[Postcard] | At the Salton Sea, by Jenny Zhang | Harper's Magazine

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Road-tripping to the end of the world

Photograph by Tom Macher

Photograph by the author

I think I’m about to start a new phase of my life, or at least I want to, and to mark it, my friend Tom and I are road-tripping to the Salton Sea. We decide to stay at Ray and Carol’s Motel by the Sea in Salton City, even though their phone line keeps going to voicemail. When we arrive, there’s a fire going, empty beer cans, and three men sitting around smoking and not saying anything. It’s windy out. I hear sounds of an off-roading vehicle revving its engine, followed by cheering, and the softness of lapping waves not too far off in the distance.

A cheerful, ruddy-faced man in shorts and flip-flops comes out, introduces himself as Gary, and tells us he’s been up all day and all night because of a “jeeping,” or four-wheeling convention. “If you go out just over there,” he says, pointing toward the Sea, “you might still see those guys at it. They got a massive one stuck in the mud bog.”

Gary shows us the fridge and the coffee maker and a table full of pamphlets and fliers for local restaurants, the International Banana Museum, the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, maps of hiking trails and beaches. He gives us careful notes on exactly where we ought to leave a hiking trail to find beautiful obsidian, and neither Tom nor I take note. I came to see the Salton Sea because Tom said it was a little scary, and there’s nothing scary about beautiful rocks that are meant to be put on display.

The next morning, in the bright of day, Gary is up filling the coffee machine and asking us if we went to see the jeep stuck in the mud bogs.

“We better go see the fucking mud bogs,” Tom says to me when we’re out of earshot, and we walk down to the Salton Sea beach with our coffee mugs.

The beach is white and crunchy. “Are we stepping on pulverized—”

“—dead fish carcasses? Yup.”

“It’s sort of like walking on day-old snow.”

Just as I’m about to pose for a photo in front of a jeep half submerged in a mud bog, a massive dust storm kicks up, and we try to hide our faces inside our jackets. When it’s over, the sun is out, the sky is clear, the drops of moisture in the air are gone, and the day begins to feel nearly religious.

We walk a little bit farther up the beach and come to a bulletin board with several yellowed, water-damaged, torn signs, including one that says, QUESTIONS OFTEN ASKED ABOUT THE SALTON SEA? The questions include: IS RAW SEWER BEING DUMPED INTO THE SEA? CAN YOU EAT THE FISH? HOW SALTY IS THE SEA? CAN YOU SAFELY SWIM IN THE WATER? ARE THE BIRDS DYING? WHAT IS THAT SMELL?

The sound and vision of this empty beach remind me of the cities I’ve lived in after they’ve been quieted by extreme weather, though this is less beautiful than it is grotesque—a ghost beach town blanketed not by fine, undisturbed white sand, but ground-up bits of millions of dead fish. I’m not the first outsider who has ever been tempted to see the Salton Sea as poetry for end times, as allegory for what happens when humans interfere carelessly with nature; I’m part of a tradition.

The Salton Sea began as an error. At the end of the nineteenth century, developers took interest in the fertile soil found in the Imperial Valley and constructed a series of canals around the ancient dry lakebed, then called the Salton Sink, to divert water for agricultural production. Favoring greed over quality, these shoddily built canals were ill equipped to handle the accumulation of silt. In 1905, the nearby Colorado River breached the canals and for eighteen months filled the thirty-five-mile-wide, ten-mile-long, 235-feet-below-sea-level lakebed with freshwater. The Southern Pacific Railroad company had several lines running through the Imperial Valley and, frustrated by the amount of labor and money lost to rerouting lines onto higher ground, dumped 2,500 cars of rolling stock filled with rock, dirt, and wood into the canals to stop the flooding. Despite being smack-dab in the blistering desert, the high rate of evaporation was offset by runoff from neighboring farmland in the Imperial Valley, and for the next few decades, the water level remained relatively stable.

In the Fifties and Sixties, developers set their sights on transforming the Salton Sea into a destination for urban dwellers from Los Angeles looking for an escape. Resort towns and retirement homes quickly popped up along the shore. Yacht clubs and glittering marinas attracted celebrities like Sonny Bono, Desi Arnaz, and Frank Sinatra, as well as more modest vacationers who came for the golfing, boating, and jet-skiing. The California State Department of Fish and Game introduced saltwater fish such as corvina, sargo, croaker, and tilapia into the sea, turning it into the most productive fishery in California. In its heyday, the Sea attracted 1.5 million visitors a year, making it more popular than Yosemite.

A series of tropical storms in the Seventies flooded the seaside towns, washed out half-built lots, destroyed mobile homes, scared off developers, and led to widespread abandonment. The Salton Sea went from being a jewel in the desert to being, as a resident explains in the 2006 John Waters–narrated documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, “the greatest sewer the world has ever seen.”

In the Nineties, after nearly a century of salty agricultural runoff containing pesticides and fertilizers, millions of fish turned up dead on the shores of the Sea, unable to survive because of the lack of oxygen, choked off by algal blooms. Ten thousand pelicans died over a four-month period. The county’s sole incinerator had to run twenty-four hours a day to burn the bodies of dead and dying birds.

Local and national news outlets came for the gore, highlighting the scenes of apocalyptic burned-out tragedy, a vision of the Sea that remains today for disaster tourists like myself, who have come to see what the end of the world might look like.

Since then, the demands of water-needy suburbs in LA and San Diego County have taken precedent and allowed for what some have called the looting of water from the Sea. As the shoreline continues to recede, over a hundred year’s worth of dangerous contaminants are being exposed to the surrounding area. Desert winds create dust storms full of toxic grit that can travel as far up as LA. Imperial County, which covers most of the Salton Sea area and has some of the highest rates of childhood-asthma hospitalizations in the state.

“What kind of people stick around after everyone else has left?” I wonder aloud in the car.

“We’re about to find out,” Tom says.

About nine miles inland, on the eastern side of the Sea is Slab City, a free-for-all, off-the-grid community of weirdos, drifters, hippies, misfits, and snowbirds looking to stretch out their retirement dollars on what used to be a Marine training base called Camp Dunlap, abandoned after World War II. Named after the concrete slabs left behind, there have been recent uneasy rumblings that the state is looking to sell off the land. For now, it is still known as “the last free place in America.” Nearby are several military aerial-gunning ranges with especially cute names such as Kitty Baggage Range and Chocolate Mountain Shooting Ariel Gunning Range, and as we drive deeper into the desert, Tom points out drones flying above us. The last free place in this country is under military surveillance.

For a place that is supposed to be a haven for those who can’t or won’t abide by societal norms and regulations, Slab City has somehow managed to eerily mimic the very cities and towns it does not wish to be. The poor part of “town” consists mostly of shabby tarps and makeshift shelters of crudely stacked plywood. The slightly nicer part is populated with homes built out of fancier, more creative materials. There are signs of ownership and property lines just about everywhere. Even the most derelict of encampments are protected with aggressive signage: OCCUPIED, NO TRESPASSING, KEEP OUT! The side of Slab City farthest from the main road is where we hit the really prime real estate—top-of-the-line RV campers, elegantly landscaped gardens, and groups of women strolling together in yoga pants, pushing baby strollers.

On our way out we meet Mary, a self-described redneck bitch who “doesn’t play well with others.” From behind her chain-link fence she tells us that “you really have to have an imagination to survive,” but from what I can see the only people who do are white. What bothers me is that these refuges, these places that strive to exist outside of civilization, outside of law, these so-called last free places in America are still primarily for white people. The thing about “free” land in America is that it was never free; it was seized, colonized, and occupied. White settlers built homes on native blood. The longer the view, the uglier the dream.

What is now the Salton Sea was, many hundred years ago, within the territory of the Cahuilla people. By some geologists’ estimates, it used to be 2,100 square miles, six times its present size. Radiocarbon dating of fish and a white water line left behind by the old shoreline suggests that for much of the last several thousand years it was an abundantly filled freshwater lake. The story of the playa in the California desert that, through human interference, became a paradise and then a looming ecological disaster is the stuff of recent history.

That night, I have trouble falling asleep, and I can’t tell if it’s because I’m nurturing a kernel of disquietude or just because. I put on some clothes and go around the front, where I find Gary sitting by a campfire, drinking and smoking a cigar, talking to an older man, who is bald and portly, standing on the other side of the fire.

“Have a seat,” Gary says to me, and I do, apologizing profusely for taking the only other chair and offering to find another for the man who is standing.

“I prefer to stand,” he says, speaking so slowly and taking such an excruciatingly long pause between “to” and “stand” that I mistakenly get up.

He introduces himself as Ron from Oregon. He came down here with an old friend who owns some property by the sea that he wanted to check on. Along the way, they picked up two other guys, friends of his friend.

The radio is set on some local hard-rock station. Nirvana plays and then “Freebird.” Gary pleads with Ron several times, “Don’t leave me out here, man. You said you’d stay and grill with me. Don’t go yet.”

“Wait,” I say. “Why is this place called Ray and Carol’s?”

“Ray and Carol were my grandparents.”

“The only person left who loved me is dead,” Ron says about his mother and then starts telling me a story about how he almost came to blows, or maybe shots, with some construction worker who was making noise outside of his home in Oregon, early one morning. I want to ask him what he thinks about Ammon Bundy and the folks who led a forty-one-day standoff in eastern Oregon, illegally occupying a wildlife sanctuary, and depending on whom you asked, were heroic activists or scumbag terrorists, but before I can, Ron is going off about how the government has gone too far, interfered with his property, threatened his livelihood, and made it difficult for him to live out his days undisturbed.

Gary cheerfully tells me all the ways that he’s been a fuckup in his life. “You’re me in twenty years,” he says to Ron, and then stands up and puts an arm around him. “The other night, I was drinking at three in the morning with my buddies, just being a couple of jerks, and I see these guys drinking by the fire, and I think, that’s us.”

“He could be your brother,” I offer.

“He is me. I’m gonna end up like him.”

“I don’t have anyone,”Ron says.

“C’mon man,” Gary says, even though Ron has been standing still this whole time, “you gotta stay with me while I grill up some chicken. You said you’d grill with me.”

“All right,” Ron agrees. Gary places several pieces of already-cooked chicken breast as well as a few raw pieces on the grill over the fire. Ron is repeating himself. “I’m not—I’m not—I’m not afraid of death.”

“That’s incredible,” I say, but he’s not finished.

“I’m not afraid,” he continues, and then pauses for so long that within that pause Gary has three full opportunities to turn over the chicken.

Finally, Ron finishes his thought.

“I’m not afraid,”he says, “of living out in the desert.”

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