Sunday, September 21, 2008

Traveler's Tales

We were bored to tears yesterday, and so we decided to take a ride and maybe have lunch someplace along the way. It turned into a bit of a strange day in some ways...

We left the house here at nearly 4,500 feet elevation at around 9:30 or so and headed east along the route of Old Highway 80. California Highway 80 is a lot like the old US Route 66...the Interstate Highway 8 replaced it and a lot of small towns were killed by the change. Like Jacumba. There isn't much to Jacumba now, but you can still tell that, at one time, it was a thriving town.

We saw some work being done on the border fence near Jacumba, and that was interesting. I mean that they were working on Saturday. Is it so critical that we pay who-knows how much in overtime to get it done a few days sooner?


The scenery was gorgeous. He desert has it's own special attraction. A unique ecosystem of plants and animals evolved to survive in the hot, dry conditions. Oh, did I mention that it was about 48 degrees when we left the house? More on that in a minute.

We stopped at a place I've often seen but never visited: The Desert Tower.

This is an old rock tower built in the early 1900s that now overlooks Interstate 8 and the desert to the east. The tower is about 90 feet tall, and for a small fee ($3.50 for adults and $2.50 for kids), you can climb the steps to the top. It's a wonderful view, though the wind was vicious. At the top of the tower, you're standing about 1,000 feet above sea level, and you can see the desert dropping off to the horizon.

The admission also lets you walk around the grounds and visit the "caves" and "springs". The caves are actually a jumble of huge boulders and the owners have built steps into the rocks to make it easier walking. At some point in the 1930s a previous owner carved some whimsical creatures into the rocks. Everywhere there are dragons, lizards, Native Americans, skulls, turtles, and other treasures peeking at you. I won't tell you about the surprise waiting for you at the springs, though. All I'll say is that it's worth the 10-15 minutes walking and the effort to climb the rocks.

Let me go back to the tower for a minute...the place is full of antiques, trinkets, and other goodies. Some are for sale and some are for display only. On one of the floors as you climb to the top is a small art gallery, and the work is impressive.

Let's be honest here...The Desert Tower is a tourist trap in the fashion of the old places along the long-dead highway systems that the Interstate highways murdered. In and of itself, that makes The Desert Tower a very special place. We spent nearly two hours exploring the tower and grounds, and we loved every moment of it.

Well, except the part that the temperature had climbed to about 85 degrees.

If you're ever in the area, drop in and check the place out. It's a real bargain and you won't regret it.

We left there and headed on east, lower and farther into the desert toward El Centro.

As we dropped in elevation, the temperature climbed. When we took the Imperial Ave. exit from I-8 into El Centro, we drove past the high school, and the sign there said the temperature was 98 degrees, and I believe it. It was just plain hot.

We were looking for someplace to eat, and I wanted to go to the Sonic in El Centro, but everyone else wanted Mexican food, so I was out voted. We followed highway 86 toward Brawley, and got to see the new Wal Mart Super-Center that's under construction. Big place!

Oh, as we drove by the sugar beet plant, I noticed a mark about halfway up the side of one of their big silos...a simple white line labeled "Sea Level."

We had to make a U-turn to go back to the restaurant that everyone saw and decided would be our lunch destination. The name is Tacos & Beer and that seemed appropriate for our plans.

The little thermometer in the truck claimed the temperature outside was 104, but I don't believe it. It was more like 110! The pavement of the parking lot felt hot right through my shoes, and poor Tripper was doing the two-step when he jumped down from the truck to the asphalt. And that's not too easy for a 3-legged dog!

It turned out that Tacos & Beer is essentially a sports bar. The place is big, clean, and the many TVs, pool tables, and dartboards gave an ambiance that I liked. There were only a couple of other tables occupied when we were there, but I could tell that the service would be good even if the place were full. We grabbed a table and took a look at the menu. Other than a few burgers and a couple of steaks, the offerings were all Mexican. I got the chimichanga and a glass of Fat Tire beer.

The chips and salsa present at all such restaurants were amazingly good. The chips were fresh, still hot from the fryer, and the salsa had a homemade taste with only a hint of cilantro. We went through two baskets while waiting for our meals.

Now, the beef chimichanga was delicious, and I don't mean to minimize that in any way. It had some spice to it, but not so much that it burned my mouth. In other words, the flavor of the spices and peppers came through, but it didn't overpower the other flavors. But the beans and rice on the side...

I love refried beans and rice, and I've had some good stuff in the past. Of course, I've also had some bad beans and rice, too. But the beans and rice at Tacos & Beer are some of the best I've ever had. Maybe the best. I didn't ask, but the beans tasted homemade, too. It seems that the normal canned beans used by so many restaurants have too much grease or oil, but these were perfect. The seasoning was, just as with the chimichanga, dead on...spicy but not too hot to eat. The rice had a hint of saffron and was cooked to perfection—fluffy and soft.

If you're ever in Brawley, make sure to stop by Tacos & Beer and enjoy a, well, taco and beer!

By the time we left the restaurant, after eating way too much, it was really hot outside. The display in the truck said it was just after 2:00 PM and 111 degrees.

We continued north along highway 78 through the farmlands of the Imperial Valley. The dust from the farms was dense in some places, and we went through Westmorland, and a few other little farming towns before we started to climb back up the mountains toward Julian.

The amazing thing was how little traffic there was. Near the town of Ocotillo Wells is an off-road vehicle park run by the state, and the place is usually packed. We could see dust coming from the park, but very little traffic was on the road. I guess that gas prices have impacted the ATV folks, too.

As we got higher and higher in the mountains, the temperature began to drop, and we turned off the AC in the truck at about 3,000 feet because it was actually cold outside. The thermometer read 68 degrees by the time we reached Julian.

Julian is a nice little town, in a tourist trap sort of way. They claim to sell Julian Apples there, but most are brought in on trucks with Washington plates. Go figure. Their big industry is tourism. The place was a ghost town. Another testament to rising gas prices, I guess.

We stayed on 78 and went through the Cuyamaca State Park area, past Lake Cuyamaca, and on into Descanso. From there it was only a few miles on home, and the thermometer there told me it was 61 degrees at 5:30 PM.

In an eight-hour period, we had gone from chilly temperatures to scorching hot and from nearly 5,000 feet above sea level to a hundred or so feet below sea level and back again. My sinuses are still messed up!

This morning, I got up about 4:30 AM or so, and it was 39.

All in all, it was a fun day spent with the family. We found a couple of great places to visit in The Desert Tower and at Tacos & Beer, and we'll probably go back to both sometime. We saw some scenery of staggering beauty. And we had a chance to just relax and enjoy the day.

You should try it sometime!

Keep Loving!

Melodee Aaron, Erotica Romance Author

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Inquisitor Betrayer

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