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This section is already famous as a vacation resort and several of the
ranchers are prepared for campers and summer boarders. Many of these
ranches are ideally located in grassy, tree-fringed vales watered by
clear mountain streams. The coming of the state highway will bring
prosperity to these villagers and resorts and greatly assist in the
development of the scanty resources of the country. The Viejas grade
near Descanso is the only considerable ascent and this is easy and
well-improved.

[Illustration: A BACK COUNTRY OAK
From Photograph by Harold Taylor]

At Campo we came into the stage road and pursued our way for some
miles through rolling, oak-studded hills. A band of gypsies camped by
the roadside stopped us with many gesticulations and were immensely
disgusted when we declined to wait for fortune-telling. They presented
a picturesque sight in their brightly colored, oriental-looking costumes
and at a distance some of the women looked pretty—though as they crowded
up to the car a near view quickly dispelled this illusion.

Warren's Ranch, a few miles beyond Campo, is the regular stopping-place
in both directions for luncheon, and a substantial farm dinner is served
at a moderate price. There were perhaps fifty guests on the day of our
visit and the proprietor said that it was a "little slack" as compared
with the usual run of travel; that on the previous Sunday one hundred
and twenty cars had passed and most of them halted at the ranch for
refreshments.

A few miles beyond Warren's we entered the great hill range that cuts
the Valley from the coast and jogged up the splendidly engineered road
with little effort. We saw some wild, rough scenery during the climb,
but nothing to prepare us for the stupendous spectacle that burst on
our vision as we reached the summit. It would be no exaggeration to say
that we fairly gasped with astonishment as we brought the car sharply
to a stand-still, for beneath us lay a vast abysm that reminded us more
of the Grand Canyon than anything else we had seen. It seemed as if the
red granite mountains had been rent in twain by some terrific cataclysm,
leaving a titanic chasm stretching away until lost in the purple haze
of the distance. Its walls were bare—save for an occasional cactus—and
the reddish tinge of the granite was intensified in the declining
sun. The great boulders tumbled discordantly about, the isolated peaks
springing from the floor of the canyon, and the endless array of mighty
cliffs and precipices all combined to give a rare effect of wild and
rugged grandeur. As we descended the winding road we saw the majestic
spectacle from many viewpoints, each one accentuating some new phase of
its impressive beauty.

At Mountain Spring, a supply station just beyond the summit, we
crossed into Imperial County. From this point the road was built by
popular subscription and a wonderful road it is. It winds around the
great precipices, which rise far above or drop hundreds of feet below,
and crosses yawning canyons, yet it maintains easy grades and avoids
difficult turns to an extent seldom seen under such conditions. The
smooth wide surface offers temptations to careless drivers and despite
the perfect engineering several accidents have happened on the road.
A car went off the grade shortly before our passing and a collision
occurred near the summit on the following day.

At the foot of the grade we encountered the sandy wash leading down into
the valley. For several miles we fairly wallowed through heavy sand, the
car pitching and rolling like a boat on a rough sea. Had the sand been
an inch deeper—so it seemed—we should have been hopelessly stalled—a
fate which often overtakes a car departing from the beaten track. We
scrambled along with steaming engine and growling gears and were glad
indeed when a forlorn little ranch-house hove in sight. A windmill tower
indicated water and we took occasion to replenish our supply.

Coyote Wells shows on the map as a post office, but our conception of
a village was dashed as we approached the spot by the tiny clapboard
shack which greeted our sand-bleared vision. A rudely painted sign,
"General Store, Gasoline and Oil," apprised us of the chief excuse for
the existence of Coyote Wells. The wells are there, too; eleven feet
under the burning sands is an unlimited supply of water. We paused a
few minutes and looked around us—which we had scarcely done before, the
plunging car and the clouds of sand driven by a forty-mile wind being
quite enough to distract our attention. In every direction stretched the
yellow sands, dotted with sage brush and cacti. Some of the latter were
in bloom, their delicate blossoms, yellow, carmine, and pink, lending
a pleasing bit of color to the drab monotone of the landscape. And yet
we were told that this sandy waste needs only water to metamorphose it
into green fields such as we should see a little later.

A few miles beyond Coyote Wells the road had been oiled, but it had
broken into chuck-holes and become unmercifully rough. It was not until
we entered the confines of the cultivated lands a short distance from
Dixieland that we found a fine boulevard, which continued for several
miles. Dixieland is the western outpost of the Valley, situated in the
edge of the present irrigation district. It is a substantially built
village, most of the business houses being of brick and cement. The
coming of the new railroad, already within a few miles, will probably
bring a great boom for Dixieland.

A paragraph may be fitly introduced here concerning the present status
(1921) of the roads we traversed on our tour to the Imperial some six
years earlier. The most trying sections have been improved; the heavy
sand where we wallowed about so helplessly and the broken, oiled road
between Dixieland and Coyote Wells—in fact, the whole stretch between
the foot of the mountain grade and El Centro—is a first-class boulevard
now. There is also pavement from Campo to the summit of the range, and
the descent, while not paved, is in good condition. Only a fraction
of the two routes we pursued in San Diego County—the northern, via
Descanso, and the southern over the Potrero grade—has been paved, but
the funds for this work have been provided and it is to proceed as
rapidly as possible. Taken altogether, the roads to-day average good
and the run between San Diego and El Centro may be easily made by the
shorter of the routes (122 miles) in five or six hours.

While bowling along just beyond Dixieland one of our party cried, "Look
at the sunset!" and we brought the car to a sudden stop. I have seen
gorgeous sunsets in many parts of the world, but nothing that could
remotely approach the splendor of the scene that greeted our admiring
vision. The sky was partly clouded—rather unusual, we learned—and this
accounted for much of the glorious spectacle. The whole dome of the
heavens showed a marvelous display of light and color—lucent silver
slowly changing through many variations to deep orange-gold, and fading
slowly to burnished copper as the sun declined. The clouds lent endless
variety to the color tones. Their fantastic shapes glowed with burning
crimson or were edged with silvery light. The sky eastward was of a deep
indigo-blue; westward, above the sun, it burned with ethereal fire. The
summits of the dimly defined mountains in the distance were touched with
a fringe of golden light and their feet were shrouded in a pale lavender
haze—the effect of the sun on the drifting sand. The weird and ghostly
appearance of the Superstition Range, a dozen miles to the north, seemed
suggestive of the name. Surely the desert gnomes and demons might find
a haunt in the rocky caverns of these giant hills set down in the wide
arid plain surrounding them on every side. The more distant mountains
faded to dim and unsubstantial shadows and were finally obscured by the
falling twilight.

When we were able to take our gaze from the heavens we became conscious
of the marvelous greenness of the grain and alfalfa fields about us,
then accentuated by the weird light of the sunset, and we learned later
the scientific cause of the gorgeous Imperial sunsets. Evaporation
from the irrigation system and Salton Sea, together with the fine
dust constantly in suspension in the dry desert air, are the elements
responsible for spectacular effects such as I have tried to describe.

A half dozen miles from Dixieland we crossed New River, a great gulch
twenty-five feet deep and several hundred yards wide. This was the
channel cut by the terrible flood of 1904-6 and gives some conception of
the danger that threatened the Valley when practically the whole volume
of the Colorado tore through the yielding sands. There is now no running
water in the river, the road crossing on its dry bed.

The roads throughout the Valley are generally unimproved and a clever
plan has been adopted to keep down the dust, which would become almost
unbearable in this rainless region. The wide roadways are divided in
the center by a ridge of earth; and the sides are alternately flooded
with water from the irrigating ditches, a plan which keeps the dust
pretty well in control. But woe to the motorist who attempts to drive
across a "wet spot" before the road has thoroughly dried—the soil
usually partakes of the nature of quicksand; the car speedily settles
to the running boards and a stout team is about the only remedy for the
predicament.

We reached El Centro after dusk and repaired to the Oregon Hotel, a
fairly comfortable inn, though not good enough to satisfy the ambitions
of this live town, for the Barbara Worth, a hundred-thousand-dollar
steel-and-concrete structure, was building. El Centro has a population
of about six thousand and is a live place commercially, being the
capital and banking center of the Valley. It is substantially built
and we noted there has been developed a type of architecture designated
to mitigate the intense heat. The business buildings have arcades with
balconies along the streets and some of the houses and public buildings
have double roofs. Every sign pointed to the prosperity of the town and
it doubtless offers numerous opportunities to enterprising business men.

A favorite trip out of El Centro is to Calexico, eight miles distant
on the Mexican frontier, and the streets were thronged with Ford
cars bearing the legend, "Auto Stage to Calexico." At the time of our
visit, California state troops occupied this border town to forestall a
possible attack by the Mexican army in Mexicali, just across the line.
There was considerable uneasiness in the Imperial country in view of
the fact that the canal carrying the water supply passes through Mexican
territory.

This situation necessarily creates an element of uncertainty as to
the future of the Valley and a strong agitation is being made for
the construction of an all-American canal. So far little has been
accomplished in this direction, owing to the difficult terrain to be
crossed and the vast cost of such an enterprise. There is a feeling,
however, that such a canal must and will come in time.

The country about El Centro is typical of the whole Valley. As a
resident of the town said, "When you've seen one corner of the Imperial
Valley you've seen all of it—a flat, sandy plain cut up by irrigation
canals and covered in the cultivated parts with rank vegetation a
good part of the year." In the northern part of the Valley new lands
were being opened to the public and Nilands, a boom town, had sprung
up almost overnight. The "opening day" saw hundreds of people on hand
eager to purchase lots and many of them came to stay, for they brought
their household goods, which were piled promiscuously on the sand, often
without even the protection of a tent. The first move of the promoters
was to found a bank and a newspaper and to begin the erection of a
fifty-thousand-dollar hotel and a commodious schoolhouse. And so Nilands
took its place on the map and when the arid sands about it begin to
produce it will no doubt repeat the history of Holtville, Brawley, and
other thriving Imperial towns.

Motorists who come only on a sightseeing excursion will not care to
spend much time in the Valley. A round of twenty-five miles will take
in Imperial and Calexico and give a general idea of the thousand or
more square miles of reclaimed desert land. Touring conditions are far
from pleasant—rough roads, intense heat, and high winds with blinding
clouds of dust, being the rule. One can easily imagine what a commotion
a fifty-mile wind stirs up in this dry, sandy region, where it is
frequently necessary to stop until the dust blows away in order to see
the road. There is little to vary the monotony of the country, and it
is not strange that the average motorist is soon satisfied and longs
for the shady hills of the San Diego "Back Country." And so, after a
hasty survey, we retraced our way through the sands—and narrowly missed
"stalling" while incautiously passing a car laid up for repairs—to the
mountain wall which shuts in the Valley on the west.

I do not remember of ever having been in a fiercer wind than that which
swept down to meet us as we ascended Mountain Spring grade and at the
summit it almost seemed as if the wild gusts would sweep the car from
the road.

"It is sure some wind," said a native at the little supply shack. "Very
unusual, too. I've been in the Valley seven years and never saw it blow
like this before."

"Very unusual" is the stock phrase of every loyal Californian for any
unpleasant phenomenon of nature—excessive rain, heat, cold, fog, or wind
are all "very unusual" when so marked as to call forth comment from the
Eastern visitor.

Beyond Campo we followed the stage route to San Diego—mostly a down-hill
coast; it was scarcely necessary to use the engine on the eight miles of
the Potrero grade. This is part of the new San Diego County system and
a wonderful piece of road engineering it is. Though it skirts the edge
of the mountain from summit to foot, there are no steep pitches and but
few sharp corners; even the driver of the car could enjoy the wonderful
panoramas visible during the descent. The forty miles between Campo and
San Diego presents a series of wooded hills and sylvan glades which
more than once invited us to stop and rest in the shade of the great
oaks overarching the road. Such scenes made us anxious to see more of
the famous "Back Country," and when we once entered on this delightful
tour we were not satisfied until we had covered all the main roads of
the county.

From Del Mar on the following day we glided through winding byroads to
Escondido, which we had visited several times previously in course of
our rambles. It is a pretty little town of two thousand people, in the
center of a fertile valley exploited as the "Garden Spot of Southern
California"—a claim which might be quite correct if limited to San Diego
County. The valley is seven hundred feet above the sea, surrounded by
a circle of rugged hills with huge granite boulders jutting from the
dense green chaparral that clothes their sides. It produces small grain,
alfalfa, citrus fruits, apples, grapes, and berries of all kinds. There
is much truck-farming for the San Diego markets, and cattle and sheep
raising are carried on to a limited extent.

Out of this pleasant valley we followed the course of San Pasqual River
toward Ramona, and recalled that in this canyon a fight took place in
1846 between the Mexicans and Americans during the wild dash of Kit
Carson's rangers to summon aid from San Diego. The road was a quiet
one, winding among splendid trees and passing an occasional ranch-house
surrounded by fruit orchards in full bloom. Along the clear little
river were grassy glades carpeted with myriads of wild flowers—poppies,
Mariposa lilies, primroses, delicate bluebells, and others nameless
to us. Crossing the magnificent San Pasqual grade to Ramona we had a
glorious retrospect down the valley. It was typical of a large number of
valleys in the Back Country which constitute the agricultural resources
of San Diego County, and we could not help being impressed with the
small proportion that the tillable land bears to the rugged hills. The
city of San Diego can hardly base its hope of greatness on the country
lying behind it—always excepting the Imperial Valley.

Beyond Ramona to Santa Ysabel and Warner's Hot Springs the
characteristics of the country were quite the same. We pursued our way
through pleasant valleys between great oak-studded hills clothed with
lawnlike verdure to the very summit. Nowhere did we see larger or more
symmetrical oaks and in places our road ran under their overarching
branches. Every mile between Ramona and Warner's presented some phase
of scenic beauty; the road winds through virgin forests, courses through
wide, flower-spangled meadows and follows a clear stream for many miles.
A lonely ranch-house occasionally reminded us that we were still in the
confines of civilization. The only village, Santa Ysabel, is a little
supply station for the Indian reservation of the same name. The natives
here seemed prosperous and happy and we noticed a little vine-covered
church surmounted by the Catholic emblem, which told of their religious
preferences.

Warner's Hot Springs proved to be only a country store and post
office with a dozen or two adobe cottages which serve as guest-rooms.
Substantial meals were served in country style in a large central
dining-hall and if accommodations were primitive, charges were
correspondingly low. The springs have a good flow of mineral-impregnated
water at a temperature of one hundred forty-eight degrees and strong
claims are made for their medical properties. It is a very quiet, rural
spot and from our cottage veranda we had a fine view of the sunset
mountains beyond the wide plain of Mesa Grande. The air was vocal with
the song of birds—the trees about our cabin were alive with hundreds of
strawberry finches.

They told us that the country about the springs was once a famous
hunting-ground and though there is still sport in season, it does not
compare with that of a few years since. The beautiful California quail
are still numerous, but they have become so shy that it is difficult
to bag them. Water fowl are plentiful on the lakes of Warner's Ranch
and deer and antelope may be found in the mountains. Fishing is good in
the neighboring streams and these attractions bring many sportsmen to
Warner's during the season.

[Illustration: ROAD TO WARNER'S HOT SPRINGS
From Photograph by Harold Taylor]

For the average motorist, whose chief mission is to "see the country,"
the attractions of the resort will be quite exhausted in a night's
sojourn; indeed, were there a first-class hotel within easy reach he
might be satisfied with even a shorter pause. There is nothing nearer
northward than Hemet, fifty miles distant, and Riverside is eighty-five
miles away. There is a direct road leading through the rugged hills
to these points, a third "San Diego route," little used and unknown to
motorists generally. It goes by the way of Oak Grove and Aguanga—and the
traveler is quite likely to pass these points in blissful ignorance of
their existence if he does not keep a sharp lookout. The road is a mere
trail winding through sandy river washes, fording streams and finally
taking to rugged hills with many steep, rough grades. The signs of
the Southern California Auto Club will see you safely through; though
there are many places where one would be in a sad quandary were it not
for their friendly counsel. The wild beauty of the country, the wide
panoramas from the hill crests, the infinite variety and color of the
flowers along the way, the giant oaks in the canyons, the stretches of
the desert with cactus and scrub cedar, the variegated meadows, and
other interesting natural phenomena, will atone for the rough roads
and heavy grades, though it is a trip that we would hardly care to
make a second time. Beyond Hemet a perfect boulevard to Riverside gave
opportunity to make up for time lost in the hills.

Hemet and San Jacinto, two clean little towns about four miles apart,
are situated in a lovely valley beneath the snow-crowned peak that gives
its name to the latter village. Alfalfa meadows, grain fields and fruit
orchards surround them and give an air of peace and prosperity to the
pleasant vale. But when we visited the towns a few years later, most
of the brick buildings had been leveled to the ground by an earthquake
shock—an experience the same places had undergone about twenty years
before. It was a sad scene of desolation and destruction, but as the
shock occurred on a Sunday, when the brick buildings which suffered most
were unoccupied, there was no loss of life. It was noted that concrete
and frame structures were little injured and the towns have been rebuilt
in such a manner as to be nearly proof, it is believed, against future
quakes.

But we were not yet through with the Back Country. They told us at
Warner's that there was no more beautiful road in the county than the
one following the San Luis Rey River between Pala and Santa Ysabel. It
was closed by the landslide at the time, but a few days later we again
found ourselves in the quiet streets of Pala, intent on making the trip.
We had come direct from Temecula over the "big grade," a little-used
road across the great hill range between the Santa Margarita and San
Luis Rey Valleys. In all our wanderings I doubt if we found a dozen
miles of harder going than our climb over the Pala grade. A rough,
narrow trail, badly washed by recent rains, twisted around boulders and
among giant trees and pitched up and down frightful grades, often along
precipitous slopes. There were several stony fords to be crossed and
a wide stretch of heavy sand on the western side of the range. It is a
route to be avoided by people inclined to nervous qualms or who dislike
strenuous mountain work. No wonder the regular route to Pala runs by
way of Fall Brook and Bonsal, though the distance is greater by thirty
or forty miles.

[Illustration: A BACK COUNTRY VALLEY
From Photograph by Harold Taylor]

The San Luis Rey river road presented a repetition of much scenery such
as we saw on our Warner's Hot Springs trip. It does not leave the stream
for any considerable distance, often pursuing its course through a
tangle of forest trees. At times it comes out into the open and affords
picturesque views of the mountains that guard the valley on either hand.
A few miles from Pala a road branches off to Mount Palomar, from whose
summit, about four thousand feet high, may be seen on clear days one
of the famous panoramas of San Diego County. We were deterred from the
ascent by the lowering day, which shrouded the peak in heavy clouds.
There is a long though easy climb over the hill range on the edge of
"Valle de San Jose," from which we had a glorious outlook over a long
succession of ranges stretching away to the red glow of the sunset. For
the sun had struggled through the mists which obscured it most of the
day and was flooding the breaking clouds with deep crimson. Far below us
lay the valley with its patchwork of cultivated fields and red-roofed
ranch-houses at wide intervals. Beyond the crest of the grade the road
again descends to the river, which we followed to Santa Ysabel. From
here we pursued our way over familiar roads to San Diego, experiencing
no little satisfaction in having covered all the main highways—and many
of the byways—of the county.




VIII

THE SAN DIEGO COAST ROUTE


Like many a pious pilgrim of old, we set out on the King's Highway—the
storied Camino Real of the Golden State. We shall follow in the
footsteps of the brown-robed brothers of St. Francis to the northernmost
of the chain of missions which they founded in their efforts to convert
and civilize the red men of California. Not with sandals and staff, nor
yet with horse or patient burro shall we undertake the journey, but our
servant shall be the twentieth century's latest gift to the traveler—the
wind-shod motor car. And we shall not expect a night's lodging with a
benediction and Godspeed such as was given the wayfarer at each link
in the mission chain as he fared forth in days of old. We shall behold
loneliness and decay at these ancient seats of hospitality and good
cheer. But we are sure that we shall find in the crumbling, vine-covered
ruins a glamour of romance and an historic significance that would make
our journey worth while even if it did not take us through some of the


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Online LibraryThomas D. MurphyOn Sunset Highways → online text (page 10 of 25)