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JACUMBA — We learn the border is near when a text message arrives from the phone company. "Welcome abroad," it says.

Seconds later, the border fence comes in to view. Against the backdrop of mountain, rock and cactus that frame the border lands shared by Mexico and the United States, the controversial barrier looks small and out of place.

Americans disagree about its utility. Some think it was built to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. Others think it was built to stem criticism of government's inability to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.

We ask a Border Patrol officer, parked along Old Highway 80, if he knows the length of the fence. He shrugs his shoulders and turns away, but not before volunteering that "it starts at the ocean." This spot on the map is more than 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Welcome to Jacumba. If you don't think this is rugged country, check out the sculpture in this dusty San Diego County village's Community Park. Yes, it's a coiled rattlesnake, 20 feet high.

We are here almost by accident on the first morning of a road trip designed to take us to parts of California we've never seen. We wanted to see what was down a narrow road, and there was Jacumba.

Tourists won't be rushing to visit, but the story of California, its history and politics, is told here, too.

This is Border Patrol country. We pass another officer, his SUV parked at the bottom of a wall of boulders. It's difficult to imagine a mountain goat navigating this steep, rocky mountainside, except the history of illegal immigration begins with people willing to do almost anything to get here.

Soon, we are descending into a place most state residents never see, the Imperial Valley. In 12 miles, the elevation drops 2,900 feet and the temperature increases 16 degrees.

El Centro, county seat of Imperial County, is the largest city below sea level in the U.S. The journalist Carey McWilliams called this valley "nature's freak" — a hot house waiting to happen. All it needed was water.

And developers with ambition, imagination and more than a passing desire to make money were eager to make it happen. In stops and starts, beginning in 1900, they built the network of canals that brought Colorado River water to what was an unwelcoming desert. When the place that needs water is downhill from the source, gravity is your friend.

But the feat was not accomplished without mishaps. When the original canals silted up and the river flooded in 1905, the Colorado ran away from its banks and created the Salton Sea.

The impacts of bringing water to the valley were stunning and immediate. In "California: The Great Exception," McWilliams recounts that a handful of people lived in this hot, remote, barren desert in 1900, and there were no farms at all. Within 20 years, the valley was home to 40,000 new residents, and 410,000 acres were in farm production.

Today, the Imperial Valley is a checkerboard of farms, more than 530,000 acres of irrigated land criss-crossed by more than 1,500 miles of canals, pipes and laterals. The 2012 Imperial County crop report pegged the annual value of crops and livestock at more than $1.9 billion.

Still, many are struggling. On Main Street in El Centro, empty storefronts remind us that the unemployment rate in Imperial County in April was 21.6 percent. (A year earlier, it was 24.5 percent.) Most of the retail activity seems to have moved to the parade of strip malls along state Highway 86.

The week before we arrived, the National Beef Co. shuttered its processing plant in nearby Brawley, eliminating 1,300 jobs. (The plant closed, according to the Imperial Valley Press, despite local agencies' offer of $5 million in new incentives.)

There are surprises here. Unlike the rest of California, this former desert doesn't face a water shortage. Officials of the Imperial Irrigation District were told last week that the Colorado snow pack — where the Colorado River begins — stands at 161 percent of normal.

One would expect Imperial County, like other farm regions, to be Republican territory. But the county hasn't voted for a Republican candidate for president since 1988. Its two representatives to the state Legislature and its representative in Congress are Democrats. (All three are Latinos; two have advanced degrees from Harvard.)

Driving north, we come to the lunar landscape of the Salton Sea and the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.

Don't laugh. If you only remember Bono as Cher's sidekick, you don't know that the entertainer turned congressman championed efforts to protect what is an important stop on the Pacific Flyway. (Bono died in a skiing accident in 1998.)

Salton Sea won't become a major destination anytime soon. Our arrival at the visitors' center increases the number of cars in the parking lot from one to two.

After the Imperial Valley, we come to hardscrabble desert towns, where boarded-up gas stations, motels and cafes testify to cycles of boom and bust, dreams and heartbreaks.

On the day we arrive in Needles, in late May, the temperature is 108 degrees.

The next morning, we roll down the windows, crank up the music and set off on Route 66, the Mother Road of song and legend. Beginning in 1926, generations of newcomers to California passed this way.

The road goes for miles without a single turn, offering vistas borrowed from a John Ford movie. This place is vast. Also, empty. In the 32 miles between Essex and Amboy, we count fewer than a dozen cars. East-west travelers now use the Interstate a few miles to the north.

We stop for a soda at Roy's Cafe in Amboy, a stop mentioned in a recent Los Angeles Times story about efforts to revitalize businesses along Route 66. We wish them luck.

Skip forward, and we are driving up the east side of the Sierra on Highway 395. We stop at Manzanar, where Japanese-Americans were confined during World War II. (More on Manzanar in a later column.)

Along 395, we pass the Owens River, Owens Lake and Mono Lake, names familiar to anyone who has followed the history of water politics in California. More than a century ago, this is where the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power came to buy land and seize the water rights that came with it.

The system of lakes, canals, pipes, tunnels and pumping stations known as the L.A. Aqueduct turned 100 years old in November. The project now extends to Lee Vining, due east of Yosemite National Park and more than 300 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

The water fueled a real estate boom in Los Angeles, and forever changed the environment and the economic potential of the Owens Valley.

People have never stopped fighting about it, though now most of the fighting is confined to courtrooms. In the 1920s, the aqueduct was dynamited more than a dozen times.

In the Eastern California Museum in Independence, a permanent exhibition features a framed copy of a local newspaper from 1925. The headline reads: "Greed of city ruins the Owens Valley."

Water wars aside, it's always a revelation to drive the back side of the Sierra — through Lone Pine and Bishop and Bridgeport — then over Monitor Pass to Markleeville and over Kit Carson Pass to Jackson. Some of the least-traveled roads serve up some of the most spectacular landscapes.

At the end, we come to the Sacramento River Delta. After the sprawl of Elk Grove and Galt, a visit to the farming towns perched along the levee road — Courtland, Locke, Walnut Grove, Isleton — feels like stepping back in time.

Everywhere we see the signs: "Save the Delta. Stop the Tunnels." People here are unhappy about Gov. Jerry Brown's $25 billion proposal to build twin tunnels diverting water that now flows through the Delta.

After 1,667 miles of driving, after the Imperial Valley and the Owens River and Mono Lake, after the Sacramento Delta, we return to the competition for water as an essential piece of the California story.

City dwellers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, farmers in the Central and Imperial valleys — for many, prosperity begins with water pumped long distances from somewhere else.

Californians can wish these arrangements weren't necessary. But climate, geography and politics trump wishing ever time.

<b>Note to readers</b>: Thanks for your recommendations for out-of-the-way places to visit. I may not see them all, at least not this summer, but I've learned from all of your comments. Some of your recommendations show up in today's journal. As to others, stay tuned.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>

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