Del Dios

by Jason Tougaw

We kids of Del Dios were terrified of the dam, sure an evil guy lived inside it.

Tectonic plates gnashed at each other beneath a few hundred acres of southern California land, thirty miles inland from what would eventually become the coastal towns of Del Mar, Cardiff, and Encinitas. Escondido and Rancho Bernardo grew on either side of what would become Highway 15, a stretch of asphalt that divided and linked them, winding its way through strip-mall suburbs and scrubby hills until it reached downtown San Diego.

The plates pushed with patient force, like two well-matched wrestlers. Soil particles accumulated with slow deliberation until they formed hills. Sage, oak, and wild mustard sprouted to devour the sun that baked the soil. Fresh water on its way to the ocean filled the crevices between the hills. In 1916, some white men, ignoring protests of the Kumeyaay tribe that’d been living downstream for centuries, decided to fight gravity and built a giant concrete dam to frustrate the forward motion of a river that had been gunning for 40,000 years.The dam was finished in 1918. The result was Lake Hodges, a body of fresh green water shaped like two kidney beans laid end to end, providing drinking water for the county.

People who’ve lived in Del Dios will tell you there’s no place like it–and there’s no describing it. The name suggests a cult. Who calls their home “of God”? Del Dios was full of people who might have joined cults if they’d been more organized or more tolerant of authority. Instead, they gathered in a scrubby valley where hierarchies and ideologies could be ignored. I thought I hated these people as a kid, but I’m grateful to them now. To me, hierarchies and ideologies seem like somebody else’s religion. I know they govern everything, but they seem like phantoms. I’m fine living with that fantasy, and I’m sure it’s because I grew up in Del Dios.

The hippies who settled among the dust and sage and moss and carp think the name Del Dios had something to do with them, but it had been used for years before their arrival. Like anybody else, the hippies liked to think about names, and as with any name, this one choked with barely noticed meaning. Del Dios commemorated a past when the valley had been Mexican territory, blanketing a forgotten era when the Kumeyaay tribe had names of its own, before Spanish was ever heard in Southern California. Now the name marked a stop-gap paradise on earth that ensured the temporary survival of the free lovers putrefying on the banks of the lake.

One of a handful of photos that offer definitive proof that Hodgee is real.

One of a handful of photos that offer definitive proof that Hodgee is real.

The settlers and their progeny swore to the existence of Hodgee, an LSD-fueled cousin of the Loch Ness Monster. The hippies didn’t invent Hodgee. They inherited him. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography even lowered a cage into the lake in 1932 to capture the beast. The county poisoned the lake in an attempt to kill Hodgee in 1956–claiming their intent was to kill carp. Nobody never found him, but hazy photos document Hodgee’s buffalo-like shape and new sightings occur every decade or so.

Hippies had gone out of style by 1975, but enough brains had been altered that a place like Del Dios was necessary to quarantine them. We moved a lot, but we always seemed to end up back in Del Dios. My mom and I lived in six different houses there. We kids knew where the stashes of porn mags were in the brush around the lake. The Del Dios store–mostly a bar, really–sold enough Hostess products to fuel our days. Greasy men whose eyes were red with Vietnam flashbacks loped the streets that circled the lake up to Del Dios Highway. Parents in town weren’t sure they should let their kids visit the homes of Del Dios kids. The residue of evaporating counterculture was made of equal parts wasteland and paradise, both of which are scary.

Chrissie Hynde went back to Ohio, but her city was gone. When I go back to Del Dios, it’s mostly intact. It’s like it can remain because it was always just barely real.


Adapted from the manuscript of my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland, Donadio & Olson)


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