broke it. There goes the evidence and the fingerprints. And he just kept on walking.”
Tom downs the rest of his coffee and rises from his stool. “You’ll excuse me. I’ve got to get to work. My old lady organized a funeral yesterday; there’s a whole mess of food left over from the reception, and I’ve got to get it and take it up to the senior center.”
East of La Posta, another cartographic dot materializes out of the brush — Live Oak Springs, a kind of tumbledown mountain resort with a few homes sprinkled about its margins. North of the highway, a huge sign with two characters missing stares out from a dirt slope: REST RANT. Atop the hill is a large wooden building, adjacent to a convenience store where you can hire accommodations for the night: teetery redwood A-frames in whose shade little muddy patches of snow linger long after the last scarcely remembered snowfall. Up away from the highway, past the A-frames, a couple of winding lanes obtrude into the brush. Tiny shaded yards and homes, fronted by fieldstone fences, seem to nod peacefully at slowly passing cars like old people from porch swings.
When the full winter dark lowers, bringing with it a profound chill and dizzying, enormous stars, there aren’t even any sidewalks to be rolled up. Best thing you can do is crank up the electric heat in your cavernous A-frame or schlep up to the REST RANT and treat yourself to a cool one in the bar, while TV football flickers over the assembled handful of grizzled hunters, truckers, construction workers.
Past the bar, the restaurant is practically empty. It is a faux-chalet, high-raftered affair, with a bandstand at one end and at the other a vast medieval fireplace, big enough to roast whole stags. Two women sit before the disheveled remains of their dinner at one table, drinking wine and enjoying a smoke. They discuss itineraries and travel budgets in imperturbable Australian accents. One of them heads for the bathroom, spots an upright piano near the bathroom door, and begins plunking out a minimalist version of art excerpt from Swan Lake — hesitant arpeggios in the base, the right hand groping for an unharmonized melody on the higher keys. "Oh, go to the toilet." her friend calls from across the room in mock impatience before joining her on the piano bench. Her friend begins a Beatles medley — "Yesterday" and "Help” — singing the melancholy lyrics in a well-modulated contralto.
Across the highway, two ruined buildings stand behind chain-link fencework. At night their old-fashioned rooflines and foreposts suggest that they are remnants of an antique age. when stagecoaches tottered laboriously up and down the dusty grades between Yuma and San Diego. In the daylight, it's clear that they are actually artifacts of the 1970s. specifically designed to impart this illusion. The JT Vintage Parts Repair sign is a classic example of the Ersatz Rural school of graphic design that was popular in those days when city people were buying Willie Nelson records.
"Keep Out" postings that feature the brightly colored cartoon head of Yosemite Sam are nailed along one cornice. Two other signs — not graffiti, but carefully produced if basically crude hand-lettered signs — display the following legends to passing motorists:
WHO. IS. ANTI.CHRIST
One funny thing about the town of Manzanita is that people who work at the local post office aren’t even sure if it ever existed. Of course, from a postal perspective, none of the towns to the immediate east or west of Boulevard really exists — from Live Oak Springs to Bankhead Springs, everyone has a Boulevard address, no matter where the mapmakers think they really are.
Boulevard itself, however, is a full-fledged township that stretches along the highway in the form of delis, liquor stores. Laundromats, trailer parks, video stores, a fire department, a couple of taverns. The post office makes 525 home deliveries per day. Many of the town’s residents like to fret about the likelihood, as they see it, that the urban-development cancer that has overrun El Cajon and begun to infest Alpine and Pine Valley will someday turn Boulevard into just another sector of the concrete-and-stucco jungle. A county restriction against building on parcels of local land smaller than eight acres makes this unlikely, at the moment.
As it is, many people who move into the area in an effort to get in on ‘‘The Good Life" that Boulevard's highway signs advertise don't last long. They don't reckon on the fierce, high winds of winter, the oppressive heat of summer. The town’s permanent residents consist mainly of retired people who own sizable spreads that they purchased for very little money many years ago, a mixture of young commuter households, families on welfare, a few bikers, Indians from the Campo reservation. A bulletin board outside one of the delis advertises, among other things, pork on the hoof for sale at 90 cents a pound. There is also a flyer urging attendance at a community meeting to discuss ways of preventing a waste dump from being placed nearby. Pat, a pleasant woman in her early 50s, who happens to be the local postmistress, tells you a few things about that campaign.
‘‘The local reservation Indians have something like 600 acres of land near Live Oak Springs going down toward the Mexican border," she explains, "and they can get a good deal of money by converting it to a dump area. So they're making a deal with a waste company called Ogden Industries. The Indians want to sell the company a 40-year lease; the plan would involve something like 300 trucks dumping garbage every day from as far away as San Diego. I’m sure they wouldn’t stop there; they’d bring trash from other areas too, might as well do the whole thing. Some of the people who live near the reservation are alarmed because of what could happen to the groundwater, so they’ve organized a campaign to stop it. They’ve held three town meetings in the last three months and gotten a lot of support. They’ve gotten Indians from tribes in North Dakota and places like that to come talk to the Indians here about what happened on their reservations when they let dump sites go in; they made a lot of money, but there were problems.
"It’s a real hot issue,” she goes on. "I think one problem is that the Indians on the reservation haven’t gotten real good educations — for whatever reason, I don’t know. I do know that the government will allow them a free college education; I guess a lot of them just chose not to take advantage of it. I think they’re being fed a bill of goods by a few of the Indians who are in charge of them. Now, some people say the Indian reservation is a sovereign state, that it can’t be touched by state or federal rules. That’s another reason why people are so concerned, because the idea is that the Indians would form their own EPA to watch over this trash and make sure none of it was toxic. And it just doesn’t seem like they have the education to do that. I know I couldn’t serve on an EPA board; I don’t have the qualifications. And here these people are, saying that the Indians are a sovereign nation and so the county couldn’t be involved. So we’re trying to get a provision that the county would have to be involved."
Pat thinks the matter over for a moment. "I’m sure the Indian nation is not a sovereign nation," she says finally. "It just couldn’t be. The land was given to them by the United States government; the Indians who live there receive Social Security checks from the United States government; their houses were built for them with taxpayers’ money. Really, it’s kind of amazing that the Indian nation still exists at all. It’s depressing, really. Maybe by giving them welfare — it’s not welfare, strictly speaking, but it’s practically the same thing — it’s taken away their fight or something. I don’t know what the reasons are, but they don’t seem to have a lot of get-up-and-go. They just kind of exist. And here they are trying to better their lives, but they’re just going to ruin their land.
"My friend Sooze, who works as a cook down at Bankhead Springs, disagrees with me about all this. She and I have had some very heated discussions on the subject. She misunderstood me and thought, probably from something I said, that I’m prejudiced against the Indians. Which I’m not, I don’t think. I know a few of them personally, though not that many of them. They really don’t trust white people. Sooze says the Indians come from a whole different background and think differently than we do, that we’ve ruined them by putting them in a little shoebox on this reservation. It’s a valid point."
"From my perspective," Pat’s friend Sooze says later, "there’s a lot of race involved in the dump issue. Everyone's talking a lot about the ecology, but ecology just makes a wonderful banner to get people to rally under. Not that ecology isn’t a real issue; it’s just that I have a problem because the thinking appears to be that the Indians are children who aren’t intelligent enough to make rational choices, so we have to make the choices for them; we have to step m and take a paternal role. It’s an unpopular opinion up here, but that’s what I think.’’
Sooze is not an Indian herself; she’s something fairly outlandish in the world of Old Highway 80 — a college-educated. Jewish feminist. Zaftig, brunette, pretty, friendly, she works two 17-hour shifts per week cooking at the Back Country Inn in Bankhead Springs, which rests about midway between Boulevard and Jacumba and consists entirely of the café, a no-longer-functioning hotel, a couple of outbuildings, and. across the road, seven houses that once served as summer vacation rentals for refugees from the Imperial Valley.
Sooze, whose infectious laugh issues from the kitchen into the counter and booth area of the café at all hours of her working day, was cajoled into coming to the area from her home in Seattle four years ago by a cousin who tempted her with the prospect of presiding over the cuisine at Jacumba’s fire-blasted hotel, which he and some partners had purchased and were planning to refurbish and reopen. Figuring that Jacumba, which is a stone s throw from the Mexican border, would be the perfect place for her to do some research pertaining to a degree in cultural studies she was working on, she left Seattle and made her way south. She arrived to find that no refurbishing had yet been undertaken; the hotel was a gutted hulk. Her cousin got her a job cooking at the Airport Cate in Jacumba, and she did research on the widespread local phenomenon of Anglo men marrying Mexican women.
Sooze returned to Seattle, data in hand, to complete her degree, came back to Jacumba for visits once or twice, and presently finds herself more or less permanently settled there. The question of being a feminist in an area where liberal ideology of whatever stripe is anathema is, she says, secondary. “Just being a woman around here is issue enough.” she says, laughing, “never mind being a feminist. The reality is we live in a male-dominated world, and the mountains are no different. Plus it’s a real free place; police are few and far between. It’s an environment that attracts people who are sort of spiny. Unfortunately, that sometimes brings out qualities in people that are hurtful
“There’s a lot of violence toward women and children here,” she says, “and there aren’t a lot of support services — nor is there much community support for abused women. People tend to figure that’s just sort of the way it is — you’re supposed to be tough, live with it. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to be around.”
Seated at one of the café’s booths, a couple of former law-enforcement officers are enjoying lunch. Frank left the San Diego Police Department many years ago and relocated in the Jacumba area, where he owns and operates a well-drilling business — a thriving concern in an area where, as just about everyone you meet will point out, there is no municipal water system. Bob, who used to live in Lemon Grove, came out over 20 years ago to serve as the local deputy sheriff. “I was the cop on the beat, the detective, the midwife.'’ he says. "I retired in about 1973; since then I’ve been installing pumping systems in wells. I retired from that three months ago. Now I just enjoy myself. I’ve got no urge to return to the city. It's crowded and congested out there; here, it’s peaceful and quiet.”
"You’ve got elbow room,” Frank explains.
"Friends come out from the city,” Bob says, "and they always say, How can you stand it out here? There’s nothing to do.”
“They just don’t know how to ride a horse, how to enjoy a sunshiny day,” Frank asserts. "It’s the perfect place for doing a lot of nothing. Me, I like to work on my place; I’ve got some fruit trees, a few chickens. I like to ride my horse once in a while. My favorite thing, though, is taking my four-wheeler out in rugged country.
"But the country’s part of this whole political ball game now. I’m just glad I came here before the public lands got cut off from public use. What the Bureau of Land Management is doing is a crime, I think — making it so people can't use public lands. I mean, isn’t that what ‘public’ is supposed to mean? And they’ve made it too hard for people to move out here — the building and permit fees are so high. I’m no believer in this growth-management stuff; way I see it, things have a tendency to take care of themselves over time. Thing is, you can't even think about living out here unless you're willing to work hard. You sure won’t get much return on the money you pay m taxes. There’s no services. You have to haul your own trash, lay your own septic tank — not to mention drill your own well or hire someone like me to do it."
You don't often get the chance to meet someone who actually owns a town. Of course, Bankhead Springs — the hotel, the café, the clump of houses and outbuildings straddling the highway — is a town only by a considerable stretch of the imagination. Still, it’s a cartographic dot unto itself and is wholly owned by Helen, an 87-year-old woman who purchased it m 1939 with her husband Alvan. (The place is named after Senator John Hollis Bankhead of Arizona, who was related to Tallulah Bankhead.) Alvan died a few years back; Helen continues living in a downstairs room of the hotel, which is otherwise closed — although she keeps the seven rooms furnished and clean in case friends stop by. Time was, back before the building of the freeway and the development of air-conditioning, the hotel and the cabins were a no-vacancy proposition during the summer months, serving people from Brawley. El Centro, and the Imperial Valley. Helen has only two of the houses rented out because, she says, she has a hard time finding “good renters." The hotel, outbuildings, and houses are remarkable for their fine stonework — tons of native fieldstone painstakingly fashioned into walls, courtyards, porch areas, gardens.
"Shorty it was that put all that in," Helen says. “He was our handyman here for a good many years. Called him Shorty because he was only a little guy — came up no more than to my shoulders. He was something, finest fellow you ever knew. Yet he was nothing but a tramp — walked everywhere, went tramping off the Lord knew where whenever he had a mind to do so. I believe he came from some town up on the coast. Showed up here one day, and the next thing you knew, he was bringing these stones up and making these walls and things. He and I'd go down in my old truck and bring a load of ’em back here.
‘‘He had a hernia, as it turned out, and I had a time convincing him to go to the hospital. Wouldn’t hear of it at first. I practically had to force him to go. Then, when he gets out of the hospital, he gets this idea he wants to go off tramping somewhere. 'Why, Shorty, this isn’t the time for that sort of foolishness.’ I told him. But nothing would stop him. Course, he never took any money for the work he did; how it was, he’d get an itch to go tramping off, and I’d give him 100 dollars to see him through. Well, this time, no matter what I said he was bound and determined to go. I gave him some money, and off he went on foot.
"Time passed and he didn’t come back. Stayed away longer than he ever had before. My husband and I started worrying about him. Made inquiries. We went driving up the coast to see if we could find any trace of him, learned he’d been working for a while at a café in some town up there. That was all. Couldn’t find out what became of him after that.
"Well, I was practically sick about it. More time passed and no Shorty. Finally we asked this fellow who worked as a police officer in San Diego — he was an alcoholic, used to come up here to dry out for a spell — to look into it. He made inquiries, put the word out. Finally turned out Shorty’d gotten on a freight tram in San Diego, headed for Chicago. Got locked in there and froze to death. They found his body later — he was wearing two pairs of pants, and his wrist was cut. So that’s what became of Shorty."
She sits gazing thoughtfully at the silent television screen in her living room. "You know," she says finally, "a day doesn’t go by that I don’t miss that guy."
The town of Jacumba, unlike Boulevard, has some breadth to it. More than just a linear arrangement of businesses and homes, it bulks away from the highway on either side — ramshackle properties on broken grounds, a spa, a trailer park, a patchwork of old cabins. At the east end of town sits an asphalt surface where a few airplanes are parked. Across the highway from the airfield is the Airport Café: incredibly tiny, incredibly faded and run down, miraculously open and doing business. At the west end of town, the gutted three-story hotel sits, windowless; horses penned in the hotel yard pass in and out of the structure at will.
This morning, there was a bit of trouble right outside the hotel. It seems a transient who’d apparently spent the night inside accosted a couple of little girls on their way to school. The girls broke and ran; one of them went to find Sooze, who lives in a trailer directly adjacent to the hotel. Sooze and her big, white, good-natured dog George came out to investigate; in the meantime, a good many other Jacumbans had also emerged from their houses to see what all the fuss was about. The transient was nowhere to be found. Amid all the commotion, someone's pit bull decided to pick a fight with George, who was seriously overmatched. Sooze tried to break it up and was bitten for her trouble.
“Everybody told me I was stupid to come between two fighting dogs," she relates, “and of course it was stupid. But I couldn’t just stand there and do nothing. The funny thing is, now everyone's mad at the pit bull for hurting me. It's ridiculous. So I put a sign up on the bulletin board absolving the dog of all blame. After all, it was stupid of me to interfere with him like that. It’s just that I could no more stand there and watch George get hurt than I can stand by and watch women and children being abused."
Sooze says this as she strolls down Jacumba's uneven dirt streets. “There’s a whole subpopulation of young girls in town that everyone calls teenybopper sluts," she says. “These are girls who were abused by their fathers till their mothers couldn’t stand it anymore and kicked the girls out of the house. Then what happens to them is they go from one mountain man to another, taking up with whoever’s interested in them for a while. Everyone blames them for breaking up families. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. And no matter what happens, it’s always the man that everyone sympathizes with.
“There was one woman here whose husband — his name was Bobby — mistreated her something awful. Finally she got the balls to take the kids and leave him. He found out where she was staying, went there, shot her, then committed suicide — right in front of the kids. And you know what people were saying? ‘Did you hear what happened to poor Bobby?’ The woman is still alive, but I really hate to think what life’s going to be like for those kids, for a lot of these other kids too. One teenage girl told me her mother sold her to a mountain man for an eight-ball of speed.’’
As Sooze sees it, the use of speed — methamphetamine — is rampant in Jacumba and Boulevard. “Not long after I first came here, I was working at a tavern in Boulevard.” she relates, "and I said to one of the other waitresses, ‘Why are all these people constantly going outside and then coming back in?’ She said, Just how dumb are you, anyway? They’re going out to have a little hit of speed, that’s all.' She said you could tell the speed monsters by the little bumps on their faces. I started watching for that, and before too long I realized that almost everyone who came into the place had those bumps.”
On this stroll around Jacumba with Sooze, you see groups of young men everywhere — tossing a ball, fiddling with cars, aimlessly congregating. There is a kind of free-floating charge in the air, a sort of chemical energy that has nowhere to go. The men greet Sooze with a genuine friendliness that, nevertheless, has a bit of an edge to it. One young man, slowly passing in a pickup truck, pretends that he is going to run her over, detours at the last minute, and tosses her an impudent wave and a smile.
Sooze says there's more to the talk you hear about the welfare department sending people out to Jacumba than you might think. "It really does look like that's what happens," she says. “They show up here with rent waivers in their hands. I don't know what form it takes — maybe the welfare department says. 'The schools out there will be good for your kids.' I doubt that they come right out and tell them to move to Jacumba. But whatever the procedure is, you do see a lot of welfare recipients moving in to the area. Some of them live in squatting camps out past town; they have some bogus address so they can pick up their checks at the post office, and they don't have to spend any of their money on rent.”
For reasons even she doesn’t fully understand. Sooze is on cordial terms with people from every walk of Old Highway 80 life — a rarity in a place where polarizing terms like "welfare scum” and "teenybopper sluts” are common parlance. She even gets along with the bikers, who make up a sizable portion of the local citizenry. "I could never be a biker chick, though," she says, laughing. "My biker friends have told me as much. I wouldn't be any good at polishing chrome”
North of the highway, Sooze checks out "the pond," a shimmering body of water in an alkaline crater, surrounded by patchy rushes. A couple of guys have parked their car on the pond’s margin and are stretched out on the rocks, watching the sun fall through the late afternoon sky toward the invisible Pacific. They greet Sooze. A wind springs up; it’s getting dark and cold. Shivering a bit, you tell Sooze you don't quite understand what she’s doing in Jacumba.
"I'm no different from anyone else — I like the freedom," she says. "And I like the beauty of the land. One time I was up on a hill not far from here looking down into a valley where there’s a barbed-wire fence that divides Mexico from the U.S. Over on the Mexican side, there was a bunch of gauchos going after a herd of wild horses; they were trying to cut two pregnant mares from the herd because they wanted the babies. They had dogs. Suddenly the lead stallion of the herd caused a ruckus by breaking away and pulling the dogs with him toward the U.S. side. The mares took advantage of the disturbance to head into a canyon on the Mexican side where the gauchos couldn't get at them. The lead stallion made right for the barbed-wire fence, with the dogs after him, and he ran right into the wire and actually broke it. The sound was amazing — this loud twang. You could hear it all the way out where I was. It was really quite wonderful. He saved his mares.”