Driving Into The Desert, Part 2: The Salton Sea

Posted on Aug 24, 2016 in Culture, Stories and Essays, USA | No Comments

In case you missed it, here’s Part 1.

salton sea

Before we reached our ultimate destination of Salvation Mountain, there was another weird pilgrimage to make deep in the California desert.

It sneaks up like a mirage, shimmering under the overcast skies. It’s easy to imagine that it’s the hallucination of desert wanderers dying of thirst, except we were not; we were in my sister’s air conditioned car, listening to Hamilton, driving steadily.

On the horizon and stretching on endlessly is a giant body of water.

the salton sea

This strange and unnatural desert dream is the Salton Sea, and it should not be there. A water infrastructure project error accidentally filled a dry lake basin with saltwater a hundred years ago, and this inadvertent lake—the largest in California—was born. In the 50’s, awash with Palm Springs dreams, the shores of the lake were developed into beachfront property, with yacht clubs and chichi beach getaways. However, the freakish artificial ecosystem of the lake eventually reared its head, with the intense salinity of the lake building and building until dead fish washed up on the shores and the faint smell of sulphur wafted off the water. The holidaygoers fled, and since then the Salton Sea has become a strange post-apocalyptic hiccup in a long stretch of desert.

Clearly, we had to go explore.

Hillary explore Salton Sea

We pulled off past the remains of Bombay Beach, parking near the shells of beachside trailers that looked mostly abandoned. The sea glittered as we made our way to the beach. Remains of rotting machinery littered the seaside, as well as the salt-encrusted carcasses of whole fish. Mummified and stinking, they dotted the entire shoreline, attracted wheeling birds overhead. I was fascinated until the heavy funk of the sea hit me full on; it’s a horrible retching smell, and I retreated to the cleaner back part of the beach.

salton sea

Salton Sea

Katrinka at Salton Sea

There’s nothing much to see at the Salton Sea. It’s a wasteland, a failed and forgotten paradise covered in fish and rot and stinking salt. But I found it fascinating as a monument to human hubris, to our inability to bend nature to our desires. That surreal stretch of water sparkling in the desert looks benign and bizarre from the California highway; really, it’s a graveyard for dreams.

We got back in the car and left the sea in the rear view, revving onward toward Salvation Mountain.


Next, Part 3: A pilgrimage for dreamers.

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