El Cajon: Pandora’s Jar


Craig Chalquist, PhD

“Oh hell, I dropped my truck.”

According to my parents, this, my first sentence, popped out of my mouth when I dropped a toy pickup. I was a late speaker, which worried them; yet here I came with a full sentence.

I didn’t have much to say growing up, in part because my surroundings baffled and grated on me. I grew up in a box: El Cajon, the squalid “Big Box” Valley about fifteen miles east of San Diego as the beer bottle flies. Settlers bringing cattle named the Valley this (they thought) because the enclosure prevented the herds from roaming. I add “they thought” because our terrapsychological work has shown us that place names spring forth from the interactive field between the namers and the place itself: its ecology, its geology, its shape, size, color, history.

Case in point: San Diego, named after a militant monk who defended a border in Spain centuries before the murderous split of the International Border divided California from Mexico. Crevices and cleavages run through the heart of the city. Mythically speaking, it’s as though San Diego were an altar to Hekate, borderline goddess of borderlands, crossroads, initiations, medicinal plants, magic, dreams, and moonlight. Perhaps she brought her two torches together on July 4, 2012 to detonate at once all the fireworks stored up for the Big Bay Boom. From space San Diego turns a witchlike face westward.

Hekate, yes, but the European face is a convenience. I have no doubt that the Kumeya’ay people who have lived here for time out of mind knew of a similar deity. That’s how it has tended to work out, as I’ve seen during my psychocartographic explorations of the entire state. Trained in European mythology, I had my own names for the persistent serpent imagery near the Klamath River, for instance; it was a check on the accuracy of my investigations that a Karok man confirmed the serpentine presence there, although for his people it went by a different name.

The ancient Orphic tales put Hekate together with another powerful goddess: Pandora, the first woman, created by Hephaestus and Athena at the command of Zeus to serve as bride to Epimetheus (“Afterthought”), backward brother of Prometheus (“Forethought”). Pandora’s name, All Gifts, refers to those given her so lavishly by the Olympians before sending her down with her famous box or jar. When she grew curious and opened it, out flew hardship, poverty, disease, death, and other “evils” that make us mortal. In some versions of the tale she slammed the lid down to contain Hope; in others Hope flew into the world as well. From one point of view, Pandora is an Eve-like figure who brought trouble into the world; but from another, she gave us both the gifts of necessary limitation and the means to bear up under them. Maybe the gods knew what they were doing.

In 1845 Rancho El Cajon was granted to Maria Antonia Estudilla, wife of Miguel Pedrorena. Amaziah Lord Knox (1833-1918), a transplant from New England, started a hotel on the ranch to provide for travelers heading from San Diego to the gold mines in Julian. He charged $1 a night for room and board, and gave his name to Knox Corners before it was renamed El Cajon.

How a container functions depends on what we make of it. The tallest building in El Cajon is a jail: that’s one kind of box. The Jack-in-the-Box restaurant chain started in El Cajon. (I worked there for a few weeks one summer and quit after a drunken Marine knocked the cash register off the counter.) UFO sightings have been frequently documented in the Valley, and El Cajon serves as the earthly headquarters for the Uranius (UNiversal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science) Academy attempting to send messages to hovering Space Brothers. Now and then followers form a circle of chanting bodies in some field or other in Jamul, but nobody from on high ever shows up. A more sinister note rose from the Valley in the 1970s as a TV repairman named Tom Metzger represented the Ku Klux Klan when he ran for various public offices.

I grew up in a former olive orchard that succumbed to a subdivision forming around what neighborhood lore said was a haunted house. Ours was a relatively well-off neighborhood compared to many in El Cajon, where even now it’s common to see pregnant teens pushing strollers, drunks reeling through motel parking lots, and white trash drug dealers staking out street corners. Time does not advance in Pandora’s jar, it only goes in circles. The last time I visited my parents, who still live in the same small house I grew up in, I was lucky enough to land in the only hotel in the city not infested with crack dealers and petty criminals.

Many of us dislike our home town and wish we had grown up somewhere else. I used to be one. I never felt at home with the redneck vulgarity, the in-your-face racism, the hands-on conservatism (my first grade teacher threw a chair at a noisy kid), the giant crosses posted on people’s lawns, with the cross on Mt. Helix overseeing all. Behind my obedient son facade I threw rocks and sniped with my BB rifle and blew up pumpkins on Halloween. I couldn’t wait to escape the box and go to college, and once there I seldom looked back, although I did work for a time in an ice rink that stimulated good memories of skating my way through my junior high years.

During my days as a doctoral student living in Escondido in northern San Diego County, I faced poverty severe enough that my Chevy pickup got repossessed. On the morning I watched the tow truck drive away with it, I heard myself say, “Oh hell, I dropped my truck.” This loop in time seemed like one more reason to loathe where I’d been raised.

As I studied the witchlike “soul” of San Diego for my doctoral work on psyche, history, and place, I wondered what part El Cajon played in Hekate’s story.

On a visit home I was walking my old neighborhood (the place looks the same) and thinking about the boxlike nature of the Valley when I spotted something new in a neighbor’s yard: a sculpture of a woman, perhaps a goddess, stooping over a large jar.

I thought about time loops, about the shape and name of the Valley, about Knox as a place of strife and gold, about the name Pedrorena, which means “stone” (as does “Craig”) and “reborn,” about Halloween (my favorite holiday as a child), and about my parents–my Hephaestus dad who was handy at everything, my Athena mom who had run a hospital laboratory–and the image of Pandora walked into my imagination.

From that moment my relationship to El Cajon, place of Pedrorena/Pandora, began to change.

It’s an odd thing, being born on Hekate’s altar and growing up in Pandora’s jar. At the time I couldn’t stand the confinement of it; but over the years, with my roots still in El Cajon, I came to realize how much psychic stabilty this town gave me as my travels took me all over California and to places across the nation and beyond it. Even when I did not visit, I knew I could come back at any time to see my parents, walk around the neighborhood, swim in the pool in our backyard, and rest in a timelessness that offered a brief respite from my overactive life. Renewed, I could spring back out of the box and dive into the deadlines and schedules and commitments.

It’s an odd thing, allowing yourself to love your home town. Not the racism or the jail mentality, but the place itself.

On my last trip to El Cajon I noticed a minivan truck parked in my parents’ driveway. I liked the gold tint, compact profile, and sturdy wheels. When I asked my parents about it, they said they wanted to sell it because they seldom drove long distances anymore. A pity, because the van was in good shape with relatively little mileage on it.

Because my weary car was on its last legs, I offered to buy the van from them. They agreed, then called me the following day to say they were giving it to me.

I hung up the phone and thought:

Oh good, I found my truck.

© 2010 Craig Chalquist.