Grandiosa, where California, Mexico and the Pacific meet
Grandiosa, where California, Mexico and the Pacific meet

So Grandiosa and I were loose down in Southern California for a week. I’m about 80% retired now, which helps a lot, but romantic entanglements prevent me from going completely walkabout this summer. I used the few days to brush up on my horsecamping preparatory to going whole hog in September and November.

            Tuesday was pretty excellent. We parked near a gap in the secondary border fence at the first possible jumpoff point west of San Ysidro and rode up onto the berm to take a look at Mexico. By the time I had snapped a picture and turned around, three Border Patrol bikers and two of their trucks were on us like iron filings on an electromagnet.

            We headed west, sticking as close to the border as convenient. The fenceline tracks a geographic meridian up and down hills, which makes it harder to follow than, for example, the power line strip running straight through the Concord hills. But the Tijuana River, presumably the original border drawn after we kicked Santa Anna’s ass, runs through a subtropical little river valley just north of the line. It’s now a funky, undeveloped park and, amazingly, a collection of stables. The footing on the trails is mostly great: soft dried alluvial mud singletrack and BP ATV trails cut through the undergrowth or leading alongside a couple of farms. We saw a few pairs of stable-type riders and one caballero on a big palomino. I guess when he saw us gaiting along he thought he’d show us a thing or two himself and trotted ahead, did a sliding stop and then rapid spins in both directions.

The border
The border fence

            I was impressed and praised his horse, and told him Yo voy al mar, which he acknowledged with a nod. The last couple of miles before the dunes are a typical marsh maze and three times we reached cul-de-sacs, surf tantalyzingly visible just beyond the last uncrossable yard-wide slough. When we finally found our way to the beach it was deserted, with only hoofprints to be seen in the firm damp sand. We made our way down the beach towards Mexico, seabirds and shorebirds for company. When we reached the border, we found that the secondary chain link fence washed away well up the beach while the close-spaced line of railroad rails driven vertically into the sand marking the actual border march well out into the waves. Fancy retirement and vacation housing crowd up on the Mexican side, and beachcombers and exercise walkers were strolling up and down.

            I tied Grandiosa to one of the rails just above the surf, which she eyed nervously while I recorded the occasion. A Border Patrol truck watched while I waited for Grandi to give me the pose I wanted, and when we finally came up off the sand the cop asked me where I was born and whether I had passed anything through the fence, and told me I shouldn’t even have crossed the notional line of the secondary fence. He was ok with my promise not to go back.

            The beach wasn’t hot enough for the end of June, so we headed for the Imperial Valley. If you want to gait all day on smooth level dirt in any direction, this place is for you. It’s as flat as an iron skillet and usually over 100 degrees this time of year. As far as I can tell the only other reason to be here is if you want to farm – I didn’t even see any mad dogs or Englishmen. The countryside is laid out in a grid of one mile squares bounded and bisected by roads paved and unpaved and laced with the canals that keep the whole thing going, and spotted with blocks, even walls of bales of alfalfa, grass and hay, thousands and thousands of bales; whenever we’d stop by one for relief from the sun Grandiosa would pass the time ripping off mouthsful. Occasional clumps or lines of eucalyptis and palms, so rare that at times none could be seen, offered oases of shade. Frequently there would be workers on break under them, or residents apparently just wanting to be out of the house, which likely lacked air conditioning if it was as downscale as their car.

            We took off south from El Centro and gaited, gaited, gaited. Grandiosa needs the practice, and this place is perfect. To defy me she leans forward into the headstall and speeds up, but now in the course of the day’s endless miles of straightaway she was almost always willing to maintain pretty smooth collection with only rhythmic taps on the halter and loose legs. We even got to work on smoothing out the transition from gait to walk, although it was still haphazard.

            By lunchtime we hit Calexico. I was hoping for a Starbucks but had to settle for an Applebee’s, but the Germany-Ghana match on the big screen was a surprise consolation, even if the commentary was in Spanish. On the way back we passed a road sign saying “Elevation Sea Level,” and we were sizzling at 106, so I led her quite a bit. I had forgotten the shower cap and never saw a single bucket, but we found one place where the water in a cement-lined distribution channel came close enough for her to reach, so she tanked up there going and coming, and at one point I cadged a bucketful from a crew pouring concrete on the edge of town.

            Still, she was not in peak condition and the 25 miles must have taxed her: that night she lay down, even tied to the trailer, to judge from the manure stains on her side and fly mask the next morning. To rest up the next day I figured we’d go a little higher up, into the desert hills of Yuha Desert to the west. Somehow Anza made it through here twice, in armor, once with oxcarts. If it was in June, I declare us to be a society of wimps. It was hotter here than in the valley, and so sandy and rocky I led Grandiosa most of the time. After we left the highway and passed the Border Patrol offroader surveillance all was silence. On higher ground the desolation was endless, and in the washes writhing between jagged walls it was Martian. At the end of a ten-mile loop I tanked the horse up on five or six gallons of supermarket water from one of the flagged caches dotted alongside the east-west sand track combed to capture illegal footprints.

            The last day, we set out east toward the Alamo River. The canals in the Valley are either irrigation or drainage, but alongside the former one often sees pneumatic-tired pods with the names of chemical supply companies on them and slender rubber tubes snaking over the bank, and the latter flow with unnatural-colored fluids. Several miles along one of these, we came to Imperial Valley College and next to it the county museum, closed now like most nonessential public institutions in California, its grounds littered with broken-down old farm equipment. The chemicals that pervade the valley and poison New River on the west, where the signs warn you off in English and Spanish, have been applied since white man came, if the rusted-out horse-drawn tank wagon is evidence. But it’s been a money-maker – the irrigation district ran its own railroad, the rolling stock now corroding away on a siding here. To judge from their nearly total share of the campaign signs, seats on the irrigation district board command far and away the most attention from the electorate. And who am I to complain? Even if we’re so far outside the economical shipping distance that my horses don’t get fed from here, there’s every chance that my steaks and hamburgers are intermediate between me and some of this fodder.

            Again we made a big loop; by now Grandi and I were much better adapted and even the afternoon’s hot wind was no more than another aspect of the inferno. The hours and miles had done their work and I sat almost throughout with legs dangling and reins only taut with gentle rhythmic tweaks at the extension point of each stride.

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