The Last Resort : Desert Community Offers Haven to Those Allergic to Smells and Chemicals of Big-City Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

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 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 holistic half-way house.

The 62-year-old former Van Nuys businesswoman, who is not a doctor and makes no claim to special healing powers, 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.

The California Medical Assn., after reviewing literature and a holding a lengthy hearing, in 1986 found that scientific and clinical evidence is lacking to support a diagnosis of "environmental illness."

Larry Brunton, a pharmacologist at UC San Diego, concurs. "There are a few people in our population who are hypersensitive to this or that, but I've never felt that there are large numbers of people who across the board are allergic to 20th-Century civilization," he said. "Isn't this just a sort of yearning for a simpler life--easier, less stressed? And I wouldn't condemn it--it sounds lovely."

Whatever the reason, visitors to the Last Resort claim that, in a chemical-free environment, their depression, disorientation and dizziness go away.

Because of that, 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."

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." Judy, who asked that her last name not be used, lived with Molloy for nine months before she bought an old Christmas tree farm a few hundred yards down the road.

"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.

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. Visitors, who pay from $300 to $800 a month to live in Molloy's well-ventilated rooms and trailers, 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 said. 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.

In 1983, Molloy founded a nonprofit group, Community for the Environmentally Sensitive, dedicated to establishing and preserving "safe" living areas.

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, Rebecca, a second-time visitor from Chicago 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.

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, and ask that they please pack only natural fabrics. Lina recounted a telephone call from her frustrated sister: "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.

"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," she said.

Although Molloy is glad others have found relief in Potrero, she says she does not aim to turn the community into 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 cautioned. "This is a place to live and get well. Maybe we don't have to stay forever."

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