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Joshua Tree. A massive terrarium of saguaro cacti, sagebrush and yuccas as far as the eye can see. Stand-alone rock formations resemble giant, hunched orcs; off in the distance, mountains line the horizon like buried Stegosaurus backs. There is nothing quite like the colors of the desert here—a searing, blue-gold palette that immediately washes the mind clean.
We roll through a nearby campground, where people have pitched tents and parked trailers and vans in the convenient shade of giant boulders. Climbers swathed in ropes and carabiners trudge past, enormous crash pads cinched to their backs. Hikers bound from flat-topped boulders and become neon blips in the sagebrush. High on a sunny precipice, a woman in yoga regalia meditates, beaming and cross-legged.
Around the bend, a man stands atop an outcropping. He is wearing a long, black trench coat (an odd choice for the sweltering, eighty-degree weather) and glares down at passersby as he chain-smokes. I am drawn into a grim preoccupation with the man’s strangeness, his unbelonging. Before I can stop myself, I imagine the slim, dark barrel of an AR-15 poking out from beneath his mercenary-style cloak.
I wrinkle my face; send the thought away.
He is most likely doing nothing more than having a smoke as he exercises his right to wear climate-adverse clothes. But my Chicken Little-ish mind has already run ahead, careening into unreality. These times are threaded with panic. The slightest snatch of headline makes my heart stumble over itself in dread.
It irks me that even here, in the heart of nature—a place that I have always found peace—I feel afraid. I’m fed up with this fear. I want the desert sun to draw it out, burn it to chaff, spirit it off on the wind.
We drive until Joshua Tree peters out and we are bumping along the moonscape of the Mojave Desert.
When we drop into the Imperial Valley we are met by a dozen aptly-named washes—Smoke Tree Wash, Fried Liver Wash, Sy Wash, Fink Wash, Wister Wash, Sand Wash, Salt Wash, Gravel Wash, Bug Wash, Cat Tail Wash, Marshy Wash, Deep Wash.
The vineyards lining the valley are bookended by colorful crops—groves of oranges and lemons, the ivory lace of almond trees, fields of red and green peppers.
We pull off by the side of the road and I step beneath a giant date tree. The scent of fresh earth wafts from its trunl like a wave of memory and my senses tunnel into the past—spring days in my Vashon Island garden, the sweet soil after a Midwestern rainstorm, Death Valley in August, when the tiniest wisp of wind is reason to rejoice.
The Salton Sea is a giant lake that was accidentally created in 1905 when irrigation canals were dug between the Colorado River and the Imperial valley. The waters flowed in steadily for two years, finally creating the modern sea.
Today, the Salton Sea is fifteen miles wide and thirty-five miles long. It is the largest lake in California and is fed by the New, White Water and Alamo rivers.
According to Wikipedia, “its salinity is greater than the Pacific Ocean but less than the Great Salt Lake.” The lake’s extremely high salinity started in the 1960’s. From then on, environmental harmony was lost; species began to die. Yet, its visage—a mist-covered plate of cobalt blue ringed by mountains—remains remarkably stunning.
We stop at the State Park and marvel that we are on the edge of a body of water that is two-hundred feet below sea level. I parry odd, nonsensical stabs of panic. How is the ocean not spilling over top of us? Drowning us like cereal in a bowl?
Further south, Bombay Beach sits on the lake’s eastern shore. The name has a bright, exotic lilt. Yet, when we arrive, we find that it is essentially a ramshackle clutch of buildings cordoned inside a rectangle of piled-earth dikes.
We move slowly down the gravel streets, on the lookout for signs of life. The town boasts 295 residents. Where is everyone? In lieu of tumbleweed or crickets, the whole place is shot through with the crumbled shells of houses—many charred and graffitied. Entire lots are filled with rusty trucks, cars with patchwork doors, mobile homes and RV’s that have seen better days. Fat, dry, headless palms edge the streets. And always, there is the come-and-go pinch of rotting fish on the breeze.
Finally, we spy movement—an old man walking out his front door. A few houses down, a pair of elderly women chat over a fence. A second man veers toward us cartoonishly on a bike (a singular rig featuring a gigantic banana seat and long, ape-hanger handlebars). As he passes, he slows to stare in at us, head cocked at an angle like a curious dog. I wave. He does not.
We leave oddly unsatisfied; unsure of what, exactly, we expected. We have seen a total of four people, which leaves only 291 Bombay Beach residents unaccounted for. What do they do? Where did they come from? What keeps them here?
Along the highway toward Niland, there is not much in the way of scenery, but there is life. The road is a conga line of long-haul trucks. Small, white egret-ish birds tiptoe across fields as migrant workers toil in rows of leafy greens—kale, romaine, cilantro, and parsley.
We veer south and encounter increasing numbers of border patrol trucks.
“What are they doing up here?” We wonder aloud, ogling them as we pass. The men in the trucks look crisp and serious in their olive shirts and dark glasses, radios clipped to their sleeves.
Suddenly, we realize it’s we who are “down there”. We are skirting the limits of the town of Calexico, near the Mexican border. Part of me wants to keep going, to cross over. Go on the lam! Or at least, see the border from this side, from the ground. To envision how ugly and barbaric it would look to have a massive wall running the full length of our countries.
We turn back, find our way north on 86, and head for Kane Springs. Along the way, signs clamor: Salt-Free Water Vendor! Clean Dirt! Adult XXX Shop! Date Shakes! Hand-Delivered Gravel!
It is all the great, dry Southern West one could want, and all the great, dry, dead-end fanfare to go with it.
We reach Desert Shores where the remnants of giant canals still jut from the land. These are from the 1950’s and 60’s, when the lake was a lively haven for So-Cal weekenders. At the height of its popularity, the Salton Sea was the desert’s version of Tahoe. It was where the party started and stayed.
There had been grand plans, once to build it so that more would come. It would be the ultimate utopia of seaside resorts and marinas, a lake full of zipping speed boats and fishing fanatics! But in the end, stagnant waters would not sell. The failure of man-crafted nature and ultimately, the death of the fish, made it all fizzle.
We roll through what’s left. Down by the water, furniture is strewn around a fire pit. The sun sets, pink and tepid across a rocky lot where cats patrol weedy ditches. Across the way—the busted, concrete facade of “Our Place Saloon” stares out like a bewildered, fist-punched face.
On the back wall of the still-operating MoneyGram building, however there is a surprise—the black and white mural of a woman entwined with rattlesnakes. Or, perhaps she is the rattlesnake? Whomever is who, whatever it means, it’s a breath-taking piece of art.
We pull away from Desert Shores and I think about how the loneliest, left-behind things are beautiful simply because they exist where other things no longer do. They are the Toughs and Hold-Outs—people and places unconcerned with what the outside world makes of them.
The drive has taken over half a day. As we make our way north, the peach sky washes into a fertile blueness. On the Salton Sea’s western shore, stanchions of palms ripple beneath a pinprick of white moon—a picture postcard of a desert oasis thriving beyond the limits of civilization. Or, the border of a lost kingdom, a disappeared dream.
Hoped for, done and gone.
In 1909, the Olmstead Brothers (whose father designed NYC's Central Park) built Northern State Hospital, a self-sustaining, therapeutic colony for mentally ill patients in Washington State. The hospital closed in 1976 when funding was cut and the main buildings are now being used for new state-run programs. The hospital's farmstead, barns, cannery and cemetery are abandoned and part of the Northern State Recreation Area.
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