Beyond the Berm.

We pulled into Salton City, picked up some provisions at the gas station across the highway, and headed to our hotel.  We decided that it would be best to get the rooms first and then do some exploring.  Only one of the rooms had a key with it, the owner said that the person who’d been looking after the place while he’d been gone for the summer had either taken the key with them or misplaced it.  I told Phil, who had three cameras and several electronic devices with him, to take the room with the key.  The hotel owner said that he was still sweeping out the sand from the most recent rash of storms.  We dropped off our things, and agreed to reconvene in about an hour.

The smell of the Salton Sea is a thing that I will never forget.  The sea is one of the most polluted bodies of water in America.  The vast majority of its inflow comes from the Rio Nuevo, and the Rio Nuevo has almost no natural flow… most of it is agricultural run off, municipal outflow, and industrial dumping.  It is the most polluted river in the United States in its size range.  Salinity has increased, as the run off from Imperial Valley farms is already salty and leeches more salt from the desert soil.  The agricultural pollution contains enough nutrients to cause large algae blooms, stripping oxygen from the water and increasing the severity of fish kills.  In 1999, the largest fish kill recorded at the Salton Sea brought 7.6 million dead fish to the beaches and left them there to rot in the sun.  The die offs, of both fish and birds, have continued to this day.  So the smell is one of decay; fish rotting, and a peculiar algal scent, along with the smell of the pollution itself, manure and chemicals.  The smell permeates the whole place… even on the edge of town furthest from the sea, the smell is thick and heavy.

Back below sea level, the temperature was around a hundred and ten degrees.  I greedily punched the buttons on the air conditioner until it was set at seventy degrees.  Back home, seventy degrees would be warm weather to me. I had a shower; I had hoped for a cool shower, but the water that came out of the taps, all of them, was as warm as bathwater no matter how far toward the “C” I turned the handle.  There were tiny bars of soap in the bathrooms, but no shampoo.  I washed myself a few times, and didn’t even bother getting my hair wet.  The only thing worse than leaving it filthy and greasy would’ve been trying to wash the mess with bar soap and ending up with a dry, sticky, tangled mess.

After I was cleaned up and dressed, I went over to Phil’s room and we made a plan for the evening.  It was around four o’clock at that point, so we only had a few hours until the sun was down.  We got in the car and drove to the eastern shore, to Bombay Beach.

Bombay Beach, population just under three hundred, has had to contend with the fluctuating water levels of the Salton Sea.  Though the sea is relatively stable now, there was a period of flooding after the sea’s creation that resulted in many coastal communities being flooded.  Bombay Beach has dealt with this by abandoning the flooded portion of town and building a ten foot tall earthen berm to protect the rest of the town.  We parked near this berm and walked right up it, as the wooden steps built into its side were now missing enough steps to make them impassable.

On the other side of the berm was a flat plain of mud, some six or seven feet higher than the town itself.  We walked along the mud… it was about a ten or twelve foot abrupt drop to the actual sea on the other side.  After five minutes of walking, we came upon the town’s old boat launch, now useless due to the town having walled itself off from the water.  The grooved concrete sloped down into water that was a brownish pink, clotted and skinned over at the shallowest parts with algae.  This, undoubtedly, was the worst smelling place we had been, or would be, on this trip.  The smell was so strong that it stung the eyes and bade the throat to close.

Further on was the buried town, small houses and old trailers now three-quarters buried in mud from the sea.  Old telephone poles stood sentinel, trailing old wires in the wind.  It was a strange and silent place… a place of death, the carcass of a community.

About a half-mile down the beach, the exhalations of this place overwhelmed me.  I had been breathing rather heavily for some time, but I had attributed that to hiking in the still over a hundred degree heat.  Now, though, each breath came with more and more difficulty, and soon I was experiencing what felt like an asthma attack, even though I hadn’t had one for over a decade.  I walked slowly and determinedly back to the car.  I slipped in some of the silty mud, and when it got on my foot, it felt hot and made my skin tingle.

I got in the Chrysler and started the engine.  I was red-faced and my skin was dripping with sweat.  I let the air conditioning run and took measured breaths and sipped water.

Phil joined me just a little later.  We sat in the shade of the berm and looked at some of the photos he had come away with.  Beautiful, beautiful.  A couple of girls turned up in sundresses and flip flops with big digital cameras and asked us how it was.  We told them that it was brutal, but utterly worth it, and suggested a rethinking of footwear.

We sat there, exhausted and ragged and soaked with sweat, with the sun starting to set.  We had more of the sea to photograph; we had rested long enough and it was time to move on.

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