Dogpatch, U.S.A. – only about an hour's drive from downtown San Diego

But once there, you're about a hundred years from anywhere

Besides the shoot-out and the pig roasts and swimming in Kitchen Creek, summer is when bikers and tourists come around.
  • Besides the shoot-out and the pig roasts and swimming in Kitchen Creek, summer is when bikers and tourists come around.
  • Image by David Covey

As you drive through the hairpin turns near Hauser Canyon Mountain, out past Potrero where Highway 94 narrows, your ears begin to pop when the altitude reaches 2350 feet. Out here there's nothing for miles but country roads lined with tall oaks, deep green hills, and lots of sky. About five miles southwest of Campo, near the sacred Indian mountain Cuchama, there's a clearing in the oaks where a weathered wooden roadhouse stands. Two thousand square feet of faded, peeling grayish-white paint trimmed with outrageously bright pink enamel glisten in the late afternoon April light.

Dogpatch bar. Some claim that one of the previous owners was shot in the barroom floor by his wife.

Dogpatch bar. Some claim that one of the previous owners was shot in the barroom floor by his wife.

A simple hand-painted sign's black letters - DOG PATCH U.S.A. - demand recognition amid the landscape's trash cans, dumpsters, and wooden picnic tables scattered throughout the bumpy dirt yard filled with pick up trucks. Unpainted shacks resting on an incline above the dumpsters pay homage to rural American blight. So does the wellhouse, which strangers sometimes mistake for an outhouse, about fifty yards from the main building (officially a bar and grill).

L.P.:  “It was in 1970 when I stopped by here jus’ to wet my whistle. Before y'know it, I wind up buyin' the damn place.”

L.P.: “It was in 1970 when I stopped by here jus’ to wet my whistle. Before y'know it, I wind up buyin' the damn place.”

Multicolored bulbs strung on the eaves of the building’s dilapidated wooden porch, apparently the remnants of some bygone Christmas, indicate that Dogpatch folks are happy with the way things are. The funky, rusted bedspring tucked high up between branches of the sturdy oak that hovers over the porch is testament to those who have slept off their hangovers in the trees high above the rattlesnakes. Even the ignored broken window blends into a decor that resists change. Under the porch eaves, half a plastic Clorox bottle serves as spring's harbinger; according to local wisdom, a bird nesting in the bottle signals the beginning of the season.

Terry, Thelma, Bill. "Why, jes' last night there was a big fist fight in here and there was blood all over the buildin'."

Terry, Thelma, Bill. "Why, jes' last night there was a big fist fight in here and there was blood all over the buildin'."

At first glance, even before you step inside, Dogpatch U.S.A. is a montage of Erskine Caldwell book jackets, Appalachia, and Early California. Inside the building, after your nostrils recover from the assault of tobacco and beer, the senses confirm that this musty old joint is the last juicy slice of American pie. The worn-to-the-plywood linoleum floor, the dead rattler hanging on a wall over the bar, a chair made entirely of horseshoes, and the cobwebs that hang from the dark green painted plywood ceiling tell that few interior changes have been made since 1920, when the place was built as a retreat for officers at nearby Camp Lockett, the last cavalry camp built in the U.S. Dogpatch is a place where the Twentieth Century has stopped to take a breather. The set and the props, human and inanimate, are authentic frontier Americana — shotguns hanging over the bar, four wall clocks that don’t work, and a barefoot, full-bodied earth mother dancing solo to Scotch-Irish fiddle tunes on the dingy floor.

Floyd and Ruth. Floyd sleeps in the trailer that he keeps in L.P.’s dirt yard.

Floyd and Ruth. Floyd sleeps in the trailer that he keeps in L.P.’s dirt yard.

Slumped against a wall in the far comer of the room is a young man blowing into a harmonica. His shoulder-length hair peeks out from under a straw hat. There are a dozen other musicians in the room. Fiddles, banjos, guitars, a mandolin, even a tambourine rest on shabby, mismatched formica tables. Folks of all ages with missing teeth, men wearing cowboy hats and fringed jackets, men in baseball caps, even helmets, teenagers in jeans, towheaded youngsters no older than eleven, and an ancient-looking man with a cane. A few infants nibbling at their mothers’ blouses are oblivious to the din. This room’s sole concession to the present decade is a Hedgecock for Mayor bumper sticker hanging on the wall over the harmonica player’s head. On the opposite wall hang yellowed newspaper headlines from 1945 that loudly proclaim, “Italy Surrenders!”

Dave and burro. After he sold the Tecate Café, he spent three months wandering around the mountains of Mexico.

Dave and burro. After he sold the Tecate Café, he spent three months wandering around the mountains of Mexico.

Although this mountain hamlet isn’t much more than an hour’s drive from the skyscrapers of downtown, Dogpatch is another civilization. It bespeaks a romantic past full of action. Shoot-outs, hangings, myths, legendary characters, cowboys and Indians, bandidos, pistol-packin' mamas, mountain men, and tough women who knew how to cope. Even rainmakers and poltergeists.

Jeff, Joy, MaryLou. MaryLou explains that bartering is an essential part of the economy of Dogpatch.

Jeff, Joy, MaryLou. MaryLou explains that bartering is an essential part of the economy of Dogpatch.

People began drifting to this part of the county right after the Civil War. They set up small ranches, farms, and trading centers. When Potrero was first settled in 1868, there were orchards and vineyards; ranchers raised cattle, sheep, poultry, and bees. Flipping through the fifty-five pages of the sixth and latest edition of the Mountain-Empire Backcountry Directory, which includes the Campo-Potrero area (Dogpatch is noted on the directory’s map), one senses that, like the clocks on Dogpatch’s walls, time has stopped.

“It became Dogpatch in 1956 or 1957. The owner at that time had about 400 poodles out in the back."

“It became Dogpatch in 1956 or 1957. The owner at that time had about 400 poodles out in the back."

Far from the silicon-chip invasion, far from tanning parlors, chain stores, and holistic health, the directory lists bait and tackle shops, horseshoeing and stud services, grain and feed places, stables, corrals, stalls, custom saddles, folk harps, Indian reservations, land and cattle companies, and an equine referral service. There are no lawyers, no psychologists, no investment counselors, and no Laundromats. San Diego Trust and Savings has a mobile unit that visits the area on Wednesdays. Because Channel 6 is all they can get up in the hills, very few folks own a television set. There aren’t many telephones either, which may account for the directory being so small. Word of mouth is powerful in these hills, making the residents less isolated than urbanites, who live and work in multistory towers and who connect with the world electronically.

The nearest cinema is at Parkway Plaza, a distance of at least forty miles from Dogpatch, so folks make their own entertainment. One unemployed musician, who claims he’s hung around Dogpatch for twenty-six years, says that when he was a kid, he and his friends used to paint the cockroaches various colors and then race them across the bar. Cockroach racing may have limited appeal, but storytelling is a popular activity. When folks sit around the long bar swilling beer day and night, each repeats his own particular version of what happened long ago in the neighborhood. Some claim that one of the previous owners was shot right in the middle of the barroom floor by his wife. Others argue that he was shot by his son. Some insist that it was a customer who was shot dead by another customer. Another version is that the bartender was shot by his son-in-law. A few shrug their heads and mutter, “Don’t y’believe none of what y’hear.’’

They still talk about Maggie’s whorehouse being right down the road from Dogpatch. Some say it was called Maggie’s Bedroom and it was nothing fancy, just a one-room shack like all the rest. “It became well known because one night a car came crashing through the shack. Driver must’ve been drunk,’’ says L.P, the bartender at Dogpatch. According to county park ranger Tracey Walker, Dogpatch was at the height of its popularity during the war, when it was called Canyon City Cafe. “It’s common knowledge,’’ Walker says, “that Dogpatch was a house of ill repute.’’ The army camp, Camp Lockett, was just a few miles down the road, in Campo. There was a black cavalry unit stationed there, and the men would come in for a drink. “Prostitutes hung around the bar and they'd get the guys drunk and then they'd take 'em to the shacks across the road,” is how L.P. recounts that episode in Dogpatch’s history. “In them days, bein' shacked up meant bein’ shacked up.” He chuckles, adding that some Italian P.O.W.s were interned at Camp Lockett, “and there’s a madonna carved into a rock that says ‘Italy’ on it to prove it.’’ Today, Dogpatch’s only international connection is with the illegal aliens who slip through the unofficial border crossing just half a mile south of there (the official crossing is at Tecate, nine miles away). “They come in here all the time looking for food and something to drink. Then they want a ride. Some of 'em got plenty of money on ’em,’’ he notes.

L.P. is a burly fellow with small, crinkly, light-colored eyes. His belly hangs over his belt and he wears a broad-brimmed cowboy hat covered with souvenir buttons. He could be mistaken for Bonanza's Hoss Cartwright. When he's drinking, which is nearly all the time, there's a suggestion of W.C. Fields in his flushed, rounded cheeks and his droll demeanor. “It was in 1970 when I stopped by here jus’ to wet my whistle. Before y'know it, I wind up buyin' the damn place,” he laughs. When he's not warming his hands over the potbelly stove that dominates the center of the room, L.P. tends bar. Dell, his wife, operates the kitchen, which opens every morning at seven and closes whenever everyone clears out. She dishes up biscuits and gravy. Rocky Mountain oysters, baloney sandwiches, and S.O.S., a sentimental throwback to her husband's days in the navy. There are no pretensions in Dogpatch. Jug wine comes in a jelly glass, and iced tea, which is ordered only by strangers, is served in a thirty-two-ounce plastic container. Because L.P. grew up in rural Alabama, ten miles from the nearest town, Dogpatch suits the sixty-two-year-old retired navy carpenter’s mate just fine.

The lively polyphony of belly laughs, “yee-haws,” down-home country yodeling, and frequent “yah-hoos” drowns out the sound of the phone ringing from the public telephone booth just outside the front door. It rings forty or fifty times before anyone hears it, and another ten rings before anyone bothers to answer it. There’s no phone inside. “Business is conducted in person,” explains MaryLou, an amiable, boisterous, youthful grandmother of four. “Up here in these hills, we don't operate by phone.” MaryLou lives about ten miles down the road and has no phone, and when her van's not running or when she's out of gas money, she catches rides to Dogpatch where she works weekends in the kitchen. She explains that bartering is an essential part of the economy of Dogpatch. “We don’t have much money to buy things, so we try to help each other out. If you need something, you just say so and people give it to you. People around here share what they have,” she says. “I was hitching rides for a couple of months. Last week I did some tree-trimming for someone and he fixed my van.”

MaryLou’s van is now parked right outside the tiny borrowed shack occupied by Belinda and her man. There’s no plumbing in it. Toilet facilities are up at the benefactor’s main house. Belinda is expecting a baby momentarily and MaryLou stays nearby and sleeps in her van to make sure that Belinda is all right. Belinda is only nineteen years old; her man, an unemployed musician who sings country songs and plays a variety of instruments, is twice her age. “I’ve lived in these hills all my life,” Belinda says. “There’s nowhere else I wanna be.”

She rests a guitar against her swollen belly. Her long, wavy light brown hair falls all the way down her back. Like the other women in Dogpatch, Belinda wears no cosmetics. “I’ve been singing in Dogpatch since I was ten years old,” she says. “Singing with my dad. He taught me all the country songs I know.” Belinda hasn't really had a permanent home for a long time — not since her hard-drinking parents split up and Belinda, the oldest of five children, sort of floated around the hills. When you hear her belting out a mournful “House of the Rising Sun” and you look around the room, you get a sense of what Dogpatch is to people and you understand why they don’t leave. When they do, they come back. Dogpatch is spiritual home to Belinda; sometimes folks badmouth her man, but they’re all protective of her. L.P. says he remembers when she was in here “wearin' three-cornered britches.” He pulls out a sheet of paper with squares drawn on it, similar to an office football pool, except that this one charts the hours, days, down to the minute when folks speculate her baby will be born. “So far there’s sixty dollars in it,” L.P. explains. “The winner gets thirty dollars and Belinda gets the other thirty.”

The man wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat who sits quietly at one end of the bar downing beer after beer is Terry, the night watchman. Terry arrived in the area in 1961 when he was sixteen years old. He earns his keep by making sure there's no trouble. At night he sleeps in the back room. When Belinda sings, accompanied by Floyd on guitar, Terry aggressively passes around the kitty. “It's all fer her,” he says. “Floyd don’t take none of it.“ Like the vanishing breed of tinkers who have roamed about Ireland, Floyd is an itinerant carpenter. Unemployed during the rainy season, Floyd sleeps in the trailer that he keeps in L.P.’s dirt yard. He's trying to get away from construction work, he says. “I'm heading down to the [Colorado] river. They got lots of places there like this. I'm tired of pounding nails," Floyd grins. “Just wanna sing and play guitar. First time I played sober in my whole life," he says as he accepts a compliment. “He ain't no stumblebum, neither," pipes up one of the old-timers.

Employees, customers, and musicians are indistinguishable from one another at Dogpatch; many of them take turns handling short orders from the kitchen and passing out beer. When they’re having a hard time, they earn their keep doing chores around Dogpatch. At night they curl up in the back room next to the broken-down player piano if it’s too cold to sleep on the ground or out back in the shed. Belinda takes naps in the back room. Others take refuge in the back when they’re “in between investments." Once in a while an entire family is sheltered in L.P.’s back room.

In addition to being equal partners in misery and in joy, bartering, beer drinking, making music, spinning yarns, and speculating are all big business in Dogpatch. Besides speculating on the precise moment that Belinda's baby will be born, there's been speculation on the cat tracks discovered across the road right outside Thelma's shack. When she noticed that the tracks were only ten feet away from the cabin, Thelma started carrying a pistol. She checks it in at the bar and takes it with her late at night when she leaves Dogpatch to walk across the road. “Ya gotta check your rod around here.” Thelma chuckles, “ ‘cause if ya don't, things can get pretty wild. Why, jes' last night there was a big fist fight in here and there was blood all over the buildin'. We could hear it clear over at the house." To Thelma, hyperbole is as natural as a bee making honey. “Nobody got killed," she admits. MaryLou’s version is bloodless. “The blow-out was between a tree trimmer and a ranch hand and it only lasted a minute and a half. One of them called the other one a liar and a thief. They settled it outside," she says.

Thelma used to hunt deer. In fact, she spent some years as a deerhunting guide during her two marriages to mountain men she has outlived. “Neither of them used to sleep indoors," she recalls, adding that she also used to hunt quail and rabbit. “And now I hunt aluminum cans,” Thelma laughs. “Only in the mornings, before I start drinkin'. I don't touch a drop till noon, y'know." She limps over to the bar to get another beer. “I sure fooled them doctors. They all told me I'd never walk again.” Thelma won't say how she hurt her foot, and her silence merely encourages more speculation. Some folks say the eat tracks near her place belong to a bobcat, but Thelma swears it's a mountain lion. “I been in the brush long enough to know that when an animal's hurt, that’s the only time he comes this close to where people live. I sure ain't taking no chances," she says. “And nobody else is, neither. Everyone slept inside last night and I was handin’ out blankets right and left.”

Thelma has been around these hills since 1930, when she was just a schoolgirl. She says the only indoor job she ever had was making divinity at the Wisteria Candy Cottage in Boulevard. Aside from candy making on and off for about ten years, Thelmas life has been rugged. The unpampered existence shows in the wrinkles on her face and in the sadness of her quiet blue eyes. “Last year my daughter and my mother died within a few months of each other,” she confides, “and I didn't have nobody, so I married Bill, here, last month. We fight like cats and dogs but now we got each other.” She adds that she isn't too sure how to spell his last name. Bill used to run the Campo Grocery Store, but when his ex-wife got it in a divorce settlement, Bill moved into a trailer. Now he lives in Thelma's rented shack. As she fiddles with her plaid flannel shirt, Thelma describes the year she lived with the Mission Indians and learned their habits and traditions as well as a couple of useful tricks. Rainmaking, for instance. Thelma performed her rain dance recently at a yard sale just for fun. It wasn't very funny, she remembers, when it began raining about half an hour later. “Someday I'll do a sun dance for ya,” she promises. “At the next yard sale, maybe.”

Yard sales are an integral part of the economy at Dogpatch. The old-timers are retired; their pensions and disability payments cover living expenses. According to a fellow named Lance, who comes into Dogpatch a few times a week for beer but who lives and works at the Alessio ranch outside Tecate, most of the younger ones are on unemployment, food stamps, and SSI. Yard sales are popular because they generate extra income, income which eventually lands in the Dogpatch cash register.

The back room in Dogpatch is more than just a place where down-and-outers find a haven. It has long been the stage where life passages are marked. Deflated colored balloons and faded crepe paper ribbons still hang from the ceiling, left over from Belinda's stork shower. L.P. says he likes having kids around and he swears that the low Leatherette bar is actually a teething ring. That back room, he says, has seen everything from weddings to wakes. “The last wake we had was for a friend of mine, just turned sixty-five and didn't even have a chance to cash his first social security check. What'd he die of?” L.P. shrugs. “Old age, I guess.”

There'll be another Dogpatch wedding next July when Joy and Jeff get married, barefoot, by a local preacher who's already agreed to perform the rites in the middle of the saloon. Jeff is a six-foot, three-inch redheaded balladeer/carpenter who's been known to sing for two or three days straight without repeating himself. Though his repertoire includes everything from Hoyt Axton to Cab Calloway, he writes a lot of songs, some of which immortalize Dogpatch. When he stands up and sings and strums the guitar, everybody in the room joins in the refrain: “I wanna be right here,/ Drinkin' Budweiser beer,/ And shootin’ the shit with L.P.”

Jeff is thirty-two. He grew up in Harbison Canyon, where he says they still call him the honorary mayor. A seasoned performer, Jeff describes his geneology as “three-quarters Irish, one-eighth Cherokee, and one-eighth outlaw. I come from an outlaw family known in New Mexico as the Wheeler family,” he explains. “Oh, nuthin’ heavy. They were just cattle rustlers.” Jeff grins and starts strumming the refrain to “Charlotte the Harlot, the Cowpunchers' Whore,” which he knows is a crowd-pleaser. L.P. stands by the stove with beer in hand, beaming, clearly enjoying his retirement in these hills that remind him of his boyhood. Belinda, who is now sitting at the bar smoking a cigarette, places a stranger's hand on her belly. “That’s the baby kickin',” she says quietly. L.P. grins and says “ 'Scuse me,” and heads toward the woodshed. “I gotta get rid of some used beer.”

For all the beer guzzlers and coffee drinkers in Dogpatch, there are only two toilets; both are out in the garage which serves as a woodshed that supplies the potbelly stove. The ladies' room hasn't had a lock on the door for a long time, but no one seems to worry about it. Graffiti on the walls and on the wooden tank top is neither political nor scatological. Most are couplets describing unrequited love; some are long-suffering love ballads. The one intrusive note of contemporary Americana, written and signed by a traveler passing through in 1984, reads, “If you don't party, you ain't shit”

Dave is a tall, pleasant, bearded young man wearing a plaid flannel shirt and an army jacket over his blue jeans. He takes turns being both customer and bartender and introduces himself (with a wink) as “L.P.'s bastard son.” He says when he's not wandering around with his best friend, who happens to be a burro that he keeps more or less permanently at Jeff and Joy's place right down the road from the trailer camp, Dave spends three or four nights a week sleeping in the back room at Dogpatch. Last year, after he sold the Tecate Café that he says he used to run, he spent three months wandering around the mountains of Mexico, camping out at night with the burro. “I wasn't lonely. On the roads, people stop to talk to a man with a burro ” he says. Dave has no immediate plans except that he's been thinking of walking to Florida to visit his two great aunts. “Maybe after the summer,” he says, explaining that during the summer, Dogpatch gets livelier and he wouldn’t want to miss the reenactment of the shoot-out. “The shoot-out we had here was even greater than the one at the O.K. Corral,” he grins.

According to Dogpatch historians, the notorious Mexican bandit Cruz Lopez raided the Campo Store in 1875. The Gaskill brothers, cattle barons who owned and operated the wooden building, were taken completely by surprise and were very badly wounded trying to protect their property. Aided by a mysterious, unnamed Frenchman who happened to be riding by on his horse, the Gaskills survived their wounds. The following year they rebuilt the store, fortifying it with walls four feet thick, steel shutters over the windows, and a corrugated iron roof. The building was known as the Old Stone House, and later became a stage stop, then a bank, a dance hall, and an officer’s club in 1940. Today the Stone House is rented by the county for community meetings.

The three hapless bandits who survived the shoot-out were hung on a nearby tree. Later their bodies were buried by cowboys, according to folklore, and the Gaskills earned a reputation of being impervious to bullets. Every June 22 the scene is re-enacted with blank bullets, and it becomes a big cause for celebration at Dogpatch. There’s lots of beer, country music, and a deep-pit roast. L.P. says that one year they roasted a beefalo head, a gift from a rancher in Montana who has been trying to breed beef cattle with buffaloes.

When beefalo heads aren't available, an entire pig is buried in the ground overnight and the next day it’s baked and ready to eat. The pig is supplied by Ruth, who raises pigs at a ranch on Harris Ranch Road near Dogpatch. “I like pigs,” says the grandmother of nine, who tends bar at Dogpatch on weekends while her two daughters, a stepdaughter, and a niece stay on the ranch with the pigs. Ruth explains that the pigs are slaughtered professionally and one pig a month is reserved for family meals. One pig provides 160 pounds of pork for her and the four other women. Ruth says she did a lot of other things before she began raising pigs three years ago. “When I lived in Utah, I delivered a dozen babies,” she says. “There you didn't need a midwife’s license.” When she takes a break from serving drinks behind the bar, Ruth sits down with the guitar and fiddle players and she yodels real country yodels that go on and on.

Besides the shoot-out and the pig roasts and swimming in Kitchen Creek, summer is when bikers and tourists come around en route to Mexico. The temperature reaches 116 degrees. Everyone wears hats and drinks cold beer and sleeps off the celebrations in the tree house or on the ground. Fiddlers and banjo players move outside to the parking lot and folks wind up dancing in the dirt. L.P. says summer is the season for chicken roulette games, which is more commonly known among the local population as the “chicken shit” game. “There's a big board with numbers on it and folks place their bets on the numbers and then we put a chicken with a cage on top of it right on the board” he says, indicating that the number closest to the inevitable chicken droppings is the number that wins. “The winner gets twenty-five dollars,” L.P. chuckles.

He claims the Dogpatch name is an original, that it wasn’t borrowed from cartoonist Al Capp’s creation, “It became Dogpatch in 1956 or 1957, I'm not sure. The owner at that time had about 400 poodles out in the back. She kept them all in cages. It looked like a patch of dogs, so she changed the name from Canyon City Cafe to Dogpatch.”

L.P.’s wife Dell is also a raconteur. One of her favorite topics is Stewart. Stewart is the ghost who occupies the kitchen. Some folks say that Stewart is the ghost of the man who was shot on the barroom floor, but Dell isn't convinced. “I never did believe in ghosts until one night a few years ago when a gray-haired fellow with -a crew cut came in here one night with a Ouija board,” she says, and that was when Stewart's existence was confirmed. “Stewart isn't really bad, but he plays little tricks on people he doesn't like. What does he do? He makes things fall on the floor. He makes knives stand on edge. Once he left little piles of salt on the floor. Sometimes he blows loose papers around the room and they float till they land on the floor. I think he does it just to let us know he’s around,’’ Dell explains earnestly.

“See ya tomorrow” hollers Thelma's husband Bill, as he adjusts his cap and heads for the door. “Gonna give up already?” someone hollers back. It's grown dark now and others begin to head out too, while the diehards remain, spinning stories that grew out of the countryside about bravado, cowardice, and Indian lore. Some begin speculating on who’s going to win the next “chicken shit” game. Outside, the wind starts blowing and the midnight air, redolent with sage, is irresistible. The moonlight shimmers over the hills and gently covers the big oak tree and all the garbage cans. Belinda's sad, mellifluous voice comes through the broken window. “I'm cryin’ my heart out over you,” she sings.

One of the local poultry ranchers follows three strangers out past the oak tree to the dirt where the vehicles are parked. He introduces himself by offering his driver’s license as a means of identification. Then he says, “Hey, you folks got time to hear a good story? Wanna hear the greatest story around? Well, okay then. I'll tell ya one. It’s about eggs.”

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