June 21, 2009

Another Lost Civilization

Our first trip to the Salton Sea was a little frustrating, because we'd heard about these sinking buildings, half submerged casinos, abandoned trucks, derelict trailers, but we didn't really find any of that. In fact, we didn't find much of anything except feathers, fish carcasses, and salt-stained driftwood. We drove through the grid of Salton City wondering why there were streets and even fire hydrants, but no houses. Turns out they'd never even been built.

We were more prepared the second time and found more of what we were looking for - including some companionship at a local bar in Bombay Beach - but I knew there were more sights I was missing out on, as verified by photos in books and Flickr pools and travel articles that did not come with an accompanying map. After two visits, I was still on a treasure hunt, looking for a lost world that I was certain to find if I just kept going back.

When I found out I had the chance to spend some time in Joshua Tree this summer, I knew that one of the first things I would have to do is go back to the Salton Sea. I'd added at least one or two markers to my own Google Map-in-progress and I wanted to skulk around some more before it was too hot and the air quality was too poor (from all that crap washed ashore getting kicked up by the wind) for me to do so.

Fortunately, this weekend is also Save Our State Parks Weekend hosted by the California State Parks Foundation, so since part of the Salton Sea is a State Recreation Area, I could also wear green in support of keeping CA state parks open, take my picture in front of the Salton Sea sign, and get it included in a slideshow that's sent to the Governor's office.

The one location I was sure I could find was the old Palms Motel in Salton Sea Beach, just north of Salton City. I'd seen enough photos to expect a ghost town of sorts, with furniture strewn everywhere, but I wasn't prepared for the flocks of pigeons living inside, the layers of their droppings on the ground, and the resulting stench. Mixed with the heat-induced funk of the sea, and what I'm certain were traces of human excrement, it was almost unbearable outside the motel, not to mention to actually walk through the rooms inside. A sign relatively recently posted outside warned that the structure was unsafe and not to be used by humans, but it looked stable enough to poke around and snap some shots.

Nearby there were a number of abandoned trailers, most the old metal 1950s kind, permanently parked on the side of the road or in the middle of an empty plot. Some were empty themselves but others still showed signs of life - a television, a tape recorder, some old boots, even a bright turquoise stool, waiting for someone to take a seat and make the place their home. Since it rarely rains there, and the trailers were far enough from the water's edge, they weren't completely rusted out - just faded from the sun and disuse. Nobody even bothered to tag the trailers with graffiti.

The closer I got to the water, the more human the ruins became. I came across what I can only guess was a marina, and most of the relics there were personal rather than commercial. I didn't see paddles or boat motors or tools or equipment. I saw shoes and leather shoulder bags and an empty box of Titleist golf balls. I guess I understand leaving a couch behind, but who wouldn't take these small items? In the wake of many natural disasters when people are forced to leave quickly (tornadoes, hurricanes), you find a lot of this kind of personal ephemera because it has become less important than saving your own life. What drove these Salton Beach residents and business owners out so quickly that they left a trail of their belongings behind them?

Over time, garbage pickers and photographers and vandals and curious tourists have disturbed these abandoned locations enough so that they're not totally frozen in time. The once-popular and -glamorous resort town image is now shattered and scattered everywhere. I felt like a future archaelogist, trying to piece together the habits and lifestyles of a lost, modern society who'd just vanished from the earth. But instead of arrowheads and wall-markings, I found plastic containers and an old vacuum.

Worse yet, the area's current residents seem to have given up completely and taken on the attributes of their surroundings. Among the occupied houses, you can find new trash - not remnants of a tragic mid-20th century resort town, but recently ditched possessions like a boat sticking out of the ground by a palm tree in front of someone's house, full of rocks, rendered useless, an oddly bright white addition to the rusty, sandy, tattered tableau.

On the other side of the sea, just east of the last road in Bombay Beach, the sand rises up in high banks accessible only through two roads - one that looks impassible with a "Beach Closed" sign, and another paved one with a dangling chain swept to the side, allowing for easy entry. As I rose over the crest of the bank, I finally saw what I was really looking for: the land of sunken trailers. This was the holy grail for me, the area that had been flooded in the 1970s by a combination of unusual storms and aggressive irrigation runoff. Many of these beach towns are subject to flooding, but this had resulted in mass destruction, of biblical proportions.

Having driven across a number of dry river beds and dry lakes, I could easily recognize this area as the one that suffered most when the Salton Sea swelled. The ground was overtaken by salty, mushy seabed. Unlike the hard, white salt flats of, say, Mirage Dry Lake or Badwater, this part of Bombay Beach felt new, as though the water could come back at any time, either from the sea itself or from the ground below. You can tell that the trailers parked here had been completely overtaken by the advancing water, and for the first time, I understood why its residents had to leave quickly. But unlike in Salton Beach, there were no belongings here. Perhaps they'd been washed out to sea, or picked off by fisherman, or buried themselves in the sandy soil that overtook everything else, even the boats.

It was a graveyard of sorts, by far the deadest place I'd found in the entire Salton Sea area. And for the first time, I felt more than a morbid fascination with this apocalyptic setting. The abandonment was no longer a novelty. It was truly a tragedy, and as I walked away from my last photograph at the shoreline and my flip flops left their impression beneath me, I felt guilty for being there, for disturbing the area, for making any light of what these people must have gone through.

After that I couldn't drive any farther south to Niland to visit Salvation Mountain, the most common tourist attraction in the Salton Sea area. I had to go back north up Route 111, back to life, back to opportunity and living.

Still, the Sea wasn't completely abandoned. For the first time, I spotted other tourists roaming around in their cars, trying to get a look at what was left. The State Recreation Area was full of kids and families fishing, boating, and I swear getting ready to swim (something the state does not advise - not because of the water quality but because there is no, er, lifeguard on duty). Birds are still plentiful there and although I spotted a new tilapia die-off on one part of the North Shore beach, the Salton Sea is still a vibrant area for birdwatching and wildlife viewing. And not just pigeons, but a number of seabirds who seem to thrive in the heat, water, and salt. There is still life at the Salton Sea. But how long will it last?

For my first visit to the Salton Sea, click here
For my second visit, click here
For more photos of this trip, click here

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