Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lost Travelers on the Old Road

Throughout the 1990s, we lived in Horsethief Canyon Ranch, between Corona and Lake Elsinore, California.  This development of about 1,200 homes was built on a terraced bajada slope – an area of tilted land made up of decomposed granite and alluvial sand washed out of the Santa Ana mountains.  At the bottom of the slope, and running perpendicular to it, is Interstate 15 and the somewhat more twisty old Temescal Canyon Road.  All of this sits in the Temescal Canyon which runs from Corona to the northwest, past Lake Elsinore, down to Temecula to the southeast. Geologically, the canyon was created by a branch of the San Andreas fault.

Horsethief Canyon Ranch is marked with a pin
Click for larger image

In the olden days, Temescal Canyon was part of the route to and from Southern California across the desert.  It was the natural trail, used by the local Indians, the early Spanish explorers, missionaries, various outlaws (for example, the horse thieves who kept stolen horses up in the slope in the box canyon), John Fremont, and the Butterfield Stage.

"Temescal" is actually an Aztec word for hothouse or sweat lodge.  And it does get incredibly hot.  The joke we used to tell about how Lake Elsinore was named described an old padre who sent a Indian over the mountains from the coast to see what was there.  All he found was oven-like heat, a  lake full of algae, and hot sulfurous springs.  When he got back, the missionary asked him what it was like.  He sighed and responded "It's Hell, Señor."  And the name stuck.

I often thought about the history of this route when I drove on Temescal Canyon Road down to Lake Elsinore or up to Tom's Farm (about 4 miles up the road) to buy gas or groceries.  It is very deserty and rather untraveled.

Down by Alberhill, the road goes through a bosque of large eucalyptus trees, and is very dark and creepy at night.  In the late 1980's, a serial killer, William Suff, dumped the bodies of some of his victims in that area.  In a spiritual sense, I think the road could be said to be "in dispute".

Oddly, I sometimes found travelers, like ghosts, still walking along the trail.  Homeless people seemed to gravitate to this natural path despite the heat and lack of population.  These folks were of the true homeless class, not the kind that collect money on street corners (sometimes making a good living at it).  Out by themselves, far from towns, and clearly destitute, these people were definitely on the razor's edge.  Several times, I stopped to make sure they were OK, and did what I believed I could for them.

One such gentleman told me he had started up in Washington State and had walked most of the way.  His shoes certainly looked like it.  They had once been dress shoes, but were now all curled up and worn through to his feet.  His face was crusted with sweat and dirt.  Heading south, I offered to take him down to Lake Elsinore, but he declined.  He said he was trying to find a friend who he thought lived in San Diego, maybe.  I gave him all the bills I had in my wallet.

Another guy was heading north, walking an old bicycle.  The bike had two flat tires and a broken frame mended with two pieces of wooden lath lashed to it with string.  He smelled bad, but we threw his bike in the back of the truck and I took him to the Carl's Jr. at Tom's Farm.  I had to press him to take money.  He finally took eleven dollars and went into the fast food restaurant.

One day, I was headed down to the McDonald's in Lake Elsinore to pick up cheeseburgers for the kids.  It was cheap cheeseburger day, so I was going to get like 12 of them.  The temperature outside was around 110 degrees.  Just as soon as I turned onto Temescal Canyon Road, there was a guy walking southeast with the look I was beginning to know well:  long olive drab pants, beard, old oily shirt, stained baseball cap, encrusted day pack over his shoulder, sweat streaming down his face.

Money wasn't what he needed.  I knew I could find him again in 15 minutes.

I bought a ton of cheeseburgers, and stopped at a gas station to buy three quarts of cold water. Sure enough, driving back, I found the guy easily.  I stepped out of my truck and he came over.  "You need any water?" "God, yes."  I handed him the bottles, and he opened one of them and took several long drinks.  He took 6 of the cheeseburgers, very thankfully.  We talked only a little; most of these folks are not real big on conversation.  He said, "I was praying for this."  "Well," I said, "these aren't from me then are they?"  "Nope, they are from the Lord."  He glanced at me and ate more cheeseburgers, washing them down with more ice cold water.

I asked him if he needed a lift.  No, he knew some people in Lake Elsinore and would be OK.  I had started to wonder about these kinds of statements, because I had heard similar things from other such travelers.  Every one of them seemed to have someone nearby, and some place they were going.  You see, they weren't actually homeless; they weren't actually wandering aimlessly across the country. They had a friend, or a relative – someone – they were on their way to visit.  I think most of them actually believed it themselves, because the alternative was so horrible.  Not only were they homeless, jobless, and in the middle of nowhere – they were also friendless.  Completely alone in the world.  And that could not be acknowledged.

The guy went south with cheeseburgers and water, and I went north to deliver cheeseburgers to my kids in my nice air-conditioned house.  I look back on all of this, ten years on, and wish I could have done more than just give them enough food and water for the rest of the day.

The next morning, they had nothing again.

I wonder if any of them are even still alive.


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