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On the road in "Sharemerica": The Salton Sea, Part 1

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Salton Sea
Bryan McCormick

Editor’s note: Local photographer Bryan McCormick recently left Las Vegas on an open-ended journey into the nation’s “sharing culture,” which he plans to document in words, pictures and a variety of other media. These are the ongoing chronicles of his adventures. In this installment, he finally leaves Vegas and winds up at California's fabled Salton Sea; this is the first of several posts exploring that exotic locale.

Finally, dear reader, Vegas was in the rear window of the impossibly crowded bus I was on. After a painful realization that cramming all of one's stuff into two bags and sitting on a bus for hours is going to be special fun, harsh reality fades the romance of the road but quick. Still ahead was the great unknown of what would happen when I got out at Indio, California, many hours later — still 40 miles from my destination, the Salton Sea. When I pressed the shiny ride-hailing button on my app, would there be a ride?

When I did finally peel myself out of my seat, I was outside in the dark in a town I did not know, and I pressed the “come get me" button, praying I wouldn't have to find a Motel 6 instead.

*BOOM*

Within two minutes, a man named William showed up in a Lexus with buttery-soft leather seats. My spine rejoiced! We negotiated a fee and we were off!

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At the house where I was to stay, it was clear that my Airbnb-host, Anthony, wasn't kidding about there just being “emergency bacon” in the freezer. William gave up Friday pizza night with his son to drive me around to buy food — and refused more of a tip. We shook hands and agreed to stay in touch. So far, my limited experience of the sharing culture is knocking it out of the park, at least versus the gray sorrow of the bus ride. Anthony, who is a peach in his own right, checks in to make sure I have everything I need. “Make a coffee, honey, go out onto the patio and listen to the sea birds and watch the stars.” I do just that.

“I got it all wrong.” That was my thought on my first morning at the Salton Sea. I had scored a great house as close to the water as one can get these days, given how far the water has receded. And this place was about to show me things. Things that all the documentaries and texts I had read or seen in advance of the trip had not.

When I opened the big sliding door to head outside very early in the morning, the infamous smell of the sea hit me like a sledgehammer. But it quickly passed. I sat outside and waited for the sun to come up. It was remarkably quiet. And as I sat there, the more life I could hear waking up around me. Pelicans and blue herons, and the yellow-footed gulls one can only see here. I could hear the bigger birds smacking the water with their wings, which apparently helps bring fish to the surface.

The images here are ones I took during the week spent at the Salton Sea. Landscape photography isn’t my thing normally, at all. But, the place worked its magic on me as of the first morning. The light would do things all day in ways subtle and gross that would just blow your mind if you were standing there and watching it transition. And so I found myself wandering the place, taking pictures I’d never intended to.

The big secret of Salton is that there is still abundant life here. The sea is vast. On average some 35 miles long and 15 miles wide. It is, however, relatively shallow, roughly 40 feet or so. No boats ply the waters. Except for a low-rumbling train very far away on the east side, and the distant lights of Bombay Beach and the thermal electric plants to the south, there is largely solitude and silence. The still-dark early morning sky, mostly devoid of light scatter, is beautiful.

A little context. As I learned, Salton is one of the very last larger wetlands left in California. The rest, more than 91 percent, have been despoiled. Think about that for a moment. And yet it seems we never hear much about Salton in that context. A random stat suggests just how important it is: 70 percent of the California burrowing owl population lives within the Salton Sea ecosystem. During migration season, the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, at the southern tip of the lake, is home to vast numbers of migratory birds. And there are many species on land just as dependent.

During the time I was at Salton, the Refuge was largely inactive. But I had timed my arrival to avoid one form of wildlife for which the sea is justly known — a fly population of terrible size and vigor. It is also very hot in the summer and fall. Think Vegas extremes with humidity and the added measure that the sea is about 200 feet below sea level. Death Valley, with a hot giant lake. And flies. Lots and lots of flies. 

Encounters with locals quickly set me right on other matters. The pungent smell of the sea is not, as many would suggest, the result of persistent fish die-offs. Those happened in big numbers quite a while ago, leaving behind many bones that form, along with salts, what looks like a beach. It isn’t; rather, it’s the lake bottom, still juicy beneath. Gods help you if you break through the crust. The odor is more the result of generations of agricultural effluent flowing unfiltered into the sea. The result of the effluent flow has been algae blooms and a low-oxygen environment, which comes to equal a lot of hydrogen sulfide. So strong sometimes that the smell can reach very far to the west and north.

Dire predictions point to the potential death of the sea in as little as three years if remediation efforts are not accelerated. But there are plans afoot to prevent that potential catastrophe. If the sea were allowed to go dry, it could result in toxic dust storms that would dwarf those of Owens Lake, and they would drift perhaps to the coastal cities. For the some of the unique species that depend on the sea and the land around it, it would mean extinction. Those are the facts, and they aren’t all pretty. But what I want first to present here is a view of a better side of the sea. And the beauty and peace is a big reason that so many people still make it home. You’ll meet some of them next time.