Drive east out Interstate 8 through the mountains and down the long, winding grade into the desert, and the first manmade structures you pass after crossing into Imperial County will be a cluster of four dilapidated buildings off to the left. "This is Miller's," says Bob Caldwell, a Lakeside contractor who has purchased the buildings and the four acres of desert they sit on. "It was Miller's Cafe, it was Miller's Texaco, it was Miller's! It appears on a number of old period maps as if it were a town."
But it wasn't a town. The compound was once owned by Al Miller, a Texan who moved to this area in 1926, first working for a garage up the hill in Jacumba, then opening his own roadside restaurant and garage -- and later a gas station -- just west of Ocotillo in 1933. There's no exit for Miller's from Interstate 8. The compound dates back to when U.S. Highway 80 was the road linking San Diego with the Imperial County and, ultimately, coastal Georgia.
A mile east of Miller's there is an exit for the town of Ocotillo, also on the north side of the freeway. By exiting there, and doubling back on Old Highway 80, you can reach Miller's. In the early 1970s, travelers on the newly completed interstate found this detour inconvenient, Al Miller's business became unprofitable, and the compound was abandoned.
As you approach Miller's from Ocotillo, just before you reach the oldest and easternmost structure -- a river-rock house with a low-pitched roof -- a narrow, cement roadway splits off to the right on a perfectly straight path to the horizon. "That's the older, old Highway 80," Caldwell explains, "dating from 1915."
It's the newer Old Highway 80, built in 1932, that Miller's fronts. A visit to the site reveals two things: the buildings are in better shape than they appear to be from the interstate, but the mess of rusted car parts, broken timbers, old refrigerators, and twisted sheet metal surrounding the buildings looks even worse from close range. Yet Caldwell beams with pride as he walks up to the rock house that once served as a roadside diner. A tall man in his late 40s, with dark hair and a tanned face, Caldwell reminds you of a film star you've seen a hundred times but can't name. Standing under a wooden awning sagging in the middle due to a missing post, he pauses to think when asked what inspired him to spend $25,000 to buy the place. "I like it," he says finally, "I don't care what condition it's in. I like it the way it is."
Seeing that this answer hasn't satisfied his interviewer, Caldwell explains further, "I spend most of my free time reading history. I have read some of the highway history, and this place is part of that. And I have spent most of my life working on buildings; that is what I do. So...I don't know -- here are some buildings that need work." To the left of the old café, as you face it, stands an old gas station. Its metal awning is collapsed on one side, thanks to a few stolen six-inch-thick metal posts. Beyond that stands a wood-framed utility building and finally, westernmost in the compound, stands the block-walled garage. Faded four-foot-tall letters painted above the three service bays spell "MILLER'S GARAGE."
Leaving the shade of the awning, Caldwell begins walking around in front of the buildings, heaping pieces of scrap metal and old wood into separate piles in front of the gas station. "I have an 85-year-old mother who lives alone in Phoenix," he explains as he works. "I try to see my mom about once a month. This is really why I ended up buying Miller's; I have been passing by it for so many years. There was never a For Sale sign on it. Who would want it? But I finally took it upon myself to go down to the county recorder's office in El Centro and looked up the owner of record. I wrote them a letter saying, 'Hi, my name is Bob Caldwell....' That was in the fall of 2000."
The owners, B.C. and Velma Weaver of Alpine, were happy to sell. They agreed to take 10 percent of $25,000 down and carry the rest as a loan. "No one else had ever wanted it," Caldwell explains.
Though it began happily, two and a half years later, the transaction is still not complete. Rural land purchases generally take more time than urban lot purchases because property lines aren't clearly defined. And in addition to that, there were environmental issues, such as the underground gasoline tanks. "They were filled with sand in the '60s," Caldwell explains, "which was legal for the time period. It took a while, but the county has accepted that they are legal."
Another major snag was that the wrong parcel was recorded by the First American Title Company, which was handling the sale. "They recorded an adjoining parcel," Caldwell moans. "Wonderful. Thanks very much. No one noticed -- my own attorney hadn't noticed, their attorney hadn't noticed, title and escrow hadn't noticed."
Caldwell discovered the error in November of last year while on the way to Phoenix. "I came by here and saw the tattered remains of a notice of zoning noncompliance with building codes, posted on one of the buildings," he says. "Mind you, escrow closed September 24, but I had received no copy of the condemnation. So I called county and I said, 'What is this about?' and they said, 'Who are you?' "
"We informed him," says Imperial County planning director Jurg Heuberger, "that, according to our records, which triggered a review, that showed that he, for lack of better words, thought he bought the parcel but in fact had been given a different parcel by the seller. That required him to go back to the sellers and try to get things square. And, as of today, he has not submitted anything to us to indicate that he's actually got title to the property."