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.