In 1923, Bert Vaughn believed this corner of California was destined for big things: namely, that it was going to become a border crossing area. So, in anticipation of the future economic boom, he bought the whole damn town and set himself to the task of increasing his personal fortunes. One of the ways he sought to do so was by building a roadside attraction as a “monument to the pioneers”, though mostly it was to advertise his bar. Although the town’s border crossing dreams never came to fruition, the roadside attraction did: the desert view tower. Constructed from the wooden remains of an old plank road running over the sand, the tower has seen some updates since then–the lower circular portion was added in 1950 when it changed hands. From that point forward, the tower has remained much the same, even as ownership changed, and is now a California historical monument.
As I approached the tower entrance, I spotted a dog flopped across the stairs, basking in the sun. I didn’t want to startle it by stepping over it, so I tried making some noise to wake it up. The dog could not have been less interested in the prospect of waking up, so I carefully stepped around it and went inside, where I found another super chill dog flopped out on a couch. I don’t know what exactly is in the water of these Jacumba hot springs to make these dogs not even care who the heck is stepping into their abode, but they should definitely bottle and sell it as I happen to know a small dog who could use a little chilling out.
For a pittance per person ($6.50, or the cost of one regrettable drive through meal), I got access to the tower itself as well as the at-my-own-risk boulder park next door. Cheap thrills! I singlemindedly climbed all the stairs, ignoring the ephemera on each floor in favor of seeing the view first. After four flights of stairs, there’s a large viewing area, and the option of ascending a much narrower set of wooden stairs with room for one or two people at the very top, and I climbed this as well, cramming ahead of Jason who mostly got a view of my butt. The view was a bit better on the larger platform below, or at least I felt safer looking in all directions without worrying that I’d put a leg through the stairs while distracted, or be knocked off the stairs entirely by the wind. A sign on the gate says that they close the tower when wind speeds hit 110 mph so on the day I visited, it must have been below that threshold, but it was still strong enough that if I faced the wind and opened my mouth, the wind would breathe for me, saving a little mileage on my lungs. (I’m trying to keep them supple and youthful for all of those marathons I won’t be running and/or for when I inevitably run into an organs dealer in a back alley, I would hate for him to get a terrible price on the black market because of all of that time I spent carelessly breathing, the nerve.)
On the way back down the stairs, I checked out the dust-covered doodads and geegaws lining the cases, but as there was precious little information about any of it to place it in context, I moved on rather quickly, having no patience for the “What inspired them to put this dragon figurine next to this string of christmas lights and Himalayan salt lamp?” guessing game.
Back outside, it was time to take my life into my hands at the boulder park. On my way in, I encountered a British couple outfitted in safari hats, who excitedly asked me how I’d heard about this place (as they were the only other people I’d seen there, and the reverse was presumably true for them), which sounded a bit like “Oi! This place is brilliant! ‘Ow’d you hear it about, then? Chip chip cheerio, time for a spot of tea!”. You may think this isn’t an accurate transcription of the conversation, but I guarantee they will tell their friends they ran into some Americans who told them that “like, oh my god, I like, totally read about it on the internet or something dumb like that, it’s so dumb, everyone is so dumb” so this cultural conversational mistranslation goes both ways.
The boulder park was constructed during the 1930s, when out of work engineer Merle Ratcliff carved effigies in the stone for the supposed wage of a dollar and a jug of wine a day. That day rate seems suspect to me, but I do like a good legend, so I’ll let it slide. Either way, Merle was an industrious worker, and his carvings are generally whimsical and have stood the test of time. It was seriously fun to clamber over all of these boulders–I felt like I was getting away with something, that someone would pop their head out of the tower and yell “Hey you, get down from there!” No yell ever came, and I happily jumped from boulder to boulder, ducked under others, squeezed through narrow passageways, and warmed myself on a rock like a fat rattlesnake. Thankfully no actual rattlesnakes, fat or otherwise, made an appearance, or there would have been a brand new boulder in my pants.