Originally published in The Mercurial.
I made a decision to go to Salton Sea in the middle of July last summer. Located 110 miles northeast of San Diego, California and 70 miles north of Mexicali, Mexico, Salton Sea is way out in the Sonoran Desert, 226 feet below sea level, where the average daily temperature is upwards of 110 degrees. The decision was made to go in summer because it was pretty much the only time my best friend could fly down to Los Angeles to meet me for a week of adventure in the deserts of Southern California. Thankfully the best friend has a keen sense of adventure. We both had some reservations about the heat, and “the smell” – Salton Sea has a fish die-off that sometimes runs to 12,000-plus a day! The stench in the summer can be much less than pleasant. What could be so special about this place that it can drag me out into such ugly weather, even if it is a “dry heat,” you ask?
A flood from the Colorado River created Salton Sea in 1905 when a dam built to control irrigation routes on the river burst and flooded the valley for two years. In the 50s, the Fish and Game Department started stocking the “Sea” with fish. Still, due to its location, the area would remain mostly uninhabited till the invention of air conditioning. A sudden boom in real estate sales and growth occurred soon after, and Salton Sea was imagined to be the “Lake Tahoe of the desert.” Yacht clubs were built, and people were encouraged to move out to the “oasis in the desert.” Huge neighborhoods were put into development. The Rat Pack partied there, the Beach Boys performed there… hell, Sunny Bono learned how to water-ski there! Salton was alive with growth and buzzing with life. By the mid-60s however, a steadily rising salinity level and the fact that Salton was inundated by agricultural runoff and fed by the New River, flowing north out of Mexico, brought pollution to unsafe levels. It is said to be the most polluted body of water of its size in the United States, and in the 60s, there were huge fish die-offs–as many as four million a day. Something was wrong with Salton. The stench became unbearable. The oasis was about to be, for the most part, abandoned.
Skip to July, 2012. Salton Sea has been wasting away in the middle of the desert for 30 some odd years by the time the best friend and I arrive. A political and environmental battle rages over what to do with it; Salton was fingered as the culprit for that widely smelt “gas” issue that plagued most of Southern California in September of 2012. However, the Sea supports over 400 different bird species, approximately two thirds of all bird species in the lower 48, and is considered one of the most important stopover points for migrating birds in the Western United States. Somehow, this place couldn’t have felt further from politics, time, or life in general while I was there (perhaps because I was only visiting). I was lost in the vastness that is Salton Sea.
We drove two and a half hours from L.A. to arrive at sunrise on our first day. At six in the morning, we stepped out of our air-conditioned car into a 98 degree morning. “No problem,” I thought to myself, “I’m going to make it through this.” One of the first things I noticed was half of a sun-beaten, weather-worn motorboat jaunting out between two palm trees. I knew I would love Salton Sea, no matter what.
By midday, the temperature had reached 115 degrees, and it would continue to rise. The best friend and I were lost in a maze of dead end roads. Miles and miles of them, with telephone poles and all, but barely any houses or trailers to be seen. The roads just twisted, pretzel-like, spinning us dizzy in the desert sun. Every now and then we would stop and walk around on the shores, which are mostly comprised of broken and ground up fish bones from the die-offs. It’s bleak, it’s wretchedly hot, and it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life. We decided to check into our hotel at one o’clock, 45 miles south of where we were. The sun was destroying us, but I had to stop in and check out the Three Sisters – three trees standing randomly in the desert – on the way there. Upon arrival at our hotel we had hit a stifling 117 degrees. We did our best to push through, and my brilliant idea to buy a Solar Tent proved to be an epic failure. It was just dead air at 117 degrees, sun or no sun. We cooled off and planned to head back north once the temperature dipped in hopes of getting at least one good sunset shot.
The desert proved us fools yet again: it was no cooler when we headed back out to catch the sunset. On we plundered. We had to pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint in order to drive north up either side of Salton Sea from our hotel in Calipatria, which I had no problem with, as I wasn’t holding. However, my honesty was about to have my car searched by an exceptionally beautiful, German Shorthaired Pointer. I, by the way, was not allowed to pet the dog. A major disappointment for me, as I love dogs a lot. How does someone who’s not holding end up in this position, you wonder? As we rolled up to the checkpoint I could see that this guy was not going to have any sense of humor at all. So I decided it was best to just “yes Sir,” “no Sir” him to death. I pulled up, stopped the car, and rolled down the window to commence interaction:
Officer: “Where you coming from?”
Me: “The hotel in Calipatria, Sir.”
Officer: “What exactly are you doing way the hell out here?”
Me: “I came to take some photos, Sir.”
Officer: “In the middle of July?”
Me: “Not optimal, I know, Sir. But it was the only time we could make it.”
Officer: “Have you been drinking?”
Me: “No, Sir.”
Officer: “Do you have any marijuana in the car?”
Me: “Negative, Sir!”
Officer: “Do you have any narcotics in the car?”
Suddenly I remember the Percocet in my backpack, in the trunk. They are prescribed to me, but officially they are narcotics. So I stumble.
Me: “Uuuuummmmm… nnnoo…?”
Officer: “Keep both your hands on the steering wheel where I can see them, and pull over right there!”
He pointed with one hand, the other fast on his pistol. The best friend and I then endured the fullest force of interrogation our fine U.S. Border Patrol has to offer while roasting away in the desert heat. They really try to twist your words around. But in the end, they realized that I had told them the truth when I said that I had to think about the fact that Percocet is an opiate, and therefore a narcotic. I was also only going on about five hours sleep in the last two days. I was still not allowed to pet that beautiful dog once I had established innocence. C’est la vie. On we drove in search of a specific trailer I had seen when researching this trip: abandoned, with the skeleton of a tilapia skillfully spraypainted on its side. I was slightly obsessed with finding this trailer and putting my fisheye lens to work on it. After another two hours of searching we still had not found the trailer, although I was almost certain I had found where it should have been. Oh well. We went to go get some tacos, then headed back to the Three Sisters to watch the stars. It had finally cooled down to about 105 degrees and the sun was down, so the heat seemed somehow more bearable.
The Wide Open Spaces
Day two would have me up at sunrise again while the best friend opted to sleep in. I was off to revisit the Sisters. A quick glance at my phone suggested that it might rain. Chances of that at Salton in July are pretty slim, but my luck is what it is. It was far too overcast for a decent shot of the Three Sisters, even if I went with high-dynamic-range imaging. I hung out for a few nonetheless and just took it all in. As long as I didn’t look west, where the power plant was, it felt as though it was just those trees, a few others off in the distance, and myself, all alone out there. It was silent and still, and I was humbled. I was also already sweating way too hard for it to be only 6:30 in the morning.
I journeyed back to the hotel to scoop up the best friend, and off we drove up the east side of Salton. Our first stop would be the loneliest shack I’ve ever seen, after, of course, a quick stop at Border Patrol. As we drove up, I could see the Pointer I so badly wanted to pet yesterday. She and her handler were standing about looking very authoritative. I drove up and exclaimed “I still really want to pet your dog!!” The officer gave me a grim glare and said, “Just keep driving.” A lefthand turn just past Border Patrol put us on the road to nowhere.
Yet another barren length of pavement, telephone polls stretching as far as the eye could see, with not a single dwelling. At the end of that road lies the Niland Marina. The telephone polls just trail off into the water, and with the exception of a couple shacks and old restrooms, there’s nothing else out there to be seen. Suddenly, however, there was a very low-flying helicopter. I watched with my jaw half dropped. Then, as though I was in some crazy war film, I saw a large projectile drop from the chopper. A large mushroom cloud appeared when it hit the ground, and a moment later, I heard the explosion and felt it in my chest. This bomb was dropped more than three miles from where I stood. All my research into Salton did not turn up this testing site.
The Locals (and a Murder Scene)
Leaving Niland Marina and driving further north took us to the town of Bombay Beach. My heart raced with anticipation – another chance at finding the “Tilapia Trailer.” This town is exactly the sort of place most of you would imagine held the inhabitance of The Hills Have Eyes sort of people. Bombay Beach is a mostly bombed-out trailer park in the middle of nowhere with a dead coyote on the highway outside of town. The people there, however, were super nice, once I explained to them what I was up to. “You don’t look like one of them normal camera type.” I heard it at least three times while we were there. So for the first time in a while, looking as broke as I am was a benefit! It also got me some good local gossip. We are all crazy. Myself, foremost included, but Vietnam vets who “live off the grid” while they recover from “the dope” are pretty intimidating. Also they, or at least the one I met, kept referring to all his friends as “peckerwoods,” which is a term non-whites use to provoke rage in white inmates. I did not bother to question why he would use such a term. The heat meanwhile, raged on. It was surely cooler than the previous day, but still hovering at about 110 degrees.
After navigating the streets of Bombay Beach for a couple hours, we decided to head north to Mecca to fuel up for the drive back south. As we were leaving town, I spotted three sheriff cars and a few sherriff trucks parked outside a trailer. Assuming I had stumbled upon the local sherriff’s office, I hopped out of the car to go inquire about the elusive “Tilapia Trailer.” As I bound up the steps towards the door of the trailer, something felt off. I slowed my roll a little as I approached the door and gave an apprehensive “Heeellloo…?” At that very moment, I noticed the stretcher on the floor and heard the distinct snapping of latex gloves. My heart raced as a head poked out from another room and said “Get outta here, this is a homicide investigation!” I froze though… for a moment I couldn’t move or speak. Then I snapped out of it. “Sorry, I’m lost and looking for directions, I’ll ask somewhere else, I’m from out of town…”
What happened next would change my life! While at the gas station in Mecca, I sought an ice-cold beverage to cool me off and combat that awful heat. I had settled on orange juice, not from concentrate of course, and a Monster for a pick-me-up. On my way to the register I noticed what appeared to be Agua Fresca. Not only that, but they had tamarind! So I ordered the largest they had to offer. The guy behind the counter took my order then started crushing half a large bag of ice. I was a little confused why so much ice was necessary, but the reason was epic! He took the crushed ice, filled the cup with it and then began to spoon tamarind juice over it. “Genius,” I thought. That beverage was without doubt the greatest beverage I have ever let pass my lips! It also lasted about four hours in that desert heat. With the onset of heavier and lower clouds, the best friend and I decided to call it a day and head south to see what could be seen of the sunset at the Three Sisters. The next day was going to be good; some of my family from Phoenix would be driving out to Salton for a couple days of adventure.
Day three, my last at Salton, began the same as those previous. I drove out to the Three Sisters at sunrise to take more photos, then back to the hotel to grab the best friend. We then headed out to Salvation Mountain, a place befit by no words. I could write for hours and never translate the experience to you. The story of the Mountain itself is worthy of its own article. For the sake of time, however, I’ll just tell you that in 1986, Leonard Knight decided he wanted to build a religious monument in the middle of the Sonoran desert. His original goal was an eight-foot monument, but once he started, he just couldn’t stop. When his poetically beautiful attempt at escape in a hot air balloon failed, he decided to stay. Now Salvation Mountain is one of the greatest examples of folk art in America, a huge monument constructed of adobe, straw, sticks, tires, and a whole lot of paint. Leonard himself was ill when we arrived, so we never got the pleasure to meet the man himself. The people there were awesome though, offering us water and information without being pushy.
The day was shaping up as the previous had; it was way too hot for that early in the day, but beauty was everywhere our eyes would rest. There is also a large group of people who live “off the grid” by Salvation Mountain in “Slab City” and “East Jesus.” July is the off-season, though, as most of the people who live there go north for the summer to be in cooler temperatures. We hung out at Salvation Mountain for a bit then returned to the hotel to meet my stepmother, stepsister, and niece. Once they were checked in and given their walkie talkie names, we were good to go! Since cell reception can be incredibly spotty out in Salton, I had the brilliant idea to keep two walkie taklies in our cars. My name was “Red Rooster” and my niece was “Pinky,” and we did most of the jibber-jabbering. Back to Salvation Mountain we went. The heat was already beyond unbearable and there were storm warnings out for the afternoon. We could see one storm taking shape in the northeast when we arrived. Having not checked out Slab City or East Jesus yet, we decided to get on that in case it started to rain.
The Desert Storm
The wind was pretty high and I could feel the temperature dropping when we arrived at East Jesus. That place was amazing though – found art projects everywhere and history rich with characters seeking to express themselves. It was at this point that I realized two things: first, the time lapse footage I thought I had taken at Salvation Mountain didn’t actually record. Second, there was now another very large and aggressive storm coming from the southwest, and it looked like it was going to converge with the other storm heading our way from the northeast.
I had to get back to Salvation Mountain before this happened. I could literally feel the electricity in the air as we sped back to Salvation to get the time lapse. The wind was blowing so hard that I had to use my camera bag to weight down my tripod. Off I wandered into that head space where all that matters is getting photos. My stepsister looked up at the sky. “I’m headed back to the car,” she said. “I’ve seen storms like this before and they end badly.” I just kept shooting, trying to capture the absolute insanity that was happening in the sky above me. Then, a huge blast of air passed my body and I could see a dust cloud about 9000 feet tall speeding my way. The best friend looked over her shoulder and yelled to me, “RRRUUUNNN!!!” and run we did. Freezing cold raindrops the size of quarters began to pelt my body, and at the same time I was being blasted with sand so badly it burned. Back in the car, we sped off to escape the madness. A sudden break in the rain gave me the chance to get the last shot I wanted. The wind was insanely epic and a constant roar of thunder could be heard. I got my shot, dashed back to the car, shut the door and WHAM! The rain blasted the car as we sped away.
This storm was no joke. The flash flooding was almost immediate. I walkied back to Pinky: “Red Rooster to Pinky, did you guys remember to bring building supplies for an ark? I don’t know how much longer I can even drive in this, over”. We concluded that we would drive north towards what seemed to be the only place the sun was remotely visible. Woody Guthrie’s “Better World A-Comin” blared out of the speakers as we tried to speed through blinding rain and ear-numbing thunder. We drove nearly 44 miles to Mecca to escape it (and to get another one of those amazing tamarind beverages, of course.) Even there the dust was raging in the streets. The radio was saying that flash flooding was crippling the valley, so we decided to take the chance and try to get back to our hotel. This storm put an immediate end to exploring the desert. It was now a huge, barren mud field. After a rather tense hour and a half drive south, we arrived back in Calipatria.
The clouds were breaking over the Santa Rosa Mountains to our west, casting a huge sunburst that seemed to consume the desert as far as our eyes could see. A fitting end to my time in Salton, I suppose. I never did find that damn trailer. As it turns out, it and one other trailer went “missing” a few months before we arrived.
I learned a lot about my body’s endurance for extreme heat on this trip. I’m kind of amazed that I survived at all, really. This was still one of the greatest adventures of my “adulthood” though. From Salton, the best friend and I would continue onto Joshua Tree National Park and beyond, camp under the stars and see more amazing desert lightning. This time though, it was at least 35 miles away, eye candy as it lit up the clouds against an impossible amount of stars.
I followed my heart to the middle of the Sonoran Desert in July. Pretty much everyone assured me I was crazy to do so. I have not a single regret about that decision. I can’t wait for another far away adventure, and I’m fairly sure the next one will be to just outside Mexico City to check out La Isla de la Munecas – The Island of Dolls.
Til next time, safe travels, my friends.