Sunday, February 17, 2013

Jacumba, CA, Between Past and Present

welcome to jacumba signThere's almost of sense of invasion flooding my thoughts, a battle is about to begin, a tug-of-war pulling on my conscience.

Jacumba, CA never seemed to forgive my arrival the previous times I've passed along Old Highway 80. Its shadows grow much too long for a town that still manages to support a few eateries and a functioning a post office. The ghosts here seem to outnumber the living, but its not their eyes that I feel watching me. The world is so small here, and time moves by so slowly, that not even a stranger like myself can escape the poison of small town chatter.

Otherwise, Jacumba doesn't give me much reason to stop. Despite its storied history, memories of neon nightlife, and old photos of Hollywood elite bathing in the medicinal waters of its natural hot spring, it's just a little town that could get along fine without my money or even the next person's. It's almost as if they'd be happy to see more outsiders, yet at the same time, wouldn't raise a finger to help make it happen. Jacumba is just simply there, making no effort to help itself, but seemingly waiting for someone to help it.

Sash, on the other hand, sees something else.

A living, feeling soul nursing a hurt that never healed, it's the emptiness and loss felt by a town that had all but been wiped off the map.  The pain of abandonment, after the new Interstate routed traffic away from Old Highway 80, filled it with the shame of dilapidated shacks, the self-pity of failed business ideas, and created an angry little child demanding the love it knows it deserves.  Even towns have souls with wounds to suffer.

"Where do you think all these flies are coming from?" one guy said, seated in a chair outside of the local restaurant.

Sash and I didn't answer, but we could see them flying everywhere, and even felt them hitting our helmets when we pulled into town. We continued to eat lunch on the tables outside.

"It's because it's getting warmer now", another guy answered, who was seated some 20 feet away.

"I mean what are these?" the other guy continued.  "I've never seen flies like these!"

His question seemed to go unanswered.  It's little stuff like flies that seem to make news in a town with little else.

"What's that old building across the street?" Sash asked one of the guys, pointing her finger at a concrete building whose roof had collapsed long ago.

"That's where they had the original spa", a guy answered.

"When was it built?"


jacumba, ca past and present

There's still a few locals in Jacumba that remember the heyday of long ago, but otherwise the town today is largely a sunken ship transformed into a reef, sustaining a few hundred folks seeking refuge from the competitive ills of metropolitan mania. Maybe they were born into a place like Jacumba and don't know how to survive elsewhere. Maybe they tried their luck in the concrete jungles of corporate America but found themselves pushed off to the edges, left to fight for whatever scraps fell their way.

I often hear people say that they love the peace and quiet of a small country town, but I wonder if its because they unconsciously feel something comforting in its soul. I wonder if the rusted sign of an abandoned gas station, or the boarded up windows of an old general store, reflect the deeper emotions kept locked up inside them.

It's as if the hurt attracts more hurt, anger attracts more anger, creating a cycle that continues itself generation after generation. Maybe I never wanted to stop in Jacumba for those reasons. Maybe I don't want to admit to myself that I belong in a place like this. Perhaps I'm not quite ready to stop running.

motorcycles jacumba, ca

Old Highway 80 is like the forgotten sibling of Old Route 66.  One of the original "plank roads" of the 1920s, it had been a two-lane highway that connected San Diego with Yuma and stretched all the way to the Georgia coast.  It meandered through the hills and valleys of eastern San Diego County, providing financial support for little towns like Descanso, Boulevard, and Jacumba.

Jacumba was blessed to have a hot mineral spring nearby.  In the 1920s and '30s, it attracted the biggest Hollywood celebrities, many of whom made Jacumba their top destination for relaxation.  But being located so far south, along the border with Mexico, it couldn't compete with rival hot springs located further north.  Business began to decline.  By the time Interstate 8 opened up, traffic along Old Highway 80 fell to a trickle, and Jacumba dried up.

But it's not all dead yet.

motorcycle reflection

The proprietor of Mountain Sage Market, the town's only store and deli, seemed all too happy to make us a sandwich and salad. His business seems to be the magnet that defines the center of the city, attracting everyone including the out-of-towners.

One lady walked in announcing that she was ready to go sober starting tomorrow, beaming as if she had found Jesus and finally discovered the light, though she came in to buy one last supply of beer for the night.

Another guy was called to a car by his mother who yelled at him to stop hanging around "those tweakers".

A woman led her children past our motorcycles, and one of them saw the stickers on Sash's helmet saying, "that must be a girl's helmet".

There was even one shy little girl who flirted with Sash at the deli counter, wearing a fuzzy giraffe hoodie, holding the hand of a woman with some kind of gang insignia tattooed to her chest.

jacumba, ca old building

Little bursts of light sometimes come from the most unlikely of places.  But way out in the fringes of civilization, where few ever care to go, the shadows seems to grow too long.

I can't help thinking that a place like Jacumba might become my home someday.  There could be a time when I'm too tired and weak for the 24/7 madness that is downtown corporate America.  When I can't stand the sirens, the weekend partiers, and the roar of jet planes taking off at 6:00am, maybe this is the place where I'll hide, nestled beneath of a canopy of oaks and protected by a pack of rescued pitbulls.

But I also can't helping thinking that Jacumba could grow into a more vibrant city if it could only break free from the ghosts of its memories. The only thing holding it back are the folks who seem to relish the loneliness and hurt.  I wonder if they'd resist changes that brought in more visitors, more traffic, more noise.  The feelings of abandonment, the pain of humiliation, seems well fed in the remnants of a forgotten town.  The few glimmers of hope radiating from a handful of residents are just enough to leave visitors with a reason to return.

old 7up signjacumba hot springs hotelpay telephone

jacumba, ca gas station

jacumba, ca gas station


  1. Great Story Steve truly makes me want to ride not only CA but to this very little town!

  2. Great post! I love places like this. I'd never heard of it before. Sounds like a good place to explore.

  3. Steve:

    Now I have the urge to go there. You're right about Corporate America and the 24/7 hurried life-style. I think I would like to be more laid back, South American style after all, there's always tomorrow

    We found such a place just north of SFO called Bolinas. This is a place which goes out of their way to remove all highway signage to discourage visitors from visiting. There is a very small main area which looks like a place out of the 50's

    I smile as I noticed your baby Ninja parked beside you

    Riding the Wet Coast


About Steve

A vagabond who hauls a motorcycle around the country in a toy hauler, earning a living as a website developer. Can often be found where there's free Wi-Fi, craft beer, and/or public nudity. (Read more...)