October 29, 2012
This morning I am so tired I can hardly pack my bags. We discover that both our front tires are flat. I laze around on the sofa, reading books left in the recreation room by other campers, while Christof changes them. We load up our gear and now both back tires are flat.
Christof repairs these, and in the meanwhile my front tire is flat again! Goat heads have thorns so tiny they are invisible and almost imperceptible. Our tires are filled with their prickers, and Christof spends ages extracting them with pliers and tweezers.
By the time we ride off, it’s 10:00 and burning hot. I’m crabby and exhausted, and the last thing I want to do is to ride up Interstate 8, on the steepest mountain on the entire Southern Tier Route. Ed and Linda – whom we met in New Mexico – offered to pick us up and to drive us to their home in San Diego, so we could avoid this horrible stretch of the journey. Now I regret not having called them, and although I try to hitch a ride in Ocotillo, no cars pass us. Christof is impatient and rides off leaving me no choice but to follow him, grumbling. We’ve hardly gotten onto the interstate when a woman in a security vest and a pink hard hat stops us:
– I’m sorry but we are doing construction on this road and we can’t allow you to continue. I’m here to drive you past the construction zone.
I can’t believe my ears, it’s as if an angel heard my prayers. She waits while we load up the van, saying that not every one she ferries up the mountain is grateful for the ride. Many cyclists come from San Diego for the sole purpose of climbing the mountain, and finding their intention blocked, take out their frustrations on her. Most long distance travelers are grateful for the respite.
She drives us up the steepest part of the mountain, saving us from the harrowing experience of navigating two bridges without shoulders on the Interstate. It’s a ten mile short cut through the steepest part of the route. The rest of the day is spent on Old Highway 80, now empty, because interstate travel is infinitely faster.
There are other long strenuous climbs through boulder fields in the midday heat, but luckily the gradients are manageable.
At first, Jacumba Hot Springs, the only town we pass though, looks like a ghost town – tracts of empty stores and hotels, but rounding a bend in the middle of town, we stumble across a group of people sitting in front of a small café. Thrilled at the prospect of food, drink and conversation, we stop and chat with one of the two café owners. He’s like a wind-up toy. Full of energy, he moves about frenetically, almost like he couldn’t stand still even if he wanted to, talking excitedly the whole time. He claims he’s the Rockefeller who distinguished himself by ‘escaping’ the family.
– Are you happy you escaped, I gibe, did it all work out like you dreamed?
– It did, it did. I raised four kids that weren’t mine, and now we’re rebuilding Jacumba Hot Springs. When we moved here eleven years ago, the town was below zero, he holds his hand down low, to demonstrate the depths it had sunk to.
– Now, he raises his hand a bit, it’s at zero. This café is my life’s work, the meeting place for the community. Last year a real estate tycoon from San Diego purchased the entire town.
Imagine! One person buying an entire town. Only in the Wild West.
Newspaper articles about the sale are plastered onto the door of a closed shop. The new owner of Jacumba wants to activate the tourist trade by organizing chili cook-offs and other cultural events to bring in visitors. Presently the only tourists are bicyclists and motorcyclists, taking the scenic route along Old Highway 80. Jacumba is only an hour from San Diego and once had more than 5000 inhabitants, and tourists who came here specifically for the hot springs. Today only 500 people are left, all hoping for a town renaissance.
Mike Rockefeller repeatedly reminds us to visit the hot springs before leaving. Expecting something special, we follow a dirt path towards the sulfureous odor of rotting eggs. An old stained bathtub standing in the middle of a weed patch strewn with garbage and discarded plastic pipes is half filled with steaming yellowish water. I take off my shoes and gingerly ease into the incredibly hot water, feeling uninspired to do more than stand there for a short moment.
The journey continues uphill along the Mexican border. A high metal fence dividing the countries looks impossible to pass, but the border patrol drives past us in jeeps all day long, controlling the empty road.
A short stop at a campground to look at costly, run down cabins. A tramp resting in front of the small gas station at the bottom of the hill, a rugged backpack at his feet, sees us deliberating on whether to spend the night. He suggests we press onto Pine Valley, which he says has a better and cheaper campground.
We continue up the mountain, and later enjoy cruising down the other side into a golden grassy glade surrounded by lush green growth, alit by the late afternoon sun. The climb up the next mountain is in the cool shade of the ending day, past a young couple engaged in earnest conversation outside two cars parked on a wide shoulder in the middle of the mountainous incline.
– Everything o.k.? we ask as we huff past.
– Yes, this is midway point between our houses, the baby exchange, they explain pointing to a baby in the backseat of one of the cars.
I ask if they know how long the next mountain is.
– Four or five miles, the man answers, mentioning that a muscle group I’ve never heard of will be burning by the time we get to the top.
Passing the Border Patrol, a manned toll booth, that lets us through without asking to see our passports, and climbing further, crossing over Interstate 8 before finally rolling downhill into Pine Valley. The wind has a wintery breath, freezing us to the bone on the long ride down.
In Pine Valley there aren’t any campground signs. At the general store, the young clerk claims that there isn’t a campground in town, and proceeds to give complicated directions to another one somewhere else. The sun is sinking, and we can’t continue riding on shadowy mountainous roads to a remote village before dark.
Hoping that the clerk is too young to know his way about, I stop a red-headed woman in the parking lot, asking her about the campground. She confirms what we already know. There isn’t a campground in Pine Valley.
Telling a man in the pickup she was getting into when I stopped her to wait, she gestures for me to follow her into the store.
– There’s a lady in town, she says, who allows bicyclists to camp in her backyard.
Wondering if she belongs to warmshowers.com, I feel my spirits rise.
The redhead looks up the number, and handing me a small slip of paper on which both her name and Corinne’s number is written, tells me to say she sent us.
The store keeper, who followed our exchange, offers to call Corinne himself, saying he knows her well.
Putting his hand over the receiver he asks:
– Have you had dinner yet?
– We haven’t, but we’d like to invite Corinne to a pizza at your store.
– She’s already cooking dinner, and says you can come by.
We buy some wine and following the storekeeper’s directions, turn into a spacious neighborhood of houses scattered across a wooded hill.
At the house a Rottweiler charges down the driveway barking. This breed comes from the very town – Rottweil – that Christof grew up in! Corinne comes out to greet us and laughs about how news travels and the assumptions neighbors make. She doesn’t take in cyclists. We were sent here because a German bicyclist turned up at her house one evening asking if he could camp in her yard. She found the situation uncomfortable because she was home alone, both her son and husband were away, and her house is not on the main road. Despite misgivings, she allowed him to set up his tent and invited him into the house for a shower. Realizing what a risk she was taking, she quickly called her best friend Jan – a colleague from school – while her guest showered. Telling her of the unexpected visitor, and asking her to check up, should she be absent from work the next day!
Having taken sensible precautions, Corinne relaxed. She invited her camper to dinner and spent a pleasant evening with him. After he left, she continued to follow his progress across the United States by reading his daily blogs.
It’s dark and cold by the end of the story and Corinne invites us inside her home, offering us a guest room. The cozy upstairs room – decorated with indigenous art – has an independent entrance, a trundle bed, and a private bathroom.
At dinner we meet her son, and later her friend Jan – the colleague she called when the German cyclist was here – comes by for hamburgers and a chat.
After Jan leaves, we sit at the counter keeping Corinne company while she bakes chocolate chip cookies for the local firemen. As secretary of the elementary school, she calls on them in emergencies, and is grateful that they react quickly whenever help is needed. Occasionally she shows her gratitude by treating the guys to some home-baked goodies. It’s not for nothing that Jan referred to her friend as ‘Betty Crocker’.