Old Highway 80 in Jacumba is located less than a mile away from the U.S./Mexico border.
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.
Jacumba's natural energetic vortex
We continue north past the lake to a sandy wash where Jimson weed and sage brush grow along a dirt-bike course. Old train cars rust on their tracks. Historic houses crumble on their foundations. The streets remain empty. Jacumba’s only official census in 2010 put the population at 561, and it doesn’t appear to have changed much since. In fact, the town hasn’t grown significantly since a county visitors guide put the population at 400 inhabitants in 1945. And really, why would it?
The sun is getting too low for photos, so we head back to the Raven’s Nest for a nightcap before pointing west on Old Highway 80 to Boulevard and then north up McCain Valley Road to Cottonwood Campground. A sign at the campsite, which is maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, advises hikers to leave pottery shards, arrowheads, and morteros (grinding stones) undisturbed. The area is littered with such artifacts of pre-European settlement. Excavated agave-roasting pits date back as far as 1000 years, but some researchers suggest the region has been a nexus of settlement and inter-tribal trading for up to 12,000. White man is new here.
In fact, the valley takes its name from a family who played a pivotal role in cementing Jacumba’s European narrative. On February 27, 1880, a band of mostly teenage ranchers confronted a group of starving Kumeyaay for slaughtering their cattle and stealing horses. Clashing at Table Mountain, an ancient volcano and Kumeyaay sacred site located about nine miles east of McCain Valley, around 15 Kumeyaay men, women, and children (historic accounts put the number anywhere between 4 and 19) were slain in what is now remembered as the Jacumba Massacre. William McCain, 17, son of the valley’s eponymous George McCain, was shot dead in the conflict by a member of what turned out to be the last remaining faction of Kumeyaay in Jacumba. The fate of the Kumeyaay survivors is unknown, as their account was never recorded, but it is speculated that they retreated into Dos Cabezas or Mexico and very likely died of starvation. This was the culmination of an ongoing clash between natives and settlers since the Spanish first made contact in 1785. Within about 30 years of the massacre, the Kumeyaay trail connecting Campo to Ocotillo would the paved into U.S. 80, concreting the natives’ exile.
But none of that is too apparent now, 136 years later, camping under the same stars that leered from a distance as the entire saga unfolded. The night sky out here is beyond anything a city dweller is quick to comprehend, so Matt gets giddy taking long exposures of the constellations as we sip tequila and pass the acoustic bass until the campfire no longer glows in its pit.
In the morning, we drive back into Jacumba to recharge our phones and drink coffee at Jay’s Southern Cafe. The two-year-young eatery is a hub for local geriatrics and law-enforcement officers, oozing that same sterile sense of newness that glistens in the Raven’s Nest. A smooth-jazz track from the Pieces of a Dream album by Soul Intent lilts from satellite TV radio as locals chat over plates of cheddar-and-bacon grits, fried chicken and waffles, and ribs. We pore over a visitors map highlighting the Chinese Castle, the metal sculptures by Borrego Springs artist Ricardo Breceda, and John D. Spreckels’s so-called “impossible railroad.” Red and black yin/yang symbols designate the town’s energy vortexes (esoteric psychologist Wilhelm Reich, who coined the term “orgone energy,” is rumored to have visited Jacumba to study its preponderance of flying saucers), and we become charged on the realization that we are at ground zero of one of San Diego County’s most obscure living theme parks.
A short walk up a dirt road brings us to the Chinese Castle, an ornate residence built in 1926 on a hilltop boulder. The structure is shrouded in legends including a former gambling establishment, the terminus of a smugglers’ tunnel, and, according to the tourist map, the site where an unnamed Hollywood director slayed his errant mistress. A few photos later and we are dodging cholla cacti and wondering how soon the ever-present Border Patrol trucks will accost us as we trail-blaze the short distance to the border. They never do, so we walk a mile or two east along the 15-foot monolith of a fence, erected in 2006, which separates Jacumba from the Mexican hamlet of Jacume. Rumor has it that smugglers would strap drugs and even people to the bellies of migrating wild horses in yet another attempt to circumvent the imposing but ever-permeable divider of nations.
Peeking through the rusty slats where tumbleweeds have piled up hip-high, we can see a few outskirt ranch houses and the cattle fence that was previously the only barrier between countries. Yielding its length of stick and barbed wire to the afternoon breeze, the old fence is just as much a function of rural husbandry as the new wall is a monument to isolationism. Prior to the wall, inhabitants of the sister outposts would flow freely to either side. Residents of Jacume would send their kids to school in Jacumba, grab their mail, visit a relative, buy some supplies at the store, and walk ten minutes south through a gap in the wire to their home in Mexico. Jacumba teens would hear the booming of quinceañeras and sneak over to dance and drink tequila. Now, the great wall breaks only briefly on a heavily patrolled hillside to the east, where the sandy desert floor gives way to a maze of boulders. The binational corridor of old Jacumba/Jacume is almost unimaginable.
Note the gap in the border fence and the path leading from it to the house.
Beyond a sign warning that this is not a lawful place of entry (one must detour two hours via Tecate or Mexicali to arrive at Jacumba from Jacume), Matt notices a strange object on a hillside to the north. Flakes of quartz glisten like shattered glass in the sand as we discover several gallons of unopened water stashed in the low-lying flora by activists Border Angels. When we get to the thing, we are absolutely baffled. Built like a hangman’s gallows, the sign reads: “¿Are you nice?” with check-boxes for “Si” and “No.” The structure is clad in makeshift border-jumping ladders and lined with pieces of torn zarape dangling from rope. On the back, south-facing side, we find a Border Patrol tire-drag used to clear footprints from the road and a companion message reading: “¿Were we nice? Si. No.” We have no idea what to make of it, but it looms like a threat, though we’re not sure why. We return to the Raven’s Nest to try to make sense of it.
Lacy, the 34-year-old bartender, has been in town since her father retired from the military and moved out to join her grandparents when she was 9. In middle school, just before the wall went up, an ICE raid deported everyone but her and about nine classmates. She has a stern demeanor and shakes hands more resolutely than most grown men, but when we get to talking about our fool’s errand of an assignment out here, she opens up.
The now-abandoned bathhouse/health resort was developed by Bert Vaughn in the 1920s. It included a large hotel, apartments, pools, and a hydrotherapy clinic.
“This is the nicest this place has ever looked,” she says of the bar under its most recent ownership. “There was a time when this place was run-down and nothing was going on here. There’s more going on now. This used to be a big meet-up spot for traffickers. I don’t know if Felix [Bachmeier, a representative of the Chicago-based German group that bought more than 200 acres of Jacumba, including the resort, in 1986 after local newspaper publisher Bob Mitchell’s short-lived ownership] was involved or was just looking the other way, but he got nailed for it. I actually got caught up when I was 16 bringing over duffel bags of weed. I’d get $1000 and five kilos off the top to drive an unlicensed vehicle to the fence and back to a house here in town. Border Patrol came through once in a blue moon back then. I ended up getting caught because of a snitch. I was a minor, so I spent nine months in a juvenile-detention center. There was a lot of trafficking going on at one point and they were pulling over anything and everything. It’s calmed down a lot. They have technology and sensors and all of that died down. We still get some traffic here, but Border Patrol is on them before we can even report it. They see everything before it happens.”
Between Lacy and a few patrons, we determine that the weird monument we found – new enough that no one else present had yet seen it — was the work of the T.RUMP Bus that had rolled through town and posted a guerrilla installation in July, sending the bill to the president of Mexico. Trump’s actual Iowa campaign bus had been purchased by artist collective t.Rutt, which “uses the bizarre realities of Donald Trump’s bullying presidential campaign to explore important questions about American society today.”
From their website: “In early September we went back to Jacumba Hot Springs, CA to build our second section of Trump’s Wall which we call American Vetting Wall. We were baffled to see that our first section of Trump Wall had completely disappeared without a trace. We used cinder blocks, old ladders and rope to critique Trump’s fantastical idea that he’d deport 11 million Mexicans and then ‘let the good ones back in.’ Hanging from the top ladder are makeshift booties made from scraps of Mexican blankets and twine that we found in the shrubs near the existing fence. The U.S. Border Patrol rakes a 40-foot wide smooth strip of dirt along the fence so as to track the footprints of those who jump the fence from Mexico. The booties minimize the footprints and tracks made by the shoes of those hopping the fence. We liked finding booties in the landscape. They are colorful relics of the desire, determination and industrious of those who risk it all to enter the U.S. in search of a better life.”
Sam and Nancy met in Jacumba and live nearby in a nudist colony named De Anza Springs Resort.
Walking by Jay’s Southern Cafe, we meet Sam and Nancy as they work on crafts at a bench in front of their shop, the Love Shack. A few doors down, on the other side of Jay’s, is a mural of artist and late Jacumba Hotel manager David Baze painted by longtime friend Linda Churchill. The space, his former studio, is now a private residence and art studio.
Nancy Jean wears a tie-dye tank top and a purple floral headband over her bright eyes as she sits with her husband Sam Rupe, whose twisting, shoulder-length hair frames a salt-and-pepper goatee. He wears a colorful sarong and flowing red shirt with most of the buttons undone.
It was a weekday in the low season at De Anza Springs Resort. There were barely any people there.
Nancy was a regular visitor to Borrego Springs and Jacumba before moving here five years ago. She sold her house of 26 years in Leucadia and got a trailer at the clothing-optional De Anza Springs Resort on the other side of the interstate. In 2010, a year after the passing of his wife of 30 years, Sam relocated from Twenty-Nine Palms to De Anza with his two daughters, who attend high school an hourlong bus ride west in Buckman Springs. Sam and Nancy met several years ago at De Anza and bonded over their shared past as truckers. They became “more than acquaintances,” as Sam puts it, about two years ago during a therapeutic massage and got married shortly thereafter. They opened the Love Shack together in August, highlighting their own brand, Naked Made Creations, along with ten local artists including Kirk Gilliam. When they’re not in the store, they’re soaking at the springs or hiking naked and barefoot in the hills or attending services at the United Methodist Church. Their left biceps bear matching tattoos of a dreamcatcher with six tassels, one for each of their children, two feathers for Sam and Nancy, and a silhouette of the Jacumba Mountains in the middle.
“We’ve learned that we like to be creative together,” Sam says. “Independently together. Alone together.”
“This has been close to our hearts for a while now,” says Nancy. “It’s to help revitalize Jacumba, which is now Jacumba Hot Springs. They just got done changing all 17 of the road signs. We wanted to be a beacon of love and hope and beauty for the community. Some people here are having struggles in their own way and they need someone to listen or have wares to put on display. Every day we’re right here and anyone can come and join us. We are here to raise the energy of the area with love. I see this as the little tiny beginnings of a Joshua Tree, which is what it once was. Spiritual healing, nature, art, that’s what I see this place being. There’s the music fest, Eternal. There’s yoga going on in the Desert View Tower and also in Boulevard. Then there’s the Native American energy that’s here. We pray every morning, and part of the prayer is that the property owners will fix up these spaces so that it’s more appealing to people who are thinking about opening a business. As far as businesses in town, it’s just Jay’s, and us, and the market, and the spa. Then there’s the library and the Highland Community Center.”
“Three churches, the middle school,” Sam adds.
“It’s really like an old-timey community,” Nancy continues. “There’s the Jacumba Women’s Club. We meet at the Highland Community Center, it’s mostly older ladies, and we all make hand-crafted items to help veterans and premature babies. In some ways, it’s kind of like Mayberry and in some ways it’s not. It just has that small community feeling. It’s peaceful.”
I turn to Cliff, a local who has been listening in as he leans against a porch beam squinting into the mid-day sun. His raspy voice, pale blue eyes, weathered skin, and worn teeth resonate with my prior image of the typical Jacumba resident, though I don’t realize it until now. Back when the Love Shack was a laundromat, he would get $100 a month and free rent to do maintenance. He’s been eager to interject a thought throughout the conversation, but by the time the attention falls on him the thought has snaked off into a shadowy outcropping of his recollection.
“I’m a newcomer,” he says. “I moved out here in ’05. It’s been a different kind of reality since I’ve been here. What else was I gonna say? Well, I got stuck here! Got a DUI. Lost my car because I didn’t have insurance. Uh… Was gonna buy a house but that fell through ’cause the market crashed. They sold my house for the price of my down payment.”
Cliff’s vision settles on the horizon and the topic shifts to the municipal airport, which was paved within the past month.
“They’re the oldest glider club in the country,” says Sam, a weekend enthusiast himself. “The Associated Glider Clubs of Southern California used to fly off the cliffs at Torrey Pines, but it got too crowded to be safe. Now they only operate here. They’re talking about using a tow plane now that it’s paved, but they’ve been using a winch.”
“They filmed Manhattan, AZ, [a TV show] over there at the bathhouse,” Cliff returns from his reverie. “Uh… They had a big bar in there and people running around all over the streets. They said it was like Mayberry RFD on LSD. They had one episode they filmed out by the airport where someone fell out of the sky and landed on a car...”
He trails off, and we decide it’s time we do the same, so we head up Railroad Street to an old train depot that saw passenger service from 1919 to 1951 and freight until 1976. Now a private residence, the depot is littered with relics from Spreckels’s heyday. We cross the gate into the Institute of Perception and chat briefly with Michael, a glassblower from San Diego who has been out here for a month as an artist resident. The property was purchased and opened up to the public by Kirk Roberts and Nurit Bar in the late 1990s as a place for hikers and artists to contemplate among its natural and manmade wonders.
Black River, by artist Kirk Roberts (aka Q)
A metal water tank has been converted into a walk-in echo chamber. Discarded tires have been arranged into Black River. Old rail steel was built into the frame of the Sky Pyramid. A concrete slab planted upright next to the pyramid is etched with the image of a serpent, the Toltec guardian of the desert. Four mineral pools sit a short distance away oriented to the cardinal directions. Up on Jacumba Peak, triangular pictographs can be found among the rocks as Border Patrol agents scan from their summit perch. Down below, in an area known as Outback City, several mysterious rock mounds form rows on the mesa, suggestive of ancient ceremony or burial.
The Art of Quetzalcoatl
I get Kirk (also known as Q, short for Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent god of Mesoamerican mythology) on the phone from Gallery Orbit artist collective in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. He relates in a calming baritone how he had been living in the Bay Area when he was contacted by a man who had become familiar with his work from the book American Shaman, A Journey to the Heart, by Darian Crowe. The man was calling from Rough Acres, not far from where Matt and I had camped the previous night.
“He flew me down to do some healing, because he’d had bad experiences there and his father owned the land,” Kirk relates. “After that work was done I said, what’s farther south? So I went down to Jacumba for the first time and my initial thought was, this is a David Lynch town. This is odd. There are eccentrics here. This would be the last place in the world to have a Starbucks. And this is in California? I’m kind of shocked. I realize, wow, we can totally create an institute here that would support artists and bands. We found this old abandoned railroad station and the word ‘transformation’ became very important. We were going to transform something ugly into something beautiful, which is the artist’s highest attainment.”
All Orange Multimedia
The Crack between Worlds
When Kirk and Nurit first arrived at the property (check out the short films they’ve made on YouTube channel All Orange Multimedia), there was nothing but a dirt-floored 1924 rail-storage warehouse and a dump. They removed ten trucked-in containers of garbage and restored the old warehouse before constructing their own residence (which is available to rent on Airbnb) in a similar utilitarian style. They went on to construct solar-enhanced meditation tubs in an area dubbed Watersight, the Sky Pyramid, and the land’s many interactive art installations. Donated railroad cars became canvases and DJ booths. The historic ceremonial site was once again animated with dance and music at gatherings such as Telemagica, Burning Man Decom, Tectonic, and Eternal. By gating off and restoring the land, the institute alleviated the area from the blight caused by dumpers, shooters, and smugglers. It also allowed the National Park Service to purchase an adjacent tract that was not up for public sale.
“So, from our gate all the way north into Anza-Borrego, if you don’t count the freeway, it’s thousands of pristine acres that are now preserved,” Kirk says. “Before Jacume and Jacumba there were the shamans and tribes that used this area. When we came, we were revitalizing the wild original use. That was all open to development. Our contribution was to preserve wild space in East County.”
A painted train car by Telemagican Artists.
I share a memory with Kirk from Telemagica 2011, my only prior experience in Jacumba, when the Santa Ana winds blew quick across the sand and heat lightning snaked silently in the night as my late friend James Huntington (aka HM.T DM.T) pumped creepy psychedelic bass music from a stage beneath a power pylon. I get chills relating the story.
HM.T DM.T brings the rain
“That was pure nature,” Kirk beams. “You can’t get that in a club in San Diego. That was recorded as one of his last events, and that’s pretty significant, I think, in the history of the DJ scene. It was just an amazing event. After all of the hardships of us doing this again, very little money, just our intention, having some of the things affect people for the rest of their lives, that’s success. That’s one of the beautiful stories.”
Walking back to the Raven’s Nest, I consider how absurd it is that Kirk could build a fence to preserve this ancient meeting ground while, just a mile south, Pete Wilson and Duncan Hunter built a wall (by proxy of the National Guard and Joint Task Force 6) to divide it. Maybe it’s all part of the enchantment spoken of in Jacume’s south-neighboring village, Agua Hechicera, which means “sorceress waters.” Hell, Jacumba’s baffling contradictions are built into its own name, which alternately means “dangerous water,” “magic water,” “rising water,” and “sinkhole,” depending on which interpretation you trust.
Back at the Nest, we find David Landman, who, along with his wife Helen, has owned much of the town, about 750 acres’ worth, since 2012. They put $100,000 of renovations into Jacumba Hot Springs Spa & Resort, which had fallen into grave disrepair under old ownership. The Chicago-based investment group fronted by Felix Bachmeier hadn’t made a payment on the promissory note, owned by Henry Lazare, in years. Under pressure from representatives of the Jacumba Revitalization Committee, Landman purchased the promissory note for an amount “in the millions” (he won’t disclose the exact amount for legal reasons), foreclosed on 29 parcels, and paid delinquent back-taxes from the previous owners. He’s also owned the RV park that he converted into De Anza Springs Resort for the past 19 years. De Anza currently has about 150 full-time residents who, along with weekenders, fill the clothing-optional resort (the tenth largest in North America and the only in San Diego County) to capacity every summer.
When the Reader’s Siobhan Braun last dispatched from Jacumba in 2012, Landman was toying around with a catchy town slogan: “Jacumba, the new ‘in’ place to unwind.” I ask him if the four years since the story was published have seen the slogan come to fruition.
“‘The new in place to...’ what the hell was it?” 70-year-old Landman wonders aloud. “I came up with it four years ago. Get out? Have fun? Something.”
It doesn’t matter, because the slogan never was the town’s main attraction to begin with.
“To be honest, the spa has done very well,” he lets on. “The town itself is a little slower to get going. We’ve added a restaurant, a computer-repair place, we’re about to sign a lease for a mortgage company. So it is starting, but it’s taking a few years to get it off the ground. We’ve spent all of our energy getting [the spa] going as a hub, because without this going, without people lined up on the street, at least on the weekend, the rest of it doesn’t make any sense. It’s always been our vision to do a Carefree, Arizona, or Madrid, New Mexico, and make it a destination tourist town, and I think we still have the possibility. The weather is mild. It’s not hot like the valley. Maybe not as nice as San Diego all the time, but nice enough where we can get people from other climates. We’re 70 miles from San Diego, we’re 95 miles from Palm Springs, so we’ve got a lot of area to attract from. The first thing we did was get the name of the town changed from Jacumba to Jacumba Hot Springs. It took us a year and half to get the freeway signs changed. Those were changed about a month ago. Now, it has more meaning to it than Jacumba. So, now we’ll start getting people off the freeway who are driving through and at least it’s jogging their mind a little bit; instead of a two-gas-station town up by the freeway, it’s now a hot springs town, and that’s been making a difference. As we grow, other restaurants and facilities may overshadow [the spa], but this one still has the mineral water, and that’s what the town’s all about. The chemical makeup of it is almost the same as one of the most famous spas in the world, and that’s Baden-Baden in Germany. It’s world-famous water.”
This isn’t Jacumba Hot Spring’s first stab at reliving the glory days. In the ’90s, developers picked up a property known as the Ketchum Ranch (a now-abandoned farm on the east side of town littered with decaying vehicles and looted structures) where Jacumba Valley Ranch projects intended to build a 1000 to 2000 residential subdivision with a golf course, stables, and other amenities. That project never left the ground. Most recently, the location was home to the 400-acre Bornt Farms, which closed their pesticide-free spinach and lettuce operation in July of 2012 after being fingered as the culprit for a maddening six-year-long eye-gnat infestation. Just when someone thinks they’ve got a hold on Jacumba, she shakes them loose.
Further east by the SDG&E substation, Jacumba Solar, LLC, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy, was approved in May by the county planning commission to develop 108 to 304 acres with 81,109 photovoltaic modules. The project continues despite opposition from the Jacumba-Boulevard Revitalization Committee, which cited environmental concerns and the danger of property damage and loss of life from chemical fires. The project is located in an area classified by CalFire as a Very High Fire Severity Zone. Up the road in Boulevard, Soitec Solar is currently offering their McCain Valley and Tierra del Sol operations for sale following a court order to remove 160 battery containers. The company was confronted with public backlash after severely underestimating the amount of water that would be allotted for construction. The message is clear: mess with the land, and the land messes back.
Beyond the Subway/Shell gas station, which is the totality of what most I-8 motorists know of Jacumba Hot Springs, down a dirt road that I always assumed was a Border Patrol shortcut, under the 8 and along the railroad tracks where river brush grows thick on the roadside, De Anza Springs Resort unfolds at the base of the mountains. Like everything around here, the area glows on camera, and you can still find remnants from the set of Manhattan, AZ’s Love Motel on De Anza’s nudist-friendly expanse.
It’s off-season and midweek, and the vast property is largely vacant apart from the elegant mobile homes of residents. I fall in love with the place, which over the summer hosted art-and-music gathering GypsyFest, and for a moment my future feels more clear than it ever has. After a good half hour of coaxing Matt to go in the buff (tequila helped), we hit the hot tubs, where we run into Sam and Nancy on their way to play water volleyball. Dressed in robes, it occurs to me for the first time how much Sam looks like Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, a thought that is immediately validated as a Canadian named Dewder (actually his name, pronounced duder) hops in with his girlfriend. He brought her along on his annual getaway from Alberta to De Anza, which he discovered several years ago while in San Diego for a ballgame. He repairs trucks and she works at a dollar store. He’s absolutely nuts about the place.
“Have you hiked to Temple Peak?” he entreats. “How about Goat Canyon Trestle? We’ve been here for a week, hiking all day and soaking all night!” We drink cans of beer for many hours, Dewder spouting off his encyclopedic knowledge of San Diego’s geography and sports, and us still wondering what the hell this story, the one you’re reading, is actually about.
It’s too much. It eludes reason. Maybe, as the tourist map suggests, it is a vortex. The entire area clear down to La Rumorosa is riddled with supernatural and extraterrestrial lore. Everything about it oozes mystery and intrigue. Hell, we haven’t even talked about Coyote’s Flying Saucer Retrievals & Repairs by the In-Ko-Pah Desert View Tower, or Smuggler’s Cave, or the mysterious disappearance of Jonathan Barmaki, or the derailed boxcars and stone carvings in Carrizo Gorge, or Squaw Tit, or even Sage Winds Farm over in Bankhead Springs.
Still, if you squint your eyes just right on a breezy autumn afternoon, the decomposing edifices of Jacumba Hot Springs begin to take on a mythological quality. You can almost picture it bustling with activity like it did in the 1930s. Squint harder and you might make out Kumeyaay settlements above which sorcerers congregate in weather-worn boulders. Even with eyes wide open, one is struck with the overwhelming suspicion that this really is the center of the universe, bypassed by modernity but eternally beckoning for those who delight in crossing over to the path less traveled. One thing is certain: Jacumba Hot Springs is larger than any redevelopment plan, any environmentalist front line, even its own name. Speaking of which, Jacumba has another name that describes its present situation perfectly: “Hut by the water.” For all the efforts to build and boom, Jacumba seems determined to remain just that.