The Sleepy Town That's Never Burned - Voice of San Diego

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The Sleepy Town That's Never Burned

In the tiny East County town of Guatay, there’s no cell phone reception, restaurant or door-to-door mail and newspaper delivery. But there are plenty of signs of life.

The sign outside the Guatay Country Store is riddled with bullet holes.

Next door, Lamont Kennedy sits on the front porch of his one-room cabin with a beer resting on his knee. He knows who did it. But he won’t say.

“Can’t tell you,” he said, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses that protect them from the hours each day he spends sitting, just like this, in the sun. What he will say is that the perpetrator, a friend of his, took issue with the sign and so, shot it up.

“It says they got the coldest beer in the mountains.” He massaged the blue foam sleeve around his Budweiser. “But they don’t. Coldest beer’s down the junction.”

Rick Matti, who owns the store — the only one in this town of roughly 800 — chafed at the prospect that there is a colder beer than his when he strolled over to Kennedy’s porch while he waited for customers.

But it doesn’t surprise him that in this speck of a town 40 miles east of downtown San Diego, someone would have so strong a reaction to such an innocuous, if unsubstantiated, marketing ploy.

Boredom is as likely a motive as spite for the offense, he said. In Guatay, there’s not much in the way of frills. The town lacks cell phone reception, a restaurant, and door-to-door mail and newspaper delivery. There is no television service unless you have a satellite, or public transportation, except for the rural bus that rolls through twice a week on the way to El Cajon. Be sure to call and reserve a seat in advance.

“When I first arrived, I didn’t know if I would survive,” said Matti, an immigrant from Iraq who bought the town store eight years ago, and very soon doubted whether he could spend 12 hours of every day so off the grid.

Charles Kadas, who lives in a fenced-in house on the edge of town, moved here 40 years ago. A friend told him the mountain at the base of which the town is perched had never burned.

Guatay – Images by Sam Hodgson For full size images, click on the bottom right hand corner of the player

And this is Guatay, whose residents say it is best known for the fact that it has yet to be engulfed by flames. The legend goes it is protected by the spirit of a Kumeyaay chief buried on Mount Guatay, which rises in verdant splendor behind the 85 spaces of the deceptively named Pine Valley RV Park, one of two mobile home parks in town.

The town center sprouts up for little more than a quarter-mile on either side of Old Highway 80, which until Interstate 8 was your best option to drive from San Diego to Arizona. Its two narrow lanes separate Matti’s store, a hardware store, a farm supplier and a wooden spoon gallery on one side from a church, a tow yard, and the entrance to the RV park on the other. On a map, Guatay resembles a knot in the winding road.

“Blink and you’ll miss it,” said Peggy Sue Ashby, who helps her husband manage the Pine Valley RV Park. Its owner, attuned to the power of place-based marketing, and sensing Guatay was not the place, changed its name not long ago.

“He thought it made sense, because everyone knows where Pine Valley is,” Ashby said. “No one knows where Guatay is.”

In fact, the town is the rough midpoint between Pine Valley three miles east and Descanso three miles west. Today, you might pass through Guatay if you’re a student from Descanso heading to the elementary school in Pine Valley. Or if you’re a student in Pine Valley heading to the middle school in Descanso.

Or if you’re misfortunate enough to have your car towed anywhere between here and Campo, and find yourself in front of Dick’s Tow Yard, one of five businesses in the center of town.

“They pull up to pick up their cars and try to use their cell phones,” Kennedy said from his porch across the street. “We just laugh at them.”

A few steps away, in her double-wide mobile home at the entrance to the RV park, Peggy Sue Ashby has been witness to the town’s ups and downs, to its local controversies.

Like two years ago, when the Guatay Christian Fellowship, the town church that occupies a building in the RV Park, was almost forced to close because unbeknownst to most, the building was permitted for a bar, not a church.

Rumors spread that some of the trailer park’s residents preferred a bar there, since the town doesn’t have one, and complained.

Good thing that one passed, Ashby said, because for 20 years, she and her husband have been trying to rid the RV park of its association with ill-repute. It is occupied by aged trailers separated by dusty walkways and barely paved roads. It is mostly quiet except for the occasional bark of a dog. But when she moved there 25 years ago, it was populated by drug users and a meth lab.

She recalled an incident, early on, when she blew a whistle from the entrance to her trailer to summon her children for dinner. All around her, she heard toilets flushing.

Water is audible running through the pipes of the park’s plug-and-go septic system, so it is no secret when a neighbor goes to the bathroom. But all of them at once?

“I found out later they thought there was a police raid, and they were all flushing their dope.”

Residents of the Heavenly Oaks mobile home park a mile up Old Highway 80, replete with asphalt roads, a club house and a swimming pool, turn their noses up at the RV park. They blamed the park’s children with luring their children into trouble.

“This is not an RV park. This is a mobile home park,” Nancy Kerr, a current resident and former manager of Heavenly Oaks, said at the suggestion that her community, too, was an RV park. RV parks are for trailers, not the grounded, often double-wide mobile homes with porches and little patches of grass that you find in Heavenly Oaks. “You’ve got to be very careful. People find that very offensive. Pine Valley RV had a reputation.”

It’s been changing since Ashby was approached by the RV park’s owner to manage it. She accepted the offer, and worked with a firm hand to turn the park around.

The mild-mannered woman described, for example, how she surreptitiously let a baseball bat down on the hood of the meth lab owner’s Corvette. He used to rev his engine to intimidate her as he drove by while she played ball with her children. She established due dates for rent, which didn’t exist before.

The park has improved, home now to seniors living a meager retirement and unable to afford much more than the $322 they pay each month to rent a space for their trailers in park. Or to families who in recent years have lost their homes to foreclosure and are trying to get back on their feet, never having expected they would end up someplace like Guatay.

“You’re desperate for somewhere to live and you look for an inexpensive place,” Ashby said. “We’re one of the least expensive places to live in the whole county.”

But it’s a community no less because of that, she said, evident in the Cool Whip containers — “the fine china of Guatay” — that she fills with food and sends to the town’s families whose food stamps run out early in the month. Many rely on the weekly food distribution at the church and only occasional trips to the grocery store in Alpine, 13 miles away.

Still, she said, for many who have never been to Guatay, the austerity of life there can “culture shock. Usually, someone from the city, they’re traumatized.”

As she spoke, a census worker knocked on her door, a look of desperation on her face, and asked if there was anyone living in space 63. “I just need to know if there was someone living there on April 1,” she said. “It looks like the door has a realtor’s lock on it,” she said.

There is no foreclosure in this RV park. “If there’s a trailer there, there’s someone living in it,” Ashby said, sending the worker on her way.

“They used to say all the bad kids lived down here,” Ashby went on. “But 90 percent of our trouble came from over there,” she said, referring to the children from Heavenly Oaks, who she said stirred trouble at the RV park in the past.

“You never hear about all the good stuff going on. The people cleaning up their lives, moving out and buying a house,” she said.

“When everyone leaves the booze alone,” she said, “this is a very peaceful place.”

That peace was broken on a recent afternoon, as a young man rode a mini motorcycle along a few-hundred-feet stretch of Old Highway 80. Two women looked on from the back seat of an SUV parked outside the Hilltop Supply Hardware Store as the man revved his engine and tore full throttle for about 100 yards, turned around, revved, zoomed, and so on, back and forth, until the thrill wore off.

Then, once more, the quiet that pervades Guatay.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

 

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