by Susan Straight with photographs by Douglas McCulloh
River valleys throughout America are known for commerce, as in barges and industrial traffic on the powerful currents of the Mississippi or Hudson; for wilderness tourism and fishing, as on the winding Snake or rushing Columbia; for cheerful touristic sidewalks hugging tamed waterways, as on San Antonio’s Riverwalk; and recently for cement channels with fake boulders planted on the banks, as in countless new housing tracts all over the nation, with names like River Oaks and Creek Canyon.
But California rivers are charismatic in a different way, unknowable to many people I meet from other parts of the world, and when visitors or newcomers ask me with some disdain the location of the invisible river that gives my city its name, mentioning the width and speed and historical importance of their rivers, I sometimes just laugh.
The Santa Ana River that winds through three counties, from San Bernardino County through Riverside County and then Orange County, on its way from mountain headwaters through the wilds of urban San Bernardino and Colton and Riverside, and then channeled through Orange County to the Pacific Ocean, is a serpentine body of water holding pre-Revolutionary history and post-recession history, mixed in ways hauntingly beautiful and haunted; a river wild, which looks unloved but is beloved; overlooked until you spend years alongside it, obsessed with the sandy plains and riparian lands stretching for a hundred miles.
When I was ten, the oldest of five kids, my mother would drop us off at the edge of the river to play—inconceivable now, but the beginning of my lifelong devotion. I forced everyone to find acorns, to pack them for drying and later grinding and leeching into a bitter mush; to poke into fox dens; to look for wild grapevines and yellow monkeyflower. There were remnants of Cahuilla camps on the high banks near Mt. Rubidoux above us, and we came out of the river into Fairmount Park, designed by the Olmsted brothers on land bisected by Indian Creek.
Forty-four years later, I still go to the river nearly every day. I walk the trails with my dog, through the same earth, under the same cottonwoods, watching for descendants of the same coyotes and foxes. From the end of my block, I can see the half-loaf of mountain—toast-brown surface and white sheared-off granite face—where my grandfather worked for Riverside Cement when he came from Switzerland to Fontana. Every day I’m reminded of the successive waves of humans who decided to stay along this water: people who built shelters of branches and ramadas made of palm fronds; people who mixed mud with straw and formed adobe bricks; people who dropped packs from horseback or whose Fords broke down in the sandy crossings during the Dust Bowl; people who built wooden bungalows and lined garden paths with white river rock; and people who build shelters every night near the end of my block, erect tents and EZ-ups in the arundo cane and wild grapevines, sitting on overturned orange crates to eat pizza before a campfire.
I bicycle all the way up to the border of Colton, where the old Trujillo Adobe still stands, and drive often along Agua Mansa Road, where the first Trujillos are buried. Passing me are hundreds of trucks leaving hundreds of warehouses, for the new economy of goods, which cannot be much removed from the old economy of goods. Americans want things. They will get them.
Agua Mansa is a good place to remember this California’s history. More than two thousand people are buried on this bluff above the river. Lorenzo Trujillo, his sons Doroteo and Esquipula, and many more Spanish surnames inscribed on cement or stone or wooden crosses.
Lorenzo Trujillo was born to Native American parents—possibly Comanche, Apache, or Pueblo—in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and probably ransomed by Spaniards, who baptized him in 1794 (though his birthdate is unknown). Who knows what name Lorenzo Trujillo might have already been given and what he had to forget? His adoptive parents taught him the Spanish language, culture, and religion—Catholicism. He married in 1816 and had seven children, and in 1838, he was recruited by letter to come to the Santa Ana River valley. Trujillo and his four sons were already known as veteran “Indian fighters.” Back when this land along the river was Rancho San Bernardino, Don Antonio Lugo kept losing horses to Native Americans out of Nevada and the Mohave River area, and Chief Walkara of the Utes. Trujillo was given land in exchange for “protection against thieves and marauders of every hue.” After working for years for Don Lugo, Trujillo received land from Don Juan Bandini at his Rancho Jurupa, a few miles away. Trujillo founded La Placita, on the east side of the Santa Ana River, and other settlers stayed in Agua Mansa, on the west side. By the mid 1840s, this was the largest community between New Mexico and Los Angeles.
The settlers dug irrigation ditches and canals, planted grain, grapes, and raised livestock. They sent their goods to market on horse-drawn wagons down this winding road between sere hills and river. Many days, I see descendants of Lorenzo Trujillo—Darlene Trujillo Elliot works for the city of Riverside, and countless other relatives live nearby. She began the Riverside Tamale Festival to raise funds for restoration of the Trujillo Adobe where her ancestors lived, across the river from the Agua Mansa Cemetery.
I stand at the cemetery and look down at American commerce. Isaac Slover, born in 1786 in Kentucky, was one of the first American fur trappers in Taos. He married a New Mexican woman, moved to Agua Mansa, and loved to hunt bear, which he did until one fateful 1854 encounter with a grizzly. His grave marker reads “Pioneer Hunter Trapper Killed By a Bear Near Cajon Pass.”
I meet people who tell me the road is still haunted, by a woman, by a man and his dog. I meet a small, wiry man who tells me he’s a Mexican-Jewish former jockey born in Texas whose son began a dog rescue facility on acreage here near the river. He tells me his son committed suicide in this lonely place, and he now feeds the dogs. At night, he watches bands of coyotes rip apart Chihuahuas abandoned at the river.
On the rise of a hill above Agua Mansa Road, the white stone burial vault of Lorenzo Trujillo floats above the earth with others that look like skiffs scattered in a golden sea of drying wild oats. This is a pioneer cemetery without manicured grass and lush landscaping and fountains. The grave markers are decorated with wrought iron crosses, a fading poncho, artificial flowers, and sometimes food offered up to the spirits. Trujillo claimed this place—the name means gentle water in Spanish—and it’s strange to imagine what he would think to look down on the narrow asphalt road below as thousands of trucks speed past, their own long white vaults holding everything America wants right now.
Today this asphalt ribbon is the “Agua Mansa Industrial Corridor.” The steel structures and towers come right up to the cemetery to the north. To the west are concrete batch plants—E-Z Mix concrete and Angelus Block—the largest makers of block, pavers, and retaining wall components in California. Farther down the narrow winding road is Tombstone Paintball, with a fake plywood town and other obstacles where people can shoot at each other, just as they did in the old days.
Driving to the west, I circle the granite hill chiseled and blown up for decades by my grandfather and the many other immigrants who worked at Riverside Cement. Skanska is still there, with other construction material companies.
Closer to the river, there are more industrial complexes: huge expanses of cold storage for Target, Walmart, and others on the bluff. They look down on an encampment of homeless people next to the sandy expanse of the Santa Ana River. Agua Mansa, dammed up and diverted for irrigation and sewage treatment, winds along the miles and miles of land that used to be citrus groves, vineyards, and wheat fields where furrows between the crops shone silver with water from the zanjas, the irrigation ditches dug by Cahuilla and Luiseño fathers and sons. The ancient remnants of one zanja lead underneath Agua Mansa Road as the trucks thunder from the warehouses whose walls are the brightest white, where Italian cypress like black knives and jasmine like white stars are planted alongside, where hundred-year-old windbreaks of eucalyptus brought from Australia make pungent fences in the next vacant lot, where the wild tobacco trees and jimsonweed are the natives that will still colonize the Earth here if left to do so.
About twelve miles as the crow flies down the river—and flocks of crows do live here in abandoned pecan orchards once irrigated by more zanjas—my brother-in-law worked for a year of dark nights on the bluff overlooking the place where, in 1774, Juan Bautista de Anza and his party of soldiers, women, babies, and animals crossed the Santa Ana on the first overland route to California.
My brother-in-law is a huge man—six-feet-six-inches tall, 380 pounds, with light red-brown skin and freckles. He is African, Irish, Cherokee, and American. He sat each night in a small white truck with a heavy-duty flashlight and a pad of paper, waiting to see who would come to steal construction equipment at the site where workers were boring a tunnel along the river to replace an eighty-year-old sewer pipe.
The left front tire of his truck was five feet from the bronze historical marker telling the world about the Anza Crossing, and he kept an eye on that, too, because now thieves prize bronze, copper, and aluminum as well, roaming parks and construction sites like Paleolithic hunters out for metal.
I hadn’t thought about Anza for years, until I went to keep my brother-in-law company and bring him food to help the hours pass. This is another good place to think about often-forgotten California history.
Father Francisco Garces, a Franciscan priest, had tried the journey before, in 1771. He left San Xavier del Bac, a frontier mission in what is now southern Arizona, and reached the Colorado River, which he followed down to its mouth in the Gulf of California, but the way was lost in the desert after that, and he returned. In 1774, he joined the party formed by Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish military captain at Tubac, Arizona. Anza wanted Spain to open a trading route with Nueva California, a land route from Tubac to San Gabriel Mission and then on to Monterey. Previous failed attempts had led the Spanish to call the desert journey El Camino del Diablo—”The Road of the Devil.”
The Anza party must have looked like a strange parade to the tribes and villages of Native Americans who saw them approaching: Anza, Father Garces and another priest, Father Diaz, twenty-one volunteer soldiers from Spain, an interpreter, a carpenter, five mule drivers, two of Anza’s servants, sixty-five head of cattle, and 140 horses—and as guide, a California Indian who’d made the trek from Arizona to San Gabriel, whose Christian name was Sebastian Tarabal.
A few days before they left, colonists in Boston disguised themselves as Indians and threw tea into the harbor.
Days into the Anza expedition, trying to reach the Colorado River, Anza came to know from Garces and Tarabal that the lives of human and animal would depend on Native Americans in Arizona, the Papago and Pima peoples, leading them to rainwater caches they had known for generations, and offering them food, such as rabbits they killed with throwing sticks.
Life is always about water. I stood on the bluff with my brother-in-law, thinking about the 1862 flood that took away most of Agua Mansa; the 1938 flood remembered by my mother-in-law with vivid horror, as she was only four and knew people who drowned; and the 1969 floods, when we children watched the Santa Ana raging brown and churning high enough to take out bridges and steal trucks and cars. Here, under the railroad bridge, is where the river is narrowest, forced between stone bluffs, and the best place to cross for the Anza party.
Still dangerous, though. I imagine watching them from the air today, crossing each river as a mass that would appear little different from ancient migrations of hoofed and toed mammals. In March of 1774, Father Garces’s diary records that the water was flowing so fast and heavy that the men had to build a bridge of logs, which took time, and then cross over that. Every other river they’d been able to ford on foot and horseback, but not here.
In 1775, Anza, Garces, and the Spanish organized a second crossing—this time partly to populate New California. They brought 240 people, including twenty-nine wives of the soldiers.
They crossed deserts, lava flows like “a sea of broken glass,” traveled down the Gila River. and crossed the Colorado River to enter California again, the river running two hundred yards wide and shallow enough that the cattle and horses walked across, while the Yumas carried the cargo, and Anza and the others rode horseback. Garces, though, had a terrible fear of falling from a horse and drowning—he could not swim. So the Yumas carried the priest across the water, too.
On 24 December 1775, at Coyote Canyon, the Anza party passed out of what is now San Diego County and into what is now Riverside County. They had left behind days of snow and entered rain and fog, and one of the women “was taken with childbirth pains,” Anza’s diary reads. “At a quarter to eleven in the night our patient was successfully delivered of a boy, which makes three who had been delivered between the presidio of Tubac and this place.”
Father Pedro Font baptized the boy Salvador Ygnacio the next day. On 1 January 1776, they came again to this place. Anza wrote, “this river of Santa Anna. . .almost unfordable for the people, not so much because of its depth as of the rapidity of its current, which upsets most of the saddle animals. For this reason it was necessary to reinforce the bridge which I made during the last journey. . .these tasks could not be completed until after twelve o’clock, at which time the women were taken over first, next all the perishable things, and then the rest of our cargo and our stock, of which a horse and a cow were drowned because they did not have strength enough to withstand the force of the current.”
The next time I visited my brother-in-law, I brought cake. Before he was hired, thieves had broken into the site, loaded an entire flatbed truck with expensive equipment, using the crane, and then stole the truck and crane as well.
“The foggy nights are the worst,” he said. “The train looks like a ghost coming out of it. And this whole place looks haunted.”
Under the bridge, on the rocks where Anza’s men assessed the crossing, graffiti covers many of the stones and the bridge abutments. One large homeless encampment is near here, and we watched two young men ride up the trail and then walk their bikes past us. He greeted them, as he does everyone. During his weekend day shifts, retirees driving recreational vehicles come to the bluff. One couple told him they were following the entire Anza Expedition, stopping at each monument. They told him about the history of the place where he spends most of his waking hours now, and then they motored away to the next marker.
Between Agua Mansa and Anza Crossing, there is an arroyo called Tequesquite, named by the Cahuilla people who once lived here. There is a tiny street called Wong Way, named for the last resident of the historic Chinatown that, like so many others in California, flourished for decades before white Americans turned on the residents in anti-immigrant anger. My dog and I walk down to the end of our dead-end street, through a field, and down the arroyo, past Wong Way, and head for the river.
I look downstream, where Mexican-born and Riverside-born people swim under that railroad bridge under the Anza Crossing bluff on hot summer days, though they are warned not to. Vietnamese-born people harvest watercress and bamboo shoots, and Central American men wash clothes in secluded places and hang them to dry on cottonwood branches near the trail where we walk.
The Santa Ana is the largest river in southern California, ninety-six miles long, draining 2,650 square miles of watershed, passing through four counties and flowing by more than five million people. It begins in the San Bernardino Mountains, in wild canyons where massive boulders crash during flash floods and their smaller round offspring wash up in drifts of white rock, which have been made into fireplaces and porches and houses for generations. The Army Corps of Engineers called it the most dangerous river west of the Mississippi before it was controlled. After those historic floods killed hundreds and washed away houses and ranches and citrus groves in Orange County as well as here, two dams were built, water was diverted for irrigation and water treatment plants, and most of the river past the Orange County line was channelized in concrete and riprap, like the Los Angeles River and so many others. It ends in a lagoon and then mingles with salt in the Pacific Ocean between Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach.
We walk most days along the Santa Ana River Trail, an asphalt bike path that begins in San Bernardino and eventually ends at the ocean, and on every single day or evening, I come back with a story. People in full racing gear on expensive bikes race past us, calling out for us to move. People on old bicycles with trailers attached bearing their belongings, chained or leashed dogs also attached and trotting alongside, bags of recyclables or food dangling from the handlebars, move alongside us, too. Mothers and fathers pushing strollers and helping small children on small bikes catch up to us. They speak Spanish, and we greet each other, as all three groups of people are familiar to the dog and me.
“You can’t walk down there by the river bottom alone!” people often admonish me. “It’s dangerous!”
It is. One night last week, a mother and two kids, about four and six, came rushing up onto the trail through the brittlebush, gasping and covered with sweat, terror in their eyes. They had tried to find the river itself, which flows all the way across the sandy landscape covered with trees and arundo cane and vines and hundreds of secret paths worn by animals and humans, and they’d gotten lost for an hour, and now, at dusk, an ambulance had gone over the bridge above them, and the siren had roused a pack of coyotes whose answered howls were so close that the mother grabbed her children and ran.
I told them we’d done that before, too, my dog and me, and we were just as scared. I showed her the best path across the river bottom to the water, for another day. I’ve crossed that same path since I was ten and still I get lost, because water changes landscape in constant and implacable fashion. I have sunk to my hips in quicksand after a winter storm, when the black silt and mica glitter atop the white powdery drifts.
The next night we stopped to talk to a homeless man heading down another trail to his camp, near the Mission Avenue Bridge, where this was once the main entrance to Riverside from Rubidoux and points west, and where a shrine to St. Francis de Assisi built of boulders and another bronze marker remains. This man had just adopted his new dog—Pretty Girl—from the animal shelter, and he, with his chrome shopping cart and his companion, wished us well as he does most nights. But I was nervous about the early appearance of the coyotes, who are bolder than ever because of the drought. On the way back west toward home, the cottonwoods released their drifting white, and the rabbits were too new to be afraid of my dog, so they lay in the heat with their haunches spread casually as if on lawn chairs. The coyotes would love that, I thought. When I saw a couple walking with their dog off-leash down the sandy trail, which we love but are hesitant to take alone, the dog and I caught up with them.
Their pit bull was also from the shelter, as is my flat-coated retriever named Angel, so we traded dog stories and coyote sightings, as we walked deeper into the brush, where ancient river oaks lean over a sandy trail that might be hundreds of years old—a savanna, a riparian place where humans and animals always gather. The remains of yellow mustard turned skeletal gold stems, and new wild oats turning pale and shimmering in the breeze, were beside us. Yes, I had realized that the couple were heading home, as I was, and that their home was here in the brush. There are hundreds of people living along the Santa Ana, in encampments up near Agua Mansa, down by Anza Crossing, and in too many to count close to where we were. Two large settlements are nearby. Each night I see a man a few years older than me, with one bad leg, crutches, and a gray beard, walking from the city down the arroyo sidewalks and down another trail through massive tumbleweeds to his own camp, where he has lived for many years.
Tonight one man heard us coming and stood beside his camp, nodding his head in acknowledgement. The couple split momentarily so we two women could walk together down an ancillary path back toward the main trail. Her companion called back, “Hurry up so the pizza don’t get cold!”
“I saw a bobcat up there two weeks ago,” she told me. Her face was round, the deep brown of living outside, and she was missing many teeth. We were near the same age. “I was riding my bike on the trail, ’cause you know that’s the easiest way for me to get to work, and I saw two eyes, right there between those two rocks.” She pointed to two huge boulders set in the flank of Mt. Rubidoux, which borders the other side of the trail. “I went up close in case it was someone needed help, and I saw his face. A bobcat! He looked at me like, yeah, come right on up here, and I got on my bike and rode like hell!” She laughed. “I’m Annie. You need anything, you come down here and call for me.”
We parted there, amid the huge peeling eucalyptus marking another familiar trail where my dog always sees rabbits and sometimes a roadrunner. Annie turned right and shouted to her companion, “I’m coming! Keep that pizza hot.” I turned left, and we both headed home.