The Salton Sea

Monday, July 25, 2016

The California road trip, Part II

Sleep eluded me. I was too excited, or still on a different time zone. I woke up at 12:30, 2:30, 3:30, 4:00, 4:30. Finally at 5am, I got up. I couldn't lay in the trundle bed one more second. I hadn't felt this way since I was a kid on Christmas eve, when a child's imagination runs on steroids. So many possibilities.  

We left Coronado for the desert, by way of the Cuyamaca mountains. There was a heat advisory. Four gallons of water jostled on the back seat of our rental car. By 10am we were in Julian, California eating Julian Cafe's famous apple pie and by 11am, we were back on the road and plowing through the Anza Borrego desert. It was supposed to be a high of 115 degrees. We had a gps system running and some honest to God road maps in case technology failed us. I wasn't afraid we'd get stuck in the desert, we were prepared for that. We were going to the Salton Sea and I was positively giddy.

Anza Borrego desert. photo credit: Joshua Franzos
My photographer husband. iphone photo credit: Meryl Franzos

Let's step back a couple months to when I was re-outlining the rest of my novel. Writing is not a free-for-all of lofty ideas. If you want the story to move forward, logistics and timing need to be considered and you sometimes have to act as a glorified travel agent. My characters are on a roadtrip and they need to get from Coronado to Palm Springs. What stands between point A and point B? I looked at a map and I saw the Salton Sea. 

"What's that?" I asked myself, pulling up my phone to google it. 

Enter the Salton Sea, stage right.

I promptly fell down a three hour long rabbit hole. 

I'm not asking you to understand. My friends think I'm crazy. My own husband thinks I'm crazy. Interesting. Seldom boring, but definitely crazy.  

photo credit: unknown (let me know)
So let me catch you up to speed on the Salton Sea. The Salton basin has existed for our intents and purposes, as long as time. It is below sea level. Every five hundred years or so, it would flood with water from the Colorado river and dry up. Let's zoom past several million years of this to 1905 when engineers of the time tried to create a slow over flow into the basin from the Colorado river. It failed. For two solid years the entire contents of the Colorado river flowed into the basin, forming what we know today as the Salton Sea. It's supposed to be the size of Delaware. Farmer's of the Imperial Valley began to use the sea to irrigate the surprisingly fertile desert lands surrounding it. 

Aerial view of the Salton Sea. Notice the Imperial Valley farmlands to the south. photo credit: Marli Miller, www.marlimillerphoto.com

In the 1950's developers touted the area as the next Palm Springs or the California riviera. A resort oasis in the desert. The vacation home market boomed and many millions of dollars went into roads and sewers for future housing developments that would surely follow. Beautiful mid-century homes were erected. Shiny airstream trailers showed up. Resorts were built. Fishing and boating tourism took off. Famous people came and stayed at the resorts. Then...problems started happening. On the biblical level. Healthy lakes have incoming water and outgoing water. The Salton Sea didn't have an outlet. The sea became a salt lake (due to agricultural run-off), increasing its salinity by a rate of 1% a year. Presently, it's 25% saltier than the ocean. In the late 60's pesticides and fertilizers from the agricultural runoff started to become a real problem. The fertilizers encouraged an algae bloom in the sea, which stunk. By the late 70's, the flooding began and many waterfront properties were ruined. Earth walls were built around the beach communities to stop it, but by then, the damage was already done. By the 80's, the ever increasing salinity and the algae got worse and worse, until at last it sucked up all the oxygen in the water, killing the fish...by the thousands. Dead fish lined the shores. If that wasn't bad enough, the birds wanted in on it too. They swooped down for some fast, dead food and died of avian botulism. They also littered the shores. The algae, the dead fish, the dead birds, stunk. To high heaven. Salton Sea residents and beachgoers were appalled. Tourism halted. By the 90's the Salton Sea businesses and communities were hanging on by a thread. The Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge was shoveling dead fish and dead endangered birds into their incinerators, which they ran 24 hours a day for months, trying to get rid of the death. The mass exodus of people was pretty much complete by 1999. Homes and trailers were abandoned with cereal boxes and breakfast table settings still set. All these very human settings were slowly being reclaimed by the desert ever since. Only the people that couldn't afford to leave remained. The unemployment rate in the Salton Sea hovers around 20%. The California drought threatens to dry up thethe sea witwithin the next thirty years. If that happens, hundreds of thousands of tons of micro-particle pollution will become redcome airborne. hutheEcological, economic, real estate disasters. The ultimate trifecta. So tell me. What is the opposite of the American Dream? Why, that would be the American nightmare. 

Anyone who owns their home is automatically empathetic, but I have to be honest, I was also intrigued. Did someone say abandoned? (I'm a huge appreciator of what has become crudely known as "ruin porn." Dunno. I just have an affinity for old buildings. Read an old post on that here) I scoured the photos on the internet. They were bleak and beautiful. They made me feel something. The Salton Sea ruins were everything California pretends not to be and I NEEDED that element for my story. I needed some grit. I must've read at least 50 newspaper articles and thirty different blogs spanning from 2008-2015. All of them. Every single one of them complained about the region's stench. The stink didn't really hit home until Vice reporter Jamie Lee Curtis Taete spelled it out in technicolor for me

"And then the smell hits you. Holy fuck, the smell. It's like a fish market at the end of a long summer day. Only instead of keeping the fish on ice, this fish market keeps them on piles of diarrhea."
K. Got it now. I still had to go, I just hoped my husband would come. I knew I married a guy who is up for some serious adventure. But just to be sure, I led with the photos. "Cool huh? Don't you want to go? You do? That's great. We're going to have so much fun. Oh by the way, it's going to smell like a death shroud marinated in hot sewage."


I spent the next month crawling on Google map's streetview and satellite view. I was trying to find the best of the best mid-century and trailer park ruins. I hoped beyond hope to find a fauteiul planted in the sea, like some pictures I'd seen floating around the internet. I marked down several "must investigate" coordinates and in our travel itinerary, I dedicated the entire day to exploring the region. But when I wasn't pixel f-ing google streetview, I was starting to think and dabble in the less fun stuff to think about. You know, next steps after the book is written and edited... stuff like drafting query letters, finding an agent, marketing a book, making an author website, and marketing that writing persona..whatever that is... The success rate for any and all of these things is regrettably, low. Which is why it all matters and it all needs to be compelling. I ruminated for awhile then I decided I want to be an adventurous writer. One that doesn't want to be pigeon-holed by my sex. One that rolls her sleeves up and gets to work. One that will go pretty much anywhere for a good story, even places that smell like rotten fish and diarrhea. That's about as far as I got on writer self marketing before we hopped in a plane, then a car, and showed up at Salton City's former marina.  

It's no joke.The first time we stepped out of the air conditioned car, the heat and the smell slapped us in the face. I coughed, my eyes watered and I said, "Boy, they were not kidding." We quickly became mouth breathers.

i-phone photo credit: Meryl Franzos

The next thing we noticed was of course the sea itself. From a distance, it's quite remarkable and beautiful. The water was an inviting blue. The horizon plays tricks on your eyes and at times, it's uncertain where the sky ends and the sea begins. When we got nearer, the blue water turned brown with green algae on the edges, the initial blue water was only the reflection of the sky. The white sand beaches were actually the crushed up bones and shells of dead creatures. Crispy, dead fish and birds line the shores, mummified and preserved by the salt. We started chasing down my coordinates, alternating between hiking and the car. We wound through the streets built for the housing development boom that never took off. It was simply a maze of streets and cul de sacs that wound around empty, desert plots. It was eerie. 

iphone photo credit: Meryl Franzos
iphone photo credit: Meryl Franzos


Leviathan. photo credit: Joshua Franzos
 
close-up. photo credit: Joshua Franzos

photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
We saw no other humans. We saw the handiwork of humans though. Many of the remaining structures we came across were mercilessly tagged with spray paint. Some of it was talented. Some it was borderline clever, most was visual clutter and meaningless garbage. Josh and I have a leave no trace policy, in nature and when we urban explore. Call it respect for the history or appreciation for the simple beauty of decay, I just don't believe in gilding any lilies. I'm often amazed at the hubris of graffiti. I'm not always a fan. Good graffiti, that has the chops, maybe, but it depends where. Tagging, as in putting your stupid two cent initials some where they don't belong and marring an otherwise great SOMETHING ...don't get me started. More times than not, when I see a lazy tag, I fantasize about jamming the spent spray can into the tagger's eye socket. (on a flipside, side note about tagging... I just found the best instagram account to follow. @mattresstagging This tagger only tags gross old mattresses meant for disposal with song lyrics and quotes. One last hurrah before they go to the landfill. I approve.
But the Salton Sea, there was graffiti and evidence of other urban explorers everywhere. Josh and I were not the first, nor will we be the last to wander in the desert of the Salton Sea. Stuff was vandalized. Stuff was moved around. It was not like the original owners had left it. In fact, much of the ruins I'd marked down had been demolished since the last Google car tooled through the Salton Sea. Things were missing or things had decayed so much that they were no longer recognizable. And many of the abandoned homes and trailers plots were filling up with installation art of sorts and becoming bizarre shrines, but shrines to what? Perhaps I'm just a jealous lover. Don't tell me of the other explorers that were there before me. I'd rather not know. I found myself wishing we'd gotten there years before, so we could feel more of the pathos of the original inhabitants and less of the people hell-bent on inserting themselves via their art into a hostile landscape that had nothing to do with them. Maybe it's just me that longs for the opposite, a place to make its mark upon me


photo credit: Joshua Franzos
 
iphone photo credit: Meryl Franzos

In the midst of our 110 degree day of exploring ecological and urban disasters, I began to consider the desert and its inherent inhospitality. Nevermind New Jersey, "only the strong survive" in the desert. The big religions were born of the desert. Christ went into the desert for 40 days to test himself, in fact, many cultures have used isolation in the desert as a test or right of passage. There's just something about the desert that boils things down. Get to the point or die. It's not good or bad, it just is. There's truth in that. I thought again of my so-called writing persona. I thought, I'm better off sticking to the truth. Then I thought, in this very moment, I'm more me than I usually allow myself to be. I'm usually trying to be ladylike and professional in highly-controlled bursts. But right now, in this moment, I look like the me that I hope shows through my writing. The me that says, I love exploring. I love going on photo excursions with my husband. I love telling stories. I love whiskey and I love rock and roll. Then I thought, in the moment that we were probably trespassing and less than 200 yards away from a coyote den with two skinny coyote pups, I thought, it might be a good moment for one of those portraits an author might put on book jacket. Josh wiped the sweat off his brow and said, "ok, baby. Stand over there where the light's good.
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos

photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos

photo credit: Joshua Franzos
Book flap? photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos

photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
Much later, and a sweaty shirt change later, we found what I was looking for. I found my Queen Anne wing chair by the sea. Oh, rejoice. Oh glorious day. Today was the best. I don't know why I wanted a ratty old chair by the sea so much. Something about it spoke to me. It's a visual poem that's deeply entangled within myself and the story I'm trying to piece together. Perhaps it has something to do with the last stanza of the Robert Frost poem, Desert Places. 

"They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places."

I hope it'll be crystal clear to us both one day. I hope one day I'll have published my story and you'll have read it. I hope one day the Salton Sea gets its myriad problems solved. But until that day, there's plenty more work, soul searching, and writing to do. But here's to the Salton Sea, to dreams, and the pursuit of dreams. 
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos
photo credit: Joshua Franzos



 
video



Next up, pt. III and why you can't always get what you want in San Bernadino county.
 

What I wore: 
Belt: Vintage.
Moto-hybrid jeans: old Habitual.  
Harness boots: old Cole Haan. 
Glasses: Ray-Ban
Hat: T3 hat by Tilley.omg this hat. Apparently this hat is famously strong. This model was eaten off the head of a Canadian elephant trainer by an elephant, three times! The trainer picked it up after it passed through the elephant, washed it and used it again and again!

*Thank you Marli Miller, for the use of your beautiful aerial view shot of the Salton Sea. See more of Marli's photography on her website www.marlimillerphoto.com

**To learn more about the Salton Sea and its continuing problems (that affect us all), read this great article from the The Desert Sun.



Your Bosom Friend in Pittsburgh, 



4 comments :

  1. Oh. My. God. I HAVE to visit this place! I have a thing for abandoned buildings and ruins, too. Hampi in India is one of my favorite places to visit, it's a UNESCO world heritage site and has over 500 temples and monuments, most of them in ruins. I found it such a beautiful and tranquil place. Looking forward to part III x

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  2. Thank you Niki! It was so very painfully beautiful. I wonder, is there graffiti on the old temples you saw? or is it an American/ Western culture thing?

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  3. spending time with your posts never disappoints. your sentiment about wanting the places you visit to leave an impression on you rather than the other way around really hits me.

    YES. who do you think you are, marking something that is meant for everyone (or no one)? can you step outside of your selfie nation for a moment and just be there? absorb it? let it absorb you?

    the slow, burning wait for your book has officially set in. i'll just sit over here, patiently.

    ps: your belt buckle is all of the bad assery.

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  4. Terra, I've been re-reading your comment all week. Thank you! so flattering. <3

    ReplyDelete

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