Most visitors passing through Warner Springs at a few minutes after dark would write the place off as nothing more than a wide spot in the road. There are few lights to indicate anyone lives there, and the only sound, if you happen to hear it, is the bellowing of cattle in the fields nearby — a forlorn sound in the dark, on a deserted road. A car passes by on the lone highway through town perhaps every ten minutes; other than that there seems to be no activity at all.Taylor recalled that there once was another hot spring higher up on the mountain, where people used to wash their clothes and bathe. “It wasn't as hot as Warner’s, just warm enough to take a bath.”
In a way, though, it's misleading to describe Warner Springs as being dead at night. Nothing much happens there during the day, either. It has no stores or bars or motels. The only gas station in town has been closed for three years. The nearest coffee shop is fifteen miles away. There is a hot spring in Warner Springs, and once there was a thriving resort around it that attracted the families of the powerful and the rich from all over Southern California. The hot spring is still there, but the resort has closed down and the type of people that frequented it have moved on to chic spots in more exotic settings: Hawaii, the Caribbean, Mazatlan.Cecilio Blacktooth, 1902, tribal chief: "We have always lived here. We would rather die here.... If you give us the best place in the world, it is not so good for us as this...."
Ever since a Spanish friar first saw Warner Springs in 1795, people have been looking for a way to turn the area into a money-making venture. Now, nearly 200 years later, they’re still looking. Among the schemes that have been tried (with varying degrees of success) are a cattle and sheep ranch, an overland stage station, a reservoir for water, vineyards, and peach orchards. Even the Cupeño Indians, who for generations lived by the hot spring and were content to wash in the curious hot water that bubbled out of the ground, got into the profit-making act in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Taking note of the increasing number of people passing through the valley, the Indians built a few adobe huts near the spring and began charging visitors to bathe in the steamy, sulphurous water. But through a dubious bit of legal finagling, the Indians were booted off the property in the early 1900s by a couple of white businessmen who figured they could turn a bigger profit than the natives had ever dreamed of. The Cupeño were literally hauled away in wagons, but before they left they are said to have put a curse on the hot spring to the effect that no white man would ever make money on it.Jonathan T. Warner, 1879. As of 1846 Long John Warner had a total of about 44,000 acres in the San Jose Valley, and he began to raise sheep and cattle.
For a while it looked as if the Indians might be wrong. True, a few of the new white owners died prematurely or were stricken down unexpectedly while visiting the property. But from the 1920s to the 1960s the resort called Warner Hot Springs was an immensely popular place. Then the flame began to sputter. In 1975 the financially ailing resort changed hands for the first time in more than sixty years; in the seven years since then it has virtually had more owners than patrons. The latest to buy it is A. Cal Rossi, a developer from San Francisco, and there are some who say Rossi is going to turn around the setbacks of recent years and create the biggest, grandest, and most profitable resort ever in Warner Springs. Inevitably, there are others who are rather skeptical about this. “Rossi says he’s going to change everything, but I don’t know,’’ one long-time resident said not long ago. “They’ve been talkin’ about doing something for so long... I’ll believe it when I see it.” Meanwhile, Rossi has already had one renovation plan held up by the Indians, who may have given up their title to the land but not their interest in it, and satisfying them is only one of several obstacles that he must overcome before new life can be breathed into Warner Springs.Warner Hot Springs, c. 1893. By 1893 the Indians had built eight bath houses out of adobe; but by then John G. Downey, a former governor of California, had already filed a suit to evict the Cupeño from the area.
The town is located on the eastern side of the San Jose Valley, a broad, fertile, high desert valley that lies between Palomar Mountain and the Anza-Borrego Desert region. If you take state highway 79 north from Santa Ysabel, the first thing that impresses you about the valley as you descend the long grade into it is its size. Surrounded by peaks that rise to 6000 feet, the San Jose Valley is nearly ten miles long and eight miles wide. It is also extraordinarily flat for San Diego’s mountainous north county, flat enough to hold a manmade lake in its southwestern comer — Lake Henshaw — with an average depth of less than thirty feet. Highway 79 curls around the valley’s eastern side, across hills with granite boulders and big, sturdy oaks, to a junction a few miles south of Warner Springs. From here the low desert community of Borrego Springs is only twenty-three miles eastward, while to the west you can see the white dome of Palomar Observatory high on a ridge about fifteen miles away. The highway continues north through fields full of cattle to Warner Springs, and from there it twists its way some twenty-three miles past Sunshine Summit to the county line.Banning Taylor: “The biggest crowds they ever had there were in the Twenties. There were always four or five hundred people there then.”
I was driving south on highway 79 from Sunshine Summit one afternoon recently when I saw something that sent me skidding to a stop on a dirt shoulder alongside the road. It was a double rainbow, rising out of the hills in a long, low, brilliant arc, and one of its ends was anchored directly in Warner Springs. The sight was enough to set the pulse of a developer or a Spanish friar racing, but it was an illusion that lasted only a few minutes; as I watched, the bright yellows, greens, blues, and reds began to fade section by section. The last piece to go was over Warner Springs, but soon it, too, grew faint. In a few more moments all that could be seen was an ephemeral glow hanging in the air, and through it the green chaparral at the foot of Hot Springs Mountain.King Freeman: “If the county goes ahead and approves [the resort plan], I don’t think there’d be much we could say.”
There is probably no place in San Diego County with a longer or richer history than Warner Springs. In 1795 an expedition from the Mission San Diego de Alcala set out up the course of the San Diego River to look for a new mission site. Three days later, after bearing northeast from the river for a day and a half, the Spaniards entered a large, basin like valley and named it Valle de San Jose. There were Indians living around a hot spring in the valley, in a village known as Cupa. The Spaniards called the Indians the Cupeño. It isn’t known how long the Cupeño had been there, but the Cupeño themselves have a myth about the founder of their tribe, Kesily Pewik. Kesily Pewik was the only male of his tribe to survive a massacre at some point in the distant past; his mother protected him by telling the attacker he was a girl. Kesily Pewik grew up in another tribe, but eventually he and his mother returned to the hot spring, where Kesily Pewik married two sisters of the neighboring Luiseno Indians and became the ancestor of all the historical Cupeño families.Colleen Griswold: “We were told at the front desk that if guests complained about, say, bugs in the rooms, we should tell them if that’s what they wanted, they should have gone somewhere else.”
Hemmed in by the Luiseño to the west, the Cahuilla to the north and east, and the Kumeyaay to the south, the Cupeño had developed a localized lifestyle that was unusual for the Indians of Southern California. Unlike the Kumeyaay, for instance, who ranged from the desert slopes to the coast as the seasons changed, the Cupeño apparently stayed in their island like territory of the San Jose Valley all year. On cool nights they immersed themselves in the hot springs to stay warm. Since they were located on a major trade route between the Colorado River and the coast, the Cupeño also maintained close contacts with neighboring tribes, particularly the Cahuilla of Los Coyotes Canyon.Lillian and Bob Hecht. Hecht says she thinks the resort was nothing more than a tax shelter for the Germans.
Few outsiders visited the valley for the thirty-five years after the Spanish first described it, but in the 1830s and 1840s trappers, miners, and emigrants began to pass through the San Jose Valley on their way to Los Angeles. One of them was a young man from Lyme, Connecticut, named Jonathan Trumbull Warner. Warner didn’t stay in the valley when he first saw it in 1831; he moved on to trap beaver in northern California for the next couple of years, and then settled in Los Angeles and ran a mercantile store. In 1837 he married a California woman named Anita Gale; in 1841 he was hunting sea otters on the Channel Islands. About this time he became a naturalized citizen of Mexico, and began going by the name of Juan Jose Warner, although an alternate moniker had him pegged as ‘‘Juan Largo” — “Long John” — because of his six-foot, three-inch frame.
In 1844 Warner applied to the Mexican government for a grant of the northern part of the San Jose Valley, and when the grant was approved in 1845 he made another application for the southern part. This second grant was approved within a few months by the Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico (the fact that Warner’s wife had been raised in the family of Pio Pico’s mother probably didn’t hurt). So as of 1846 Long John Warner had a total of about 44,000 acres in the San Jose Valley, and he began to raise sheep and cattle there.
The arguments between Mexico and the United States over who owned California had taken on an ominous tone by then, and in 1846 General Stephen Kearny, Kit Carson, and the Army of the West camped overnight at Warner’s ranch on the way to fight the Mexicans at San Pascual. The chief of Kearny’s topographical engineers looked at the hot spring and the valley around it and wrote in his diary, ‘ ‘A day will come, no doubt, when the invalid and pleasure-seeking portion of the white race, will assemble here to drink and bathe in these waters, ramble over the hills which surround it on all sides, and sit under the shade of the great live oaks that grow in the valley.”
After California gained its independence from Mexico, the engineer’s prophecy began to come true. Warner’s ranch became a stopover for the gold seekers and emigrants flocking to California; climbing out of the waterless expanse of the Colorado Desert, travelers must have thought the temperate valley with its springs was paradise on earth. At any rate, they didn't complain about the outrageous prices Warner charged for the goods he sold out of a little store on his ranch, possibly one of California’s first clip joints: fifty cents for a pound of coffee, ten cents for a small plug of tobacco.
Warner is sometimes said to have had an enlightened view of the Indians, but one account from the 1840s noted that "the labor (on the ranch) is performed by California Indians, who are stimulated to work by three dollars per month and repeated floggings.” Among other things, Warner quarreled with the Cupeño over vineyards, over cattle, over who had the right to use what land. By 1851 the Indians had had enough of Long John Warner. At sunrise on November 21 the Cupeño and the Cahuilla from Los Coyotes Canyon approached Warner's ranch house and burned it to the ground. The Indians were hoping Warner and his family would be inside, but he had been warned by a sympathetic Indian and had sent his family away. Six Indians were later executed for their part in the raid on Warner’s house. But the attack seemed to dim Warner’s enthusiasm for ranching, and it probably dimmed Mrs. Warner’s enthusiasm a little, too. For the next ten years Warner returned now and then to the San Jose Valley, but never with his family; in 1861 he moved to Los Angeles, where he died in 1895.
From 1858 to 1861 Warner’s ranch became a stop on the Butterfield Overland Stage route, advertised at twenty-six days from Tipton, Missouri, to San Francisco (the amount of chiropractic work such a trip might have engendered was never recorded). The Butterfield Stage route closed during the Civil War, but when the war had ended and travelers again began to drift through the San Jose Valley, they found that the Cupeño had built a mile-long wooden trough that carried water from the hot spring to a makeshift bath house. Visitors were charged a dollar for a bath. By 1893 the Indians had built eight bath houses out of adobe; but by then John G. Downey, a former governor of California, had already filed a suit to evict the Cupeño from the area. The administrator of his estate carried on the suit after Downey died in 1894. An article in the San Diego Union of June 15, 1897, noted of the suit: “…It is given as the belief of the affiants [those who file affidavits] that the hot springs are worth $100,000 or a yearly rental of from $6000 to $10,000, and that they would be still more valuable if the Indians were not located in the immediate vicinity.”
The suit went to the California Supreme Court in 1900. Somehow the court got away with interpreting old descriptions of the property as indicating that no Indians were living there when Warner was granted the valley, and that the Cupeño therefore had no right of possession to the land. The tribe lost an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in May, 1901, and for the next two years waited while the government searched for a place to relocate them. Once, the Cupeño themselves were asked where they would like to go, but Cecilio Blacktooth, chief of the tribe, responded, “You see that Eagle Nest Mountain and that Rabbit Hole Mountain? When God made them he gave us this place. We have always lived here. We would rather die here. ... If you give us the best place in the world, it is not so good for us as this. ... We do not want you to buy any other place. If you will not buy us this place, we will go into the mountains like quail and die there…”
Eventually the government purchased some 3438 acres at Pala, on the San Luis Rey River at the foot of Palomar Mountain, and on May 13, 1903, fifty wagons driven by armed deputies of the United States arrived at Warner Springs to take the Cupeño away. A few of the tribe ran off to the mountains and were never heard from again, but most went quietly to Pala. Roscinda Nolasquez is one of the few living members of the Cupeño who remembers the eviction; she was seven years old when the government wagons came. She recalls Indian women weeping who couldn’t be consoled; grim-faced men loading their possessions into the wagon. From that day on, the Indians say, Warner Springs has been cursed.
Today the Cupeño are known as the Pala Indians, and their elected spokesman is King Freeman, a handsome, silver-haired man of forty-seven with pale yellow eyes that look as if they should belong to some kind of big cat. Freeman works for SDG&E in Escondido, and he also owns a small convenience store in Pala — the Pala Store. One evening a few weeks ago he stood in his store near a freezer full of prepackaged sandwiches, and as customers — most of them Indians — banged the screen door open and shut behind him, he explained that the eviction from Warner Springs has always been “kind of a sore spot’’ with his tribe. Half a block from the Pala Store stands the Cupa Cultural Center, a community center filled with pictures and accounts of the long, sad trek to Pala in 1903. There are artifacts and beadwork on display there, too, and Freeman made it clear that he and his fellow tribe members are proud of their historical attachment to Warner Springs. When I asked him about the curse, he grinned. “I’ve read about it in the history books, but that's all I know about it,” he said. “But boy, you go up to Warner Springs today and look around, and you sure start to wonder.”
One dilemma the residents of Warner Springs don’t have to face to any great degree is what to do for a night’s entertainment. The possibilities multiply in almost direct proportion to the distance you travel from town. Judging from the evidence, the people who do decide to spend an evening in Warner Springs mostly drive up to Inspiration Point — an overlook about a mile or so from the resort that has a commanding view of the San Jose Valley — drink beer, and then toss their empty cans and cartons into the bushes nearby. Even this could be the work of outsiders, though, since the majority of the official population of 627 is retired.
Aside from a few houses scattered around the golf course, the only residential development in Warner Springs itself is a small community called Los Tules, but it’s not the aging trailer park you might expect. There is money behind the dilapidated appearance of Warner Springs as surely as there is hot water coming out of the ground. Some of the adobe brick houses of Los Tules sell for upwards of $250,000, and their owners include people with names like Fletcher and Ghio and Starkey — names that are also behind such enterprises in San Diego as Home Federal Savings, Anthony’s Restaurants, and First Federal Bank. Many of the homes in Los Tules are used primarily as elaborate weekend cottages, but there is also a small number of permanent residents there, including Bob and Lillian Hecht, and Spike Webb.
Lillian Hecht and Spike Webb were regulars at Warner Hot Springs long before they purchased homes nearby. One rainy morning recently they sat in the living room of an old house that looks out on the resort’s yellowing golf course, and reminisced about what the resort was like in its heyday. Webb said he started coming to Warner Springs in 1937, just a few years after an asphalt highway was built connecting the resort with San Diego. There weren’t as many facilities then as there are now, he explained, but the owner, William Henshaw, had built an Olympic-size swimming pool and a lodge with a bar to go with the cluster of wood and adobe cottages for visitors. (Henshaw bought the 43,000-acre Warner ranch in 1911. His main interest was gaining water rights in the area — the manmade lake that he built in the San Jose Valley in 1922 still bears his name — but his manager and sometimes agent, Ed Fletcher, sensed the resort’s possibilities and actively pursued its development.)
“We used to come up on the weekends from San Diego,” said Webb, who owned real estate in San Diego and a cocktail lounge in Ocean Beach called Webb’s. “It was the big entertainment back then — there was no football or baseball or anything like that. It cost five dollars a night to stay here, roughly, and that included meals. It was fantastic — you’d get three meals a day.”
“The food was exquisite,” Hecht nodded solemnly, taking a drag from a cigarette in a white plastic holder. “For some reason, an avocado stuffed with crab really stands out in my memory.”
“And you could eat breakfast until eleven o’clock,” added Webb. “It was a hell of a place to slip away with a girlfriend.”
“And you did it, too!" laughed Hecht. “I saw you!” Webb beamed like a man who has just been revealed as the secret donor of some huge gift to charity.
Hecht began coming to Warner Springs in the early ’50s, after a half-million-dollar renovation project in the 1940s had resulted in additional cabins, a second swimming pool, and a mission-style building that housed three huge dining rooms. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, she said, Warner Springs “was the spot. You needed six months’ reservations to get in. This was the place where everyone came to meet and relax and get drunk.” She laughed, and tapped her cigarette into an ashtray.
“There were a lot of judges,” offered Webb. “You could see every judge from San Diego here most every weekend. Mayors [Charles] Dail and [Frank] Curran practically lived here.”
“People used to come here and lose themselves, because nobody cared if they were famous or not,” said Hecht.
“I remember when they shot Texas Across the River up here, with Dean Martin and Joey Bishop,” Webb continued. ‘‘I never knew it took so many people to make a movie. Five or six busloads pulled up…”
Hecht remembers the mud baths and the three-dollar massages, the dance bands and the little guy from International Harvester who tried to pick her up one night in the bar. As air travel became cheaper and Warner Springs began to compete for customers with exotic new getaways all over the globe, the resort booked conventions and seminars from industrial groups, schools, any group they could find. In 1962 Spike Webb broke ground on a house in Los Tules — he now owns two houses there — and in 1968 Lillian and Bob Hecht bought a place just down the road from Webb’s. All of them were looking forward to living near the resort that had been the hub of their social life for so long. But in 1969 Warner Hot Springs closed for two months for repairs — the first time the resort had been closed in fifty-eight years. Nobody realized it then, but it was a portent of what was to come.
When Warner Hot Springs was sold in November of 1975, it marked the first time the resort had changed hands since the William Henshaw family bought it in 1911. The five-man partnership that purchased it included Bing Crosby and A. Cal Rossi, and they paid a reported $2.8 million for the 2885-acre resort with its lodge, airstrip, golf course, riding stables, two swimming pools, and ninety-six cabins. Crosby was only a silent partner; the real mover behind the deal was Rossi, who had made a fortune renovating a number of historic hotels and other buildings up and down the state and wanted to do the same with Warner Springs. Rossi’s idea was to spruce up the resort’s existing buildings, rebuild the golf clubhouse, and add tennis courts and a parking lot, but he didn’t make any friends when he made it known he wanted to begin the work without an environmental impact report (EIR). At a hearing that took place in February of 1976, Rossi made his pitch to the county, only to find himself opposed by a hastily drawn-together coalition of archaeologists, environmentalists, and Indians. The coalition included the Pala Indians and their attorney, and they argued that the land around the resort was a cultural and archaeological treasure that shouldn't be touched without an adequate EIR. “We found out about the hearing by chance, just the day before,” King Freeman told me. “We had two main concerns — one, that any artifacts that were found would be turned over to the Pala band. And two, it’s just an area we’re more or less trying to protect.” The county ruled against Rossi, and the developer later told the San Diego Union, “I pulled my head back in before it could get shot off.”
“The partnership was fearful of the environmental problems,” Rossi said recently when I contacted him by phone at his San Francisco headquarters. “I didn’t particularly want to sell the resort, but we didn’t have a conformity in the partnership to go forward with the project.” In December 1976 Warner Hot Springs was sold again to a group of German investors. The new owners immediately hired a German manager for the resort who pissed off just about everybody who came in contact with him. Colleen Griswold, a thin, pretty woman in her forties, worked as a front desk clerk for the resort while the Germans owned it. “We were told at the front desk that if guests complained about, say, bugs in the rooms, we should tell them it wasn’t a classy place and that if that’s what they wanted, they should have gone somewhere else,” she remembers. “He was not about to apologize for the condition the place was in, and no money was spent on maintenance — none.” In the heavy rains of 1979, Griswold said, “the golf course turned into a swamp.” But like everything else, the golf course sat neglected. Griswold remembers the manager himself as a “curt, brusque man. He lacked common sense.” Lillian Hecht puts it in even stronger terms. “He had no personality at all,” she told me earnestly. “He was nuts.”
Hecht says she thinks the resort was nothing more than a tax shelter for the Germans who owned it, and Griswold confirms as much when she says, “It’s a matter of public record that they purchased it as a tax write-off.” Griswold is in a position to know that because a bankruptcy court appointed her a designated officer in charge of the property when the Germans filed for bankruptcy in June of 1979. The creditors, who included Rossi, claimed they hadn’t received any payments on the resort since September of 1978. Over the next eighteen months Warner Hot Springs was offered to a number of investors, but at least twice deals collapsed at the last minute when the purchasers either backed down or came up short of cash. Finally, in October of 1980, Rossi decided he might as well buy Warner Hot Springs again. His firm hadn't received much in the way of payment from the Germans anyway, so in return for an additional $850,000 the Germans gave up their title of ownership and returned to him the $3.8 million note they had owed him. “I wasn't surprised it didn't sell," Rossi told me. "I held a big note on it, so a buyer would have had to pay me cash, and almost nobody pays cash for a development that size these days. But eventually I became fearful the property was beginning to deteriorate. Repurchasing it just allowed us to develop it sooner." [Rossi claims he would have eventually bought the resort again anyway.]
Since purchasing Warner Hot Springs for the second time, Rossi has unveiled plans not only to upgrade the resort’s cottages, lodge, golf course, and swimming pools but to build a 150-room hotel, a tennis complex, a theater, offices, condominiums, and about 200 luxury homes. It’s only in this way, he insists, that business can be generated all year through the patronage of residents, their visiting friends and relatives, referrals, rentals, etc. Oddly enough, in spite of the grandiose nature of the project, Rossi’s latest plan has met with a sort of grudging acceptance on the part of many of those who opposed him in 1975. By clustering high-density development over most of the project, leaving the majority of the archaeological sites in untouched open space, accommodating hiking and riding trails, and promising an Indian museum, Rossi has largely defused the opposition that greeted his first announcement to develop the property. Although a town of about 5000 would spring up in the San Jose Valley as a result of the resort complex, some 300 jobs would be created, too, and most of the residents are ready to welcome just about any development that will infuse a little life into the area and put a new face on the deteriorating resort. “I don’t like to have to drive twenty miles to go out to dinner/* says Spike Webb. “And I like to go out and have a drink once in awhile. When I first moved up here the bar and restaurant were still open, and nearly every Saturday night you’d always go down there. It just gripes me that the place is not open and going strong; it’ll go again one of these days.”
But there are a few people who are still not convinced that Rossi's plan will benefit Warner Springs or will even come about. One of them is Banning Taylor, the elected spokesman for the Cahuilla Indians of the Los Coyotes Reservation. “Seems like everyone who owns the resort gets less people,’’ Taylor said when I contacted him. “They haven’t been able to do anything with it and they ’ll never be able to do anything with it.’’
The road to Banning Taylor’s house leads up a small canyon about halfway to the top of Hot Springs Mountain. Well inside the boundary of the Los Coyotes Reservation, the asphalt ends at a small cluster of old ranch-style houses with corrals and a barn and barking dogs. One of the houses has a black iron gate with an eagle on it, and above the eagle is the lettering “B. & N. Taylor’’ (Taylor’s wife’s name is Nelda). From the front yard of the house, on a clear day, you can probably see all the way across the San Jose Valley to the foot of Mount Palomar, but the morning I visited the clouds were hanging in a ragged gray blanket just above the treetops. Bright blue peafowl dashed for cover as I parked my truck and got out, and one big peacock stood on the roof of Taylor’s porch, eyeing me warily as I pushed open the gate and knocked on the door. The peafowl were the first thing I asked Taylor about. “They just hatch out and hang around,” he said with a shrug.
Banning Taylor is seventy-seven years old, and has a distinguished-looking tuft of silvery hair on either side of his head. He stood in his kitchen with his back to an enormous black wood-burning stove, and as he answered my questions he turned now and then to add a piece of wood to the fire. A portable radio played the Beatles and James Taylor from a shelf on one side of the room, and there was a PSA ticket on top of a pile of papers near the kitchen table. (As spokesman for the Los Coyotes Cahuilla, Taylor travels to San Diego, San Francisco, or Sacramento a few times each month to take part in conferences about Indian affairs. The conferences usually deal with “Indian health and stuff,” he explained.)
Taylor's mother was a Cahuilla Indian, and his father was an Irishman who worked as foreman on a cattle ranch in the San Jose Valley — still known as Warner's ranch long after Warner himself had died, and the land had changed ownership several times. Taylor told me he can still remember the resort in the 1920s, when the cars came in on dirt roads from San Diego after what must have been a long, spine jolting ride. “That’s why people stayed for a while when they got there,” he said. “The biggest crowds they ever had there were in the Twenties. There were a lot of people there in the summertime, a lot of them. Jesus, there were always four or five hundred people there then.”
Taylor also recalled that there once was another hot spring higher up on the mountain, where people used to wash their clothes and bathe. “It wasn't as hot as Warner’s, just warm enough to take a bath,” he said. “There was a little shack where you could change your clothes.” But that hot spring is gone now, he said, and a few other springs in the vicinity have dried up, too. That’s what concerns Taylor about Rossi’s plan for Warner Springs. “Water’s pretty scarce up here, and they’re supposed to build a lot of homes. I don’t know where they’re going to get the water. We [the Los Coyotes tribe) are lots higher [than the expanded resort would be), and the water’s bound to go out. Most of the water here is from springs, and they could dry out.”
The environmental impact report commissioned by Rossi shows that the amount of water the project’s wells will use will not exceed the amount of groundwater available, partly because a small water reclamation project will recycle wastewater for irrigating the golf course and other resort landscaping. Taylor doesn’t have any studies to support his claim; all he has is a knowledge that some of the old springs have dried up and that water can get pretty scarce in a drought year. “If you’re at the bottom of the hill [Hot Springs Mountain] you’re okay; if you’re at the top of the hill you’re out of luck,” he told me. “But if they’re going to drill wells they’ll drill them whether you want ’em to or not — that’s usually the way it goes.”
Thirty miles down the San Luis Rey River the Pala Indians are also concerned about water in connection with the planned development in Warner Springs, but water of a different kind: contaminated water. As King Freeman pointed out to me, the San Jose Valley contains most of the watershed for the entire river, and questions have been raised about how the new resort will process its sewage and keep it from seeping into the groundwater. Rossi insists that the problem can be taken care of in the long run; in the short run, he says, an old existing sewage treatment plant on the property can be reactivated and should be able to handle the sewage generated by the first phase of the development.
Freeman doesn’t seem overjoyed at the prospect of Rossi’s new resort plan — “We still have the same opposition we had to the plan in 1975, but we haven’t taken any kind of stand,” he said recently — but he also seems to feel that the valley will probably be developed sooner or later, and that it may be better to have Rossi’s ‘ ‘sensitive ’ ’ design with its clustered housing and Indian museum than something else. Freeman has met with Rossi in Warner Springs to discuss the resort, and he said of the developer, “He’s determined to develop the area. If the county goes ahead and approves [the resort plan], I don’t think there’d be much we could say.”
Clouding the picture for the Indians is the fact that the new resort could provide them with a steady source of employment. Indians have often worked at Warner Hot Springs in the past — Banning Taylor once worked in the resort’s laundry room as a young man in the 1920s — but unless there happen to be any Indians in the vicinity who can swing a tennis racquet like Bjorn Borg or drive a golf ball 300 yards, most of the job openings will likely be for maids or dishwashers or manual laborers. Taylor conceded that currently there aren’t many jobs in the area for Indians or anyone else, but he repeated his concerns about the water table if the resort is reopened and expanded, and then added, “Rossi said Indians could work there, but what they say and do are two different things. He said he’d let the Indians run the museum, too, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Outside his kitchen the gray skies showed no sign of clearing. It was Taylor himself who brought up the subject of the curse; he told me that some people claim to have gotten the Indians together recently to perform a ceremony that would remove the curse forever from the hot spring. “That’s baloney,’’ he said. “They never did. It was the old guys who used to pull that stuff on people. There isn't anybody knows anything about that anymore.”
On the radio the weather report came on. “Scattered showers through this afternoon, clearing this evening…” said the announcer. Taylor shook his head. “There haven’t been any showers since this morning,” he pointed out.
I asked him if he thought the new resort would change the area where he had lived all his life. “Yeah, it would change everything,” he replied after a moment.
“For better or for worse?”
“It might be better and it might be worse,” he said. “You’d just have to wait and find out.”
On a cold, drizzly spring day a few weeks ago, Colleen Griswold took me on a tour of the Warner Springs resort. We walked up toward the main lodge first, past an old yellow marquee that reads “Warner Hot Springs” in fancy red script at the top. Below it, in plain black letters, the word “Closed” has been added. Griswold moved to the San Jose Valley with her husband five years ago, and now manages the resort property for Rossi. As we passed some of the old stone cottages that once housed guests year ’round, she explained that an EST group was currently renting the resort for eighteen weeks — the first private group to rent Warner Hot Springs in three years. But the EST members were away at the moment; no one was visible in or around the cottages, and the place had a deserted feel.
A freezing rain began to fall just as we reached the entrance to the lodge — big, slushy drops that seemed to melt as they hit you on the head — and I was grateful to go inside. We entered a long hallway that had a worn brown carpet and white plaster walls badly in need of paint. Griswold stopped briefly at the front desk to chat with some people from EST, and then led the way to a dining room known as the Anza Room — a cavernous room with big wooden beams across a vaulted ceiling. The EST group was using the room for seminars of some sort, and in place of dining tables were rows of folding chairs. A microphone stood on a podium at one end. Rossi has said that when he finishes renovating the resort he will rent it out to groups such as EST for conventions and meetings, much as the Henshaw family did in the last fifteen years or so before they sold Warner Hot Springs. He thinks groups like that will help stimulate business during the week. “There always was a lot of business on the weekends,” he claimed. “And with the high cost of air fares now, the travel business is off. That customer is still going to go somewhere, though, and I think he's probably going to want to go somewhere he can drive to. There are 14 million people [in San Diego and Los Angeles counties] to draw from. All Warner Springs needs is a commitment of money and restoration.”
Griswold next led the way down a short stairway to the barroom. “This was part of the original building,” she said as we passed through the doorway. There still is a beautiful old wooden bar inside, but the room itself seems small for such a big resort, and it has corny murals on the walls that depict colonial-style gentlemen hunting and talking to each other on their country estates. Griswold glanced at the paintings and then back at me, looking for all the world as if she might burst out laughing. But she didn’t.
In a few minutes Griswold and I went back outside and walked the short distance to the hot spring. Every few minutes a gust of wind would tug at our coats and send shivers right through to the bone; it was nearly noon, but the temperature was still in the low forties. The faint odor of sulphur got stronger as we neared the spring, and finally we came to its source: a wide, shallow pool surrounded by palm trees. The water was green, and there were rocks the size of basketballs in it. Steam rose from the surface, and if you followed it up with your eyes you could see patches of snow on the distant slopes of Hot Springs Mountain. The smell of sulphur was heavy in the air.
“This is one of my favorite places,” said Griswold. “You can see why the Indians loved it.” The water comes up at the rate of at least 150 gallons a minute, she explained, at a temperature of 137°F — almost exactly the same temperature as the water coming out of a hot water faucet in San Diego. It's much too hot to bathe in, so a cement trough carries it to the resort’s swimming pools several hundred yards below. By the time the water reaches the pools it is only 97°.
I lingered for a moment next to the spring, fascinated by small silvery bubbles floating up through the green water. “This place just grabs you,” Griswold commented, smiling. “I just can’t leave it — I just can’t. Even though I’ve never seen it in its heyday, I just know something's going to happen, and I want to be here when it does.” She added that restoration of the resort’s golf course has already begun; Rossi said recently he will submit a specific plan to the county for the first phase of development in ninety days. When I asked him if he was worried about the Indians’ curse, he replied flatly, “I’m not superstitious.”