Old Highway 80 in Jacumba is located less than a mile away from the U.S./Mexico border.
  • Old Highway 80 in Jacumba is located less than a mile away from the U.S./Mexico border.
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Jacumba Hot Springs has always been a node. Everything about it bellows liminal, on the edge, out there. And it really is out there.

Much of the area’s lunar topography was formed by seismic activity at the juncture of the Pacific and North American plates. Enigmatic pictographs and rock piles stand as testament to the natives who congregated here for millennia before being driven out by settlers. In the mid-1800s, Jacumba served as an Army pack-train base, a post office, and a stagecoach stop between San Diego and Yuma. During the ’20s and ’30s, the town boomed with tourism at its luxurious hot springs resort, which attracted Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, and Louise Brooks before Palm Springs and Murrieta rose to prominence. An artificial lake built in the ’50s is now a birdwatching spot for a number of rare species stopping to rest where desert meets mountain on their migration west.

More recently, Jacumba has stood as a landmark for the confluence of San Diego and Imperial counties and the U.S./Mexico boundary. It’s a destination for nudists, retirees, archaeologists, and under-the-radar music and art festival-goers. A tourist map printed by the Jacumba/Boulevard Revitalization Alliance touts the town as a natural energetic vortex, and after even a short visit, one would be remiss not to entertain the possibility. Today, Jacumba is at the epicenter of an ongoing struggle for economic revival tempered by a grassroots commitment to natural preservation.

My roommate Matt and I drive out Interstate 8 to Jacumba Hot Springs — 70 miles east of downtown San Diego, about 3000 feet up, a quarter-mile north of the border — on an early-autumn Tuesday in an attempt to grasp what the town is about. Passing the conical volcanic plug of Round Mountain, we see that Jacumba’s main off-ramp is closed for construction, so we exit at In-Ko-Pah and backtrack on Old Highway 80. The high-desert road winds along the jeep trail head to Valley of the Moon, past the new SDG&E substation, and along the abandoned Bornt farm before depositing into the mirage of Jacumba Hot Springs. The few clusters of buildings that remain on the main drag are mostly shuttered and dilapidated. The high-desert air is temperate and dry, occasionally catching the movie-theater-popcorn aroma of buttercups in the field and sulfur from the hot springs. The beige and white land is painted orange with evening sun. Tumbleweeds stir along the two-lane roadside, goading the conviction that Tombstone, Arizona, must be over the next hill, just past the break in the border fence.

Aiming to make first contact, we pull into Jacumba Hot Springs Spa & Resort, a Pueblo Revival–style compound known to be the town’s solitary social hub. Maybe 25 cars are parked outside, but there’s nobody in sight apart from a few older gentlemen ordering dinner at the bar. Having been remodeled extensively three years ago, the Raven’s Nest bar has not seen enough time or use to exude anything other than the fact that these are four walls within which one may drink alcohol. The bar top is still glossy and the clay red wall behind the liquor rack still has its sheen. Its perfectly neutral atmosphere gives us a moment to drink and consider what the hell we are doing in Jacumba. What’s the story? Is there one? Would anyone tell us if there were?

A beer or two later, we hit the streets to get our bearings. Matt snaps photo after photo of the crumbling façades as we try to piece together what has happened here. There’s an abandoned tattoo shop next to what may have once been a general store. There’s a restaurant surrounded by a couple of art shops. A bare-bones marketplace. A ramshackle gas station. Some ruins.

The rubble on the west end of town turns out to be the chimney of Hotel Vaughn. Built by a West Virginian named Bert Vaughn in 1925, the 65-room hotel (later renamed Hotel Jacumba) experienced years of prosperity before being bypassed by Interstate 8 in the late ’60s and then burning to the ground in 1983. Examining the debris, we can almost make out where the old rollerskating rink and dance floor once stood, though most of the original hotel was salvaged for construction in Jacumba and neighboring Mexican village Jacume by the time the building was fully demolished in 1991.

Across the street beyond a small park, we find the dilapidated Thomas Health Institute bathhouse where, in times long past, guests could have a massage and mud packs between dips in the mineral water. Before the advent of air conditioning, neighbors from the Imperial Valley would frequent the bathhouse to take advantage of its pools, seven showers, and Jacumba’s 20- to 30-degree cooler weather. Eventually, the Rancho California–style building also succumbed to fire and time, and its charred remnants are irresistible to Matt’s rapid-fire shutter. Predictably, the site is no stranger to the lens and has been featured in productions such as Manhattan, AZ (a short-lived paranormal comedy series that aired on USA in 2000) while the surrounding areas debuted on film with the 1928 classic Beggars of Life, starring Wallace Beery and Louise Brooks.

Behind the bathhouse we follow a trail by the old mineral pool to a clearing where an erratic scrap-metal sculpture overlooks a fire pit. It’s not the first and certainly won’t be the last time that the word “surreal” is muttered between us. We later learn that the piece was constructed by local artist Kirk Gilliam, whose accolades include Best in Show at the Del Mar fair.

We follow the smell of sulfur to a shallow mud-bottom tub fed lukewarm water by PVC pipe. We realize we’ve stumbled upon a public mineral spring on the bank of the five-acre Lake LaZare, named for the Los Angeles developer who bought and renovated the resort in the 1950s. In the process of drilling a well, Henry Lazare tapped into a spring that he channeled into a quarter-mile-wide pond that he had dug out with machinery and lined with clay. The lake was stocked with bluegill, catfish, and bass and became yet another feature for visitors to gather around. Over time, the lake fell into disrepair and was drained, becoming overgrown with reeds that made it a convenient resting place for illegal border-crossers. Though Lazare’s original well has since been capped, the current owners of Jacumba Hot Springs Spa & Resort down the block began refilling the lake from an open tap in February 2012. As of our visit, the water level appears low and the area remains marshy, but that hasn’t changed the reputation of Lake LeZare as a prized destination to spot rare species of birds including vermilion flycatcher, Scott’s oriole, ladder-back woodpecker, red-naped and red-breasted sapsucker, sage thrasher, Lawrence’s goldfinch, loggerhead shrike, and pine siskin.

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Comments

Ken Harrison Nov. 17, 2016 @ 1:41 p.m.

This is a great story. I encourage everyone driving to the valley or AZ to get off of 8 and go down old Hwy. 80. It s a trip. You covered everything. Stuff I didn't know. I didn't even know they had the name changed. Sometimes I'd drive out on the runway, just for fun to violate federal law, and use it like a drag strip, and get out of there before Border Patrol would see me. I used to do a bit on my late 80s radio show on KCEO in the winter time, "Is there snow, at the Jacumba Texaco?" We'd call out there every Thursday night to find out.

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Visduh Nov. 22, 2016 @ 8:31 a.m.

Jacumba, excuse me, Jacumba Hot Springs, has been slumbering for as long as I've lived in the county, and that's a long time, bro'. For a number of years it was not a spot that anyone would have sought out, due to the gnat problem. If that is now history, then other folks might decide it is worth a look.

Many years ago there was a claim floated by some locals that there had once been an official border crossing there. They said that it was still possible to see the buildings on either side of the line that had been the border guard stations. Yet at the same time, the feds denied that such a thing had ever existed. (As it was, due to the proximity to the highways in both sides of the border, it would have been a natural spot.) Who was right? I don't claim to know, but we can observe that the government in the form of the customs, immigration and Border Patrol, wasn't always careful to be fully factual.

Not mentioned much is the former railroad depot building. It was and still is an architecturally-pleasing structure. After the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Ry stopped running passenger trains in the early 50's, it was converted into a private residence. In 1989, the railroad museum ran a special excursion train from Campo to Jacumba called "Jacumba or Bust". We de-trained at the depot where we were treated to a BBQ lunch, and various local folks set up booths. The grounds around the depot were open then.

More recently, within the past year, I did some recon to see the (lack of) progress on the reopening of the railroad, and noted that the depot was fenced off, festooned with No Trespassing signs, and that the fenced area hosted some locomotives and rolling stock apparently left by the Carrizo Railway about a decade ago. The whole area looked abandoned, weathered and bereft. If/when the railroad actually reopens for through traffic, it might bring some activity to Jacumba Hot Springs. But don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

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