Saturday, April 7, 2018

Miller's Spring

- David Breeckner, Interim Executive Director

Old Highway 80
The Imperial Valley is a place steeped in history – from its beginnings as a part of the Gulf of California to the many appearances and disappearances of Lake Cahuilla and the Salton Sea, from the indigenous Kumeyaay to the first settlers, and from the old stagecoach routes to the current I-8. Few, however, remember a unique piece of local legend: the story of Al Miller, his garage, and an infamous tourist trap – Miller's Spring.

Hiking the old highway
On Sunday, April 1, twelve hikers set out from the Imperial Valley Desert Museum for an exploratory tour which retraced the origins of Miller's garage and Miller's Spring, and their mutual history with the valley's evolving highway system. Walking along the cracked concrete surface of the old highway, US 80, hikers began their day at 8 o'clock from the site of Miller's second garage – a massive, but derelict site still visible to anyone driving westbound on the modern I-8. Their goal? To hike from Miller's second garage to his first, and from that first one, to retrace the original footpath he had installed, up a nearby hill, to the site of his namesake spring.

US-80 first came to the Imperial Valley in the late 1920s, receiving a designation in 1926 and opening in 1927. Its concrete remains are still visible today across the western Imperial Valley and eastern San Diego counties, often seen winding alongside the current road in reflection of the early stagecoach trails.  Miller came to Ocotillo from Mountain Springs.  It was in Ocotillo that he built a garage in 1933, running a brisk business towing drivers and their cars up the grade to Jacumba.

Climbing Miller's trail
Not content with a single venture, Miller created a walking path that led from the back of his original compound along US-80, up a nearby hill, and to a site he named "Miller's Spring."  For the price of a dime ($1.92 by today's rate), Miller would let visitors rest and stretch their legs before their journey up the grade to the west.  Following a path lined with white-painted stones, still visible today from the eastbound lanes of I-8, visitors would summit the small hill to discover a truly remarkable site: a bench constructed from an old car frame and its rusting, SPRING suspension.

Did we mention the day of the hike?  In true April Fool's Day fashion, the twelve hikers that set out on the IVDM's Director's Hike, led by Interim Executive Director David Breeckner, were treated to one of the region's earliest long-standing practical jokes.  For a requested donation of 10 cents, the day's hikers followed in the footsteps of Miller, retracing the lost history of the area and adding their own part to its story.

Miller's Spring: one of the region's earliest long-standing practical jokes.

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