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.