For Those Who Find Living in a World of Chemically Treated Products Impossible, the Town of Potrero Is : The Last Resort


Lina and Caren Serrano know how crazy it looked to move to Potrero.

Just over a year ago, they lived in a West Hollywood condominium near Sunset Boulevard. On special occasions, they strolled down the hill to one of Southern California's best-known restaurants, Spago. Now they live in a renovated mobile home in the East San Diego County desert, where an exciting night out means a trip to the video store in nearby Campo.

"The isolation is horrible," Lina, a 58-year-old former fashion consultant, said recently as she sat on her screened porch and gazed at the chaparral-covered hills just north of the Mexican border. "We have no relationships here--forget it."

But, although she and her 40-year-old daughter, a former Beverly Hills bookkeeper, miss the fast pace, exotic fare and daring fashions of Los Angeles, they have no plans to return. Potrero, they say, has saved their lives.

"Going back to L.A. would be a death sentence--really," Lina said. "I don't know where else we would go. At least there are people here who know what you're going through, . . . At least there you're going through, . . . At least there is Harriet."

Harriet Molloy is the Serranos' neighbor and, they joke, their savior. It was to Molloy's house that the two women fled in May, 1989, when paint fumes, malathion spraying and even their own perfume seemed to be making them sick. Molloy took them in, as she has hundreds of strangers who share her rare chemical sensitivities--"environmentally ill" people who say that, for them, aerosols, detergents, polyester or even paper can be poison.

Molloy fled the toxins of the modern world more than a decade ago to settle in Potrero, a desolate cluster of chicken and horse farms where the population has yet to top 300. Ever since, the sturdy, gray-haired grandmother has worked to build a haven for the overly sensitive, transforming her purple-shuttered cottage at the end of a dirt road into a sort of beatific bed and breakfast--a holistic half-way house for those who as yet lack the strength to create a safe place of their own.

The 62-year-old former Van Nuys businesswoman has replaced propane with electric heat. She has ripped up synthetic carpets and laid ceramic tiles. She has painted the walls with special nontoxic paint. And she has chosen a name that she says sums up how most people feel when they knock on her door.

She calls it the Last Resort.

Her guests come from across the country, having heard about the arid hideaway from other "chemies" who say the clean, dry air clears their heads better than any prescription. All are well aware that most doctors believe psychological problems may underlie their flu-like symptoms and anxiety. But visitors, who pay from $300 to $800 a month to live in Molloy's well-ventilated rooms and trailers, claim that, in a chemical-free environment, their depression, disorientation and dizziness go away.

For that reason, some, like the Serranos, have decided to stay, joining a community of 20 or so backcountry residents who liken their place in high-tech society to that of canaries in a coal mine.

John Jaeckle, 66, a World War II Air Force veteran and former electronics salesman, found his way to Molloy's in 1981 from a contaminant-free clinic in Texas. At that time, everything he ate made him terribly depressed, he slept 18 hours a day and his mind was "twisted," he says: "Jaeckle became Hyde."

"Speech slurred, dizzy, wide-gate walk, needed cane, night sweats, handwriting bad, severe headaches, memory going bad, tunnel vision, world grew dark . . . confused, angry . . . loss of humor," he wrote, describing his early symptoms in a recent homespun newsletter. He has settled not far away, in a cabin on the road to Campo.

Judy arrived in 1983, a slender, funny young woman from North Hollywood who seemed to be sensitive to "just about everything." She lived with Molloy for nine months before she bought an old Christmas tree farm a few hundred yards down the road.

Over the years, Judy, who asked that her last name not be used, has enjoyed periods of health--brief, refreshing days when her head and body didn't ache and her thoughts were clear. But mostly, the 34-year-old has found it necessary to stay close to the cactus-filled compound and far from the aerosol deodorants, cleaning chemicals and pesticides that make her sick.

"I keep trying to go somewhere else, but Potrero keeps pulling me back. It's the resting and recovery place," she said, adding that even touching the plastic buttons on her stereo can make her ill. She keeps it, as well as her television, in a vented glass case.

"It's bizarre. It's absurd. It's like something out of 'The Twilight Zone.' If this hadn't happened to me, I would have thought we were totally nuts," she said. "But man is asking too much of himself in the 20th Century. These bodies were not made to process these kinds of chemicals."

A retreat for asthmatics early in the century, Potrero is not the only "safe" settlement in California. Determined to escape the press of humanity and all its attendant odors, from hair spray to cigarette smoke, other chemically sensitive people have settled in twos and threes throughout eastern San Diego County, from Borrego Springs to Pine Valley to Jacumba, Campo and Lake Morena.

But the Last Resort is unique in that it provides a temporary niche. Its guests, most of whom stay for weeks or months, can see if desert-living agrees with their sensitivities and their psyches before they uproot themselves for good. And, in addition to "100% clean air 85% of the time" and chlorine-free well water, guests can draw upon the experience and energy of Molloy herself--a plain-spoken optimist who overflows with home-style homilies and motherly advice.

"Nobody knows yet why we are the way we are. We have to wait till medical science catches up with us," she will say matter-of-factly, her voice patient and serene. Although her condition remains a mystery, she says she believes Potrero's remoteness and climate let visitors take "control" of their food, air, water and stress--and thus begin to heal.

Molloy is nothing if not encouraging, and she often tells tales of her own survival. Tired of being told it's all in your head? Depressed at the lonely realization that movie theaters, restaurants and even other people seem to make you sick? Molloy, whom locals once referred to as simply "the crazy lady on the hill," knows how it feels. But she has lived through it, she tells guests, and they can, too.

Before she found Potrero, she was hospitalized for months with an embolism, an apparent heart attack and extreme depression. Baffled doctors pulled her in and out of psychiatric wards (Molloy acknowledges that extreme emotional swings were driving her "a little nuts"). Later, a doctor told Molloy she was allergic to all foods but carrots and squash.

"I can remember wishing I had terminal cancer rather than what I had because at least people would understand it," Molloy says.

And yet, inspired by her religious faith and by the sight of the sun setting each afternoon between Tecate Peak and Potrero Mountain, Molloy has turned from an invalid into an advocate.

In 1983, she founded a nonprofit group, Community for the Environmentally Sensitive, dedicated to establishing and preserving "safe" living areas. A Laguna Beach real estate agent, a Potrero neighbor and a therapist and a businessman from San Diego sit on her board, a group that Molloy hopes will someday preside over the creation of a more formal healing center in Potrero.

She has written a letter to the White House to draw attention to the environmentally ill. And to protect her adopted home, Molloy has served on a local planning committee, driving her oxygen tank-equipped Volkswagen to meetings that she often could not bear to attend--she says a propane leak in the meeting room, undetectable to others, repeatedly sent her outside for air.

Partly because of her diligence, Potrero's "high health awareness" is noted in a county planning document that discourages the use of pesticides and fertilizers in the area. "Future development (in Potrero) must be sensitively designed," it reads in part, "so as to not create an environmental imbalance in the area's 'healthy' atmosphere."

On a recent hot afternoon, Molloy sat in a wooden chair in Judy's uncarpeted living room and remembered the hard times--some of them not so long ago.

Molloy was fatigued and listless for three weeks recently, she said, after she bought a plastic radio that was still "out-gassing"--the term she uses to describe synthetics' gradual release of fumes. A week after she removed the radio from the house, she felt better.

And there was the time the organic grocer sold both Judy and Molloy non-organic broccoli. They both got sick, as did others who shopped at the same store. Until the grocer admitted to selling pesticide-tainted produce, they worried they had developed allergies to the vegetable itself.

"It takes a lot of courage to go back to the store and eat anything again," said Judy as she rubbed her nose--the scent of detergent on a reporter's clothing made her itch, she said. "You try not to become paranoid. But it's like a child touching a hot stove."

The wind shifted. Suddenly, both women sat straighter in their chairs and looked out the window to the south. Fire.

"Oh, I don't like what that is," Molloy said as she jumped to the doorway and assessed the black billowing clouds that rose over a hillside not far away. The smoke would be bad enough, she said. But if firefighters drop chemical retardants on the blaze "we'd be done for."

The telephone rang--Lina Serrano. "It's blowing east," Judy told her. "Are you being affected?"

Molloy hurried home to close her windows, but one of her guests, a second-time visitor from Chicago, had beaten her to it. Rebecca, who asked that her real name not be used, said she first came to Molloy's after the odor of her neighbors' fabric softeners made her into a recluse.

"I'd do a little gardening and my neighbors would start doing laundry--I'd have to run into the house," the former secretary said, explaining what first drove her to Molloy's three years ago.

The Serranos share her frustration. They say their condition makes unthreatening things dangerous and simple things complex.

Before their relatives may come for a visit, for example, the Serranos send them special makeup and soaps to wash in, and ask that they please pack only natural fabrics. Lina recounted a telephone call from her frustrated sister: "She said, 'I couldn't find a stone blouse or a wood skirt.' She said, 'How can you be allergic to everything ?' "

With her eye for design, Lina has decorated her mobile home with cotton furniture, untreated wood floors and plenty of white paint. Unlike some of her neighbors, she refuses to use unsightly foil to seal off outlets or vents.

"I've tried to make it as hospitable as possible," she said. "Who needs to live in a hospital-like environment? If I sit here in a foiled house, with no makeup on and straggly hair, then I will be sick."

But finding companionship is perhaps the biggest hurdle. Even as they celebrate their first chemical-free anniversary (Lina no longers takes the Valium she relied upon for 21 years, and Caren has completed her first 12 months without the asthma medication that used to keep her alive), the Serranos warn that the very things that make Potrero healthy also make it lonely.

"If the handyman goes by, it's a big deal," Lina said with a wry laugh. She pointed to a far-off neighbor's house. "I'd be friendly with the guy up there. But he (probably) has after shave on, or he smokes like a fiend."

Rebecca aims to solve that problem by bringing her family with her. She has found Potrero so refreshing, she said, that she has talked her "normal" husband into joining her there for a second honeymoon.

"This will be the first vacation we've had together when I haven't gotten sick," she said. "And, if he likes it, I'd like to move out here for good."

But, although Molloy loves the company, she says she does not aim to turn Potrero in a chemie colony. She urges her visitors to regard Potrero not as the ultimate escape, but as a stop on the road to recovery.

"This is not just a place to live," she cautions. "This is a place to live and get well. Maybe we don't have to stay forever."

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