Puke on a Hot Sidewalk: The Salton Sea Chronicles, Part 1

Puke on a hot sidewalk.  This is the smell of the Salton Sea. Rotten eggs, perhaps, is a more familiar notion. In 1906, attempts to bring water into the Imperial Valley from the Colorado River failed, and a strange little ocean was born in the desert.
Contractors didn’t account for the massive buildup of silt, which clogged canals. Because, well, contractors.  While trying to resolve this issue, the Colorado River flooded, and sent millions of gallons of water tumbling down to a low point in the desert floor.
An uninterested California presumed that it would, in time, evaporate. But the fertilizer filled runoff from nearby farms and agricultural ventures kept it filled, both with salt (at rates 50% more concentrated than the Pacific Ocean) and biochemical disaster. Tilapia resides there today, courtesy of sport fisherman who didn’t have enough to do. Algae blooms from fertilizer die beneath the desert heat each year, causing the fish population to plummet as bacteria scrambles for oxygen. That, combined with the cool temperatures of winter waters, lead to a seashore coated in the calcified remains of deadened fish with empty eyes. But the birds prosper. Two thirds of America’s bird population grace these shores, on their winter migrations from Mexico to Canada, plucking out the eyes of the flailing organisms that die in the water, and on the land.
And it’s not just birds to be found here. People live here too, in ramshackle houses, built like shanty towns. But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when this was the Venice of California. The Cabo, the Cancun, the French Riviera. The seaside paradise, just a two hour drive from Los Angeles.
A Yacht Club was built in the 60’s. White, cemented brick with a wraparound porch. A strange shape, looming in the desert landscape, surrounded by proud palms and gravel roads. The empty pool out front has been vandalized beyond repair, graffiti mars its surface, long, jagged cracks coarse through the cement. Walk down to the putrid shoreside, and your feet will crunch upon the preserved remains of carcassed fish. They are scattered by the thousands.
Recline in an old chair left to burn beneath the heat of a relentless sun, and watch the birds search for something worth consuming. There isn’t much. Findings are sparse, as is the town.
It stretches down the seaside for miles. The Salton Sea, where dreams of ownership become reality, at the cost of $100 down, 0% interest. You can buy a small parcel of land for $3,750, or less than the cost of a semester of grad school. Trust me, I’ve considered it. $5,000 is the high end pricing, for oceanside views, but all you’re really getting is quick access to discarded junk that soon becomes your treasure. Because the Salton Sea is home to trash. People toss the precious memories of their histories along the siding of the highway. You can build a house from the materials found here alone. Forget Home Depot. Everything you need lies fading beneath the desert sun.
Want your Vanilla Latte, Affogato? Forget it. But want rusted spokes, vintage bottles, antique records, the robe that grandmother died in? Then this is your place. It’s sure as hell my kind of place. Because no one bothers you out here. Standards of living are flexible and free, as are the people, who sometimes choose to shower, which means bathing their bodies in the waters of the desert springs.
But that smell. The dying fish. The rotting waters. The algae blooms and agricultural runoff. The quirky folks that live here, with little wind chimes hanging from the porches of their soft, rose pink trailers, straight from the 60’s and unfit for a modern world.
The thing that’s different about a place like this is that no one gives a shit. And I don’t meant giving a shit about the things that matter; I mean giving a shit about the things that don’t. They’re experts at this. They excel in it. Because they’re living next to a dying desert paradise, that has long since seen its prime. As have they.
Travel a few hours, and you’ll hit Los Angeles. The home of second chances. Of plastic surgeries and Botox and spray on tans and bleach blonde hair. Where 80 year old women suddenly become 60, but with a creepier smile, and deadened eyes. Flash back to the Salton Sea, where people age with grace and truth, and live for things with meaning, not things without. Because they’ve seen death. They walk upon its little flippered fins each time they meander the course of the beach. They know death, and they know it well. So they choose to focus on the life they have, while they still have it. And that’s fucking beautiful. It really is.

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