Northeast corner: Matt and Pat Burke, Anza-Borrego. “That’s where Harry Oliver had the paddy fields dug. He was the associate art director for the 1936 film The Good Earth."
“San Diego? This isn’t a county, it’s a country!”
This how it starts. Dave, sounding off after a couple of beers. Dave’s latest rave is San Diego County. You might call him a county nationalist. I think he wants to secede from the state. “We’re 4280.6 square miles, okay? Realize how big that is? That’s 4280 Monacos. That’s more square miles than the whole island of Cyprus. That’s bigger than the entire island of Puerto Rico.” He’s got a full-steam figure fixation. “That’s nearly three million acres! We’ve got 2,602,244 people. We’re exactly the size and population of the whole of Jamaica! Fifty-eight times the population of Greenland!
Southeast corner: Terry Craig and Lucille Sheridan, In-ko-pah. "A lot of horses came up three years ago from the Mexican wildfires. They needed water. One mare had a foal while she was here. Pretty soon those horses owned us. "
“Wha… ?” I balk at the non-sequitur, then start waving my hand for Kim, the bar lady. She sees us and keeps on yapping with a group at the far end of the bar. I fall into my usual glaze and start wondering. Big as Cyprus? Bigger than Puerto Rico? Little ol’ San Diego County? I try to imagine its vague, square shape overlaid on a map of Cyprus. In the times when the Knights Templar ruled Cyprus, that was a fairly decent-sized kingdom. They’d have had fortresses everywhere to rebuff the infidel, especially in the four corners …
Southwest corner: Marilyn Moore, Imperial Beach: "Used to be groups of 30, 40 illegals would walk by at night, but they were never any trouble."
“Hey,” I start. “Why don’t we drive around the county and see who lives on each of its four corners? See who’s guarding the realm. See if this place is as different as you say.”
Dave doesn’t turn up next day. So I work my way alone down to Border Park, right next to the bullring by the sea, the one slap-bang against Mexico’s northwest border.
Northwest corner: Corporal Schoustra, Corporal Drewiega and Sergeant DiMaggio at Camp Talega, Pendleton. “I think we’ve had the base sergeant major come over once in the past year. Just to see if we were still ticking.”
What does it feel like for someone walking up from Mexico to “discover” North American civilization? A clump of Border Patrollers near the new iron fence ignore me as I drive down the cliffs and start walking north. A few horse riders pass me, but apart from that it’s the lonely sea and the sloughs to the right. I imagine myself as one of those Spanish Leatherjackets who came up from Baja in 1769. This was their last stretch. The sloughs’ protected thousands who have trampled up before me.
Coming up the other side – past the Border Patrol wagons, the helicopters, the isolation except for the least tern preserve notices – you suddenly get beyond the sandhills and like a long-lost ancient mariner you see … a house. A house! Surfers! A distant pier. People, ordinary suburban American, walking their dogs. Jogging. Surfing. No-man’s land is suddenly California! What a sight for travelers from El Sur.
And then I see it. A door. I knock on the First Door in America. Do the inhabitants realize the significance, the responsibility they bear here?
“Yes?” Dave answers the door. “What took you so long? We’re into our second cup of coffee. Nice people.”
The most southwesterly condo in America, it turns out, belongs to a quiet, independent-minded social worker named Marilyn Moore who bears her awesome burden lightly.
“Insecure?” she asks. “Not in the least. It’s quiet, living on the edge. Used to be groups of 30, 40 illegals would walk by at night, but they were never any trouble. Besides, the Border Patrol are always coming and going down our road and along the beach. I came from Ohio. I didn’t see the ocean until I was 21. There is no way I am going to give this up. And since they put the fence up out into the sea, you don’t see the big groups coming up the beach anymore – not that they were any trouble – but you don’t get any feeling of uneasiness. I don’t see any coyotes [guides for illegals] on the rocks. Just the odd seal.”
Seascapes dot the walls of this room, which looks out onto a patio and a pile of protective rocks beyond. You have to stand up to see the sea. But you hear it all the time.
“It’s the only noise,” Marilyn says. “There’s nothing else. There’s the sloughs on one side and the ocean on the other. We’re not a little island, and believe me, coming back from a day of social work caseloads this is just what I need. And every day is different. Foggy days we get the foghorns, and it feels like an English moor. Nights, the ocean and the stars are indescribable. Storms, you feel the power of the ocean. I tell you, people call Imperial Beach the end of the line like that’s a bum rap. But it’s the best thing about it!”
“Just breathe in the smell of the seaweed and the salt,” says Marilyn’s friend Carolyn, who’s staying here on vacation from New Mexico. “At sunset you get great flocks of seabirds, egrets from the sloughs, pelicans flying in formation like bombers, dolphins playing out at sea, whales up and down, spouts and tails. There’s a guy here who surfs with his dog. It’s an antidote to our other lives. The sounds a fetus hears are like this! No wonder I’m so happy when I’m here.”
And the famous sewage problems of I.B.?
“Oh, once in a while, a few days of bad-looking water, but rarely a bad odor. I don’t swim in the ocean anymore anyway. I just look at the sunsets. People keep asking me, ‘How do you stand it down there?’ I say, ‘Oh, we tough it out.’ Besides, it can’t be that bad – every morning you see the same bunch of surfers come to the first sand dune here. They climb to the top, anxious as kids, like they’re not sure if the ocean’s still going to be there or not. They stand still and alert like prairie dogs, like penguins just looking, their eyes set on the far distance. They don’t relax until they’ve seen it and measure the waves and talked it though as to how they’re going to conquer it today. It’s a regular ritual. And a rare day they don’t jump in.”
Outside, on the rocks near the first sand dune, a surfer stands sentinel, a telescope to his eye. It’s Ken Palmatier. He’s 53. Been surfing here since 1955. “That’s the Tijuana Slough,” he says, pointing towards Mexico. “Great surf. When it’s going, it’s up there with Hawaii and Lunada Bay and Maverick’s and Todos Santos. What makes it break is the river. Its outpouring has created a cobblestone shelf out into the ocean. When you get a north swell coming down from storms up in the Aleutian Islands – they have to keep going for a week to really start pumping the energy down here – they come and hit the shelf. It shrinks the wave. Compresses it so it’s slow in the middle and the sides wrap around in a horseshoe. The sides swing, and that makes a real fast wave. It was always our secret.
“We’d sit on our boards so far out that packs of killer whales would come between us and the shore. ‘Old Hookfin’ was a regular. He used to actually come through us towards the rivermouth -- scared the bejeebers out of us. But we had to line up right for the waves. See the three notches in the Tijuana hillside behind the bullring? We’d use them to position ourselves. Line up the first notch and the bullring and you’re on the inside. Second, and the bullring’s the middle. Third and bullring: you’re on the outside – outside has the biggest waves. Fastest track. I’ve used those marks for thirty years now.”
He takes the telescope down. “We haven’t had decent waves for the last ten years; ’67 was a great year, ’76,’78. I think it might be since the Mexicans built the Rodriguez dam behind T.J. The river doesn’t have the flow anymore.”
He decides he’ll come back tonight (after putting in a day at his barbershop in Chula Vista) to see if the waves have improved.
“A lot’s changed,” he says, getting into his car. “This used to be a dirt road to the boca rio. It was Lovers’ Lane, where the young lovers would come or have beer keg parties. And I used to sneak on over the border and catch lobster. Not now – the wall at the border. And you can’t trust those lobsters anymore. But we’ve still got the sea. A lot of guys my age had to quit [surfing], but I can still stay out five or six hours. I can’t give it up.”
Before the soothing tape loop of the ocean murmur hypnotizes us, we get into Dave’s car and head inland – east.
Southeast corner. Out beyond Boulevard, on the old abandoned Highway 80. I knock at a wooden door to a stone bungalow. The murmur of the ocean has been replaced by the muffled roar of a distant Highway 8. Behind the isolated house, sitting off Highway 80, golden-bouldered outcrops of mountains lump into the sky.
I knock again. A chorus of yelping dogs rips the crisp air. I look to the right. This has to be the last place. One sign says “Overnight Guests” outside the main house. Another sign, just down the road, announces the start of “Imperial County.” Beyond that, looking like an upside-down sky itself, is the Salton Sea, down in its below-sea valley. Even with the dogs there’s a stillness here. I notice a few cats wandering around and rows and rows of gallon-sized plastic milk bottles filled with water. “Please take one if your car needs water,” says the sign. Must be a Good Samaritan gesture for all those folks finishing the long climb out of Imperial Valley. Here, on the edge of San Diego County, it feels like a great divide.
“Getting cold,” says Dave, jumping up and down. “What if nobody’s home?”
But a man appears. “Just let me get the dogs tied up.” A minute later, we’re inside this mysterious old house: a roaring fire; ancient black-and-white photos on the walls; a long, varnished, wooden bar.
“This,” says a middle-aged woman who introduces herself as Lucille Sheridan, “is not only the last piece of private property in San Diego County, it was also once a legendary bar, the Oasis. A tough old crone named Carrie Franson ran this place with an iron fist until she died ten years ago. See those slats underneath the bar? She had a pistol behind there and wasn’t afraid to use it where it hurt most.”
“People would stop here because they had to,” says her partner Terry Craig, who is gradually restoring the place. “By the time they got to the top of the hill from Imperial Valley, everyone’s engine was boiling over. They had to wait for it to cool off. Even bikers didn’t mess with Carrie. They drank what she told ‘em to drink. When the new sheriff came out to see this little old lady, she came out shooting into the air. She was playing with him, of course. But she had to be tough. She was raising three little girls alone. Often snowed-in. There was no one else to help her up here.”
Terry and Lucy bought the place about seven and a half years ago. Although Terry’s been working on turning the bungalows into cabins for paying guests, the two have continued their work in San Diego. “Terry and I have commuted 36 miles for the last five years,” says Lucy, who worked at San Diego State until she retired last June. Terry used to design interiors of luxury boats.
“Living on the edge of San Diego County like this, we have to do extra things like vote by absentee ballot,” she says. “We don’t get a polling place. We’re the last official customer for SDG&E. We get all their power surges. And our neighbors across the line in Imperial County pay a lower rate than we do.”
“But it’s worth it,” Terry says. “Clean air, pure water, the stars at night. This is another world out here. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, and wild horses. A lot of horses came up three years ago from the Mexican wildfires. They needed water. One mare had a foal while she was here. Pretty soon those horses owned us. They’d stand outside my window here, waiting. The foal would poke his head right through. They accepted favors, but you were never in doubt. They were independent, their own masters. It was beautiful.”
“We periodically have one or other of my grandkids up here,” Lucy says. “Gives them a break when they’re at war with their parents.”
And the highway people. “Their cars are always breaking down,” says Terry. “The Polish consul broke down the other day on his way back from San Felipe. So we had a party out back on the lawn. When Two-Bit Tow arrived, that guy turned out to be Polish too. So the party continued. That’s always happening.”
“Thank you so much,” reads a note Lucy show me, “for your gracious hospitality. I’m the artist you let sit in your living room for four hours in March. You fed me a wonderful corned-beef dinner while I waited for the tow truck. You two are heaven sent!”
“People think you get away from people up here,” Terry says. “But the truth is, if you don’t like people, there’s no point in your living out here. You’ve got to remember, this is the old Butterfield Stagecoach route. Everybody has always come up through here. We’ve had to entertain some pretty weird characters.”
“Like the guy called Joseph,” says Lucy. “A huge young man, three-foot shoulders. Appeared one day – me in jammies. He said ‘Can I stay here with you? I’m hungry. Could I have a meal?’ I said sure. I microwaved him something, leftovers from Thanksgiving, I think, then I noticed how he was struggling through his entire dinner with a spoon. Even though I’d laid out knives, forks, the whole spread. I thought immediately about prisons or mental institutions where no sharp objects are allowed. But he thanked me, put his backpack on, and left peaceably.”
On the sideboard are various photos and dedications to her from the Democratic Party.
“Always been involved with them,” says Lucy. “I once traveled with Eleanor Roosevelt in Montana, 1958. I was a reporter. She was on tour promoting the United Nations. After her speech in Boseman, she spent three hours shaking hands. Three hours, nonstop. In the high school restroom, where we were washing our hands together, I said, ‘You must be tired.’ ‘Oh no, my dear,’ she said, ‘I had a good rest.’ And she showed me her hearing aid in her glasses. She’d switched it off. With each handshake and polite piece of praise, she’d just smiled back, conserving her energy.”
I spot another testimonial on the wall. “To Lucille A. Sheridan, a good friend who has stood behind us and the Party for many years. Thank you.” It’s signed “Bill Clinton” and “Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Also on the wall are old black-and-white military pictures. “Royal Australian Mounted Police, 1874.” “Prince of Wales Light Horse.” “Sixth Queensland Imperial Bushmen.”
They belong to Terry, who’s appeared around the corner with a can of Bushell’s tea (an Australian brand) in his hand. “This is real tea. Not that teabag stuff. My dad’s side of the family is Australian. My grandmother and her family still live there.”
As we sip the orange pekoe-flavored tea, I try to imagine the scene back in the days of the notorious Carrie Franson and her three daughters. The noisy drinking around this bar. The dark-stained walls clogged with business cards (they’re gone, but you can still see the pinholes). The customers waiting for Carrie to come out with one of her famous strings of profanities. The guys on the other side, waiting for trouble.
Terry says this place has been a café since the ‘20s, but I suspect earlier – since immigrants first started coming west. I know from a plaque down the road that a couple of old opportunists named Peter Larkin and Joe Stancliff hired teams of oxen to pull wagons up what was then a 30 percent grade from the Imperial Valley floor. The stone house nearby later became a toll booth for the San Diego and Fort Yuma Turnpike Company in the 1870s. This was the bottleneck everyone had to negotiate to get to the coast. During World War II, when soldiers occupied the Pioneers’ Memorial Tower (in Imperial County, just a half mile from here), on watch for an invasion, they must have come here to find company in the silence of the high desert nights.
Outside, before the background of the boulder mountains, color changes from gold to purple as the sun sinks and the air chills. Terry has a patch of magnificent roses planted in the middle of a heavy wood corral. “That’s to keep the wild horses out,” he says. “They’d eat them in a heartbeat.” Nearby is an old Indian canoe. “Me and my sister and my dad went down the Colorado River in that,” he says. “Now I fill it up with water for the dogs – and the wild horses.”
Terry’s showing us the cottages clustered against the rock mountains, the only visible dwellings hereabouts. He’s been painstakingly restoring them to their 1940s flavor, complete with big fluffy beds and bookshelves stuffed with old novels. “Historical Sheridan-Craig Enterprise,” says the sign he’s put up. Thinking of all those slick Motel 6s out there, this sight gives me a surge of hope.
I can almost feel those wagon trains straining up the old overland route that passes by outside. The Butterfield stagecoach jerking to a halt, its six horses steaming, its driver bad-tempered. Right here! At the Oasis Café.
Just as we’re getting up to leave, Terry says, “Oh God. The vortex. We forgot to show you the vortex.”
He leads us out onto the middle of Old Highway 80. His oldest dog follows – no traffic to worry about anymore.
“Now, look north. What do you see?”
“I see the road rising to its crest,” I say, “around the county line. Then dropping down towards the Salton Sea.”
“Exactly. But we kept seeing people coming here, putting Coke cans down, and watching them roll uphill! Then a Mexican TV station came out and did a story. They said the legend is that this is an energy center. A vortex. Things roll north, uphill. People come on, like, pilgrimages. You hear groups of the out here going ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah.’”
He brings out a Coke can, half-filled with water, puts it down facing north. A little breeze helps it, but sure enough, it starts rolling up than slope, rattling off crazily towards the county line.
“Some people say it’s an optical illusion,” says Terry, “that his slope just looks uphill because of the big valley beyond. But who’s to say? People keep coming. Out here, strange things don’t always seem so strange.”
The edge of the county feels as though we shouldn’t be here. None of us. This is the realm of the coyote, the snake, the mountain goat. The tarantula. The silence.
Can you believe, in the middle of the Borrego desert, paddy fields? Wang Lung the Chinese farmer is walking ahead along the path between the paddies, carrying the dowry trunk of his new wife O-Lan on his shoulders. She is following behind, sinking her teeth into a peach he has given her to celebrate their wedding day. He finishes his own peach and throws away the pit. She stops, stoops, picks up the large peach stone and says, “A tree will grow from this seed…” and follows him to plant it where the old father and the cow are waiting, at her new home… — which looks remarkably like this low, huddling adobe at the end of a dirt track off Peg Leg Road, east of Borrego Springs.
“It was there, 300 yards down, in the corner of the property,” says Matt Burke. “That’s where Harry Oliver had the paddy fields dug. He was the associate art director for the 1936 film The Good Earth. That’s when he built this house…”
Dave and I have lucked out again. Twice through the badlands, after eating dust and arguing over whether people can live within Anza-Borrego Desert State Park limits, he says there’s no point going all the way to the Imperial County border. There won’t be any more houses in San Diego. But we keep on going, siphoning off down long narrow roads that end in dirt, then end in nothing. Backtracking. Keeping a compass watch on the direction du jour – northeast.
Finally, after we’ve driven practically to the Salton Sea, through what looks like canyons of salt, plummeting down the Santa Rosa Mountains on our left, a sign says “Imperial County.” We wheel around, start driving back towards San Diego like the Joads in Grapes of Wrath, frantic for any sign of civilization.
And suddenly the house appears – down this track off of Peg Leg Road, the adobe homestead with the tin roof, the chimney, sheltered from sun and wind by the feathery, dusty-green Persian tamarisk trees, nestled ‘neath trestled water tank and tall windmill, guarded by spindly ocotillos, cacti, and those ancient creosote plants, bathed in pink paint. As we bumble up the dirt track, you can see the veranda and the rocking chair. Paps and his pipe are the only thing missing.
Out here in the middle of the cactus lands of the Anza-Borrego Desert, the sun – if the clouds hadn’t hid it – would be blazing red over the Blue Mountains across the wide, sweeping valley. There’s smoke issuing from the chimney. Does some lonely gold miner live here? Some old desert rat who feeds on desert fox?
Except this adobe’s pink and aquamarine, has a tall TV antenna attached, and its front entrance is guarded by a heavy, varnished, nailed, arched door with a hinge in the middle. External speakers waft Nat King Cole into the late-afternoon breeze.
I knock. The music stops. Gruff voice barks. Can’t tell if it’s animal or human. I study the dried cattle skull hanging on the wall. The door opens. Pam! A big slathering bulldog elbows through, blunders out, skids around in the dust, starts back.
“Walter! Here, Walter! Sit!”
Matt Burke runs out to catch Walter before Walter can do damage with his swinging slather.
“We’re the last place. A few campers maybe, but we’re the last home.
“Harry Oliver fell in love with the desert,” says Matt. “This became his hideaway, where he loved to get away from Hollywood. ‘Course, he’d bring friends out too, weekend-long parties…”
In the ‘30s, Harry Oliver came to where the badlands begin and San Diego County ends. He built stone walls and peasant dwellings, cut up the ground and poured in water to make it look like the paddy fields of pre-revolution China for Pearl Buck’s classic story.
We’re standing among the ocotillos. Kangaroo mice burrow here, in the red earth, a couple of hundred yards from where The Good Earth’s Wang Lung and O-Lan (Paul Muni and Luise Rainer) tilled their paddy, had their children and killed their beloved cow when the famine came.
“They also shot Bugsy over there, on the other side of the valley,” says Pat, Matt’s brother. “Built the Flamingo, bits of Vegas, everything.”
A table and chairs sit 50 feet from the cottage, with a view to the Blue Mountains. “That’s where we come to sit ‘n’ sip, watch the sunsets, toast them with champagne,” says Matt. “They’re spectacular, you know. And when there’s no moon, the Stars! The shooting Stars!”
The boys get to come here because Matt is the ex -son-in-law of the guy who currently owns the adobe. Ron Brown, an L.A. contractor, got the 160-acre property from his lawyer-dad Lewis, who bought it from Oliver. “I’ve been coming out here for 15 years,” says Matt. “To me, it’s heaven on earth. Respite from civilization. This place helps center you.”
“When you don’t get spooked by the silence,” says Pat, “this is a mysterious place. Nighttime it can get eerie. You’re kind of waiting for the bloody fingers to grab your neck…”
“Twenty- five years back, Ron Brown was here alone. Kept a shotgun, just in case,” says Matt. “One night it was pitch black. Dead silence… crash! He grabbed the gun and rushed out the back. Saw this body. A woman. She’d smashed through the back window…”
“Turned out her car had broken down. This was when there were about two cars per week out here,” says Pat. “She had walked right across the valley, up and down through the badlands, delirious from dehydration. She made it to this one light and fainted. Crashed through the glass. She did finally come around.”
The two know about telling stories: they’re both in the movie business. Matt works for Walt Disney Imagineering, making films for theme parks. “3-D. Circle Vision.” He’s just finished work on Honey I Shrank the Audience for Orlando Disneyworld. Pat is a painter who also works in the industry.
“But you know the greatest storytelling? It goes on right here,” says Matt. “There was an old guy around here, Peg Leg Smith. Gold prospector. He found a vein. Rich vein. He died before he could tell anyone where it was. But everybody’s had their theory ever since. So Harry Oliver heard about this and started up the April Fool’s Liar’s Contest. It’s still going. Every April 1, they build a bonfire up there near the mountain, and everybody comes and starts telling whoppers about what happened to Peg Leg’s gold. One year, I was going to tell them all our adobe bricks were actually gold, but I figured they might just come pull us down…”
The clouds and the hills have swallowed the sun. Everything is blue, purple, suddenly cold. Pat and Matt invite us inside to a wonderful roaring fire, Wine skins, old ploughs, animal skulls fill the walls; David Anwar’s songs fill the air. Someone’s cooking with garlic out in the kitchen. Red wine is warming and breathing next to the fire. God! How you long to settle in for the night.
“You ready, boys?” It’s the head “coyote.” Around him, heads pop up through bushes in the surrounding hills. All the coyotes of northwest Pendleton have gathered, as usual for sunset choir practice. The sun is dropping over the last hill before the ocean. Down in the darkening parade ground, a United States Marine is about to lower Old Glory. He’s waiting too – for the trumpet to sound out. There’s the scratchy start to the record. Now! There’s the trumpet! Barp, barb ba barp…
“Okay, boys! Let’s give ‘em hell — aaaooooooo!” From the hills surrounding Camp Talega comes this chorus of howls. “Owwooooooo!” Two dozen wild coyotes, turned on by that sunset trumpet, start up.
“True! It happens every night,” says Corporal Schoustra with a grin. “Soon as that trumpet sounds, they join in. That kind of says it all about Camp Talega.”
Something Lost Legion-like about this place. Camp Talega remains essentially unchanged since 1942, when it was whipped together as a West Coast training ground for a post-Pearl Harbor America jerking into action. The rows of round-roofed Quonset huts haven’t been replaced, even the one with its bell tower and cross atop – the old chapel – is still standing.
Most of Camp Pendleton’s 35,000 Marines and their families have never seen the collection of Quonsets, lost in the northwest hills of the largest amphibious training base in the world. And that’s just how the planners wanted it: training camps deliberately scattered through the hills to break up the target in case of Japanese bombing attacks.
Naturally, Hollywood’s location scouts managed to find it…
In 1986’s Heartbreak Ridge, Gunnery Sergeant Clint Eastwood drives up outside Quonset hut #64365, where two Marines are lounging against the wall…
Clint: Is this the recon platoon?
1st Marine: No speaka English.
2nd Marine: No habla.
Clint enters the Quonset. There’s a guitar wailing on a boombox. He turns it off. The 2nd Marine comes in, turns it back on. Clint picks up the boombox, smashes it against the wall.
Clint: My name is Gunnery Sergeant Highway and I’ve drunk more beer, pissed more blood, banged more quaff, and busted more butt than all you scumnuts put together… Now Major Powers has put me in charge of this recon platoon.
1st Marine: We take care of ourselves!
Clint: You couldn’t take care of a wet dream!
And they march off to Heartbreak Ridge, away from Quonset hut #64365, putting Camp Talega into a little corner of movie history.
Many pounding hearts have slept in these Quonsets: frightened recruits from ’43, getting quick training for the island-hopping battles of the Pacific, the next generation going off to freeze and die in Korea, the legions preparing for Vietnam…
Today at Camp Talega, things are nicely relaxed. Gunny Highway would not have approved. A white trellis loggia presides over the collection of Quonsets, each beautified with flower gardens.
“Paradise!” says Staff Sergeant DiMaggio. “This is Shangri-La. There are only five of us that live here. Nobody bothers us. We’re a little family.”
Each year 35,000 to 40,000 troops from all over the country come here to train. “We supply everything from food to rifle ranges to Portaheads,” says DiMaggio.
In the pristine silence of this winter midday, all you hear is the distant throb of a C-130 dropping green parachutists out its tail. A nearby frog croaks cheekily in one of the gardens. Clumps of golden-leaf maples and golden oaks surround the ceremonial entrance to the camp just across the dry Christianitos riverbed. Twin black turrets announce, “Camp Talega, 4th Light Armored Infantry Battalion.”
We’re trying to pin down which Marine is the guy who actually lives closest to the corner…
In the Quonset hut given over to office work, Staff Sergeant Debbie Ballard says yes, there are a couple of soldiers using the last Quonset. That must be nearest the northwest corner of the county.
“It’s either Corporal Schoustra or Corporal Smith,” says Sergeant Ziegler, scratching his head. “Let’s go see.”
A large black-and-white cat slinks around the corner. “That’s Felix,” says Sergeant DiMaggio. “He’s the official ratcatcher – also goes for squirrels, mice, and birds. Plus we feed him. Lives like a king.”
The boys of Camp Talega have other company as well. They’ve gotten used to a family of deer – mama, six-pointer daddy, and a couple of fawns – grazing on their parade ground; raccoons pinching Felix-the-cat’s dinners; rattlesnakes cruising up this pathway between the Quonset huts; even a mountain lion wandering through looking for unwary deer.
Up in the last Quonset, two Marines kick back in their makeshift home: a pool table, a TV, a table for eating, and cubicles on either side for sleeping. Corporal Steve Drewiega is in the running as the last man out until he confesses his bunk is on the left, south side.
It’s Corporal Tom Schoustra who takes me behind the cubicle on the right, north side, and shows me where he sleeps, quickly ruffling the unmade lower bunk into shape. I flash on the hundreds of jarheads before Schoustra who must’ve slept here in the un-air-conditioned billet. Hot in summer, cold in winter.
“No,” Schoustra says. “It’s probably not me. It’s probably Corporal Smith. He sleeps on this side, but at the far end. That puts him closer to the sea. He’s at the far end because he snores, but he’s good people. Has to be – Felix always sleeps with him.”
“It’s pretty good here,” continues Schoustra. “I think we’ve had the base sergeant major come over once in the past year. Just to see if we were still ticking.”
Talega’s most exciting moment, aside from the mountain lion’s last visit, was Thanksgiving. When First Sergeant Fields cooked turkey for about 30. But that’s unusual.
“We can mess at the 62 Area chow hall, but mostly we just bring in Big Macs,” says Steve. “A typical night here? It’s TV, pool, or the weight room. You get really good at physical training or you become a good pool player.”
We shake Corporal Schoustra’s hand and dub him Official Keeper of the Corner and get ready to go.
On the way out, a bombshell hits. Staff Sergeant Nelson Ramos says five words. “We are in Orange County.”
“Technically. A lieutenant colonel told me. The guy they sent to lay out the site back in the ‘40s crossed the Christianitos riverbed. He should have stayed on the other side. The river’s where the San Diego line is.”
Dave and I hesitate. That would make the MASH unit down the road the last place. Or the officers’ housing – a bunch of blah houses south of the next range of hills.
Then we look at the map. There’s Camp Talega with its own little bump, taking San Diego a couple hundred yards north of its border for a mile. Hey, if it’s on the map… And besides, till the Marines go, no Orange County bigwig is going to come down here – especially now, what with all their problems – and start throwing his weight around, demanding San Diego give the land back. Up here they know possession is nine-tenths the law.
We slush across the Christianitos, pass through the castle-keep gates of Camp Talega. My mind’s rewinding through the four corners of the county: a social worker on the beach at Mexico; a vortex and grandparents on an old stagecoach route; Disney Imagineers in Borrego; and a couple of corporals here on the northwest frontier.
“That’s quite a county,” I say.
“Quite a country,” says Dave. “Let’s form the San Diego Liberation Front, break away from California…”
“I’ve got a better idea,” I say. “Let’s go back and listen to the coyotes sing at the sunset ceremony.” Together, Dave and I let out: Aaaa-ooooooohhhhhh.