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Weekend Escape: San Diego County

Back Roads to the Border : Traveling two-lane byways to towns where the pace is slow, the history rich

May 25, 1997|SHEILA SOBELL | Sobell is a San Diego-based freelance writer

CAMPO, Calif. — We had waited all winter for this--blue skies feathered with wings of white clouds, the morning air already heating up with the promise of an early-summer's day. We looked at each other, said just two words, "Top down!" and headed for the garage to free our white 1980 MG roadster from its winter wrap.

Our objective, the town of Campo, is just 50 minutes from downtown San Diego--but it's only one mile north of the U.S.-Mexico border, and its rural roads and lush countryside seem far removed from any urban scene. In this bucolic setting, three museums offer local history--all within two miles of each other, so you can cover much of the area on foot.

With our New Zealand friends' restored 1972 mustard MGB closing fast behind us, we turned off California 125 South in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa for the last segment of the trip southeast down California 94. Shifting down this winding two-laner, we snaked our way through valleys once traversed by covered wagon and stagecoach. Today, Campo Valley--which roughly includes Campo, Lake Morena Village, Cameron Corners, the Campo Indian Reservation and Camp Lockett--retains some fine examples of its vanishing transportation heritage. Our first stop was the San Diego Railroad Museum, where we planned to board a restored diesel train for a trip across the border to the Mexican town of Tecate and the Tecate Brewery.

Everything about the train seemed authentic, down to the crusty old conductor who roared his displeasure at passengers who disembarked prematurely--before the trill of one long whistle.

Once aboard, we settled ourselves comfortably on the cane-backed seats--there must have been about 260 passengers in the seven cars--and opened the windows wide, inhaling the scents of the spring desert as we rolled south toward the border at a stately 15 mph. On the way, we read a brewery handout that warned against bringing cameras or video equipment inside the brewery, or wearing "articles of clothing advertising other beer manufacturers." And, yes, there were U.S. customs agents aboard and, yes, they did check I.D., so American passengers should carry a driver's license and foreigners a passport. The train pulled directly into the brewery grounds, where it idled until its 2:30 p.m. departure.

Having satisfied our hosts that we neither intended to steal brewery secrets nor undermine company morale, we disembarked and joined the others for a brief tour of the plant's state-of-the-art equipment. Released outside to the beer garden, we sampled a free glass of Tecate, the only beer brewed on the premises.

Despite the industrial presence of this, Baja's first maquiladora, the tiny village of Tecate seems almost as sleepy as it must have been 54 years ago when the plant was built. A handful of restaurants and shops stand in quiet sentry around the plaza. We chose a clean outdoor table at an old favorite, Cafe Le Jardin, where we could splurge on a feast of chicken fajitas and a Mexican combination plate for just $8.

The pace of this old colonial village was so gentle we felt reluctant to return north of the border. On the languorous journey back, we fell asleep--until we pulled up to the train depot in Campo's tiny historic center.

Across from the depot, in a grove of oak trees beside Campo Creek, is the century-old Gaskill Brothers Stone Store Museum. We paid our $2 admission and joined Roger Challberg, the Mountain Empire Historical Society's president, who sports a devilishly curved waxed mustache, for a free, docent-led tour. Inside, above the store-length counter, is an authentic Clabber Girl Baking Powder sign, canned goods of the period and most notably, a gallery of black-and-white photographs of pioneer women. The store also features a turn-of-the-century kitchen with a working washing machine, a vacuum cleaner and an ice box.

"Across the way is what's left of Camp Lockett, home to the army's last horse cavalry brigade." Challberg pointed to a row of clapboard buildings as we climbed upstairs to the military museum. Camp Lockett also served as a detention facility for World War II German and Italian POWs. Though the Germans were closely guarded, the Italians, who fell in love with San Diego because its climate reminded them of home, were given plum assignments as drivers and landscapers.

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