September 27, 2008

Leave No Trace

Photo: Edith Bellinghausen

Not all of our trip last weekend was gorgeous landscapes and breathtaking sunrises. Though we had plenty of that, we encountered a lot of really disturbing images of nature's attack on man, and, frankly, man's attack on nature.

On the drive from San Diego to Julian, through winding roads that reminded us of the "scenic route" to Campo on our way to the Train to Tecate, we witnessed the remainders of what we could only imagine had been the natural deforestation of the landscape by summer wildfires. Everywhere around us, on both sides of the road, we saw terrifyingly gnarled trees, blackened branches, and charred trunks, as close to us as the side of the road, and extending way up into the mountains. It was a startling sight, but with nowhere to pull over and sparing Edith the anxiety of watching me photograph the landscape while driving (which I have done while driving alone), I didn't get any pictures of it. If you could imagine the scariest forest in The Wizard of Oz (including during the deleted "Jitterbug" scene), what we saw looked like escapees from there, stopped dead in their tracks. As much as I dream about buying an RV and parking it permanently out in the desert, I can't imagine being so close to nature's wrath, especially in all those houses we passed...

Nature takes its toll on the desert, too. Made mostly of rock instead of dune, it appears to be stable, steady, unmovable, but it lies on the San Jacinto Fault, and like Death Valley, the earth's subterranean plates are shifting so much that their movements have isolated Coyote Mountain from the Santa Rosa Mountain range, so that it now stands alone. We drove east on S-22, stopping occasionally along the 21-mile stretch known as "Erosion Road," which gives spectacular views of geologic forces at work, creating arroyos, playas, bajadas, canyons and erosion-induced cone-shaped piles of rubble called alluvial fans. We were heading east out of Anza-Borrego, crossing county lines into Imperial County to reach the Salton Sea. We could see it on the horizon from the desert, looking as blue as the sky, but when we arrived we realized it wasn't blue at all, rather reflecting the blue sky from a distance. In reality, this inland sea's dark and mucky surface is just a small indication of its distastrous history.

The Salton Sea started as a dry lake, of which there are many in Southern California, and as an empty basin it seemed like a good place to collect the runoff of an overflowing Colorado River. After a series of man-made historic events - canal-digging, reservoir-building, irrigation and other agricultural developments - the sea kept getting saltier and its shores kept fluctuating. It was meant to be a temporary body of water that would eventually evaporate, but it never did. By the 1950s, people realized the salinity of the water caused it to be more buoyant, making it one of the fastest bodies of water to go boating on. Hollywood celebrities flocked here, too - to its shores, for boating, camping, and even fishing (thanks to some ocean-dwelling fish being introduced to the sea).

In the end, The Salton Sea turned out to be an engineering disaster, and everything went horribly wrong. The sea became too salty and people were advised against eating the fish they caught. The birds started dying off, slowly and then en masse as a result of an avian botulism outbreak. Millions of fish died off from oxygen depletion as a result of too much algae. Now, nearly 10 years later, it is one big, smelly graveyard for wildlife, its sulfuric, rotten fumes choking the local Salton City residents and visitors like Edith and myself. Of course, our interest in the dilapidated and the macabre brought us there, so we didn't mind crunching through all the fish carcasses, nestled in a silty ground made mostly of shell fragments (which apparently can get pretty kicked up in a windstorm).

The water surface is still pretty active, but it washes a gunk ashore that's pretty disgusting. Staring at all of the death and destruction, it's surprising to see that a good number of seabirds are still surviving, in fact, thriving there. It's actually a key stop in many of these birds' migratory patterns, especially so surrounded by desert. The local wildlife refuge is one of the many reasons why there's a movement to restore the Salton Sea, but it makes you wonder: hasn't man done enough? Should they just leave it and let nature take its course with it? Or is it so far gone that nature will only induce more destruction there?

Out there in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by abandonment, I didn't feel as lonely or as small as I did standing in the middle of Badwater, Death Valley's salt basin which is only slightly more under sea level than the Salton Sea. The air was too humid for our desert-adjusted bodies, and we really felt the 100+ depgree heat, escaping to our air conditioned rental car for relief. However, we had one more stop to make while we were in the area: boiling mud pots.

It took a while to actually find them, and we had to drive long down a canal-flanked dirt road to get there. When we arrived, we saw a long, white-encrusted stretch of nothingness, and an empty brown field - empty except for cone-shaped deposits created by tiny volcanic eruptions. Underneath them? Bubbling mud.

If we listened closely, making sure we didn't walk too closely towards them, our feet already sinking into the white-dusted ground that looked dry and cracked on the surface but was wet and soft under some pressure, we could hear the blup-blup-blup that signified an impending eruption. It was surreal and alien. The site was somehow so "out there" that we were surprised it was even listed on a map.

We made it back to Borrego Springs for dinner at The Red Ocotillo that night. Before returning to our room at the Palms, we looked up at the stars, remarking how you can't see any of them in New York. There are so many of them, and they were all so close and bright. Somehow I think we felt safe and protected under that starlit sky, a feeling unfamiliar to me in New York as well, and even in Death Valley, when I was terrified to drive in the dark, listened to animals scratching at my door and awoke to ghost sightings. Maybe it was the companionship of Edith. Or maybe I'm just getting used to visiting these bizarre sites with the deafening cries of lost souls all around me.

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