October 25, 2017

Sunrising the Salton Sea and Its Forever Folly

I'd been itching to return to the Salton Sea. After all, it had been more than six years since I was last there.

Is it possible I'd only visited once since actually moving to California? Time flies—especially when you've got lots of exploring to do.

For my prior visits to the areas surrounding this large, inland sea, I'd always stayed in Palm Springs or Joshua Tree or Anza-Borrego. But this time—especially considering the fact that I planned to attend a balloon race on the water at sunrise—I decided to support the community and stay local.

Of course, there are no hotels actually at the Salton Sea—you'd have to go to Brawley for that—so, since I didn't plan to set up camp, my only other choice was one of the off-grid accommodations offered on Airbnb at Slab City.

Specifically, I chose to stay in a tiny red barn by the Coachella Canal at the California Ponderosa, hosted by a friendly and creative desert rat named George.

This wasn't my first time in Slab City, the abandoned site of the Marine Corps barracks of the World War II training facility known as Camp Dunlap—I'd been once in 2010 on my way out of Salvation Mountain.

But I felt uncomfortable photographing it back then. As abandoned as it may look and seem, people live there.

They may live in trailers, off the grid, far from utilities and law enforcement, but this is their home. It felt insensitive to gawk or even linger long enough to snap a photo.

But Slab City has become a perfect destination for hosts who want to create unusual accommodations for guests from around the world and for visitors who want to get away from it all—including running water, electricity, telephone lines, and occasionally a cell phone signal.

But I spent the night in "The Slabs" listening to the wind rattle the rafters of my makeshift cabin and falling asleep to the sound of a banjo playing and a freight train moaning in the distance. And I woke up there, the sky still full of stars, George's dog sniffing my hand as I scuttled over to the "ladies room" (which is basically a toilet in a teardrop trailer), and I made my way to the Sea.

I'd been lured by the promise of a sunrise event called "The Great California Balloon Race," scheduled for 7 a.m., as well as a sunset event called "The Lowest Glow On Earth"—but, to be honest, both were just an excuse to go back to this desolate, desert area that continues to inspire me.

For months leading up to them, they seemed like such a good way to revitalize the communities around the sea and draw some visitors, get some press, make some money. But we all forgot that the main thing that characterizes the Salton Sea is folly.

Its modern iteration resulted from the flooding of the former, ancient Salton Sink—something that was supposed to be temporary. When it didn't evaporate as planned, locals made the best of it and tried to transform it into a kind of California Riviera, whose salinity gave it a buoyancy that made speedboat racing and waterskiing particularly exciting there.

And then the fish die-offs. And then the bird deaths. And then the resulting smell.

And the floods—one of which consumed half of Bombay Beach.

And then, a problem of the exact opposite nature: a receding shoreline that's leaving behind so much dry dust and particulate matter (much of which is salt and other mineral deposits, as well as disintegrating fish and bird bones) that just breathing in the air there can be hazardous to your health.

I'd been reading about the dust storms, but I hadn't experienced them myself—that is, until this weekend.

I was prepared for the smell of dead fish and rotting birds and horse manure (and the flies that follow). But I was not prepared for 50 mph winds that created white-out conditions on Highways 86S and 78 and the 8 Freeway, starting at the north shore of the sea in Riverside County and intermittently relentless until I got way past the sea, through the Imperial Dunes, and to the other side of Imperial County, practically at the Arizona border.

That was the day before the balloon race and "low glow."

So, it should've come as no surprise that the hot air balloon events of the next day would be cancelled.

But, of course, they weren't cancelled. Not officially. After all, this is the Salton Sea. And the Salton Sea is coming back, isn't it?

One day, anyway. That's what they say, anyway.

Maybe other event organizers in another area would've called the whole thing off preemptively, but these folks had to try. In the morning, one pilot got one balloon fired up—mostly, but not enough. After three hours or so of failure, all the pilots packed up their balloons and baskets and left.

So much for the balloon rides that many folks had reserved in advance.

I thought that would be the end of the so-called "SeaFest," but it wasn't. Even though most of the vendors were late in setting up. Even though only a couple of drivers showed up for the vintage car show. Even though there was no way that anyone was going to get a balloon up for any length of time, at any time before the event was scheduled to end.

I left the festival grounds around 10:30 a.m. and set off to busy myself with the adventures that had really brought me back to the Salton Sea, but, in good faith, I returned around 3:30 in the afternoon, a half hour after the pilots were supposed to have returned with their balloons.

Not a balloon in sight.

I could've waited around until 5, when they were supposed to launch again, but I had my doubts about the potential for success at the Salton Sea. I decided to bag it, knowing I might regret it if the wind miraculously died down and the "glow" happened as planned.

It turns out that the pilots did eventually get all eight balloons up in the air—sort of. It was after the event had "officially" ended, and the state park rangers had been turning people away for hours, telling them the event was cancelled.

Just a few stragglers managed to tough it out and witness the event, which failed to be epic.

But it wasn't even an epic failure—it just fizzled.

And so many people felt deceived and ripped off (though the event was free, parking was $7)—and, by virtue of their lack of communication or miscommunication, the organizers ended up discrediting themselves.

I'm not sure they can do this event again in the future and have anyone believe that they will deliver as promised.

Now, I don't blame them for the weather conditions. All balloons are subject to the wind—as are hang gliders, paragliders, and other aeronautic vessels and contraptions.

But it's not fair to dump a bunch of false hope onto spectators–especially not at the Salton Sea, where promises are almost always empty and hopes are almost always dashed.

Related Posts:
Remembering Salvation Mountain's Leonard Knight, RIP
Photo Essay: Hidden Treasures of the Salton Sea
Retreading Old Ground
Another Lost Civilization
Land of Opportunity
Adventure Is Out There! Wine Country Edition

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